Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create a brand new style of vector portrait

Use Adobe Illustrator - and a bit of Photoshop - to develop a new look when creating vector portraits from photos, using this simple step-by-step process.

In this tutorial for Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, he reveals how he chooses the right photo to work from, and designs the key shapes that will underpin the style of the portrait – as using different types of shape from smooth to sharp can really affect how the final work feels.

From here he shows you how he has created an environment to find new ways to create his portraits, using a template built within Illustrator to guide his process.

He then shows you how he works up his initial draft into the final work – adding additional lighting and effects in Photoshop.


You should start with the correct mindset. You are going to fail a few times on the way and it’s ok – but with a process of experimentation and refinement, you're going to create something amazing in the end.

All I know at this point is the fact I want to create. I go through my some of my favourite blogs – in this case baubauhaus – for inspiration and photographs to base my illustration. I keep on looking until a photograph stops me naturally. It must feel right, and the photo must draw your attention out of the hundreds you see.

Which one stands out for you here?


Whenever I look for a photograph to work with, there are three main things I'm looking for. One: The model must have interesting eyes. The eyes make or break your portrait. Two: The lips. These leverage the emotional value of the eyes.

Lastly I look for something odd, an imperfection that makes it interesting.

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Once you have found your photograph, open Adobe Illustrator and create a new document. I choose an A3 size to start any illustration, as I might want to use this in print (or as a print) – so it's easier to scale down for final output than to scale up. Also, charge your magic mouse and/or tablet, it’s super annoying to pause your drawing in the middle of a session.


I am very strict on organisation. Getting things organised first means that I won't have to deal with a total mess of folders and layers later.

Before I paste my photograph into my file to start drawing/tracing over, I always start by creating these folders, to keep an overview of the final work.

Place your photo into the Photography folder. If it's a darker image, change its opacity to 80% so you'll better be able to see any blacks you draw on top of it.


Before you start drawing, I would like to give two examples of typical 'Bram-style- shapes that I draw on my portraits. The top style is a more sporty, energetic shape to keep the illustration sharp and edgy. The bottom style is more used for emotional portraits, playful and soft.

Ensure you experiment to find your own unique shapes.

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By double-clicking on the Pencil tool, you are able to adjust the fidelity and smoothness off your shapes.

Make sure to test different options to get the effect you like. I draw with a mouse rather than a pen and tablet, therefore I don't push the slider all the way towards Accuracy. Pushing it towards Smooth can make drawing quicker, though you'll have less detail and fewer imperfections (which is either a good or bad thing, depending on your style).


I always start with the Pencil tool with a pure black Fill at 100% opacity. I draw the defining facial characteristics first as simple blocks of black on white, then build up the detail – so that while that detail and colour add depth and visual interest, the things that initially draw you to the picture are clear (especially from a distance or as a thumbnail online).

Draw a relatively small number of strokes and shapes to create the eyes. For each, start with the pupil and iris, followed by the inner and outer corner. Then move onto the eyelids and lashes, finishing off with the brow.

Draw both eyes, then zoom out to check your drawing. This is the most important part of the illustration – so make the eyes pop!


Continue to define the model's face drawing the nose and lips. Use even fewer strokes and shapes here, and don’t create too many details – it’s just important that the face is recognisable. For example, the mouth can be just some basic shapes at the sides of the lips as I've done here – though sometimes you want to include a few tooth shapes if your model's mouth is open

Most important of all, any clear emotion on your model's face should be recognisable.

Keep adjusting these few parts until it’s perfect.

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Once you have the most important basics down, you are now free to lose yourself into the details of the model's hair, clothing, textures and the like.

Personally, I like to draw hair by placing similar shapes on top of each other – as we did earlier – adding shape upon shape based on the photograph's lighting.


Once you think you have completed all the darkest spots of your portraits, build up lighter areas by using softer grey each time. Start with 80% black for less dark, followed by 60% and 40% for mid-tones, and 20% for highlights (leaving the brightest highlights as white).

Sometimes I feel that 20% black is too dark for some parts, so feel free to adjust your opacity to what feels right for you. I use 5% black for some lighter areas and even used 1% black in one area that needed subtle differentiation from the brightest highlight)

Build up your artwork until you have a complete black and white portrait.


Next enhance the details with a new group of layers on top of everything, within which we'll use pure white filled shapes. Think of the sparkles in the model's eyes, freckles on her cheek and nose, lip gloss – anything that makes it special.

Also draw some abstract lines. This has no real goal beyond simply adding chaos to your otherwise perfect illustration – a looseness that gives it character.

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This step is where we get more experimental. As we've just completed an illustration with five colour swatches, try changing the swatches in a different colour for a unique effect. To do this, simply select each shape and then adjust each's Fill colour.


I mixed a blue-and-purple colour palette to highlighting her eyes and brighter side of her face.


Awesome – good job! You have now completed 90% of the artwork.

Now it’s time to open Photoshop and add more colour. Create a new document with the same parameters as before (A3, 300dpi). Again, make sure to organise your document, before you copy-&-paste all of your layers from Adobe Illustrator – which will come across as Smart Objects.

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The first thing to do in Photoshop is use a soft round brush to add some depth to the background, behind the model. It's very subtle in this example.


Next I want to soften the edges of the extreme highlights so they're less jarring – the glows on her head and top of shoulders, for example. I'd also like to soften the colouring around her eyes.

Again use a basic round brush with a bright colour at 60% opacity. Play with the blending mode options – trying combinations of Screen, Overlay and Color Dodge. Brush at the spots you like to enhance, like you're applying make-up.


Lately I have been playing with adding simple geometric shapes to add another dimension over portraits. These indicate movement and add a sense of. I made it drip to add depth and added a few realistic paint-drops just because I liked the look and feel of them.

Finally, I applied a soft gradient to the shapes to add more depth.

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To finish off the artwork, I added a pre-created group of layers that I've created with with specific blending options to give my colours the 'pop' I want.

To create your own, first add a new layer at the top of the layer stack. Fill this with a solid pink colour and change the opacity to 30%. Add another new layer – bright green with a blending mode of Saturation at 10% opacity. Next, royal blue with a Difference blending mode and a 5% opacity. Finally, a royal blue with a Soft Light blending mode at 30% opacity.

Play with the order of these until you get a subtle consistent colour grade across your whole image.


Repeat this project one day or week later to see if you still like the colouring, shapes and other effects. Continue your journey to find new colouring techniques, unique shapes to create your illustration. Never give up and repeat the process.

After a while you have mastered different styles which you can apply on future client work.


As eyes and lips are the most important parts of a portrait, draw new eyes and mouths on a daily basis. It takes only takes you five to 10 minutes to draw a set – but once you have mastered these two specific parts of your portraits, I promise you will see a huge difference in your work.

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