Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Create symmetrical vector character art

Combine shapes and textures with vectors and symmetry to radical effect in this tutorial by illustrator Jonny Wan.

Jonny Wan’s distinctive, fresh illustrations manage to seem both mechanical and handmade: their characters are composed of intricate, symmetrical vector shapes so that they seem almost clockwork, yet the finishes he applies remind us of woodcuts.

"Every object can be broken down into a combination of various shapes," explains Wan. "The great thing about working with shapes is that the experimental possibilities are infinite."

In this tutorial you’ll learn how to combine, merge, and manipulate ships in Illustrator to create an intricate illustration based on a Russian doll.
If you’d prefer to concentrate on the texturing and colouring aspects of the tutorial,  you can find the vector file in the download link – this is to be used for this tutorial only.


Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop

Time to complete

3 hours

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


Start researching the subject matter, paying particular attention to the little details associated with the theme. Look for commonalities in the images
that you gather – in this case I’ve noticed a lot of pattern-like repetition of shapes. Also the characters is simple and takes on a symmetrical form.


Open up a new document (Cmd/Ctrl + N) in Illustrator and set your document to the relevant size and colour mode for your planned output – so CMYK for print, or RGB for screen. Set your stroke and fill to default (D) to begin tracing over your sketch transforming its shapes to vectors.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Now name your layer ‘doll’ and begin to draw out the overall outline of the doll. Use the Custom Shape tool to draw out the foundation shapes and apply the merge option found within the Pathfinder tool (Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + F9) to combine various shapes together.


Establish the key elements of the illustration, such as the facial features, arms and so on. Don’t worry about the intricate details – you’ll focus on these later on. For now look closely at the key features and make sure that the aesthetic of the shapes you’re using is in keeping with your initial sketches.


When creating shapes that require absolute precision the Align panel (Shift + F7) is your best friend: this is the best way to get absolute symmetry within your work.

Just remember to specify whether you’re aligning groups of shapes to one another or to the artboard in general.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Group any elements that appear in pairs – such as eyes – and use the Reflect tool (Object > Transform > Reflect). Make sure you reflect vertically, and set the desired distance required between the eyes using the arrow keys. Group similar objects to make navigating the Layers palette easier.


Once all the key elements are in place it’s time to think about colour. Take your time when picking the colour palette: I tend to work with a limited palette as I feel it gives more balance to the overall illustration – but working with a small palette means it’s even more important that you choose the right colours.


Now apply your chosen colours to the illustration. Make sure that the right colours are in the right place: this is very important – placing colours badly can break the flow of the illustration. Use lighter colours to highlight, darker colours for the base shapes and midtone colours to add depth and feel.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Now let’s move onto adding detail. Lock all the current layers (select the layers you want to lock and hit Cmd/Ctrl + 2), then create a new layer and name it ‘details’.

Refer back to your sketches or reference images for ideas for shapes and begin creating your own to use for details: in the next step I’ll show you how I created a floral-inspired shape.


Using the Custom Shape tool, create a circle (hold down Alt/Opt to retain proportion), create a hexagon within the circle then go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Pucker & Bloat adjust accordingly. Experiment to see what new shapes you come up with.

Sometimes the most interesting shapes come about by accident – just be sure to regularly use the Align to Center feature from the Align palette to keep your shapes in check.


Make sure every detail is accounted for and the illustration is coloured in to your satisfaction. It’s now time to export the image to Photoshop, so lock all the layers and save (Cmd/Ctrl + S).

Advertisement. Article continues below


Launch Photoshop and open (Cmd/Ctrl + O) your file.

A dialog will pop up and give you some importing options. Make sure you choose the correct source to import from and double-check that the dimensions of the image match the dimensions when you first started in Illustrator.


Flatten the illustration and minimise the window to concentrate on texture. You can find free textures  on the Internet but I recommend forming your own personal stock library of textures and grains to call upon when needed – such as this one.


Open the desired texture and select the whole image (Cmd/Ctrl + A), copy the selection (Cmd/Ctrl + C), close the texture window and paste (Cmd/Ctrl + V) the texture on top of your doll. Desaturate the texture (Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + U) and lower the opacity to 30-40 per cent.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Start merging the texture with your illustration by using the various blending modes located directly under the Layers panel. Different modes will have different effects, so raise or lower the opacity of selected blending modes until you find a mode that complements the overall illustration.