photoshop creative

Create a vector portrait

Posted in:
Tips & Tutorials, by Mark White
September 21, 2016

Create an 80s-style vector portrait using the Pen tool in Photoshop


1. Choose your photo


The goal of this tutorial is to achieve a glamorous Patrick Nagel-style illustration; keep that in mind when choosing your photo. It does not need to be high-res, but enough to distinguish body parts. Take this part of the process very seriously. Choosing the right photo can make or break the outcome of your final piece. The one used here is image ID 33324457 from

2. 300 DPI Workstation


You’ve selected your photo, now it’s time to set your shop up. Go up to Image>Image Size and make sure that the resolution is set to 300. Setting your resolution to 300 dpi allows your piece flexibility when it comes to publishing online as well as printing without issues.

3. Resize the canvas


To resize the canvas and get rid of unwanted space, go to the toolbar and select the Crop tool. Manipulate the handles to get the size you want and fix any composition issues.

4. Work with layers


Set your files up for success. To make it easier on yourself, set a line art layer that will go above everything else. This will allow you to add colours, later on, under that layer. Also, set the opacity of the photo to just enough that you’re able to see it but that it doesn’t get in the way. You should also set a white background layer under everything.

5. Pen tool setup


You can press ‘P’ to active the Pen tool, then make sure that the Pen tool is set to Shape. You can also set the Fill colour to black for now. Get familiar with the option bar at the top if you haven’t already. You will be using the Combine Shapes tab a lot. It allows you to continue making shapes with the Pen tool all on one layer.

6. Combine shapes


Here is what it looks like when you create using the Pen tool and the Combine Shapes option. You are going to take advantage of combining shapes by creating all of the line art in one layer above all other layers. You will also use Combine Shapes when you get into the colour phase. This makes your Layers panel much more condensed. So instead of having hundreds of edits translated into hundreds of layers, this feature allows your edits to be combined into one layer. In Illustrator, use the Pathfinder tool.

7. Let’s get started


Pay attention to the top two shapes. For clean lines, you want to focus on an economy of points; the more points you add, the rougher it will look. The last shape, at the bottom, was made using a Stroke. Stay away from strokes! Look at how much more variety in width there is in the second shape in contrast to the third. Strokes make your illustrations look robotic. Much of your time should be spent manipulating the width of your shapes.

8. The line art stage


Using the technique in step 7, start outlining the outside portions of the body. The line art stage is the toughest part of the illustration. To do it right, you need to constantly edit your lines and consciously think how a certain piece of skin would translate into a line as well as keeping in mind that this is a Patrick Nagel-style portrait. It’s recommended that you have a reference while you work. Nagel expertly leaves out certain details to get a specific graphic look to his piece.

9. Revise and edit


It’s very easy to create inconsistent lines when you are zoomed in. That’s why it’s very important to zoom out as much as possible to see if the line you are currently making is roughly the same width as the rest of the illustration.

10. Facial features


At this stage, you’ve finished most of the line art process. The facial features are one of the most fun parts of the illustration, but they’re so easy to mess up and have the most impact, overall, in your piece. Sounds fun, right? There are many ways to tackle eyes, eyebrows and eyelashes, but we are going to do the all-in-one shortcut package that Nagel executes in his illustrations. He creates thick lines that make drawing every strand of hair unnecessary. The next step will explain it better.

11. Eyes and brows


Create thick shapes with maybe one or two strands of hair in the right place to get a graphic and elegant look. The more you can stay away from tiny details, the more glamorous the piece becomes. The challenge is to get away with the barest amount of detail while achieving the look of a completed piece.

12. Finish the line art


Getting your lines to stay consistent yet hold varying widths is not an easy task. Here is one last line art tip before heading into colours: When creating hair, make a big blob shape that takes up most of the space. Afterwards, you can edit or add to it to make it look more like strands of hair.

13. Colouring book


You’ve reached the end of the line art stage! The image in front of you should look like a colouring book page. The colouring phase sounds easier in theory, and it is to a certain extent, but choosing the right colours is oftentimes a very frustrating process. Let’s get to it!

14. Colour shapes


You’re going to be creating layers below the line art and making shapes using the Pen tool. If you look at the image above, you are very quickly creating a shape, making sure you don’t go over the lines, and not really worrying about how many points you’re creating.

15. Flat colours


Place all the flat colours and finish the piece with shadows and a background. When adding something, make sure to keep with the Patrick Nagel style. He usually worked with geometric shapes, so keep that in mind when creating a background or foreground.

16. Don’t overdo it


In order to sell the Nagel-inspired style, you need to learn how to get away with the absence of shadows. Don’t mistake this for laziness: you are purposefully disregarding shadows in some areas but you are making up for it in other ways.

17. To shadow or not to shadow?


That is the question. When you reach the point where you’re thinking, “If I add a shadow here, then I’ll have to add a shadow there, then there, then over there…” you need to stop adding shadows. What Nagel did so well is strip away all the detail until he arrived at the pure essence of the model’s beauty. I’m sure Nagel had his way of arriving at that point, but all I can tell you is: trial and error!

18. Finished vector illustration


This tutorial has taught you some of the basics of vector illustration and layer preparation. You can take what you’ve learned and apply it to even more complex work. Just know that more detail doesn’t necessarily equate to a better illustration. Be conscious of your decisions when applying any new element and always practise on improving your mechanics.

  • Miguel Agawin