Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Use Illustrator's Live Trace to create a vector pattern illustration

Learn to create an editorial illustration that represents a thriving Internet-driven digital business.

In this tutorial, designer Johann Chan looks at what it takes to create an editorial illustration based around the theme of international Internet commerce.

Johann reveals his approach to depicting certain subject matters, then use a range of techniques to create the final illustration.

Techniques covered include tracing photos in Illustrator using that application’s Live Trace feature, and creating patterns using the Pathfinder tool. You’ll also learn how to introduce a sense of grit to vector illustrations by applying grain in Illustrator and then layering textures in Photoshop.

Time to complete

6 hours

Software needed

Illustrator CS5 or later, Photoshop CS5 or later


I always recommend you plan your illustrations in depth. When communicating an underlying narrative, turn your computer off and formulate a plan of what to convey.

Write down the objects that are associated with your subject and brainstorm the components of your illustration.

In this instance, the components that I associated with digital economy are currency symbols, faces (users) and digital patterns – with a bit of the old Matrix title sequence leaking in too.

After completing your list, draw a rough sketch to plan your illustration.


Image libraries such as iStock can provide some great reference images for vector faces – but you can get more accurate representations of the expressions and poses you want by shooting these yourself. It’s cheaper too, and you don’t need professional-level shots (or models) as they’re only for reference.

If you’re shooting your own photos, try to take them all in the same light and position for consistency – and against a plain white background if possible.

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Prepare your images in Photoshop before importing into Illustrator for tracing.

Cut the images out using the Pen tool, or use a combination of the eraser and brushes to paint out the background. 


After eliminating the background, get rid of the shades and colour. In Photoshop go to Image > Adjust > Threshold.

You could apply the Threshold adjustment in Illustrator instead, but applying the threshold in Photoshop can speed things up – especially if the image is complicated.


Open Illustrator and Place your image.

Select the image and click on the Live Trace button in the Control bar. When this has finished, click on the options icon in the Control bar. This brings up the Tracing Options dialog in Illustrator CS5 or the Image Trace panel in CS6 or CC (these look very different but in practice are very similar, it’s just the tools are in a different order).

Here there are tools to control further details: adjustments such as Corner Angles and Minimum Area, which affect the amount of detail. Play around with these until you’re happy.

Hit the Trace button to retrace the photo based on your new settings, then the Expand button to finalise the conversion. 

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Draw components for your graphics in Illustrator using a combination of basic shapes such as circles, triangles and squares.

For this Yuan currency symbol, I created a series of repeated circles overlapping, with a cross underneath. You can convert groups of shapes like this so they become all to one object: dozen shapes overlapping others simplifying to become one shape.

To do this, open the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder). Select your objects, then press the Unite icon (on the left).

When you’re happy with the result, click Expand to finalise the process. 


Create a folder of interesting shapes and textures using the shapes and the Pathfinder panel until you have a variety of different components.

Before you start creating the pattern, it’s best also to clean up the images you traced earlier. This will make the results smoother: eliminating unwanted jagged edges and smoothing off strange curves.


Start creating patterns with the components you created.

First, turn the visibility of the grid on. Go to View > Show Grid, and View > Snap to Grid (or Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + “).

Experiment with repeating shapes and checkering patterns. 

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To make your patterns more visually interesting, try combinations of two (or more) alternating images.

There are an infinite number of combinations you can use to create a pattern. 


After adding additional elements and experimenting with different pattern combinations, it's time to add some colour.

Open up your Colours and Swatches panels (Window > Swatches) and (Window > Colour).

Create a colour in your colour window, then drag it onto your Swatches window. Here I created a light blue (C17 M9).


Select all the matching objects and apply your colour (in this case the light blue swatch).

Swatches make the colours easier to edit, and also keeps a record of the different colours used. 

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Add colour gradients as well as solid colours. This gives the illustration more depth. Again experiment with contrasting elements, but this time with colour rather than shapes.


To give the illustration more of a tactile feel, add a bit of grain in Illustrator.

Apply different grains to different groups of objects to give the illustration less of a uniform feel.

To choose all of objects in your artwork that have the same colour, select one object then go to Select > Same > Fill Colour. Then go to Texture > Grain to begin to apply the effect.


In the Grain dialog, change the Intensity to 60, the Contrast to 40 and choose a Grain Type of Sprinkles.

Repeat this step with the other objects, changing the intensity and texture each time.

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To add further realistic texture, scan a piece of textured paper into Photoshop and layer this with your illustration.

Use Levels to control the intensity of the texture (Image > Adjust > Levels). Once you're happy with the texture, invert the image (Image > Adjust > Invert, (or Cmd/Ctrl + I).

Import your Illustrator file into Photoshop, and drag this above the texture layer. Place a gradient layer between the Illustrator file layer and the background layer for a better blend. 


Bring in a similar scanned texture and apply this to the remaining white faces.

To do this, first select the white faces using the Magic Wand tool. Then select your texture layer in the Layers panel, and go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. Your texture should now be applied to the white faces.