Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Design a vector animal mascot

How to produce an illustrated mascot to serve as part of a larger branding concept – a lion whose pose and demeanour represents nobility, pride, aspiration and achievement.

We recently interviewed Dutch illustrator and design Martijn Rijven about how he created the mascot for Mozilla’s Firefox OS smartphone platform. Here he details his creative process for producing animals that embody specific human characteristics or ideals, to help you design flexible characters that could be used across a client’s identity.

For this tutorial, Martijn details how he would produce an illustrated mascot to serve as part of a larger branding concept for an importer of African coffee and coco beans. He has created this depiction of a lion, which in its pose and demeanour is meant to represent nobility, pride, aspiration and achievement, but it also has to be nimble and active.

First off, he demonstrates how he uses a pencil and paper to explore posture and different styles to communicate the characteristics requested in the brief. Martijn covers everything from stance and facial expression to colouring and style. He then explains how he produced the artwork in Illustrator. Martijn builds it up using layered vector shapes and Pathfinder functions – before colouring using semi-transparent gradients and blending modes. 

This tutorial can help you develop a character that needs to portray certain human characteristics, and develop it in a way so it will be usable for print. 

Time to complete 

Exploration and sketching, 12 hours, Vectors and colouring, 5 hours


Illustrator CS3 or later


These things always start off with a lot of exploration using coloured pencils, looking at reference material and sketching. The goal is to find the right way to stylise the animal and get it to strike a pose that embodies the core values you want it to portray. Using transparent paper makes it easier to adjust, flip or copy sketches to develop further.


When you’ve done plenty of exploration, and get a good feel for the character and how he should look, you can start work on the final drawing. 

The lion here is looking left, while his body is turned to the right, making him look active and alert. It was a bit of a trick to get the eyes to look regal but not angry. 

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When you’re happy with the final pencil version, it’s time to scan it in. I always prefer to get my drawing as close to perfect as possible, but some people prefer to work from a sketchier drawing. 150dpi is high-enough resolution, as we’re just using this to trace the vectors on. 


In Illustrator, open a new file and place the scan on the first layer. Double-click the layer in the Layers panel and tick Template to use it as a tracing guide. This locks the layer and lowers the opacity. The image also remains visible when working in Outline mode (Cmd/Ctrl + Y or View > Preview). I prefer this view for more accurate tracing.


Before I start tracing, I always create a colour palette to work with – CMYK in this case as it’s a primarily print-based identity we’re designing this for. I build up a simple palette of swatches, so I can quickly work up the character’s base colours, knowing I’ll add to and adjust it later. Also, create some gradients from those swatches, as we’ll be using them to add depth to the piece later.

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Turn on the Outline View (Cmd/Ctrl + Y) and – on a new layer – start tracing your creature using the Pen tool. Always try to use as few points as possible, creating the basic shape and then going over the line again – adjusting the beziers to make it fit the drawing perfectly. I first traced the body of the lion, as this will all have the same colour. 


Once the body was done, it was time to move on to the mane. This was a bit of a puzzle. I had to figure out how to apply gradients and layer the shapes – including the lion’s head – to give a sense of depth with layers of hair overlapping around the face.


When creating elements that run behind existing parts, draw the full element and duplicate the existing part to sit on top of the hidden area. Then use the duplicate to cut the overlapping area out of the element that sits behind.

One example of this is the hair running along the belly of the lion (which I’ve made purple here) to make what I’m doing clearer. I wanted the bottom curve to look like one continuous shape running behind the lion’s right foreleg. 

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I copied the lion’s body and pasted it in place (Cmd/Ctrl + F). Again, I’ve made it blue to make what I’m doing clearer. You might want to do this to make sure you know which body is part of the mascot and which is your ‘cookie cutter’ template in case you need to take a tea break or get interrupted by an impromptu studio party.

Next, I needed to trim the blue part down to a more manageable size. I used the Pen tool, holding Alt so it was in Delete Points mode. I could have used the Eraser tool if I’d wanted a less precise but quicker approach.


To complete the cutting, I selected both shapes and opened the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder) and clicked on Minus Front.


Use this process for all such elements in your mascot, then you’re ready for applying some shading and highlights. 

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The main thing to remember when creating highlights and shadows is to work consistently with a single light source in mind. For my lion, I used a single source off to the top left.

Let’s start with some shading on the face, again using the Pathfinder. Create a shape that maps out the contours of the shadow. Don’t worry if the shape goes outside the boundaries of the face – getting the shadow correct is all that matters.

Crop the shape to the boundaries of the face by copying the main body shape again and pasting in place. Select both shapes and click on Intersect in Pathfinder panel.


Open the Gradient panel (Cmd/Ctrl + F9) and create a gradient with a light tint of your base colour – in my case, brown – on both sides of the gradient by dragging the base colour swatch onto the gradient. Turn the opacity down to 0 on one side of the gradient, then apply it to the shape.


Use Illustrator’s layering options (mainly Object > Arrange > Bring Backward) to put the shading shape behind any hair or horns – the mane in this case – but over the face. Change the blending mode of the shape to Multiply in the Transparency panel (Window > Transparency or Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + F10).

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For the highlights, use a similar gradient but with lighter colours – in this case I used a beige for the main highlights with very light yellow extreme highlights within them. You can experiment with blending modes  – for instance Screen or Lighten – but I kept it on Normal for this piece.