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Vectorial character design with Illustrator

Vectorial character design with Illustrator
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It’s time to write a tutorial on vector illustration. In this post I’ll explain the process I followed at the time of designing Twisted Monkey mascot in vector format.

Ingredients :

  1. Paper and pencil.
  2. Scanner.
  3. Photoshop.
  4. Illustrator.
  5. Basic concepts of Photoshop and Illustrator.
  6. A lot of patience.
  7. Optional : Digitizer tablet.

You can purchase the final design my Graphic River page for your own research or just to use it in your website or printed stuff, it’s released under Creative Commons license.

Twisted Monkey final design
Purchase this file from just 6US$


The first thing to do is to know our client. This is why we have a tool called Briefing, which is a series of key questions to assist you in understanding the company and its requirements. Nonetheless, it can be done in a more or less formal way.

In this case we’re going to design a character for a horror movies producer. The requirement was a monkey as the mascot, the catch being that it was not to be your typical nice monkey. So we came up with the idea of making its clothes include a straight jacket and for it to have a knife with blood… lots of blood! It had to look nice, yet intriguing at the same time.

Traditional Drawing and Photoshop Retouches

I always advice you to start any design the traditional way, with a paper and pencil, especially if it’s an illustration. As good as your Wacom tablet may be, it’ll never be as accurate as a conventional pencil.

Traditional Drawing.

Mascot design sketch

Traditional drawing on the left, photoshop retouches on the right.

The image at the left is my pencil sketch, I start drawing with a red pencil, and when I’m satisfied with the results I remark the lines with a graphite pencil. As you may notice, it is more of a sketch than a finished drawing. Unfortunately my line quality isn’t as good as some comics professionals, but fret not about that because this is why we have a computer! The important thing is to have the concepts well assimilated, and to apply them to the character we want to design.

Photoshop Retouches

When I get something decent as a start point, I scan it to Photoshop and start to move things around, play with the facial expressions, the pose and various other elements of the design … until I get something I like (image below).

Personality evolution of the character

Evolution of the personality of our character :P

Take a look at how the character evolves during the process. If you don’t have a very clear perception of what you want to do it’s always better to start with just about anything and then retouch it until you get what you’re looking for. And don’t get disheartened if you can’t get it at the first attempt, it’s common for such a thing to happen.

Cleaning and Inking in Photoshop

I already have the base for the character, now with my digitizer tablet I start to clean the sketch in Photoshop, assigning different line weights as I go on.

Digital inking
Cleaning with the digitizer tablet on the left, Inking with Photoshop on the right

The next step is to ink our character, the first thing is that it’s critical to use a very high resolution (5000×5000 pixels) for several reasons :

  1. It’s more comfortable to work with.
  2. If later on in the process we decide to reduce the design, smaller mistakes wont be visible.
  3. If the work is the same, preferably let’s do it at a higher resolution so it is print ready.
  4. While vectorizing, the design would acquire accurate lines.
Final inkingFinal inking, it’s very important to modulate the lines correctly.

Notice we have 3 types of lines (take a look to the final inking below) :

  1. Contour : the bigger lines.
  2. Area delimitators : for instance, the inferior limit of the jacket, medium thickness lines.
  3. Internal lines : the lines that mark the cheek, they are the thinnest ones.
  4. Transition lines : they start as the contour and then get in to the design. We start by making it thick and then thiner as it progresses, as noticed on the line in the chin.

What we shouldn’t do :

  1. Make shadows with lines: it would merely make the design messy.
  2. Create extremely thick lines without any variation in thickness.
  3. Have internal lines too long: the purpose of these lines is to mark volume, you have to create them in a subtle way. It is meant to serve as a guide for when you color.
  4. Draw straight lines : if you look closely, all the lines are slightly curved.
  5. Have small areas: ensure that your volumes are as big as possible, otherwise when the time comes to color you wont have sufficient space and it will end up staying flat.

To get the final inking we have lot of different options, in summary:

  1. Cleaning your pencil lineart: If your drawing skills are very good you can directly use your pencil lines, then simply clean them up in Photoshop.
  2. If your hand-drawn lines are not very good, you can ink the sketch with Photoshop’s vector tools:
  3. If you have a wacom tablet you can use the brush tool:

Vectorizing with Live Trace

We can vectorize our lineart by using Live Trace, a native Illustrator plugin, it´s quite straight forward. Here is a video where I explain how to do it.

After the vectorization you probably will need to clean your layers, the goal is having a black shape with lot of white shapes on top.

Asigning plain colors, gradient and volumes

Now we only have to fill each white area with the color we want, I usually use medium tones, not too dark or too light. Here’s the color palette I’ve used.

Plain colors

Plain colors

Adding gradients

We have to create gradients of at least two differentiable colors, one dark and one light, but not extremely contrasting because we’ll add lights and shades later on. For now don’t pay too much attention to the gradient direction, we’re just choosing the color tones, later on we’ll orientate them to give coherence to the illumination.

Gradient colors

Gradient colors

Cutting the areas

As you have seen the gradient areas are too ample to get good illumination effects. So we have to cut these big areas in to smaller volumes (take a look to the image below).

Later we retouch the gradient colors to try to get a coherent illumination. There’s a basic thumb rule that’s very important : next to a dark color there’s always a light color.

I’ve prepared a small VIDEO TUTORIAL to show you how it’s done, download it here.

Gradient colors with cuts

Gradient colors with the areas cut in to smaller volumes

Adding shadows and lights


We’ll create a layer and set its blend mode to Multiply. This way we have all the shadow vectors grouped together. IMPORTANT : if you make the shadows in the Normal blend mode you’ll have to adjust the vectors a lot so you don’t cover the black lines, this is why we use the Multiply blend mode. This mode makes the layer transparent on top of the black color.

We simply pick a similar color (sometimes I use gradient colors as well) to the one in the background and we make small vectors to mark the areas in the shadows.

Vectorial shadows

Animation so you appreciate the shadows.


In this case it’s not essential to use different layer modes, although you can always use the < strong >Screen blend mode to get lighter tones. Observe the animation below, first I make a soft illumination and later I add some strong light retouches in order to reinforce the contours.

Illustrator lights

Final Retouches

Now we only need to add blood in industrial quantities. For this I used the free Gomedia vectors (if you use them in your design do put a link back to their site, you have to be thankful right!). The blood is added in a layer above all the others, but below the right eye, in the Multiply blend mode.

Twisted Monkey final design

Observe that in the post I link to other tutorials or artices that cover the different phases of the process. Although I know that in such a complex tutorial I might have forgotten to explain quite a handful of concepts, if you do still somehow have any doubt just comment it, I’ll try to answer it as soon as I can and I’ll add it to the tutorial.

Twisted Monkey final design
Purchase this file from just 6US$

This post was written by:

- who has written 58 posts on SOSFactory Blog.

My name’s Sergio Ordoñez I´m illustrator, graphic and web designer. A selection of my work is included at SOSFactory. If you want to support this blog, please be an active member: tweet the posts, participate in the discussions and the exercises :)

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