Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create type filled with characters

Learn how 12 artists from the Blood Sweat Vector collective came together to design art in aid of earthquake victims

It’s essential to be able to work in teams, so we’re often told. But how do you do it well when your collaborators are scattered across the globe? The Renmen Project makes a heartwarming case study. It was set up by Ben The Illustrator and design blog collective Thunder Chunky following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010. Their fundraising project continues to roll a year on, with the release of a series of type-art prints benefiting Unicef’s Haiti appeal.

Thunder Chunky’s Stephen Chan is also a member of the international Blood Sweat Vector collective. After discussions with BSV’s Jared Nickerson (aka J3Concepts) and Kate McInnes (loungekat), they came up with the idea of doing artistic prints of the letters in ‘Renmen’ – the Haitian word for ‘love’ – with two artists jointly creating each letter. "We thought it would allow flexibility in the collaborations between each pair," says Stephen, "and it would strengthen the message behind Renmen."

The pairings fell into place quite naturally. "Out of common sense, some geographic positioning and timing, we all gathered to create the most awesome collaborative project ever," says Stephen, modestly.

Being fans of each other’s work brought Chris Leavens and Alexandra Zutto (aka Zutto) together for the letter R (above right). Geographical proximity helped Australians Travis Price and Okayboss create the second N, while in France Guillaume Pain (Tougui) and Hosmane Benahmed (IKS) hatched the second E.

As for the first E, Kate bent the rules a tad by working on it with Sean Kelly, her partner in the illustration duo McKelly – and not a BSV member. Jared and Ruben Cantuni (aka TokyoCandies), who devised the first N, were already good friends. Finally, Stephen partnered up with Junichi Tsuneoka (aka Stubborn Sideburn) in what he calls a "superhuman Asian illustration entity" to do the M.

Engaging 12 illustrators with wildly contrasting styles could have resulted in a disconnected set of artworks, but Stephen wanted harmony. He wrote a simple brief explaining the positive messages that The Renmen Project wanted to evoke. He also sent round a template to provide guidance on the letters’ dimensions and shape, plus a primary and secondary colour swatch.

Of the letter he co-designed, Stephen says: "I wanted it to happen organically, to inspire and excite," he says. "I explained my intentions, adding some illustrations to the letter template and passing it on [to Junichi]. We discussed our ideas each time the piece was exchanged, so that it grew the way we both wanted it to. Our angled, character-driven styles slotted together naturally, and we ended up with a creation that we’re both very proud of."

This tutorial gives a glimpse of that collaborative process through the work of Chris and Zutto. They bounced an Illustrator file between their respective homes in California and Miass, Russia, until they felt their letter was complete.

Stephen feels the project was a way for him to use his skills to make a difference. "This is why I really like being an illustrator," he says. "Illustrators are truly the nicest people, and without their help none of this could have happened. Hopefully we can sell everything and donate 100 per cent of the proceeds to Haiti."

Time to complete

"That’s a bit of a mystery as we put this together over the course of months," says Chris.


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Zutto kicked off the collaboration with Chris by doing a preparatory sketch of the R. Her aim was to remix the most fun ideas, characters and landscape elements from her sketchbooks into one piece. Her main inspiration was that ‘renmen’ means ‘love’ in Haitian Creole.

That initial sketch turned out to be the most complicated part of the project for Zutto, because she constantly had to bear in mind how the ingredients she was introducing might best fit in with Chris’s style.


Upon receiving the sketch, Chris felt it was “filled with lovely Zutto creatures and landscape elements”. He began vectoring in his contribution, intertwining his characters with hers. “I loved that she chose an outdoor scenario because most of my artwork is heavily nature-inspired,” he says.

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When Zutto received that first coloured version from Chris, containing his creatures and landscape elements, it gave her a lot of ideas on how she might develop the work. First, though, she wanted to get the broad strokes of colour down.

“I filled all of the large shapes, such as trees, rocks, hills, clouds and  main characters, to get a vision of whole composition in colour,” she says. “Then I sent the result back to Chris.”


Chris added in more elements, keeping the forms flat and simple. “That’s my approach to vector art – start with basic forms and add in the details later,” he says.


The next step for Zutto was to start smoothing out the differences between her and Chris’ styles, and to add some more details.

“I started from the bottom-right rock with two lakes,” she says. “I spent much time choosing different colour combinations for all my large elements. The colours of the big shapes are really important for overall look.”

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As well as having a consistent colour scheme and style, having a coherent tone is also important in a collaboration (unless you’re specifically after a visual clash). Chris noticed that Zutto’s characters looked much cheerier than his assortment of quirky critters – such as the birds on the left, the two-legged cyclops yak in the lower-left, and the stern-looking squirrel beasts climbing the tree on the right. To contribute to the happy feel, he added in an elephantine “triclops” in the centre. “The Renmen charity is all about positivity, and I wanted to make sure that was conveyed in my part of the art,” he says.


The artwork was becoming overbusy, and Zutto felt that some objects needed shifting and that “we had a bit of mess with layering”. After some tidying, she added little details to the jungle, such as birds, flies, bugs, mushrooms and clouds.


Chris’ final contribution was to add in gradients, detail, shading and texture. Additionally, to balance the composition he resized and repositioned a few elements. He says he made sure “not to obscure the mighty Zutto’s excellent artwork. It was a real joy working with her and letting the artwork do all the talking”.

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The trickiest thing was not to overload the composition and drown out what Chris had created. Zutto finalised her shading and texturing… and then she made herself stop.


The Blood Sweat Vector collective consists of twelve artists. Below we've given details for those who had a part in the artwork featured within this tutorial.

Chris Leavens

Chris creates story-rich artwork, his surreal landscapes filled with bizarre monsters and fantastical characters. His work has appeared not just in print but also in computer games, TV shows and feature films.



The imaginative worlds Alexandra Zutto creates are full of fluid, brightly coloured shapes, strange creatures, meandering rivers, dark woods and mountain slopes – the inspiration she draws from nature is clear to see.


Stephen Chan

Based in Liverpool, Stephen describes his design style this way: “It’s character-driven and often involves isometric detailed landscapes and scenes. I try to implement as much detail and make the illustration as fun as possible.”