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Maintain a Consistent Style Across a Series of Vector Portraits in Illustrator

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Read Time: 15 min
This post is part of a series called Mastering Vector Portraits.
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When I'm not working on Vectortuts+, the majority of my clients come to me for multiple portraits. It can be a scary prospect, especially if you find keeping the same style difficult, but help is at hand. In this tutorial, I'm going to show you how to do a series of portraits in a consistent style and give you some tips on how to streamline the process to save you time. So let's get on with it!

Before You Start: Things You'll Need to Consider

Questions and Expectations

Like any illustration gig, you'll need to ask your client a series of questions to make sure their expectations are met. You'll also need to be clear on the terms of the work you're doing. Although not every job will have the same questions and expectations, here is what you should be discussing:

  • What style does your client want the portraits in?
  • What is the budget set for this project?
  • How many portraits are required?
  • What is the deadline for the portraits to be completed by?
  • How many revisions should you allow the client to have?
  • Will they want you to create further portraits for new employees?

Working With Young or Small Companies

If you're dealing with a young or small company, chances are the budget may not be a large one. Everyone is always looking for a bargain and this is especially so for this category of client. Having a portfolio of varied styles of portraits comes in handy. You could have more minimalist looking portraits, which would require less time to create and would therefore be more appealing to the smaller budget. Have this sort of style in your arsenal to ensure you're not becoming a slave horse and at the same time, you keep the companies accountants happy.

However, there is a bonus for young companies and that is the potential for return custom. It may not be a huge amount of work coming in, however it always helps to build a rapport with a new company at the beginning as you may be able to offer other services in the future.

Accept That You Won't Get It Right First Time

When discussing style, there are two main routes you could go down. A more cartoon/abstract style or a more photo based/realistic style. If you're more a cartoon/abstract style illustrator, check out this great tutorial by Ian Yates on Creating a Collection of Quirky Caricatures as I'll be going more in depth with the latter style. With both styles, remember that you're creating images of people the client probably knows more than you. With this, consider how many revisions you'll need to offer them.

You're not going to make the perfect portrait straight away. Chances are you'll just be given one photo per person and the photo you're given is not their absolute true likeness, or even a photo they feel comfortable with. The client may want modifications to what you've created to make it look like the person. Remember, they might see this person every day, so they will know better than you... no matter how good at your job you are! Then again, you don't want to give them an inch for them to take a mile.

Be clear from the start how many revisions you're willing to give. From past experience, I usually give 2-3 revisions per wave of portraits and that they are minor revisions. Minor as in they take 15-30 minutes to complete. This way the client can come back to me and get every little curve, color and shape refined to what they want and they go away happy with the portrait work they've commissioned.

Collecting the Reference Images

The Quality of the Photographs

Before you can actually start your project, you'll need the reference images of the people you're illustrating. It's common sense right? Well remember to be specific with the client what sort of photos you require. Set a minimum size to the image and what sort of pose/facial expression you want. This may all depend on your level of experience with drawing portraits from references, but try to get as large as possible. Sometimes this may not be the case, so expect revisions for that specific portrait and don't beat yourself up about it.

At this point of the tutorial, I'd like to thank Renate, Anna, Taine and Andrew for volunteering their photos to me for this tutorial. They were kind enough to let me use them for this tutorial, via my Facebook page last month, so the quality in the references vary. This is something you may expect when it comes to a similar project. You may get photographs of even lighting, some poor quality from a webcam or even a passport photograph. However if you get one which you're not confident on working from, don't be afraid to ask for a different photo of the person. Otherwise, it may be a waste of your time and more importantly your clients money.

Be Respectful

What your standard of beauty and aesthetics may not be what your clients is or wants. I remember doing a portrait several years back where the person had a permanent growth on their forehead and I thought I'd exclude it from the portrait. I got an awkward response from this back. As a general rule, I say if it's not going to be there in a months time (a pimple or a scratch for instance) then don't illustrate it. In the same vain, before starting work on your portraits, ask if there are any reasonable physical changes to be made.

A good example of this is the reference image of Taine (bottom left hand corner). He's previously had a tracheotomy and when he sent me his image he said that it's fine to omit the scar on his neck. Whilst this is great he's said this straight out, other people may wish to keep their scars. If the client hasn't specified any modifications, don't make the decision for them.

Get All the Photos Together

Here's my first big tip on how to keep a consistent style and speed up your work flow. Request all the photos at once. Start the illustrations once you've received all the photos together. While you may have a great memory, nothing beats being able to work on a project like this at the same time. I find it cuts my own working time down by as much as 20%.

If you can't get all the photos together, be prepared and take screen shots as you go along. Make notes of the work flow, especially anything such as colors, patterns and dimensions. Just one line which is thicker than another could make a portrait differ from another.

1. Prepare Your File

Step 1

So let's begin our multiple portraits. I've got my reference images and I've cropped them all in Adobe Photoshop. It's time to start a New document in Adobe Illustrator.

There is something different in this process in comparison to others and that's that I'm going to be using more than one artboard. This will help keep the same dimensions of each of the final illustrations (600 x 600pt in this case) but also as it's all on one file, it makes it easy to vector them all together and share the same styles, patterns, brushes etc... Here we have 4 Artboards which are Spaced 20pt from each other.

Step 2

This is the sort of work space you'll be presented with. It's worth noting if you have the Navigator panel open (I always do), it will show you what's active on all artboards as well as highlighting you one you were last active on in a darker art board boundary color. In the Artboards panel, you'll also have all four artboards listed.

2. Place Your References

Step 1

Here's your next tip and this one focuses on consistency of style. We're going to place all our reference images into the work space, however we need them to be all of the same ratio. The reason for why is so we're going to be using patterns and line art in our portraits. If all the portraits are the same size and ratio, then scale of the lines won't differ between the illustrations. So to help us get those ratios right, let's make a template.

Draw a rough portrait outline. Centralize the face and draw some very rough shoulders. Make sure that there's a null fill on these shapes. This is going to act like a template. Then contain the outline with a Clipping Mask (Control + 7) of the size of the artboard.

Step 2

Duplicate the clipping mask group across the other artboards and Create New Layer below it.

Step 3

Now File > Place your reference images onto the work space and move them into place. More than likely you'll need to resize the images or even rotate them. You can do this with the Free Transform Tool (E). Use the head as your point of focus and place your subjects with eyes more or less straight on and either within the ovals or just out.

I've adjusted my portrait templates so you can see I've placed each one in a similar way. I've slightly rotated Anna and Taine's references to make sure they are looking straight on.

3. Choose a Color Palette

Step 1

I'm going to be using a small palette of colors as I'm going for a simple/minimal look. So when considering this, think of your three main areas of color.:

  • Line art color.: this should be the darkest color. in your palette so it stand out
  • Middle tone: typically this would be used for the darkest skin color., but perhaps not for skin shading
  • Highlights: self explanatory, it should be the lightest color. in the palette. Also consider this may be used for the whites of eyes and teeth

Once you've chosen your key colors, you'll need to find the shades in between them. For this I'm going to use a method I've picked up from Beto Garza and that's creating a Blend (Control + Alt + B) between the shades. I've used a Specified Steps of 3 for my Blend. This will allow me to use darker and lighter colors for the portrait skin tones as well as hair and eye colors

Step 2

Select your blend and go to Object > Expand and while the colors are still selected, in the Swatches panel go into the drill down menu and select New Color. Group and click OK. This will add the selected colors to you panel.

4. Create the Portraits

Step 1

As you're rendering your portraits, what you do to one, repeat for the others. So I'm starting by adding the skin bases. I'm using all the same shades to start with and giving them a 2pt Stroke Weight with the navy blue line art color. With Renate and Anna, their ears will be hidden with hair, so I've not drawn them.

Step 2

Put the 2pt Stroke Weight on your color. palette and while selecting the shapes for a person, use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to select the right shade to match their skin tone.

Step 3

Create New Sublayers for each portrait and Group (Control + G) the shapes for each and place them in their corresponding sublayers. Duplicate each group and then use Pathfinder > Unite on the shapes. Place this behind the group of shapes and change the Stroke Weight to 5pt. You can see from Taine's portrait that this will help give the overall portrait a thicker outline.

Step 4

Before I add further line art, I'm going to add the key features of the eyeballs and mouths. I've used 1pt Stroke Weights for each of the shapes. For the lips I've kept a consistent style of having the top lip a shade darker than the bottom lip. With the female portraits, I've used the shades with blue tints and for the males I've used the skin tone based shades. I've used the highlighting shade for the teeth and eyeballs and not added further definition to the teeth.

Step 5

Time to add the line art. I've added subtle lines using a tapered art brush. You can create your own from my Width Profile Brush tutorial. I've drawn the lines with a 1pt Stroke Weight. I've used the Pen Tool (P) to ensure accurate curves. When it's working from someones photograph, try to be as accurate as possible. Also, try to make the same lines in places for each person. So everyone in this set have eyelids, nose tips and nostrils, smile lines and small lines either wise of their bridge.

5. Save Time Using Brushes for the Hair

Step 1

One of the most time consuming elements of a portrait is rendering the hair and when you've got four portraits to do, saving time doing the hair is a bonus. I've created an Art Brush with varying tapered lengths at one end which I can then use to draw the outside shape of the hair.

Let's look at Renate's hair. She's got a messy/choppy style and it's perfect for this brush. I've drawn around the outside of the hair, making sure I've draw over the sides of the face, neck and shoulders. If you're interested in a set of hair brushes, you can check out my Easy Hair Brushes over on GraphicRiver.

Step 2

I've then used the Pencil Tool (N) to fill in the spaces behind and on top of the skin. The Pencil Tool (N) is great for creating quick shapes where you don't need high levels of accuracy.

Step 3

I've then used the tapered Art Brush to add stray hairs on the face and edges of the hair style. In additional, I've used the brush to draw quick eyebrows.

Step 4

For shorter hair and thick facial hair, draw your shape around the area you need to cover with the Pen Tool (P). Then go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Roughen and you can add a quick texturing effect on the shapes.

6. Use Graphic Styles to Save Time

Step 1

Another way to save time and to keep a consistent style is to use Graphic Styles. This is especially good for when you're creating the eyes. Here I've used the below Appearance panel settings and used a combination of Offset Path and Transform to shrink and move the fills to form the shapes of the iris and pupil.

You can then duplicate the same circle to maintain the size and use it for each eye on the set of portraits.

Step 2

Once you've placed all your eyes, then Group them (Control + G) and place them within Clipping Masks (Control + 7) of compound paths of the whites of the eyes. Remember to have a duplicate of the eye whites behind the clipping masks and ensure that the stroke is set to Align Outside.

Remember you've got a variety of tones of blue, you can use these to create combinations of color to suggest dark brown to pale blue eye colors

Step 3

Use the tapered Art Brush to add eyelashes. For the females, I've given these strokes a 5pt Stroke Weight and for the males, 2pt Stroke Weight. It's a subtle difference but helps to add femininity to the portraits without having to draw eyelashes individually - which consumes precious time!

7. Additions Need to Be Applied to All Portraits

Step 1

Let's now give our portraits clothing. Let's assume all these wonderful people work for the same company, so let's give them all similar clothing so they seem united or part of a team. Not so much uniform, as I want to keep the clothing casual so they remain friendly. I've given them all a navy t-shirt.

Step 2

Now to add shading across the portraits. I'm just going to add highlights to the key areas of the face using the highlight color. I've created a transparent Radial Gradient and applied it in Ellipses (L) to the forehead, nose, cheeks and chin. Obviously with Taine I'm unable to add it to the chin as he's rocking a thick goatee. I've set these shapes to Blending Mode Lighten, Opacity 50%.

8. Use Patterns to Save on Time

Although Andrew doesn't have any facial hair, for the sake of this tutorial I'm going to give him some to show you another way to save time. By using the default Adobe Illustrator patterns, you can create subtle facial hair, especially if it's more fashionable stubble. After drawing the shape with the Pen Tool (P) and applying the pattern, you can modify the density of the dots/pattern by going to Object > Transform > Scale and unticking Object and selecting only Scale Pattern.

Then in the Appearance panel, add a shade darker skin tone beneath the pattern and reduce the Opacity so the change in color is subtle. You can then save this in the Graphic Styles panel for future use.

9. Prepare Your File

Now you've finished your portraits and made any modifications (for instance I've changes skin tones and added some extra line art), place each portrait in their own sublayer and within Clipping Masks (Control + 7). Once you're happy with the portraits, then go to File > Save for Web & Devices.

It will present to you the last active artboard, so remember to save each artboard so you've got a copy of each.

Well Done, You're Now Complete!

I hope this tutorial has given you some great insight on how to stream line your portrait process, especially for when you're doing multiple portraits, as well as how to create a consistent style. Again I'd like to thank Renate, Anna, Taine and Andrew for their photographs for this tutorial. Here are all four of the portraits closer up so you can check them out for yourself. Enjoy!

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