Vector art cartooning tutorial

Vector Art Cartooning Tutorial

step 01

The following tutorial explains how I go about creating the illustrations you see here in my portfolio. All final art is done in Adobe Illustrator, a very powerful tool for creativity once you unlock the secrets of the pen tool.

This tutorial does not go into how to use the program - you're on your own for that. What I do cover is how to achieve the effect, and the steps involved. And for those of you just interested in how it's done from a layman's point of view, this should give you a good idea of what it takes to create an image for all you current and potential clients out there.

This tutorial will take you step by step through the creation of the "Lotto Lunatic" illustration above, created just for this how-to section.

It should be noted that there are numerous ways to go about things in any software program, and I have tried others. In fact, this tutorial is a bit out of date as I actually work differently now. But the main process is very similar.

Step One

step 01

The first step is to sketch out your artwork. I usually do not get any more detailed than what you see above, as this image will just be used as a template to trace the art in Illustrator. The level of detail is up to you - I tend to keep it loose, as this method is designed to give a hand-inked feel.

I do not want the lines to be perfect, which ironically Illustrator is really good at doing. I want something loose, with some energy in the line work, and usually keep my sketches loose so I am forced to really look at the image when I get it into Illustrator.

Once your sketch is ready, scan it. I usually go with 150-200 DPI in grayscale mode. The black-and-white mode will not pick up the nuances of your pencil lines. You do not need to scan at a higher resolution than this as you will only be using this image to trace. Any larger, and the file will just make things slower in Illustrator.

Monitors (well, most monitors) display at 72 DPI, so anything higher is redundant. The reason I go to 150-200 DPI is because many times I need to zoom in on areas, and 200% zoom is usually sufficient. You can go higher, it just starts getting pixelated (blurry). Usually it's clean enough to make out what you need to trace though.

Now that your scan is ready, play with the Levels if necessary [Menu -> Image -> Adjust -> Levels]. Move the two end sliders toward each other, to the beginning and end of the slope. Adjust the middle slider if necessary. Oh, yeah - I do this in Photoshop. If you are using another pixel/raster-based image editor, there will be something along the same lines, and probably called the same thing. This step is optional anyways, it just helps to define your lines a bit more clearly.

Step Two

step 02

Click the "Place—" menu item under the "File" menu.

Step Three

step 04

After clicking the "Place—" menu item, we are presented with a dialog box. Navigate to the scan you just saved. Be sure that the "Link" and "Template" checkboxes are ticked. "Link" will allow Illustrator to reference the sketch file instead of embedding it within the Illustrator document. This saves space. Just remember that you will need both files in order to open the document in the future. Best bet is to keep them both in their own folder.

The "Template" option allows us to place the artwork in the file, and do some other cool things with it that a non-template image cannot do. Keep in mind that you can always turn a layer into a Template layer later on even if you forget to do this step. Read the help in Illustrator for more info.

Step Four


Here the image has been placed in the Illustrator document as a template. Note that by clicking the template checkbox, Illustrator has automatically made a layer for the tracing image, dimmed it to 50%, locked it, and created a new layer to start creating your vector paths. Click on the image for a close-up of the palette.

Step Five

Now here's a fancy-schmancy tip you are going to love - Outline mode. This is the power of the template image. When an image is placed as a template, you can switch to Outline mode, and the template image remains visible. If the layer the image is on was not set as a template, you would just get a blank square box to indicate that something is there. In template mode, you can create your paths as plain outlines (no fills or strokes) and still see your sketch. Invaluable.

Step Six

Next step is to create your outline path. The method I use is to create an outline of the major elements in solid black. You'll see that I have not outlined the entire image, just the main body, legs and left arm. Sometimes I will even keep all elements separate - each arm, legs, eyes, etc. I have also left out the teeth and tongue from this outline.

The reason for this is to keep them on separate layers, which helps later on when working on details. Sometimes clicking exact points can be frustrating, and having the option to lock down certain elements is very handy. Keeping the elements separate is also handy for animating in Flash later on, as it allows you to have separate pieces which can be manipulated independently.

One big reason I do this also is to have the ability to change things or swap out elements later, such as the monster's right arm in this case. Hair and eyeballs are good to keep separate as well, for later adjustments. Sometimes I find that moving elements around improves the image considerably. It also allows you to resize elements independently.

Step Seven

Now that the main outline is complete, I go back in, this time with white, and create the inner areas. This allows me to determine the "line thickness", and also allows me to vary it as I see fit. At this stage I work very loosely, and will eventually go back to get the right feel for thick-to-thin. I like to get past this tedious step as quick as possible.

I just use white to make it easier to see - eventually colors will replace the white. Note that I am usually switching back-and-forth between Preview and Outline mode the entire time. Get used to using keyboard shortcuts, they will knock about 8.3 million hours off doing this stuff, especially with the pen tool and it's various sub-tools.

Step Eight

Here the image is a little more complete, with basically all the elements outlined in black with their overlaid color areas (currently white) also complete.

Above is a close-up of the Layers palette to get an idea of how to separate and stack elements. Obviously, elements further back are on the bottom of the layer stack, elements closer are higher up. Think of them as sheets of transparent paper, and the Layers palette as a side-view of the stack. Again, I have just separated some random elements for this example. The more you keep separate, the more flexibility you have later on to make changes, tweak, and experiment.

Step Nine

The final steps are now just to go in and change the colors to what you want them to be. I added some quick shading to this example as well. Even looking at this now, I think there are some tweaks I would make, such as thickening the overall outline, and making certain line thicknesses more consistent. Because the image was created in this manner, I can easily go back and do this. For this particular image, because of the layering and separate elements, I can go back and move his right arm, or remove, enlarge or reduce his teeth individually, etc.

Step Ten

Here we have the final artwork. I thickened up the line-work in some places, thickened the overall outlines, added the background and some styled text. The final result looks pretty cool, and hopefully opened up the mysterious world of Illustrator a bit more for you artsy-fartsy types, and for the rest of you plain-old curious people, I hope this gave you some insight into the work behind the work.

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