Create a high contrast portrait

In this tutorial, we’re going to explain how to convert a photograph into a simplified vector portrait. This technique can be handy if you’re printing in limited flat colors, need to upsize a small photo, or even just to add some graphic and cartoony pizazz to that photo!

Choosing The ‘Right’ Reference Photo

Let’s start with our reference photo. Here’s where your choice makes a huge impact on your final illustration! Many photographers shoot models in very diffused lighting, to help them appear flawless. The problem with such lighting is you lose out on all the facial definition: The sides of the nose, lines around the mouth and eyes, etc. They look stunning as photographs but as vectors, they look kind of flat and boring.

So, look for a photo that has good contrast between highlight and shadow. You want a nice bright highlight, a couple good midtones (depending on how many midtones you want in your illustration, you may not need as many), and a nice clear shadow. We went back through our old photos and found this one:


This was taken with a cheap point and shoot in rather terrible lighting conditions. As you can see, it’s not the highest quality photograph, but it has exactly what we need: Great definition between the darkest shadows and the palest highlights.

We’ve made our photo a grayscale and bumped the contrast a little in Photoshop. Since our final vector will be monochromatic (made of one color), we don’t need to bother saving all the color data from our original photo. This can be a life saver on older, slower computers without much RAM: Converting your photo into a grayscale reduces the file size and makes Illustrator skippier as you work.

Let’s bring our photo into our vector document (File > Place, then select the photo you’re working from to import it into your document). Resize it until you’re happy with where it’s fitting within the frame. Don’t worry if it’s not exactly where you want it: You can always move it around later!

Let’s lock the layer our photograph is on so we don’t accidentally move it as we’re tracing. To lock, just click the space to the left of your layer name in your ‘Layers’ palette:


How Detailed Do We Want To Go?

Now let’s figure out exactly how detailed we want to go here. Since we’re lazy, we’d like to keep this relatively simple. This is also because the photo quality is quite poor and we’re missing a lot of details in our shadows and highlights! To give this a good graphic look we’ve decided to stick with only 3 color levels: One for the darkest shadow, one for the brightest highlight, then a nice midtone to help bring more depth and volume:


Tracing Our Shadows

We’ll start by using our Pen Tool to trace all the shadows in the photograph (for tips and tricks on drawing with the Pen Tool, check out this tutorial!). On a new layer above your photograph, hit ‘P’ on your keyboard and carefully start to draw a line around the shadows in your illustration. We’re going to make our stroke bright red so that you can see it easily over top of the photograph:


Important note! Herein lies the trick to creating a vector in this style: Forget everything you know about outlines. As children, when we all start to draw, we’re taught to draw outlines around every shape. But the thing is, nature doesn’t have outlines.

Shapes in real life are defined by planes of shadow and light. So as we work on our photo, it’s important to resist the temptation to just draw a line around each shape. Stick to just drawing around the darkest shadows for now: It’ll look weird, but trust us, it will look a lot better in the end.

As an example here are the shadows we’ve drawn to define the hand (we’ve chosen to ignore the ring):


This doesn’t look anything like a hand! But if we turn off the photo layer and fill in our shadows, you can start to see where we’re heading:


We should also note, we’re not going to great lengths to trace every single little detail in the hand, nor are we following the photo 100% exactly. This isn’t intended to be a super precise technical drawing, just a graphic simplification of a photograph. Besides, odds are we’ll need to go back and tweak things anyways once we’re finished with our shapes!

To add even more definition, we’ll create a new layer under our shadow and draw in our midtones. Here is how they look with a fill color (a 50% tint of our shadow color, which was black):


Granted, it still looks a little odd, but trust us: Once it’s all put together it will make sense.

Continue drawing your shadows for the face and the hair by tracing over the darkest areas of your photo. Here’s where we’re at now:


Tracing Our Midtones

We’ve filled our shadow with a nice chocolate brown, as we’re going for a somewhat ‘retro’ style with our bored girl on the phone. Now let’s continue adding our midtone shading on a layer below our shadows. You will probably want to turn off your shadow layer so that you can see what you’re drawing!

Here are our midtones, which are colored 50% of the brown shade that we have chosen:


Here are our midtone and shadow layers together:


Tweaking Our Highlights

Almost done! As you can see, we’re missing a few highlights, because our shadow layer is on top of our midtone layer. Turn your shadow layer off, and grab these highlights from your midtone layer. Select the shapes, ‘Cut’ them (Command-X on a Mac, Control-X on a PC), then create a new layer on top of the shadow layer. Paste your highlights back in by hitting Command-F on a Mac or Control-F on PC. These highlights include the highlights on the telephone cord, her lips, a little sparkle in her eye, and on her ear. Here’s what we end up with:


Looking good! All we’re going to do now is pick a light tint of our brown to throw in the background, to give this less of a harsh and contrasty feel, and to add a little mood. We’ll color this 20% of our original brown (keeping the illustration to one color is very handy for designers):


Uh oh, now all those highlights we added to her eye, lips, ear and phone cord are sticking out like a sore thumb. Let’s color them the same 20% tint of brown as the background to tone them down. And we’re done! Here’s how it looks compared to our original source photo:


> Purchase this file on iStockphoto

© 2009 Jennifer Borton


4 thoughts on “Create a high contrast portrait

  1. Rahul says:

    Realy good

  2. Sanjiv says:

    Jenni, Excellent tutorial. Very useful

  3. Ridhuan says:

    I’m learning illustrator and your articles will be very helpful to me.. I did produce some artworks using illustrator. Would you give some comments about them.

  4. Scoots says:

    Thanks, Jen! This is very helpful. I recently completed a new portrait based on some of your tutorials and I am very pleased with the result.

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