Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Cute character art techniques

Top tricks from Yupyland's Meni Tzima for creating adorable characters in Adobe Illustrator.

Meni Tzima knows all about cute. And scary. She has specialised in crafting cutesy, often strange characters from her virtual Yupyland haunt since 2003 – and deploys a range of techniques to breathe life into her creations. She has created art for children’s books, clothes and products – and her characters are increasingly finding a home in corporate work.

For this masterclass, Meni reveals how she created the character above from initial sketch through to working in Adobe Illustrator. The initial sketch is included as a download for you to work along with. The masterclass draws on vector art skills, exploring the power of various stroke techniques.

As Meni says, the point is to have fun when working and continue to experiment in character design.


Adobe Photoshop CS2 or later, Adobe Illustrator CS2 or later

Time to complete

2 - 3 hours

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


First, we’re going to sketch the character. Grab your pencils and have some fun. Try to bring out on paper the character that you imagined and start producing the rough sketches. Our character will probably be sketched several times before we’re satisfied with the result. Don’t be afraid to experiment and mess up with your sketchbook, a messy sketchbook is better than an empty one, and of course, practice makes perfect!


This is the final sketch of the character that we’ll be working on. A copy of it is included in the project files, called sketch.jpg. Before scanning the image, it is important to keep the final sketch clean, so later we can easily trace it in Illustrator. You can use a light box to trace the image on a new piece of paper, or use a tracing paper. When the sketch is transferred, improve the sketch where needed.

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Scan the image through Adobe Photoshop. It is recommended you scan it in high resolution (300dpi), so it will be easier to trace small details. In order to have a smaller file size, select greyscale colour mode in the scanner settings. When finished, save the image as a JPEG file, and select Maximum quality of 12 in the JPEG image options. Select Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast to increase the image’s contrast if needed.


In Adobe Illustrator, Select File > New or Ctrl/Cmd + N and create a new document, name it, and select A4 size, portrait orientation. For printing purposes, we will select the CMYK colour mode. Select File > Place and place the sketch.jpg file in the document.


In the Layers panel, change the layer type to Template in the expanded options. Name the layer ‘Template’. Create a new layer. This is the layer we’ll start working on. In order to have the full control, try to separate your artwork in layers. Don’t forget, it’s very important to name the layers, and it really helps when you are working in complex projects with lots of layers.

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Using the Pen Tool from the tools panel, start tracing the image. The bézier curves may seem difficult to control for new Illustrator users, but it is just a matter of practice to get used to them. Try to add anchor points only where needed, and use as few of them as possible. Your curves will have better form and harmony.


The pen our character is holding is a symmetrical object, so we don’t have to design the whole object. Using the Pen tool from the tools panel, design half of it. Duplicate the shapes by selecting both shapes and pressing Alt/Option + Shift and drag to the left. Select Object > Transform > Reflect > Vertical Axis. Join the paths by selecting two open-ended points and clicking Object > Path > Join or Ctrl/Cmd + J.


Although difficult to control with a mouse, a Wacom tablet and pen can be extremely useful when using the Pencil tool from the tools panel.

Use this tool to draw freeform paths. Use the Smooth tool from the Pencil’s tool expanded palette next to the Pencil tool to smooth any shaky paths.

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As we continue tracing the character, it’s useful in the meantime to start using colour. We don’t need to worry about using the right colour combination yet, colouring will help us check and possibly improve the shapes where needed. Basic colour combinations can quickly be found in the Swatches panel.


This is an easy way to draw a heart: Using the Ellipse tool, draw two circles and press the Vertical Align Center button. Select both circles, press Add To Shape Area on the Pathfinder palette, and then press the Expand button.

Using the Direct Selection tool, drag down the middle point, then click on the point using the Convert Anchor Point Tool. Using the Delete Anchor Point tool, delete the bottom right and left anchor points and then press Shift and drag down the direction lines.


After tracing the character, our character needs some slight refinements in order to look more balanced. A good idea is to take a short break and forget about our character for a while. When we return, we’ll see the flaws immediately.

When there is no time for a break, a good way to force our brain to take a distance from the image is to simply flip the character. Press Select > All or Ctrl/Cmd + A and then Object > Transform > Reflect > Vertical Axis.

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Our character starts looking more interesting when we start working on the strokes. Using the same stroke weight everywhere makes an image look rather flat. In the Strokes panels, experiment with the various stroke weights and adjustments.


In Adobe Illustrator, there are many Swatch libraries of preset colours, including ink libraries such as Pantone and various thematic libraries. A very useful thematic Swatch library is the Skintones library.

Select Window > Swatch Libraries > Skintones and then pick a colour for the skin as close as possible to the colour you’d like to use. Thematic Swatch libraries such as skintones may not always include the exact colours that we need to use, but they work great as base colours and then, in the Colour panel, make any colour corrections.


Experiment before deciding which base colours to use for your character. The trick here is to make multiple copies of the character and try out various colour combinations. Pick the colour version that you prefer, but it is advised to keep the other versions in a new layer, in case you change your mind.

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Decide the position of the image’s light source and start adding shadows and highlights. Spend time working on your character at this stage, and keep in mind that there is always room for improvement. Using the Zoom tool or pressing Ctrl/Cmd + +, look closely to make sure all image elements are in place. Consider adding fun details to your character.


Instead of forcing our character to live in white emptiness, we can make a background for her so she won’t get bored. Think about where you’d like your character to live. Also, try to use basic shapes and light colours on your background, if you want to keep the viewer’s interest to your character.