Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Create cartoon figures with ease

Mercedes Crespo shows how you can swiftly draw an appealing character based on a few simple shapes

In this tutorial, Mercedes Crespo (aka YemaYema) shows how she creates her appealing cartoon characters. Though full of detail, rich in colour and complex in appearance, they are simple to draw, as she reveals here.

With just the Pencil tool plus basic shapes and a good eye for colour and composition, you can make your illustrations go a long way.

Mercedes stresses the importance of having fun and playing around with shapes. It is possible to achieve great things when you least expect it and exploring is a good way of allowing this to happen.

In our project files, you’ll find Mercedes’ original sketch and a texture file you’ll use to add depth to your composition.

Time to complete

2-3 hours


Adobe Illustrator CS4 or higher, Photoshop CS4 or higher

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


First I start with a quick sketch, containing basic shapes that will determine the composition and how the character will look. I try to leave it open for revision, and it isn’t meant to look finished. It’s just something done quickly to get an idea down.


In Illustrator, select File > Place, bring the sketch into what will be a background layer and lock it. Create a new layer where you will create basic shapes that trace out the image, for example just a circle for the head, a rectangle for the shorts. Remember to play with the composition and change things if you need to.

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Start adding the simplest details to the character – two circles will do for eyes, while for the mouth, create a circle and split it. Now select the Pen tool and click on both ends to close it up.


Hide the background layer where the sketch is. Now let’s focus on the torso. Grab the Pen tool and create a shape for the shirt. Just trace the outer corners of the jacket to create the inner white shape. Adjust with the Direct Selection tool; you need to have precise and clean lines. Work with the neck of the coat as you need to.


Now we are going to add more detail using the same technique I used to create the white shirt. To give the coat an ‘inner outline’, use the Pen tool and a darker colour. For the cheeks, create a circle in a contrasting colour and then another circle inside that in an even richer hue.

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Now we are going to start fleshing out our little pirate. For the hair, just draw a swirly shape. Add more detail to the eyes by creating more circles that act as white reflections. For the teeth, simply create rectangles.

Incidentally, I freehand a lot so I also make sure to remove surplus anchor points using the Pen tool.


To add more detail to the hair, you can create more locks and strands with the Pencil tool. Be creative and once again, remember to remove surplus anchor points. For the nose, let’s use simple triangles.


To create the character’s hook, draw a rectangle for the base and make it taper. Then add an ellipse to give a bit of shading and depth. To fit it flush against the sleeve, just group the objects that make the hook’s base (hold Shift and select, then right click > Group) and move them together.

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Create eyelashes by adding small triangles around the eye, which will also serve as shading. Connect the minor characters to our pirate using arcs (create a circle, delete the colour inside and then delete one of the four anchor points).


Keep making the character more interesting by adding a bit more detail. To finish the trousers, create a rectangle and then select the Pen tool and add anchor points to the base of the rectangle. Then move every other anchor point here upwards to create the ripped effect.


To create the water, select the Pencil tool and freehand big drops of water, then add some detail to them. Let’s give our pirate some highlights on the trousers and coat, too, by adding zigzag shapes in a colour that stands out. Also finish the nose by creating more triangles.

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Now it’s time to add clouds and other decorations. Copy and Paste and place where desired, paying attention to the composition. Make it fun – experiment, play with shapes and let your creativity guide you.


Happy with your design? If so, that’s as far as we’re going to go in Illustrator. Now we’ll import the file into Photoshop to add texture.


In Photoshop, open texture layer.psd. Select All, then Copy and Paste it into your design. Set the blending mode to Screen and the opacity to 23. Adjust until you’re satisfied.

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Select the Burn tool and paint over the edges to give it some shadow. In the Options bar, set the Range drop-down menu to Midtones and add some shade to corners. Think about basic shading when doing this.


Finally, select the Dodge tool. Set the Range drop-down menu to Highlights and add highlights in the eyes, cheeks, and certain corners to make them pop out a bit more.