Vector illustration tutorial, step-by-step with screenshots

Getting started

This hub is for those who already have basic/intermediate knowledge with Adobe Illustrator. This can also be done in Photoshop, but I recommend Illustrator just because you have more canvas space to work with. Keep in mind that I myself am an amateur at doing this, so don't be too hard on me.

What is a vector-based image?

Vector graphics use geometrical elements such as points, lines, curves, and shapes. As opposed to raster graphics,vector-based images retain their resolution at any size because it's all based on mathematical proportions.

Example of a vectored image

This type of digital art has kind of a cartoon-like feel to it. Many people wrongly assume that this effect is created using some type of pre-made Photoshop filter. In actuality, it takes hours --if not days -- of precise hand work to create a vector graphic like this.

Step one: Get a photo

Start with a decent sized photo that has good quality/lighting. You'll want to be able to zoom in on it (pushing CTRL + and CTRL - to zoom in and out) to see the details.

Step two: Base outlines

First you'll vector the basic shapes and colors. Use the pen tool in either Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop to trace along the outlines. It doesn't have to be perfect, keep it simple. As you can see, I traced the body, with pretty rough skin tones and the hair and shirt. To connect your shapes with the pen tool, just click back where you started. Use the eyedropper to get the colors you want.

Step three: Basic face

Next you'll want to do basic facial features. Eyebrows, nose and mouth. For the nose, rather than tracing the outline, just get the nostrils and any defining shadows. You don't have to worry about the eyes yet. We'll get to that in the next step.

*TIP: Change the opacity regularly to see beneath back to the original image you're tracing. It's also helpful to group together similar parts that you want linked by right clicking and choosing "group." You can go within these group to edit by double clicking.

Step four: Eyes

Now we're going to do the eyes. They can be a little bit tricky. Just take your time with them. Start off just tracing the whites. Try to be as exact as possible. You'll also have to be patient because you'll be changing the transperancy a lot to be able to see back to the original eye.

After you trace the white, use the main color (in this case brown) to trace around the interiors. Add a lot of detail to the color of the eye. Do variations of shapes and colors (I used green on mine) and take down the opacity to make them really pop.

Step five: Shadows, lips

Now we add the shadows. You may want to add a slight gradient over your original face shape. On other deep shadows, just use a shade a little darker than the color below. This is where you'll really define your style of vectoring. ur own judgement to get it just right. Just trace over the main shades you see. Really, you'll have to use your own judgement. You'll also want to do a few of the finer details like adding creases to the lips.

Step six: Hair

The hair in my example isn't too complicated. But with hair that has different shades and highlights and shapes, you'll need to get really creative. For vectors like that, the hair will probably be what you spend half of your time on. Pay close attention to where the light falls. You can even add more highlights when none exist, just to really give it that "vectored" touch. For females focus on the shape and the where the hair is parted. Focus your shapes toward the direction of that part. For males, pay close attention to the actual hairline and sideburns.

*Tip: add a subtle gradient with the darker color away from the light souce.

Step seven: You're done!

When you're done, you'll probably have more than 200 layers. This piece was obviously very rushed (completed in about 3 hours) for the purposes of this tutorial, but to get a really good quality vector illustration, you'll probably find yourself spending days or weeks on a single piece. But don't worry-- time flies when you're vectoring.

You'll really need to get comfortable with the pen tool. The more often you vector, the better you'll get. As for the purpose... hell if I know. It looks cool and its fun to do. It's digital art. And if you're not really an artist and you suck with a pencil and canvas-- don't worry. It takes no real talent to be able to do this. It takes taste and patience.

Have fun!


  • Save your vector as an Illustrator file, an EPS, or (in photoshop) a PSD. That way, your image isn't flattened and you can close it to come back later to work on it.
  • Save OFTEN.You seriously want to be saving your work every few minutes, or else you'll be one grumpy person when you receive that much-hated "error" message.

  • Don't get frustrated. If this if your first time vectoring, it'll be difficult. You're probably not best friends with the pen tool yet and you're not going to be able to know how to do things. In fact, your first vector is going to look pretty horrible. No worries. You'll laugh at it in a month after you've perfected this art.
  • Make sure you have a lot of time. Don't start doing this is you're going to go to work/class soon. You'll get addicted. You'll be up for hours.

Comments 12 comments

Jasmine wynn 8 years ago

Hey lauren you are awesome I remember you doing some of those before college and it was fun watching. Have fun

E_Hardison profile image

E_Hardison 8 years ago from Issaquah, Washington, USA

Wow! I did that once for a flash animation I was working on! I used a picture of a house though... ^_^ Your work looks fantastic! Keep up the great work!

Archana 7 years ago

This is SUCH a good tutorial. I do vector art, and I have people ask me for a good tutorial link, and to think all this time I hadn't come across yours. :) Passing the link onwards to others!

Crush 6 years ago

Thanks! Nice tutorial! The woman in the picture is gorgeous, btw :)

lzkim 6 years ago

Nice tutorials. I tried that one before, But I never done it perfectly. Do you any video in this tutorial?

TJ 6 years ago

nice tutorial >_

Free PSD Tutorials 5 years ago

thanks nice tut

M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

This is definitely a fun use for photoshop/illustrator. Personally, I love the art style that results from this method, but you're absolutely right that it takes a very long time to complete. I prefer to use photoshop, only because I'm more familiar with it than illustrator, though I noticed that illustrator tends to smooth out the vector shapes you create where as photoshop leaves them in their original blocky glory. Which basically means; expect to put in a lot of vector points in photoshop, otherwise your person is going to have a jagged face. Great hub!

waynet profile image

waynet 5 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

This is a great beginner tutorial and now I wish I had Adobe Illustrator! Well one day I'll be able to buy these expensive computer softwares to create lots of digital artwork with.

Awesome illustrator tutorial!

brixz 4 years ago

nice works... :)

Anjo Bacarisas II profile image

Anjo Bacarisas II 4 years ago from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines

thanks for the tips, iam really struggling about this cartoon2x thing.. i love to know and master about this stuff.. thanks a lot, i like your page so much!

thranax profile image

thranax 2 years ago from Rep Boston MA

To everyone who ever want a Graphic Design Degree, this was the final project for the Adobe Illustrator class. Practicing this and getting good at it will help out in the long run!

Great Hub and I hope people use it!


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