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Tracing a Vector Face From a Reference Photo

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This post is part of a series called Vector Portraits.
Creating a Dramatic Portrait with Chunky Line Art
Create a Sci-Fi, Vector Portrait Made of Symbols

A few times a each month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of Vectortuts+. This tutorial by Jesse Hora was first published on October 20th 2009.

There are numerous ways that you could approach using a reference photo in illustration, an obvious option being to 'trace' the photo. Since there are so many microscopic details in a photograph you have to make numerous decisions on how you want the image to look in the end. Do you want it to look photorealistic? Or more stylized? Comic book-esque? Cartoon-like?

All of these decisions will result in the look and style of your final image, and your work as a whole. As a commercial designer/illustrator, the style and look of your work will make or break you. This tutorial will cover these decisions as we create an illustration from a reference photo.

Premium Option

If you're looking for a quick way to trace a photo and create a vector, try the Vector Tracing Photoshop Action on Envato Market. It lets you quickly and easily trace a photo into vector form and apply a range of effects.


Some people may think it's so easy to trace a photo, and that this tutorial is useless. I think it is extremely important to know how to do even the simplest things well. I have seen too many people try to trace a photo for an illustration and the end product is less than desirable to say the least.

The basic idea of this tutorial is to showcase how using the the process of tracing the basic shapes and contours of a photograph, as opposed to using predominately vector lines with strokes, as many beginning illustrators do, will result in a desirable, realistic yet stylized image.

Starting with a great photo is obviously a huge benefit to this style of illustration. Luckily, Kyle LaMere of ISR was able to supply me with a really nice photo from his 'Visitors' Series. Thank you Kyle.

Final Image Preview

Below is the final image we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Estimated Completion Time: 2 hours

Step 1A

Open the source photo. In this case I'm using an image of myself and it's available to Plus members. You can of course substitute your own image.

Step 1B

Lock the photo and make a new layer on top.

Step 2A

Start by tracing the outline of the glasses.

Step 2B

If you notice there are so many different shapes, shades, and highlights that make up the glasses, specifically within the interior shapes of the lens and frame, so you have to make a decision on how detailed/complex you want to make the image. Since this tutorials purpose is not an extreme photo-realism look, I will keep it relatively simple.

Step 2C

Be sure to stay consistent on which shapes/shades you are following. Trace both the interior and exterior shape of the frames.

Step 2D

Select both the interior and exterior shapes, choose the Subtract From Shape Area option in the Pathfinder palette, while holding Option to expand to one shape. Now you have one shape that makes up the base glasses.

Step 2E

Trace the bright (white) highlights on the glasses. Change them from a red stroke to white fill.

Step 2F

In addition to the highlights also trace the secondary highlights on the glasses and change them to a lighter red (#F47471).

Step 2G

Even though they are clear we'll need to describe the lens and the nose pieces. You may have to finesse the shapes a bit, drawing them so they look right as opposed to sticking straight to the photo because the shapes are not well defined. Change them to a light gray (#EFE6E8).

Step 2H

That's it for the glasses, switch the stoke to a fill (#EF4136).

Step 3A

Now trace the white shape of the eye. In order to get the shapes to align perfectly, select the top point of the eye shape, copy and paste a duplicate point on top. Add new anchor points using the Add Anchor Points Tool (+) where the pupil comes down from under the eyelash. Delete the extra end points and continue to draw the pupil using the top duplicated points. This is a very simple, yet useful tip that will help keep the shapes aligned and organized.

Step 3B

Simply use the process described above to get the black shape of the pupil as well as the white highlight shape. Color them as they are in the photo, black, white and light blue/gray (#72A8B2).

Step 4A

The eye lashes and shades that describe the upper and lower eyelids are so thin and subtle, they need to be exaggerated a bit. Trace them, and change them to a dark brown (#603913).

Step 4B

Do the same to the other eye.

Step 5

Tracing the eyebrows will be tedious, but if you take the time to really get into the detail, they can look phenomenal. Change them to the dark brown of the other facial features. Here is a peak at how its coming along.

Step 6

The nose can be a huge pain in the butt to get it to look natural. Do the simple line-work, tracing just the edges of the nose and cheeks. Change it to the same dark brown as the other facial features.

Step 7

The key to drawing the mouth is to not outline the entire mouth with the dark line-work like a clown. Draw the shape of the pink-ish part of the lips, and change it to a light pink (#FDE4E3). Then do the thin linework around the mouth, using only small shade shapes where needed.

Step 8

Once the mouth is established, finishing the smile with teeth is fairly easy. You don't need to draw every tooth, you just put in a few shadows that hint at the teeth. Fill these teeth shadow shapes with a light cream (#E2D7D3) color. Draw a large white shape behind all of the shadows.

Step 9A

Vector hair could be a tutorial all on its own, it could have numerous layers of highlights and shadows, but I prefer to leave it simply flat with the contour of the shape describing the form instead of highlights. Now go around the outside of the hair form, tracing some of the big hair spikes. You can get fairly free form and deviate from the photo, as long as the shapes you are drawing reference hair. Be sure to include inside shapes which you will exclude using the pathfinder palette (step 2D).

Step 9B

Once you have one shape, with lots of little pieces nocked out using the pathfinder palette, change the hair shape to a fill of a dark brown color used previously.

Step 10A

Put in the dimple and chin shapes and some linework in the ear.

Step 10B

We're almost there, time to bring it all together. Trace the basic shape of the face and fill it with a skin tone, which is a slightly orange (#F5DFD5) tinged color. Also apply a 1pt stroke with the same dark brown color used throughout, and place this shape under the hair shape layer.

Step 11A

If you want a floating head you can stop there, but if you want a place for the head to rest simply trace the neck shape and apply the same colors and stroke as the face.

Step 11B

Add a simple shade shape to the neck and choose a shade of brown that is close to the skin color (#C49A6B), so that it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. Send this shape to the back (Shift + Command + Minus key).

Step 12

Add a few shapes and lines to describe the shoulders and shirts.

Step 13

After looking at the image, I notice that the coke bottle glasses effect is going on with the eyes. Select all the shapes that form the eyes, and enlarge them just a bit.

Step 14

Just for composition, add a light blue (#C2E6EA) background to the illustration.

Final Image

Thats it! Very basic, but learn to do it well and it can be a very useful illustration style. The final image is below. You can view the larger version here.

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