Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: T-shirt design in Illustrator using owl and skull vector art

Use Illustrator to draw a biker-style graphic using vector shapes.


Joshua Smith, aka maverick illustrator Hydro74, has a style that’s instantly recognisable  – combining the thick, clean lines of graffiti with the iconography of tattoos and the symmetry and patterns of vector art. Here he takes you through how he created his latest work, based around his regular motifs of skulls  and swirls mixed with this spring/summer’s illustration icon, the owl.

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As you follow this tutorial, you’ll discover lots of tricks to help you create better art and work faster in Illustrator. You’ll learn how to improve your skills with line art, shading using flat fills and colour techniques for limited palettes (to keep printing costs down). 

Joshua says that as his techniques are more about drawing vector shapes using the Pen tools than brush strokes, you’ll get better results from a mouse than a graphics tablet.

Time to complete 

4 hours


Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop CS3 or later

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

Step 1


First off, I did a really rough drawing of the head of an owl to get the piece in motion. Then I went into Photoshop and made it symmetrical. The goal here with a rough, basic drawing is to allow yourself to be more creative in Illustrator as you click away. You never just want to trace what is there, but add your touch on what feels right and allow that inner creative demon to ask: ‘What if we did this?’.

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You can use your own sketch here, or download from this tutorial's project files.

Step 2


Import your image into Illustrator, enlarge it to a decent size and drop the transparency down to 50%. From there, set up a guide in the centre of the image.

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The goal is to save time, thus drawing one side and perfecting that. Create a new layer to allow you to click off the drawing to see how progress is going.

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Step 3


Now it’s time to click and drag using the Pen tool (P). As you click away, start adding small amounts of detail and exploring what works.

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Don’t follow your lines directly from the drawing, but allow yourself to be free – you’re doing this to explore.

Step 4


When you get to a good spot, copy the art and flip it. Once I put the two sides together, I can see where my mistakes are, or if I’m on target.

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This is a good point to step away for a few moments and get a cup of tea, so you can look at the piece with fresh eyes. 

Step 5


Once you’ve drawn the outline, it’s time to add some details. I’ve worked a little etching into the piece by creating long, thin triangle-shaped pieces arranged together in a row. 

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Step 6


Take the etching element and play with it by stretching it then placing it over the owl’s eyebrows. To funnel it between the eyebrows, select the element, open the Pathfinder (Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + F9) and use the Crop function.

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One downside to this function is that every time you crop, you’ll notice annoying blank lines. To remove them, use the Pen tool to make a line with no colour or stroke, then click on Select > Same > Fill & Stroke. Hit Delete and you’re done. Keep a copy of the etching lines nearby. 

Step 7


Detail the forehead by creating some half circles and aligning them in a row. Stack these rows to cover the area that you want to fill.

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It helps to group (Cmd/Ctrl + G) these shapes before placing them on top of the illustration so you don’t have to click them individually if you make a mistake.

Step 8


Repeat the techniques from Step 6 to add etching to these ‘feathers’ (this is why I told you to keep a copy of those etching lines.) You can fill each half-circle separately, or fill the whole section with this element to save time. I’ve decided to do each one individually, as it looks better.

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Step 9


To fill each half-circle individually, duplicate the cropped element you just created, rather than cropping each area. Once done filling those areas, select each one and crop it into the head. If you want to experiment here, try using wider or smaller shapes, or halftone dots.

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Step 10


Now for some detail. This is a good point to start filling in areas with black, and adding little texture scrapes. The goal is to make it look somewhat organic.

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At this point, I also like to start deleting things I don’t need, but I don’t want to lose anything I worked on in case I change my mind. Create a copy, drag it to the top and you’re free to experiment without worry.

Step 11


Add some feathers at the sides, flowing downwards to tie in the body elements. They also fill out the artwork’s dimensions to better suit a T-shirt print. I want to put a skull under the head, but if skulls aren’t your thing, add a fluffy little cloud, or a happy little tree, or something.

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Step 12


If you have a Hydro74 trademarked skull handy, feel free to use it now. Custom typography would work well here, too. Drop in the skull and start building the surrounding areas. It’s starting to come together a little now.

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Step 13


Section off the different components – the owl and the skull – as individual elements. To do this, group together the owl head and trace around it in white. Repeat with the skull. This way, you can resize those elements more easily.

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Step 14


Since you have the two heads filled in, start dropping in some highlights and dark areas onto one of the wings to add detail. Play around with some etching elements and send them to the back, behind the owl head and skull. To detail the other wing, take the side you worked on, duplicate it and flip it. Finally for the outline, add some eyes to the skull. Try to ignore the fact that your owl now has eyeballs for nipples.

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Step 15


Time to add colour. This is the hard part, but here’s a trick: create a line-art version of your artwork under the ‘etched’ one, so you can fill the parts without fiddling with the shading. To do this, place a large rectangle over the top and select Crop in the Pathfinder palette. Delete all blank fills and strokes. Lock down everything except the current piece.

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Click Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + D for a transparent background. Select a piece of white in your illustration, then click Select > Same > Fill Color and delete it. All that’s left should be the black. Merge it together. Now create a new layer and place it under your line art. Lock the line art layer.

Step 16


To fill out the print and make it seem more iconic, I’ve added some organic swirls and shapes around the main design.

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