Basing vectors off photos

In this tutorial, we’re going to use a reference photograph of a cello scroll to create a (mostly) realistic illustration without using any gradients. Creating a vector from a photo can be extremely handy when you need a super huge size, since vectors can scale without losing image quality. In addition, the fact we’re avoiding gradients makes this illustration printer-friendly.

Working from a reference Photo

Let’s begin with our reference photo. In this case, this is a studio shot so the lighting is pretty good, but you don’t have to have a professional quality reference photo to create a great vector! Exposure, camera shake, noise, and artifacting really don’t matter much if you’re vectorizing by hand. So don’t be put off converting old photos into vectors just because they’re not studio photos!!

Bring the photo into Illustrator by clicking ‘File > Place’. Size the photo until you’re happy with where it’s positioned on your artboard, then lock the layer so that you don’t accidentally bump into it as you draw:


We’ll start by drawing our base shapes. Create a new layer and bring up your pen tool (‘P’ on your keyboard) and start a new layer over your locked reference photo layer. Some people like to reduce the opacity on their reference photos so that they can more easily see the shapes they draw over top, but we prefer to just give our strokes bright colors that pop.

Using our pen tool, we’ll block in the front of the scroll shape. We’ll assign our stroke color to bright green so it shows up over our photo. For now, don’t worry at all about shadows and highlights. Just draw the entire scroll shape as a single object:


Pen Tool Tip: Never used the Pen Tool before? Don’t fret! Check out this tutorial, which details how the Pen Tool works and how to draw with it.

Now it’s time to draw our highlights and shadows. What you want to focus on are the darkest areas of your photo, as well as the lightest. You may need to squint a little to envision the shading as a flat block of color. It can be hard to view a photo as shapes rather than an object, but trust us, it works! We’ll use bright purple for the shadows, and yellow for our highlights:


Here are the shapes with colored fills applied (note we haven’t started drawing the pegs yet, so it looks a little strange!). We’ve chosen a neutral brown for our scroll:


We’re working with Global Color Swatches for this illustration, because there will be many shades of brown by the time we’re finished. Global Color Swatches make it easier to recolor artwork because you can go in and edit the swatch, and when you’re done editing, your artwork will update to match the new color. Very handy!

Now we’ll draw the back portion of the scroll in the same way. We don’t have to worry about being neat and tidy where the black fingerboard meets the scroll, because this will be hidden once we draw in the cello’s neck, strings and the fingerboard. Start a new layer in between your reference photo and the scroll shapes we’ve just drawn. You might want to turn off the scroll shape layer (click on the little ‘eye’ icon in your layers palette to turn it off), so you can see what you’re drawing.

Using the same method of brightly colored lines, trace over the back portion of the scroll in the photograph. Here is our illustration now, colored a darker shade of brown than the front of the scroll to create depth:


Now for the pegs. We’ll need 2 more layers, one on the very top, and one right at the bottom above our reference photo. We’ll trace the black shapes of the pegs, then add shiny highlights, which we will color with tints of black (check the reference photo to see how light you need to go with your highlight tints):


Almost done our base shapes! We’ll create one more layer, in between the scroll front and scroll back, and draw the cello’s neck, fingerboard, and strings. For the strings, we’ll just use a 2 point stroke because trying to draw both sides of a skinny string would be a nightmare! After we’re done drawing our strings, select them using your Direct Select arrow (the black arrow, hit ‘V’ on your keyboard to bring it up), and go to Object > Expand to convert the strokes back into editable vector shapes.

Here is where we’re at now, with the photograph layer turned off:


At this point, feel free to delete the reference photo layer. Keeping your photo in your AI file can increase your vector file size and bog down your software. Plus, if you’re working for a client, there’s always a chance you’ll forget to delete your reference photo when you send the final files to the customer! If you need to go back and double check on a detail, you can open the file in another program or just re-import it into Illustrator.

It’s looking good, but a bit flat. Let’s add some wood grain texture to the wood to make things ‘pop’

Since we’re not necessarily trying for an uber-realistic effect with this illustration, we can be a little lazy with our wood grain texture. We just want the impression of wood, not a photo-realistic detailed wood grain rendering!

We’re going to use simple vertical lines for our wood grain. For this, we’ll use the Pencil Tool, which is much faster than the pen tool. Hit ‘N’ on your keyboard to bring up your Pencil Tool. Start a new layer in front of your top scroll shape and draw some wobbly vertical lines a few milimeters apart:


The nice part about using the Pencil Tool for something like this is, it isn’t very precise. You can go in and adjust the settings, but the default setting is giving us some great line shapes. Yes, it looks a little weird to start, but bear with us!

Now to play with line thicknesses. Select a few lines and make them 10 points. Select some other strokes and set them at 8 or 9, and some at 6 or 7. You want a nice variety of stroke weights, because wood grains tend not to be perfectly uniform 1 point strokes!:


You may need to move a few points around so that your lines don’t touch. Select all of these strokes and go to Object > Expand, and check off ‘Fill’ and ‘Stroke’. This converts our strokes back into editable vector shapes.

To help make our wood grain look more woody, we’ll use our Direct Select arrow (the white arrow, hit ‘A’ on your keyboard to bring it up), and randomly select a few points here and there to move around. This will give our strokes more thick-thinness, and add character:


Pathfinder: MergeTo keep things simple in the next few steps, we’ll use the Pathfinder’s ‘Merge’ function to group our shapes together (so we don’t miss any). Select the shapes and click on ‘Merge’.

Copy these lines and paste them onto the layer containing the front of the scroll (Command-C on Mac/Control-C on a PC to copy, then on the scroll layer, hit Command-F on Mac/Control-F on a PC to paste these shapes). Now to trim the blue lines so they match our scroll shape.

Pathfinder: Intersect Shape AreaSelect the scroll shape and copy-paste it in front of itself. With the scroll selected, click on our blue lines. In your Pathfinder palette (Window > Pathfinder), click on the ‘Intersect’ button (Note: If you’re using CS3 or earlier, you’ll also need to click on the ‘Expand’ button in the Pathfinder Palette):


This will trim off the spots where the blue lines extend outside of the scroll shape. We’ll now color these lines a lighter brown than our scroll shape. To keep things consistent, repeat the above steps to create wood grain over our highlights and shadows as well (this is why we kept our wood grain texture on a new layer: We need to reuse it!). Here’s what we’ve ended up with:


We’ll repeat our wood grain texture on the neck of the cello and here is our final illustration:


> Purchase this file on

© 2009 Jennifer Borton


2 thoughts on “Basing vectors off photos

  1. mo says:

    sweet Lord, really good tutorial Jennifer, thanks!

  2. valdebp says:

    Hadn’t seen that method for creating wood grain before. Thanks for sharing the idea!

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