Adobe Illustrator tutorial: The secrets of beautiful caricatures

Drawing people is not the most obvious application of vector imagery, but Stanley Chow shows it can deliver brilliant results

The BBC’s immaculate pastiche spy thriller The Hour has been one of the iconic TV shows of this summer. We asked Stanley Chow to create an artwork around the show’s star character, Bel Rowley, played by Romola Garai.

Stanley is a perfect fit for the task of representing the mid-20th-century stylings of The Hour, having created illustrations of Don Draper, Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway from Mad Men that took the blogosphere and Twitter by storm last year. His vector take on caricature lifts it beyond mere parody to something defining and often beautiful.

As Stanley reveals his creative process for this artwork – which is also the process he uses for all his portrait illustrations – you’ll learn how you too can create a striking and iconic portrait, whatever media or software you’re using.

“Although many of my pieces are categorised as caricatures,” he says, “for me it’s more about getting the likeness than it is to exaggerate a person’s features to make them look funny.” Besides giving you handy tips for capturing that likeness, Stanley will gives pointers on capturing something of the essence of your subject and their context.

Stanley admits he didn’t originally watch The Hour on TV, but “thanks to BBC iPlayer and Google, I was brought up to speed to complete the task.”


I watched the show and focused on Bel to see what clothes she wore, how she had her hair and also to have an appreciation of the show’s setting. This helped me decide how she will look in the illustration and how the illustration feels. Then I downloaded as many useful images of her as I could get, for reference.


The most important thing for me is to get the likeness right before anything else, so I start with the head and face. I use the Ellipse tool (U) for the top of the head, then the Pen tool (P) to create a rough jawline. Once I get the shape right, I build the rest of the illustration around it.

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Once satisfied with the shape, I add colour to the skin and then do the eyes with the Pen tool. I work on getting the general shape of the eyes, then do the eyelids.


I slowly build the rest of the face by creating the eyebrows, nose, lips and mouth – and then meticulously move them around the face. I tweak the shape of each feature and add subtle shadows and highlights until the face starts looking like the subject. There are no shortcuts here – it really is all about moving elements in relation to one another until you get a likeness. This tweaking and tinkering usually takes up more time than any other part of my creative process.


When I think I’ve nailed the likeness, I add the neck, hair, plus eyeshadow and a bit of blusher in this case, and generally tweak the colours. Romola Garai’s eyes are blue, so while my style is to have the eyes blacked out, I added a bluish tint to her eyes. Another thing I tend to do is make the top lip darker than the bottom lip – and here I have done that too.

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Unlike many other artists, I usually start thinking about the composition rather late on in the process. Here it’s a simple choice of: do I just do a close-up of the face and leave it at that, or do I illustrate her clothes too?

I felt in this case that I needed to place her in her dress, as it will make the fact that the show was set in the 50s more obvious. While doing the clothes, I was still continuously tweaking the facial features.


Finally, it’s time to add elements around the subject, including a background and some type. My rule at this stage is to keep it simple. I want to make these match the style of the era involved, but ultimately keep the look modern too – here acknowledging that this is a 2011 TV show.

For the background, I added some blocks of colour – loosely basing the composition on the styling of many 50s book jackets. The type contrasts of the soft calligraphy of Forelle (‘Miss Rowley’) with Futura (‘The Hour’), representing Bel’s mix of passion and her skills as a TV producer. Futura is an iconic typeface popular in the 50s, while Forelle is a classic German script from when type was set in hot metal – a version digitised by Dieter Steffmann can be downloaded for free from


Finally I played around with colour to get an overall sepia effect. I did this by adding an orange block on top of the whole composition and setting its blending mode to Color with the Opacity at around 30%. As a final flourish, I added a vignette effect to give an extra bit of faux retro.

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Born, raised and still living in Manchester, Stanley Chow DJ’d in clubs and bars in his home city in the mid-90s. He also designed flyers and posters for many of those venues, and that started his career as an illustrator.