Beautiful Vector Illustration

One thing we do regularly at Go Media is create beautiful vector people. Having illustrated hundreds of these, I have worked out a few tips that I would like to share with you. This will make your job much easier.

Here is the final image we will be creating:

In this tutorial I will cover:

  1. Picking a photo
  2. Limiting your detail (picking a value range)
  3. Reducing work with better vectorizing techniques
  4. Exaggerating the good
  5. Putting it all together

Before we get started: Here are a few basics we need to cover before we begin. We are discussing creating vector illustrations of people. For the purpose of this tutorial I will be using Adobe Illustrator. Macromedia Freehand and Corel Draw are also suitable software programs for this task, but I prefer Illustrator.

With regards to creating vector illustrations on the computer there are several ways this can be accomplished. Here are three very common ways:

  1. You can sit down to your computer with a blank canvas and draw with no point of reference. This is extremely difficult although a few designers here do it.
  2. You can hand-draw a sketch of what you want first, scan that into the computer and illustrate off of that. This is a wonderful technique to create truly unique and polished illustrations. However this does take some hand-drawing skills.
  3. You can illustrate off of a photograph. This is the easiest and fastest method so we will use this method and use several photographs for this tutorial.


1. Picking a photo. Now, I think this step is VERY important. Based on what photo you start with, the vectorizing process can be either much easier or harder. Most photographs are the copy written material of a photographer so you’ll need to find a good source of cheap royalty free images. I usually use istockphoto.com. I-Stock Images are of a fairly high resolution and can be purchased for 1-5 dollars. Here are my recommendations for picking a photo:

• Images of high resolution with hard shadows are easier to vectorize than washed out images. One big part of this vectorizing process is deciding where to break up the image into shapes of color. If you have a high contrast photo with hard shadows, it’s much easier to see where the contours of a person’s face are.

Here is a sample of the difference between a good high-contrast image and a poor low-contrast image.

Bad: Washed Out Photo

This first image is fairly bright and washed out. The image is beautiful, but not good for vectorizing. There are no features to work off of.

Good: Nice Contrast!

This second face you can see has much more contrast. You can see a middle value, shadows and bright spots on her face. This will make choosing where you illustrate your vector lines much easier.


On this image you can see how I use the contrast of the image to help me decide where to put vector lines. This is obviously incomplete but you can see how shadows and bright spots are important.

• The image should be as beautiful or ugly as you want the final artwork. It is possible to take a not-so-pretty face and make it look prettier, but it is much easier to start with a beautiful photograph.

• The image does not have to be complete. I will frequently find a face I like and then combine it with a body from a different photo. This is one of the great advantages of vector art.

2. Limiting your detail (picking a value range) This is a good time to talk about how detailed you are going to get with your vector illustration. A vector illustration can be as simple as 1 color, like a silhouette or can get so complex that it has a photo-realistic look. How complex you get is your choice, but I have found that breaking an image up into 5 values is fairly optimal. With five values you get enough detail to show some cool features and it’s still simple enough that it won’t take too long to illustrate.


Here is a photo I have vectorized and will use to demonstrate how different amounts of color values will effect the final image.


Here are three illustrations working off of the same image but using different amounts of color values.

There is no right or wrong level of complexity, but I would say many more than 6 color values and you’re losing the point of vector illustration. Part of what you’re trying to do is simplify the image. If you’re going to get so complex that the vector art starts to look photo-realistic then why not just use the photo?

I will typically try to illustrate my artwork in around 5 color values. I think this is enough detail to create some beautiful artwork without being too complex. Also, when I look at an image it is easy for me to see two color values above and two color values below the middle value – that equals 5.

Don’t feel like you need to pick an exact number of shades and stick with it. Sometimes I’ll get halfway through an illustration and realize that I need a few more shades, or a few less. Make adjustments “on-the-fly” as you work.

3. Reducing work with better technique. Here are some quick tips on how to reduce work by using better techniques in Illustrator.

First, I always start by outlining the object or person I’m illustrating. You can see this path I’ve created in yellow.


Now, if I want to create a shape to represent her hair. I have created this shape in red. You will notice that I only focused on where the line runs across the outline of her head. I did a haphazard job completing the shape outside of her silhouette. I can now use the Pathfinder tool in Illustrator to chop off the “extra” shape that is outside of the head’s silhouette.

In order to do this we will first need to create a second head silhouette so the original one is not lost. Here is how to do that:

  1. Select your silhouette (it’s the yellow one)
  2. Make a “copy” by pressing the quick-key combination “Control-C” on the keyboard.
  3. Paste the copied silhouette in the exact same location, as the original silhouette by typing the quick-key combination “Control-F” (also known as Paste-in-front). This will make a second silhouette on top of the first. If you click it and move it, you’ll see there is still the original path underneath.

Now that there are two silhouettes paths (they are stacked so it will only look like one, but there are two there) we need to chop-off the extra shape outside of the silhouette from the hair path I made (in red.) To do this:

  1. Select the silhouette path (in yellow) and also select the hair path (the red one.) You can do this by clicking on one, then holding down your shift key when you click on the second shape.
  2. While they are BOTH selected go to your Pathfinder tool and press the intersecting tool. This will chop off any part of either shape that does not over-lap.
  1. Then, in the pathfinder window hit the expand button to remove the excess paths permanently.

Presto! You have a hair path that fits perfectly in place with the rest of your silhouette. I use this pathfinder tool a lot to quickly fit pieces together. You can use it to remove shapes, or merge shapes. If you are not familiar with all of the pathfinder tools I highly recommend playing around with it until you have a firm grasp on all of its uses. This will shave hours of work off of the vectorizing process.

4. Exaggerating the good. This is the fun part. When you are tracing an image you do not have to stick religiously with what you see. In fact, you really don’t want to stick with exactly what you’re seeing. Consider the image a sketch and your vector lines as the final drawing. With this in mind you want to correct the “mistakes” in your sketch (photograph). This is a silly example, but obviously if your image was of a woman and she had a big zit on her nose, you would not include it in your vector art right? Similarly if she has fairly small eye lashes, why not make them bigger? Why not add a little sparkle in her eye?

Obviously this technique takes a little bit of skill. If you have a background in traditional illustration it will help a lot. But, obviously exaggerating some features off of a photo is much much easier than illustrating a person from scratch.

Here is a sample of a photo with an unexaggerated set of features on her eyes and one that I took some liberties with. You can see how the enhanced eyes look much better (in my humble opinion.)


Particularly, I smoothed out the shadow lines around the eyes, increased the over-all size of the eyes, made the eye lashes much bigger, thinned the eye brows and finally, added a little extra sparkle to her eyes.

You can use this exaggerating technique on all parts of your image. Make hair bigger and more beautiful. Take a little weight off, or add it in just the right places. Make muscles bigger. Whatever you’re after – you’re in control so take some liberties.

5. Putting it all together. Now that you have a good understanding of some core principles of Creating vector illustrations like we do at Go Media, let me show you how I would create a kick ass piece of artwork.

First, I would try to find a killer image that has either part or all of the elements that I am going to need for the focal point of this piece of artwork.


This first image I found has a fantastic body position. I really like the way the leg extends out toward the camera. Unfortunately the face is rather obscured and the arm on the left looks kind of limp. I will need to find a better arm and a better face.


This second image I found has a great arm. The perspective looks like it will fit in place of the arm that’s on the first image – so we’ll use it and see how it goes.


This last lovely face I found online and will make good reference. It also seems to be at the correct perspective to fit on the body. Remember! You need to make sure your different “parts” will fit together. If you pick a body that is shot from above, then an arm that is shot straight-on, they may not fit together. Also you will notice that this face is turned slightly to the left. The body I found faces right. No problem! I can use the “Reflect” tool in Illustrator and flip it over so she’s facing slightly to the right!


Once I have all three “parts” done I will assemble them. Some resizing and rotating is necessary to get them to fit together and look nice. Also, I stroked the figure to help define her off of her background. Most of the hair I made up from scratch. Here and there I had to add little bits of color to bring the whole thing together.


A quick tip on coloring: I try to put together my color palette before I begin filling in my vector shapes. I will usually pick a single color and then make a variety of shades of that color. Make sure to focus on the value of the colors (how bright or dark are they?) You will need to have a nice scale of color values from very dark to very bright.

Once I have the focal point of the composition complete the hard work is done. At this point I merely need to jazz it up with some additional design elements. I could create all of these design elements from scratch, but this could take an entire week and I don’t have that kind of time. There are plenty of sources for stock vector art such as our Go Media vector packs that can cheaply provide you with the tools you’ll need to either create a complete composition or provide you with the elements you need to finish off your own original artwork.


For this piece I will use some of the stock vector art from the Go Media Vector Packs. These royalty free stock vector packs are a real bargain for our clients. If I had to create every vector element on each project nobody could afford us. So, I tend to focus on making one or two new focal elements on a design, then work in a variety of pre-made stock elements to create a unique and amazing piece of vector artwork in a reasonable amount of time. Our clients truly appreciate this technique for keeping production time and costs down.


Once I combined these vector elements with my new artwork – this is what I made. Not bad. One thing I like to do is make parts of my background the same exact color as my image. In this way it makes my girl blend in with the background. Once again, this is a fun technique that Vector art has over other forms of illustration. You will also notice a slight shade I put on her that looks like some kind of lingere. In order to do this I simply created the vector shape, filled it with the same maroon color as the background and then set it’s Opacity to 50%.

**Note of encouragement: This tutorial probably makes it look like I slapped together this final design in a few hours. Don’t be fooled. I struggled with it for several days. Getting the outlines drawn was a day, then getting the colors to look right and then working in the additional design elements took a LOT of work. So, don’t get discouraged if things don’t seem to go together right away. Keep moving things around, changing colors and reworking it until you see something you like. The fact that you CAN move things around is one of the biggest advantages to working with vector art – so take advantage of it.**

That’s all folks. Hope you enjoyed my tutorial. For more great stuff please visit our website at: www.gomedia.us

About the Author, William Beachy

I grew up in Cleveland Hts. Ohio and was drawing constantly. As a child I took art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art and eventually became known as the "class artist." I graduated from The Ohio State University's department of Industrial Design. I have always tried to blend my passion for illustration with Graphic Design. Go Media was the culmination of my interests for both business and art. I'm trying to build a company that is equally considerate of our designers AND our clients.

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