Creating Complex Style Illustrations: A Process



Tutorial Resources

Overview of the Layering

First, I want to show you the layer overview of the design so you have an idea of what we are trying to accomplish. In essence, we will start on the top layer, down to the bottommost layer.

Overview of the Layering

Step 1: Setting Up and Preparing Your Work Area

Open Adobe Illustrator and create a new document. Then Place (File > Place) the Pink oni Noh mask stock image into the artboard.

After you have placed the image, scale it to about 300% of its original size by right-clicking on it and choosing Transform > Scale from the menu.

Setting Up and Preparing Your Work Area

After that, double-click the layer in the Layers Panel and rename it to "Base Image" so that we are keeping our work organized. In the same dialog window, set the opacity to 50%. This layer is going to be our tracing guide when we draw the illustration.

Setting Up and Preparing Your Work Area

Lock the layer so you don’t accidentally move it while you’re working. We’re ready to go!

Setting Up and Preparing Your Work Area

Step 2: Tracing the Image

First, add another layer on top of the "Base Image" layer and name it "Top" — this is where we will trace the image.

There is no shortcut here: The idea is to do just one side of the image (half of the face), and then copy and reflect it in the opposite direction to make it a whole; this allows us to save time, but more importantly, it will give us a symmetrical outcome.

It really isn’t necessary to trace the image exactly — it is there to serve only as a rough guide. You should feel free to experiment and diverge from the base image.

Setting Up and Preparing Your Work Area

Step 3: Adding Details to Eyes

Now we will add some details on the eyes using the Blend Tool (W).

First, create two curved paths, with the right curve having a thicker stroke than the left (as shown below).

Adding Details to Eyes

Select them both, then go to Object > Blend > Make, which will then produce another curved path in the middle. Go to Object > Blend > Blend Options and enter the settings below to create more curved paths.

Adding Details to Eyes

Now drag your finished curves and position them on the right side of the eyes.

Adding Details to Eyes

Do the same on the other parts of the eyes and in other parts of your illustration — feel free to experiment.

Adding Details to Eyes

Step 4: Complete the Tracing

After finishing one side of the illustration, it’s time to duplicate it to complete the other half. First, select everything using Select > Select All (Ctrl/Cmd + A). Hold down Shift + Alt and then click-and-drag all the selected objects using the Selection Tool (V); doing so should duplicate everything.

Next, while the duplicated paths are still selected, right-click on the selected area and then go to Transform > Reflect, which will open the Reflect dialog window. Choose the Vertical option and enter 90 degrees for the Angle.

Step 5: Closing the Gaps

Close the gap in the middle of the head. Choose the Direct Selection Tool (A), select the two endpoints that you want to join, then go to Object > Path > Join, or alernatively, press the command’s shortcut, which is Ctrl/Cmd + J.

Repeat the process for the chin.

Closing the Gaps

This is what we have so far without the background (View > Hide Transparency Grid).

Closing the Gaps

Step 6: Fill the Illustration with White Color

We need to fill up the illustration with white. Choose the Direct Selection Tool (A) and select the outline of the illustration. Copy it (Ctrl/Cmd + C), Paste it in front (Ctrl/Cmd + F), then go to Object > Arrange > Send to Back.

Swap the Fill and Stroke by pressing Shift + X, then change the Fill Color in the Tools Panel to white.

Filling It with White Color

Filling It with White Color

Step 7: Adding Additional Outlines

We are almost done with our "Top" layer. The last step is to have white outline strokes inside and outside of the illustration’s edge. Start by deselecting the current selection, which you can do by pressing Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + D.

Select the outline of the illustration using the Selection Tool (V). Once selected, put it in front (Object > Arrange > Bring to Front). Then expand the outline (Object > Expand). Give it a white stroke.

Adding Additional Outlines

In the Stroke Panel, choose the Align Stroke to Outside option.

Adding Additional Outlines

Now add a black-filled rectangular shape in the background of your illustration just to check your work and discover empty spaces that should be filled with white.

Adding Additional Outlines

In this step, I also added additional details on illustration to refine it and finish it up.

Step 7: Starting the "Middle" Layer

We can now start the "Middle" layer. You can now delete the base image and also the black-filled rectangle (from the previous step). Add another layer below the "Top" layer and name it "Middle."

This part is very straightforward and I know you guys can do this even with one hand tied behind your back. It is just a stack of circles with variances in their stroke, stroke color and size. That’s it! You can use the Ellipse Tool (L) and create different sizes by duplicating your main circular object and scaling it (Transform > Scale). While using the Ellipse Tool, hold down Shift to draw a perfect circle.

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Step 8: Adding a Circular Pattern

You can give the "Middle" layer circles some detail by using a repeating pattern. First make a circle which fits on the large black space in your circular illustration.

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Now drag this to your Brushes Panel. When the New Brush dialog window opens, choose New Pattern Brush for the brush type. Another dialog window will appear that will ask you what you want to name your brush; rename it if you want.

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Now select any circles from your "Middle" layer, copy it (Ctrl/Cmd + C), and then go to Edit > Paste in Front — make sure your fill color is set to transparent. After that, go to your Brush Panel and click the pattern you have just made to apply it.

Tip: You can edit the spacing and size of your pattern if you double-click on your pattern from the Brushes Panel.

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Resize the patterned object so that it fits within the thick black circle.

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Remember this method of creating and applying patterns because we will do this again later.

I just added additional details to the background to finish off our "Middle" layer.

Go and get yourself a drink because we’re now moving on into the last part!

Step 9: Starting the "Bottom" Layer

Now let’s begin the last part of the workflow. Create another layer below the "Middle" layer and name it "Bottom" layer. It’s a good idea at this point to lock both the "Top" and "Middle" layer so that you don’t move or edit them by mistake.

To start the "Bottom" layer, create a dark red-filled rectangle as illustrated below.

Starting the "Middle" Layer

Step 10: Create the Background Pattern

Now we will create the background pattern using the Blend Tool (W). First, create two overlapping ellipses with the Ellipse Tool (L), choosing a lighter red stroke than the dark red rectangle we created previously.

Create the Background Pattern

Select both ellipses, then go to Object > Blend > Make. Another ellipse in between your two ellipses will appear. Now go to Object > Blend > Blend Options and use the suggested option values shown below.

Create the Background Pattern

Now we will just copy it (Ctrl/Cmd + C), paste it in front (Ctrl/Cmd + F) and rotate the copied objects.

Create the Background Pattern

Step 11: Duplicate, Duplicate, Duplicate!

Select the object, then using the Selection Tool (V), click-and-drag it to the right while holding down Shift + Alt; this should duplicate the pattern object.

Create the Background Pattern

Now just press Ctrl/Cmd + D a couple of times to duplicate it repeatedly according to your first placement. By pressing Ctrl/Cmd + D (which is the shortcut for Object > Transform > Transform Again), the duplicates will be placed exactly with the same space as the first duplicate.

Stop duplicating when the pattern is approximately equal to the width of your dark red rectangular box (or you can just resize your pattern so that it’s the same width).

Duplicate, Duplicate, Duplicate!

Now we will repeat the process, but vertically this time. Select the horizontal pattern, and again, just do what we did before, but this time, do it vertically, up to the point that it matches the height of our dark red rectangular background.

Duplicate, Duplicate, Duplicate!

Now select all the patterns and then group them (Object > Group or press Ctrl/Cmd + G). Position the pattern above your dark red rectangular background.

Duplicate, Duplicate, Duplicate!

Step 12: Create the Border

Adding the border is similar in process to the circular pattern we created around the illustration. First, draw your rectangular pattern, and then add it to your Brushes Panel, setting it as a new pattern brush. Add a rectangular shape with no fill (the same size as your dark red rectangular box), and then click your rectangular pattern in the Brushes Panel to apply it.

You can tweak how the pattern is applied by editing the size and spacing when you double-click the pattern on the Brushes Panel.

Create the Border

Step 13: The Finale

I added a larger pattern on each corner and created a shape to place the "Design Instruct" text on. For the text, I used the Cloister Black font.

At this point, you could import the whole design into Photoshop, set the blending mode of its layer to Multiply and place it on top of the Mock Up Kit if you wanted to place it on top of a t-shirt.


Tutorial Summary

I showed you a workflow for creating a complex-looking illustration with the use of some basic techniques in Adobe Illustrator. Though it might look intimidating at first, the truth is it’s just a matter of composition and utilizing the tools available in Illustrator to do the heavy lifting.

If there’s a part in the tutorial you need help on, leave a note in the comments and I’ll try to answer all your questions. Also, for those that are experienced in Illustrator, please feel free to share your knowledge, tips and suggestions in the comments. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Thanks!

The Finale

Download Source Files

  • this is really spectacular – nice work

  • That’s wicked cool – very nice tutorial. I know most of the techniques presented here, but you sequence and combine them in a very interesting and effective way. Nice one!

  • I felt the exact same way — I’m familiar with the techniques themselves (draw half a face then flip it, use blends), but the process of using them to produce an intricate illustration is new to me.

    Well done Heinritzh – you’ve already got two great comments from two very talented illustrators!

  • thanks guys, deeply appreciated. It’s really cool to hear it from you guys. cheers!

  • I consider myself an idiot with Illustrator. I always think that I need to learn new techniques every day.

    What you show us here is really simple with amazing result. I already know all of them, I just don’t know when to use it. I need to start creating and stop thinking. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Interesting process how to create some art works! 🙂

  • thanks! yes we can’t learn all the techniques in the world, what we can do is to experiment from what we have already known and evolve from it. I agree, start creating and stop thinking! 😀

  • nice one ritzh!!
    thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  • Hey Heinritzh,

    I’m a brazilian pedagogue, and came to know this site, saw your creations, and i really loved about it!

    Congratulations for your job!

  • thanks everyone..I’m really glad you liked it guys! cheers!

  • Wow congratulations. Very nice 🙂

  • Congratulation I’m Alicia I see you web at Google i’m just looking designs and i see you web i like it very much…

  • nadine lucañas

    Dude, this is so awesome. People like you make me feel proud I’m Filipino as well. Really really nice work. Props to you

  • i think is superb work thanks .

  • Esteban


  • this is really great work and a great tut! Thank you so much, it’s very inspiring. I feel like I can take on bigger projects with these great tools and tips!

  • this tutorial is just so awesome . great SBS . i may just try this myself 😀

  • great tutorial, kabayan 🙂

    keep it up

  • Thanks for this. You’re so great… wish that you could do more… more powers….

  • trebolab

    one of the best tuturials ever

  • Ron

    Awesome! Very creative result.

  • Michael

    Awesome tutorial man. Just wondering how do you get like the design on the mask? What do you use to shape the strokes and everything so nicely into a cool tribal pattern like that?

  • lups

    Hello Jeprie,
    I same with you only thinking no creating :), but your site is great

  • Frank Pacheco

    Greaat tut but just have 2 questions how do you get the lines in the face to contour the face ,and how about if the face or object isnt so symetrical ?

  • tom barrett

    way too much like the work of Hydro74

  • rohit

    Great tutorial!! Thank u so so much!!!!! : )

  • nancy Mace

    how did you create the highlight effects on the horns and on either side of the chin? They look like triangles in descending order?

  • Vlad

    with what did u traced the phot? pen tool? paintbrush?

  • Sarah

    How are you creating the starburst-ish images inside the scalloped shapes on the four corners of the circle. I have been trying to figure this out for a very long time and can’t quite get it.

  • shireen

    Yayy!! Thanks for teaching me how to make and use the pattern brush

  • Peter

    Excellent tutorial, just what I was looking for, in designing my own tattoo!

  • Christophe

    Super : plein d’astuces et techniques. Respect !