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Using Shape Experimentation To Create Facial Features

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In this tutorial I will show you how to study shape forms and teach you the fundamentals of experimenting with shapes and apply them to facial features.


Shapes are the foundation and basis to everything we see. Throughout this tutorial you will learn about my personal way of working and you can adapt these methods to your own and create your own experimental shape illustrations.

You can find the source files in the directory labeled "source" that came in the files that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.

Step 1

The key to creating any quality image is based on the primary research and reference material you have behind it. So start off by collecting images of the relevant subject matter and keep them close for reference.

As we are focusing on facial features, its also a good idea to have images from different angles so you can explore deeper into the shapes and components that make up the overall feature. There are many ways of gathering these images, but for ease of use I have gathered these free images provided by freedigitalphotos.net.

Step 2

Now that you have enough reference material on hand, its time to start sketching out some of the shapes in your sketchbook. The best advice I can give you is to use your imagination and forget what you know. By this I mean ignore for the meantime what constitutes a nose or an eye, instead use your imagination and start drawing shapes based on what you see and not what you know.

Don't worry about the neatness or accuracy of the shapes as this will only hinder you, we are only at the experimental stage and there is room for refining later on. Also take note of wrinkles, curves and lines within the picture. These little details will help you define the face in the final stages.

Step 3

Now we are going to take all our reference material and move it into Illustrator to start creating vectors from the shapes we have studied. First start a new document to your desired format and measurements.

Step 4

Now create a new layer under "Layer 1" and label it "Reference." This layer is where all your sketches will be stored along with future experiments in shapes.

It is good to get into the habit of allocating many layers to specific areas of your illustration, with shape experimentation the possibilities are endless, it's good to apply a separate layer so you don't get mixed up with the other aspects of the illustration.

Step 5a

Within the reference layer create a template from your sketches and start to draw out these shapes with the Pen Tool. Experiment and use the Pathfinder tools to combine shapes and subtract shapes from each other.

This is the fun stage as the outcomes are unlimited, make sure you experiment as much as possible. Play around with alternating strokes and remember to use the Align tools to make sure all your shapes are in line with each other. Pay attention to all the little wrinkles and curves you observed in the sketching stage and create your own intricate lines.

Step 5b

As there are no limits to this you should impose your own limitations. Its very easy to experiment so much your work just becomes lost in a sea of vector shapes. I usually create no more than four versions of each feature I am focusing on. For example below are 4 versions of an eye.

The brilliant thing about vectors is that you can come back to them anytime you like so make sure to save the shapes you don't use, they may come in handy another time.

Step 5c

Once you have all your shapes and features drawn out in vector form its now time to move onto drawing the head and start implementing your facial features to create a face.

Group all your vector shapes together and move it to one side of the artboard and lock it. You don't want to accidentally select one of your shapes when drawing the head. The work space in Illustrator is huge so take advantage of it, if there is a shape or line that you don't need, keep it to one side of the artboard. It may suit a later project you are working on. Below is just a portion of all the experimental shapes, but just to give you an idea as to how I organize them.

Step 6

Before creating the head make sure the "Reference" layer is locked and label "Layer 1" as "Face."

Step 7a

As we know heads come in all shapes and sizes, but since I am teaching you the fundamentals, I am going to use a conventional oval shaped head.

First draw a circle using the Ellipse Tool. Now delete the bottom anchor so you only have a semi-circle. Go to Object > Transform Reflect and flip the the semi-circle horizontally.

Now move the semi-circle according to how big you want the shape of your head to be. Then select the paths that need connecting and join them (Command + J). Remember to align them correctly so that you get a smooth join.

Step 7b

Copy the shape (Command + C) and paste in front (Command + F) of your outer shape and use the Free Transform Tool to create an inner head. You can do this as many times as you want depending on the shape of the head your illustrating.

With the inner most head delete the bottom anchor and use the Pen Tool to customize the shape to create cheekbones. At this stage you also use the Pathfinder to merge some ears into the head.

Step 8

Once you are happy with the head you have created, it's time to start adding the facial features within the main head. Unlock the reference layer and start placing the features that you want into the face.

Always use the distribution and align tools to make sure all your features are equally spaced apart and are the correct size in relation to each other. Again use your imagination and combine different eyes, noses and mouths together. Inject your own personality into the illustration, remember these are just the fundamentals.

Step 9

Now we need to start thinking about colors. There are many websites that offer complimentary color palettes that are available to download, but the best idea is to create your own. Draw inspiration from objects relating to the illustration, the weather or from photographs.

The most important thing to remember is to limit your color palette. I often like to work with no more than four or five colors that compliment each other. Using a limited color palette creates balance within the illustration but you really have to pick the right colors, so spend time placing colors next to each other to see if they work well together.

Step 10

When you have decided on the right colors start applying them within the face you have created. Make sure all the right colors are highlighting the right features. Think of it like shading to add depth to the image. For example darker colors under the eyes and on the side of the nose.

Step 11a

Now you should have the overall face colored in and everything should be starting to take place. The illustration still looks somewhat flat and generic. This is the stage where you start injecting little details that add your own personality into the picture.

Step 11b

Refer back to your reference material and take a look at all the fine lines you created from looking at wrinkles and curves. Start applying these to the face to add detail, this should start to shape the face and give it a sense of character and attitude.

Don't just rely on your reference material, create new shapes and lines and start adjusting them accordingly. My trademark and inspiration comes from my love of symmetry and geometry, but I urge you to experiment and find out what personal touch you can bring to the face.

Step 11c

Remember not to overcomplicate your shapes, often little hints within the face are good enough to highlight the whole feature.

Step 12

You should by now have a full face with complimenting colors and enough detail to draw the viewer into your illustration. Now we are going to quickly cover the background. Create a new layer and label it "background," and make sure that it is at the bottom of your layers palette.

Step 13

I am a big fan of patterns and symmetry and have set the theme of this illustration to be urban inspired. I have researched a few elements that make up the theme and again used shapes to create them in vector form. Remember you can apply what you have learned here to everything from animal faces to cars. You just have to take the time to experiment and study all the components that make up the object.

Step 14

Begin to place these objects in and around the face, remember you to work in the background layer.

Step 15

Once you are happy with the placement of the background objects, group them together and use flip them horizontally.

Step 16

Now group all of the background objects and use the align palette to make sure everything is spaced correctly and there is a balance within the illustration.

Step 17

Now begin to play around with the background objects, change the colors within objects and include your own little patterns and shape experimentations. Add subtle details to the objects to really make the viewer become intrigued by your work. Play around with stroke thickness and dashed strokes, just remember not to over do it, you don't want the background drowning out the face.

Step 18

Now your illustration should be very much near completion, remember that you can always create new shapes and mix and match what you have already created to further your experimentation.

There's always room for improvement and you can always refer back to your reference material for more inspiration and new directions. Here are examples of multiple variations of eyes that were not chosen for this illustration.

Final Image

From this tutorial I hope you have learned about looking at everyday objects in a different way. Look beyond what you know and focus on what you see. Simplify them into fantastic shapes and combine them with a complimentary color palette for an inspiring illustration.

Remember the possibilities are truly endless and you should experiment heavily so that in time you will create your own versions of everyday objects using basic shapes.

The final image is below. You can view the large version here.

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