Photoshop tutorial: Trace photos for beautiful line art

How to create a striking monochrome landscape from a series of photos using techniques Stephen Chan developed for an illustrator for Esquire.


Recently, illustrator Stephen Chan produced a series of illustrations for a travel feature in the US edition of Esquire magazine, which melded his geometric line-art landscapes with high-end fashion photography. Here Stephen takes you through how he creates such a scene, set in Venice, using stock photography to avoid the expense of having to fly out there – which is especially great as none of the location photography will be visible in the final piece.

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Stephen will explain how to make a perfect and realistic composition using photo montage, which you will then trace to create a stylised line-art effect. You will learn important skills and processes involved in composition, tracing imagery, and being organised. 

The techniques detailed here will also allow you to create a variety of rough layouts using comps from a stock site, before buying only the images you need when you’ve got one you’re happy with. Our photos are from iStockphoto (, which has just launched a service that allows you to quickly buy photos like these using your credit card.

If you want to follow along with this tutorial directly, you should purchase these images from iStockphoto: Rialto Bridge; Beautiful Venice; Venice Canal, Cross-Processed; Historical Regatta - Italy; seagull on canal Venice, Italy; and Colorful canal Venice, Italy.

Stephen says the best way to begin is to create a composition first, and then get a photographer to get the right angles of the model to fit in to the scene, especially if the model will be interacting with the scene. It’s easier to adjust the model to fit the scene, than vice versa. But in this tutorial – as in the Esquire pieces – he’ll be working from pre-shot model photography.

Time to complete

4 to 6 hours


Photoshop, Illustrator

Step 1


To begin with, you should have an idea of the type of scene you want to compose. For this tutorial, I’ve decided to go for an imaginary view of Venice. With that in mind, open up your library of model shots – or search for stock images for a few different interesting images with body positions that will work well within this scene.

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Step 2


Now browse through your stock site for the parts of the composition you might need. It will take some time to find imagery that works perfectly together, but at this point having a wide range of possible shots to include is more important than being sure everything matches. Download low-res comps to use – save spending your money or credits till later.

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Step 3


When you have all the images you need, import them into Illustrator and quickly draw around each image with the Pen tool (P). Hit Cmd/Ctrl + 7 on every one to create a clipping mask. You can do this roughly as it doesn’t have to be perfect yet.

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Play around with them like a creative jigsaw, piecing them together to create a new scene. Feel free to rotate, resize and crop so that it fits together neatly and with a subtle sense of realism.

Step 4


Being a fashion editorial illustration, the model should be the main focus, so ensure it takes up at least a quarter of the page. The foreground bridge element is perfect for this work, as it fits with the model shot with the forward sitting posture. Using this as the focal point, I built up a canal composition behind it.

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Step 5


When you have created a balanced composition, purchase the relevant stock imagery. 

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Go back to your low?res comps, and lock this layer. Ensure the model shot is on a separate layer and the top of the stack. Create new layers between the two for each of your elements. Starting from the back – I added ‘back buildings’, ‘back bridge’, ‘left buildings’, ‘right buildings’ and ‘foreground bridge’.

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Step 6


Make a copy of each element outside of your artboard. You will trace them here on the individual layers, so that your project doesn’t get too chaotic. Tracing in bite-sized parts keeps everything organised, and means the number of lines and shapes doesn’t become overwhelming when tracing large amounts of detailed scenery.

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Step 7


It’s time to start tracing, beginning with the element that’s furthest in the back-ground. Use a brightly coloured stroke for tracing, as it’s easier to see above the colour photo. As everything will be in black and white at the end, just trace around the whole group of buildings first. You will fill this in afterwards, as it is less time-consuming than drawing each building separately.

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Step 8


Start tracing from the back and work your way to the front of the photo. If any parts overlap, use the layer controls (Cmd/Ctrl + [ or ]) to move the objects up or down inside each layer. Keep to simple shapes to quickly build up the base of buildings. You don’t want to add too much detail because this element is in the background.

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Step 9


Repeat Steps 7 and 8 for the rest of your elements, adding greater detail to elements that are in the foreground. For the next few steps, I’ll explain how I used some of Illustrator’s tools to create specific elements, which you should be able to adapt to your own composition.

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Step 10


I wanted to make the Rialto Bridge really stand out, as it’s such an iconic and historic structure of Venice’s canals. It’s a fine balance of keeping it simple, but still making it recognisable and strong. 

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A quick way to draw the repetitive lines on the roof and the arches, which comprise most of the bridge, is to use to Blend tool (Object > Blend > Blend Options). This fills in the middle of two selected objects.

Step 11


I gave elements on the bridge’s foreground a lot more detail than the background elements. This gives the scene more depth and clearly separates the layers.

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Step 12


The last thing to trace was the seagull balancing on the top of the model’s head. This adds a bit of humour and movement to an otherwise static composition. Even though it’s in the foreground, I didn’t want to add too much detail to maintain its grace, just subtle touches to the inside wing for contrast.

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Step 13


Now that you’ve drawn all the elements, you need to go back and properly cut out the photo of the model. I used Photoshop for this process, because Illustrator doesn’t handle photography so well. 

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There are many ways to cut out images, but I prefer to use the Pen tool (P), probably because I use it so much in Illustrator. After you’ve created a selection around the model, invert this (Cmd + Shift + I) and delete the background with 0.1 feathering (Select > Modify > Feather). Save this as a Png with transparency.

Step 14


Import the Png back in to the Illustrator document on the top layer, and start bringing everything together on the artboard. For this particular style, we want to convert all the strokes to 75% black, 0.75pt, for a softer appearance and focus on the strength of the line art to create a scene for the model to interact with. When you’re done, hide the low- and hi-res photos except for the hi-res model.

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Step 15


With everything pieced together, I could see that the top right feels a bit empty. Because these parts are far in the distance, I wanted to use a few simple lines to fill this up and not disturb the buildings and bridge in front. A few cloud shapes and distant land and building silhouettes filled this up neatly.

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Step 16


If you have any areas left empty – such as the bottom part of my illustration – using Patterns is an easy way to fill up space without using colour. Open up the default pattern swatch by clicking on the top-right tab in your Swatches panel, then selecting Open Swatch Library > Patterns > Basic Graphics. This is useful for providing shading and texture to a lot of other elements, too. 

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As a final touch, I also duplicated (Alt + drag) the foreground bridge ornament to create better symmetry.