Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Create a retro vector look

Miss Swanne explains how she balanced vector techniques with retro themes to create the poolside-based The Sound of Silence

Illustrator Miss Swanne’s seeming-effortlessly simple vector art style has found favour with clients as diverse as the makers of Surf washing powder to the publisher of the popular My Sister The Vampire series of teen novels. Here she takes us through the design of a poolside-based personal piece called The Sound of Silence.

“I wanted to create a Miss Swanne girl, who was cool and relaxed as she lounged in the pool,” she explains. The title was inspired by The Graduate and borrows from the Simon and Garfunkel song, Sounds of Silence. The track is used while Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, ignores his parents and floats in a pool.

In this Masterclass, Miss Swanne reveals how she balances vector techniques with retro themes, as well as what gives her work its individual charm.

Time to complete

1 day


Illustrator CS5, Photoshop CS5


I always begin with source material. Very rarely do I ever go into an illustration without having first made a preliminary sketch. In this case, I had great references to draw from.


It helps at the initial stage to draw with a sense of the style you want to achieve. While I often change things in Illustrator, the more polished the sketch, the better the final result.

In the case of my models, I prefer quite a pointed chin, pouting lips and unusually heavily lashed eyes (though in this case we have some awesome overblown 1960s sunglasses). Once the sketch is finished, it’s off to the scanner. Normally, its good practice to scan in at 300dpi: especially if your source image has fine detail or you want to use any of it as texture. 

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Next, I created an A4 portrait document in Illustrator and placed the sketch onto the artboard. To scale the image to fit the space, I used the Direct Selection tool and – holding down Shift – dragged out the corners of the file until it was the correct scale.


It’s now time to vectorise elements of the picture. I always use the Pen tool on projects such as this, since the Pencil can get a little unwieldy. Using the Pen, place vector points along the main anchor points of the drawing. I don’t use Bezier curves until the object is complete, and I also work in a black or red stroke with no fill until I have outlined everything.


Once the object has been outlined, I use the Bezier curve tool to make everything smoothly curvy, then fill the objects with designated colour, and no stroke. I don’t tend to create a swatch library; instead, I experiment with the different colours until I’m happy they complement the image.

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For this project, I also needed to create sunglasses. I used the Circle tool and increased the stroke size to 7. The fill was given a gradient for a feeling of reflection.


At this point, my artwork usually looks a little flat and could do with some highlights to bring it to life, especially for this piece as we are in the blistering sun. 

The easiest way to do this is to create a flat-filled white section on the hair, using the reference photo as a guide. I don’t include the highlights on the sketch because lighting on hair doesn’t really come through with a pencil sketch.

Using the reference as a guide, I also worked out where to place small white highlights on the sunglasses to match. 


After the highlights come the shadows. A great way to do body shadows is to pick the original skin colour with the Eyedropper tool, and then select Multiply in the transparency toolbox. This gives the skin tone the right quality. 

As for the Lilo’s shadows, they were easy – I simply followed the sketch for the positioning. 

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For more subtle highlights and low lights on a character’s body, I use the Gradient tool. Here, I opted for a linear gradient, made up of the base body tone and variants at either side of this for lights and darks. 

I used the same method – but with a radial gradient – to create the highlight on the Lilo.


For the pool tiles, I took the easy route and used some of Illustrator’s great built-in swatch patterns. Go to Window > Swatches and load up Decorative Swatches in the Patterns section of the Swatch Library.

It’s important you remember to set the pattern to fill so the pattern appears correctly – don’t leave it on stroke. To give the pattern an underwater feel, I added a semi-transparent blue layer above it (with its blending mode set to Hard light).


The final colour correction and water effects are best done in Photoshop, so I saved the artwork and opened the AI file in Photoshop. When you open this make sure you set the document sizes correctly. If you want to create a print, import the file as CMYK and 300dpi.

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I always duplicate the original image, just in case anything goes wrong. Then, using the Burn and Dodge tools, I added further shadows and details to make the girl pop.


Now for the exciting bit: the water. To create the look of light refracted by water, first mask off the other elements, leaving just the blue water. Then copy and paste this onto its own layer, and apply a Liquify filter. 

For this artwork, I twirled the water clockwise. It’s important to use the filter sparingly as it is easy to get carried away. To finish off, I added some white pool highlights on a separate layer and used the Liquify filter in the same way.


I added some texture to the headscarf using a fabric swatch that I had first deleted the white background from, so only the pattern elements remained. This allowed my original pink to show through behind the pattern.

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Finally to complete my images, I often add a texture overlay with its blending mode set to Color Burn. It adds a slight aged quality and a certain je ne sais quoi.