Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create a comic portrait

Artist Aaron Sacco reveals how to turn a photo into a graphic novel-style illustration, using skills he learned working as an animator on the movie A Scanner Darkly.

You can turn any photo into a comic-style illustration using just a Wacom tablet and Adobe Illustrator.

Aaron Sacco developed the process outlined here working on Richard Linklater’s mindbending film A Scanner Darkly – recreating this bold effect, using shapes of solid colour to represent a realistic image.

A Scanner Darkly used an animation technique called interpolated rotoscoping. Similar to rotoscoping, where each frame of film is painstakingly hand-painted, interpolated rotoscoping uses vector keyframes and interpolates between keyframes automatically. Each minute of animation in the movie required over 500 hours of work.

For this tutorial, we’re not going to animate a sequence, but concentrate on one image, representing one frame. The focus of the tutorial is to recreate the incredible, unique style of the movie through the use of colour and vectors.

For an image of this complexity, you should expect to spend five to six hours illustrating it. If you limit your colours and detail, you can spend less – but it’s worth putting in the extra effort. If you’re learning and experimenting, you can expect to spend much more. Be bold and have fun!


Choose a high-resolution image for photo reference. The larger the image, the more detail you will have to play with. Go to File > Place to insert it into your Illustrator file.

In the Layers panel, double-click the layer with the image; I named this layer ‘Reference’. Once you have locked that layer, you will be able to draw over the top without disturbing it. Click the Add New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. I call this new layer ‘Inks’ and it should remain on top throughout the process.


Press N or click the Pencil tool from the Tools panel and check that the Fill colour is Black and the Stroke colour is None. Adjust the Pencil tool’s settings by double-clicking the Pencil tool and change the Fidelity to 4px, Smoothness to 35%, and check both ‘Fill New Pencil Strokes’ and ‘Keep Selected’ boxes. If you experience difficulty drawing a smooth shape, increase the Fidelity and Smoothness. If you’re losing detail or control, decrease those settings.

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To recreate this look, you must think of lines as long, thin, irregular shapes filled with black. Using the Pencil tool, you can manually produce a calligraphic line by automatically filling in the region between two arcs. Draw smooth decisive arcs to indicate where you imagine the points should be set. Too much wobbliness yields an uncontrolled shape with rough edges. To edit an ugly shape, use the pen tool to delete extra points and simplify the form. It will take practice to learn how to manipulate the pencil tool accurately, but be patient and you will develop an intuitive understanding of how to manipulate the shapes quickly. Deselect after each shape by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + A.


Check that you are on the ‘Inks’ layer and ‘ink’ the image, just like a graphic novel. Draw thin black shapes around the major forms. Also fill in the darkest regions with larger black shapes. If you need more control for areas such as the eyes or nose, you can switch to the Pen tool to draw exact curves and straight lines. This step requires the most nuance. Remember to always lock each layer when you’re finished or not working on it to avoid confusing errors later on.


Toggle the Eye icon on your Layers palette to hide the Reference layer and check your progress as you go. If you accidentally release the line before you outline the shape you’re tracing, you can draw another shape that completes the shape in the same colour. I prefer to just press undo after the last action, because I find it best to make the largest possible continuous shape to increase the smoothness and overall flow of the shape.

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I call my next layer ‘Shawn’. Each new subsequent layer will be placed behind the last visually or below on the Layers panel. You want to always fill in behind what you’ve previously finished. Within each layer, create sub-layers categorized by features, such as eyes and mouth, to better manage all the shapes that you’re creating. I will usually break that down further into four or five shades of colour, each on its own sub-layer.


Select which colours to use by sampling right out of the picture. Double-click the Eyedropper tool and change the Raster Sample Size at the bottom to 5 points to get a broad metering of colour. If you want a brighter colour for the foreground figures or a more specific colour selection, switch the Raster Sample Size back to 1 point.


Now you’re ready to begin painting in the colour. Beginning with the ‘Hair’ on a new sub-layer, define the larger chunks or shapes of solid colour, starting with darkest shadows. Focus on making shapes that are descriptive and in tone with the others. Limit the palette to a few shades and place each new successive colour behind the other. You can move a shape behind another on the same layer or sub-layer by pressing Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + [ or by going to Object > Arrange > SendToBack.

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Use a new sub-layer for each facial feature. Zoom in while you’re drawing detailed areas such as the eyes and nose, and add more detail with smaller shapes to emphasize those areas. On the sub-layer called 'Face', begin to describe as accurately as possible the general planes of the face.


Continue to define the planes of the neck and shirt on a new sub-layer. Avoid using too many little shapes or it will draw attention away from the figure’s face.


For the second person, I repeated steps 7 through 10 on a new layer I called ‘Renee’. In some images, you may want to balance the colours by reusing the same tones in different figures. Since I liked the contrasting warm and cool tones, I did not worry about colour balancing on this image.

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Create a new layer – call it ‘Background’. Look at the larger shapes of colour behind the foreground figures and define their outlines loosely. Too much detail in the background will be a distraction from the figures. You simply want a patchwork of colour to suggest an environment.


Once the whole image is filled in, create a new ‘Correction Below’ layer at the very bottom to quickly fill in any gaps in the image. Use colours from the upper layers and draw with large blobs. Don’t worry about being too artistic here – you’re just filling space.


Clean up your illustration by creating a new ‘Correction Above’ layer on top of everything but the ‘Inks’ layer. Unlock the Reference layer and drag the image out to the side to compare it side-by-side. Simplify your colour schemes and shapes. Zoom in to the image and cover over any unwanted ugly spurs in the shapes. Manipulate the shapes in all the layers with the direct-selection tool until you’re satisfied with the results.

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