Make Watercolor and Marker Style Portraits with Illustrator




  • Portrait by Lillian Bertram (Creative Commons Share Alike – used here with permission)

Step 1: Set up your Illustrator document

Start with a print document of 8.5 x 11″. Make sure to change the color space to RGB.

step 1

Step 2: Import the reference photo

Import the photo you will be using as a reference (File > Place). In this tutorial, I used this portrait by Lillian Bertram.

Step 2

Size it up or down as necessary—try to size it up to the artboard.

Don’t sweat the resolution or pixelation of the image since the reference photo is only a guide. However, the better the quality of the image, the more detail you have to work from.

Since the artwork will be imported into the first layer, name it “Photo Reference” using the Layers panel.

Your work area should look like this:

Step 2_2

Step 3: Set up your work area

You are going to want to go to the Layers panel and create two more layers. Name them “Outlines” and “Fill Lines“.

Go ahead and select the reference photo on your canvas.

With the photo selected, go to the Transparency panel (Window > Transparency) and lower the transparency of the photo between 50% and 70%—just enough for you to still see the features, but not enough to obstruct your tracing workflow.

Now go over to the Layers panel and lock the reference photo layer so that you don’t accidentally move it.

It may also help to select a Workspace preset for Painting (Window > Workspace > Painting) to set up an initial workspace and panels placement that’s suitable for what you will be doing.

Step 4: Setting up your brush

Before you get started, go to the Appearance panel (Window > Appearance) to show the Appearance panel.

Click on the settings (upper left) and in the drop down menu that comes up, be sure that New Art Has basic Appearance is deselected.

Then, you can close out the Appearance panel.

Now double-click on the Paintbrush Tool (B) in the toolbar to pull up the options dialog box for the brush.

Be sure to have Keep Selected and Edit Selected Paths unchecked as they can inhibit a natural drawing process. Adjust your Smoothness to a lower number if you have confidence in your drawing strokes, or a higher number if you feel you have a shaky hand or want straighter and smoother lines. I usually keep the Fidelity option around a 4 or 5 as well.

Go to the Brushes panel, select a 1pt stroke, and double-click the 2 pt. Oval default brush. (If you wish, you may rename the brush to make it your own.)


You can adjust the options so as to respond to the pressure and tilt of your tablet, as well as make it more of a flat-tipped, calligraphy style marker.

Brush settings

If you don’t have a tablet—don’t worry—you can still make adjustments to the head of the brush and add some randomness to the variability in the stroke. These adjustments will make for a more realistic marker look.

Be sure to doodle a bit on a blank area of your canvas on the “Outlines” layer until your brush looks as you wish.

Step 5: Initial tracing

With the Paintbrush Tool (B) selected, go to the color selection area of the toolbar. Make sure that there is no fill on the brush and choose black that has a little gray to it for the stroke—you don’t want to use a 100% black if you want a more natural look.

Zoom in on the area of the canvas where you want to begin working. Personally, I like to work from the eyes outwards, but also find it just as helpful to work with a quick outline around the whole face and work inwards. What you want to do is use short brush spurts of lines in a similar direction. You want to define the darkest areas of the photo, or the areas with the most contrast. Use the pressure of the tablet for thicker areas of definition. You will want to shade with cross-hatched or diagonal lines to denote areas that are midtones.

This is your chance to experiment and play around stylistically. You can change how your brush displays by going back to the Brushes panel and modifying the settings you created earlier. You will have the ability to apply your changes to all your strokes, so long as you modify the same brush you used to make all of your previous marks.

Periodically hide the “Photo Reference” layer to see how your composition stands on its own.

At some point, you want to break away from using the reference entirely once you have enough key features and focus on stylizing the portrait with your own marks and aesthetic.

Step 6: Add contrast

With your base outlines close to order, you will now add fill lines to the piece for greater contrast and to pull the piece together visually.

Select the “Fill Lines” layer. Go to your Stroke panel and choose a stroke between 3pt and 4pt.

Fill lines select

You will now go over the outer edges and any areas where you want to make a bold distinction of contrast. This will also give it a more urban/graffiti/marker look.

Step 7: Tweaking the piece

You can also make use of the Eraser Tool (Shift + E) to organically remove unwanted marks.

Remember that all of your strokes are just paths so you can always pull and adjust curves using the Pen Tool (P) and Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) to make adjustments.

Also, you can use the Group Selection Tool (white arrow with a “plus” symbol) to select and edit areas of lines by scaling, moving or rotating as you see fit.

Step 8: Before you begin coloring

Since you want to achieve a softer and layered look with the colors, you will be using layered Pencil Tool (N) fills with a lowered transparency. To begin, create a new layer to sit below your “Fill” and “Outline” layers. Name it “Color” and lock all other layers but this layer. Also, be sure to hide the “Photo Reference” layer.

Step 9: Set up the Pencil Tool

Double-click the Pencil tool Icon in the toolbar and adjust the settings as follows:

  • Check Fill new pencil strokes
  • Uncheck Keep Selected
  • Uncheck Edit Selected Paths

Pencil tool

Go to the color selection area of the toolbar and swap the stroke color with the fill color so that there is no stroke color.

Double-click the fill color and choose a skin tone color that is on the lighter end of a yellow to red hue.

Next, go to Window > Transparency to select between a 15% to 20% opacity for your fills.

Test out your color and transparency by drawing some overlapping circles and see how the color fills build up. If the new fills aren’t showing up as transparent—or with the correct color—check your settings and also be sure that your Appearance panel has the New Art Has Basic Appearance option deselected.

Step 10: Coloring in your portrait

Begin with the skin tones of the face. Draw overlapping shapes that contour and compliment your lines with the Pencil Tool (N).

Over the darker and shaded areas, be sure to build up the color. Also select darker shades within the same hue to add more contrast and shadow.

For the skin: I tend to work with yellows, oranges, and reds. Use a gradient for larger areas with a light to dark fade, and build on top of them. Be sure that your highlights are basically just areas with less color.

If you need to enhance highlights, draw transparent white shapes over these areas. Keep a light hand, and draw fast layered shapes with lower opacities—this helps keep the watercolor and layered feel to the illustration.

Also draw a bit outside of the lines—with this process, imperfection is our friend.

Since you will be drawing irregular shapes with the Pencil Tool (N), you may notice sharp edges and unclosed paths. To close paths, hold down the Option/Alt key right after you begin drawing your path and just before you finish it. This will complete any shape you are drawing. It’s okay to have irregular shapes and sharp edges; you can always edit them at any point with the Eraser Tool or the point-editing tools.

Color in the rest of the portrait using colors that you find works best. It is a good idea to use the Eyedropper Tool (I) and choose a color palette from another photo you may find aesthetically-pleasing for user experience.

I also encourage the use of contrasting colors to add a bit of interest, like circle shapes of bluish hue shadows on yellow and orange areas of skin or small drops of deeper reds on blue or green tones. They add a bit of complexity and depth.

Step 11: Finalizing the portrait

At this point, you should be close to finished with the portrait. Improvise, add flourishes, text, and deviate towards using your own technique and style to enhance your illustration.

You may also bring your illustration into Adobe Photoshop for added effects, color management, and texture.


This tutorial shared with you some techniques for using Adobe Illustrator’s powerful set of painting and illustration tools. We also covered ways to set up your workspace to achieve the watercolor and marker style illustration. I hope you enjoyed my tutorial and have taken away something useful for web design by reading it. Here is the final piece. Show us your work in the Flickr group pool.


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  • Esteban Demarchi

    EXCELENT, it’s a great illustration from image 🙂

  • I like the variety of colors used to get the flesh color!

  • Looks very cool. The colors are very cleverly chosen to get the perfect illustration.

  • Definitely going to give this a shot when i get some free time. Thanks for this excellent tutorial.

  • Great tutorial. Love the outcome

  • EXCELLENT tutorial, think i might have to start diving into abit of illustrator.

  • This looks so incredible. I need to find some time to try this out. Nice work Miguel, and it’s cool to see you using the effect on your own gravatar.

  • Neo

    Brilliant Tutorial. I’ve been looking for a way to do this for a while.

  • Awesome, totally awesome illustrator tutorial Miguel! I love the way you do overlapping color!

  • This looks so incredible.

    I believe those were my exact words when we received Miguel’s tutorial. Followed by, “I got to start using Illustrator more regularly again.”

  • Thanks all for the kind comments. Another plus to working in illustrator is the ability to remix the piece in interesting ways by distoring the paths like this :

  • So Miguel, did you just use Direct Selection tool to stretch vector points one by one on that, or the Warp tool?

    By the way, I’m working on also highlighting Design Instruct author comments the same way as site admins (like mine) to clearly show author comments (off-topic, I know).

  • BB

    Awesome man !!! Thank you.

  • This is super awesome! I am just loving this site for such high quality tutorials. Keep them coming!

  • Just used direct selection (white arrow) tool, selected elements and points in a particular area, then used the Free Transform Tool (hotkey E) to move and scale the selected points.

    Cool. Yeah I am going to have to get me a gravatar. I thought I already set one up. Guess not.

  • thanks for the tutorial…i will try it for sure

  • Wow!! Really cool tut.! I’ve found many tuts but noone is so simple and clear! Good job!

  • Alias

    This is really cool! Thanks for sharing.

  • It looks awesome. Pretty good work and tutorial.

  • Tim

    Love the style or this, will definately be trying this in the very near future.

  • Great, Tim!

    As a reminder to you and to others who try out Miguel’s techniques in this tutorial, please share it with us on the Design Instruct Flickr group pool because we’re devising a monthly feature that will showcase readers’ works inspired by tutorials here on Design Instruct.

  • Great tutorial. I think i’m going to try this out and if the result get cool then I’ll share on the Design Instruct Flickr group pool. You guys are always bringing to us awesome tutorials, a big thanks to you all!

    sorry my bad English.

  • Felipe

    amazing, i love this

  • This is amazing tutorial and very much interesting. Just gone through quickly from screenshots and bookmarked to experience with this later. Illustrator is one of the tool am thinking to get expert in from long time but this damn time not allowing …

  • We look forward to it João. And remember, the Design Instruct Flickr group is friendly to beginners and advanced users, so even if the result isn’t cool, you can post it on there and ask for feedback/comments/suggestions, if you want.

  • Ali Ali

    Amazing as always. Miguel thanks for this great tutorial.

  • Detail is killer!
    Very great tuts, thank you 🙂

  • hi miguel, thanx for the great tutorial. i shared it on my blog. i had a question though. when you start actually shading the line drawing how can you make all the fills automatically become 15 percent transparent, no matter what i do im forced to go back and manually adjust the transparency of each pencil fill. its quite disheartening. am i missing something?

  • This is awesome. Excellent tutorial Miguel. Very well explained. Thanks 🙂

    I will be definitely try this one.

  • In Step 4… where I say go to the Appearance palate and make sure the option New Art Has basic Appearance.. you want to make sure that is DE-Selected… So it should be off… that is what is causing your issue. Thanks for reposting!

  • Jeffrey

    Awesome work Miguel. I always wondered how you created these things.

  • Great tutorial! Thanks for this! I’ll definitely have to give it a shot when I have some time.

  • Simply superb tutorial!!! Been wanting to create a vector self portrait of myself for ages and think i’ll fire up illustrator and have a go using your watercolor techniques. thanks for the post 😉

  • Wow, very impressive use of Illustrator! And I’ll second the thoughts of others above, I need to get back into using Illustrator more! This is great inspiration 🙂

  • Great tut! 😀

    But I’m having a problem, I’m not sure you can help me?
    When I’m making my new brush from the 2. pkt oval (or anyone else for that matter) I can only chose between Fixed and Random :/
    The Pressure, Stylus Wheel, Tilt, Bearing and Rotation are not-clickable :/
    I’ve checked that I have DE-seleacted the New Art Has basic Appearance 😉

    Am I missing something?


  • The Brush pressure is only available if you have a wacom tablet installed and its driver software installed correctly.

  • Those other options are available if you have a tablet, and the tablets software installed. Random will give you decent transition… you can choose the amount of variabilty the random produces with the percentage slider.

  • Dan

    Amazing tutorial again! well done thank you for once again providing a very useful tutorial.

  • I definitely agree with you. My Illustrator skills need some improving as well.

  • WOW ! I wish i could do this 🙂

  • That’s the beauty of Design instruct! Now, you can!

    Try out the tutorial and share the results with us on the Design Instruct flickr group pool!

  • Beautiful result and superb tutorial. Might have to put this technique into practice sometime soon! 🙂

  • jen

    Thank you sooooo much for showing this. This is something I wanted to learn for a long time.
    Now I know how to do it. Thank you very much!

  • Wow! I’ll try!

  • awesome tut on watercolor portraits! My skills in AI is not as strong as I would like them to be compared to PS so I’m always grateful to find tuts like this were I can pick up pointers and learn how to do it at my own pace. Again, awesome tut and a BIG thx!

  • eulalia cornejo

    Thank you for this explanation!

  • This looks like a lot of fun! I hope to be able to use this technique on a real job. The result is amazing. Thanks for sharing this tutorial Miguel!

  • Lauren Sharp

    I really love this tut. going to use it in my Illustrator classes as a lesson file. thanks for sharing.

  • Wow, that’s wonderful. I hope the students find this educational!

  • Mubashir Baweja

    I cant change the settings of My Calligraphic Paint Brush as shown in Step 3. I don’t get all the options in the drop down menu for the Angle Roundness and Diameter. Can someone help me with that, please?
    thank you.

  • Are you double clicking on the brush icon?

  • Mubashir Baweja

    Yes I was. But the settings were greyed out. But after about 2 hours of research, I found out that the Wacom Bamboo Fun Tablet does NOT support Tilt, bearing etc. and then, after another 1 hour of research, I discovered that it can so i looked everywhere and someone told me to install the latest driver for the tablet and it should work. and it DID work. 🙂
    and btw, great tutorial.

  • @Mubashir Baweja: Ouch that’s a lot of time! Thanks for coming back and sharing though, so that others having the same issue can learn from your experience.

  • Mubashir Baweja

    Thank you Jacob. I just finished my portrait and it looks amazing. I put it up on DI’s Flickr Pool.

  • Or you could actually pick a paint brush and do it that way. Being pretty experienced in illustrator, I’m sure it’d require the same,

  • Matt Mitacek

    Thank You for great tut… here is my result:

  • this came in really helpful when i had to do a rough sketch from some client work thanks for the tips –

  • really cool portrait art work ultimate buddy….:)

  • This is a really beautiful watercolor effect 🙂 great work

  • Wow great work! I like how you’ve done the sketching with different brush strokes!

  • mani

    funny guy in the portrait 😛 but a gr8 tutorial. love it !

  • Carolyn Bedford

    I can tell the c number of comments that others having been searching for this. New to Illustrator and a learning newbie, I hadn’t discovered the painting workshop. As a visual artist i’m excited to have it confirmed that i can paint with freedom in illustrator too.Knew I could do iy, but didn’t realize I had options and variations. Thank you so much.

  • Thank you Miguel! I really like your tutorial! And this is my result:

  • Amazing Anastasia, wow!

    Please, if you can, add it to our Flickr community group pool!

  • I was immediately amazed by the picture when I stumbledupon it! So much so that I decided to draw one of my own!
    This was my first time using illustrator and it was done with a laptop touchpad. The tutorial was so well explained it was fun and simple to do!

    here it is

  • Thanks for sharing your work! It looks great!

  • Awesome work, man. I Love it.

  • This is certifiably awesome! Thank you Anastasia!

  • Courtney Beadel

    Awesome tutorial!!!

  • Very cool tutorial Miguel, I hope you come out with more!

  • Rest assured that we bug him a lot to write more tutorial for us. 😀

  • Sofyan Agustian

    i wish i could make it..

  • Nice!! Very intuitive as well a creative way to do portraits!!

  • Daniel Cohen

    Hey! I didn’t know I could draw!


  • Ron

    Very nice! Thanks

  • This is a great work!!! Thank you for sharing!!!


  • salman butt

    is this work in photoshop???

  • No, it’s in Illustrator.

  • salman butt

    thanks for ans…which software is best for designing r photo editing???

  • piksus

    hi miguel,
    are you using pen graphic or mouse for your work above…?

  • milK

    My thoughts exactly. I haven´t used Illustator in nearly a decade so better brush up.

  • robert diplan

    exelent tnks for all

  • lina asp

    Just what I was looking for. Great tutorial! Thank you very much!

  • Wow, what a great tutorial! Thanks so much for taking the time to do it. I had a very successful first session with my tablet and AI thanks to you!

  • Oko

    Awesome tutorial!!!Will share mine when it’s done 😉
    Was wondering if you’ll be sharing more tuts with us?
    Great work keep it up! 😀

  • Oko
  • rizki

    great tutorial..
    but i have a problem with color tone..
    i dont know where i start in color tone..

  • Thanks for a great post, very helpful. Never used Illustrator before but your clear and concise instructions were fantastic. Here’s what I made(if you’re interested?):

    Pretty basic, I did play with the colour tones on the full version but just stripped it all back for the look of my flavors site.

    Thank you again. 🙂

  • In regards to the color tone, it helps to start with a specific color. In your color picker, work of of HSL or HSB mode. Choose a particular Hue value (between 0 and 359 (360 degrees in the color wheel) and adjust the Brightness and saturation values to adjust shadows and highlight variants on that hue.

    To have the colors build up the way I do in this tutorial, you have to make sure you deselect “New Art has basic Appearance” in the appearance panel. That will allow you to layer colors of a low opacity.

    Hope that helps.

  • Jeff C

    Great tutorial, a few questions. Can i still do the same illustration in cmyk? I would like to use something like this for print media and do you always use painting tools or do you have any tutorials where you draw using only the pen and direct selection tool?

  • Dmitry

    Go to nahooe.
    Miguel, thanks. Great tutorial.

  • What I do is work in RGB, and before it goes to print then convert to CMYK. You have greater color depth and effects in RGB which is helpful during the working process. Then when you are ready, convert. This is actually about one half of my workflow. I convert to smart objects and bring them over to photoshop and add texture and stuff … (make new file) Flatten and then convert to CMYK before printing.

  • Sergio

    Your idea to develop this technique is impressive and greatly appreciated dude.
    I defintiely think the man’s expression is graceful and evokes something in me. Maybe it could be complemented by a powerful word or message. Look into maybe some long and rounded font styles.

    “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” Ephisians 6:1

  • Donia

    i am having issues with my pencil tool not closing after i create my shape (i am using a wacom tablet) any suggestions?

  • Donia

    so after do ing some research i found my answer here …. will post my sketch soon 🙂

  • excellent tutorial.

  • NoBelle

    Great tutorial! Thanks for the clear explanation. Great style. Thanks!

  • Great tutorial – I especially liked the way your overlapping transparent colours can be built up to represent darker shadows to increase the contrast and add toen to the finished drawing.

    Since I don’t have Illustrator, I will experiment with Photoshop.

  • Holy crap, just what I was looking for. I needed to find a good tutorial just liek this for an image I’ve been wanting to make into a marker style. Great job!

  • Chris

    Wonderful tutorial! Since I inherited an ancient Wacom tablet, I have been searching for the perfect brush settings to replicate authentic marker drawing. Just copying your settings in step 4 has already freed my creativity; can’t wait to try this one out for real!

  • That is great to hear! Glad the tutorial was helpful.

  • Jera

    Hi ^^

    I want to ask something, hope you don’t mind. About hatching effect in Step 5, if we don’t use brush, is there another way to make hatch/cross-hatched effect in Illus? I don’t want to use swatch cuz it looks fake. I want it to look like we draw it *like you did in step 5 with brush*.

    I’ve seen so many ppl do hatching in Illus and I think they use tip or effect to do that. If I want to use hatch with the whole picture, it definitely takes a long time to finish with brush.

    I just want to ask if there is another way ^^ If not, I think brush is the only choose.
    Thank you.

  • you can use the blend tool to make set of hatches from two lines. So to start draw two diagonal lines, a set distance from each other. then choose Object > Path > Blend. Then with the Blend Still selected, choose Object > Path > Blend Options. Choose “Steps” and set the number of hatches you want to exist between your two lines. If you double click, you can adjust the original lines and modify the pattern. You can also use the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) to change the path of the pattern.

    Hope that helps.

  • Karumanchi

    That was awesome! Thanks for the tutorial :-!

  • this is great! will def try this technique.

  • Leslie

    I had one of my Advanced High School Graphic Design Students use this tutorial and his self portrait was awesome. He took screen shots and I have it in a very short animation of the colors being applied. Thank you for the tutorial.

  • it was so easy to learn…

  • That is awesome, I would love to see it.

  • Gergana

    Hi, great tutorial, can i make this sets of brush and pencil with Illustrator CS3?

  • Andrei

    amazing! thank you for bothering to put this up

  • This is such a fantastic step-by-step tutorial. Everything is super easy to follow. Creating “hand done” styled art digitally is super impressive, and an art form in itself! Nice work.

  • JH

    Thank you a million for this tutorial. I have really developed my technique based on these methods– I do a lot of “watercolor” renderings of architectural drawings and I use your methods. My client loves them. (Here’s one for you to check out )

    I recently upgraded to CS6 and notice that you can no longer assign a default transparency to paths. I still use this technique, but everything comes out opaque and I have to “Ctrl-A” frequently and select my desired transparency. Have you upgraded and found a workaround for this? I CAN set my layer transparency, but of course I don’t get the effect of overlapping paths! Any thoughts are appreciated, but ultimately this technique still works great!

  • Mel

    Hellooo…Just wondering, how long did you take to do this?

  • About an hour.. This one maybe a smidge longer given that I took the screen shots and documented my process as I made it.

  • Make sure you deselect “New Art Has Basic Appearance”. The process is no different in CS6.

  • D.Smith

    WOW – thank you from a fellow Buffalonian. Nice job – simple to follow learned some great things here. THANKS

  • Kim R

    Great tutorial. Just wondering what you think of using the blob brush for the painting/coloring. Is there a reason you prefer the pencil?

  • Brilliant tutorial. I just finished making my own portrait using my own picture with these. Thank you!

  • karol

    Amazing! the tutorial was easy to follow and helped me a lot. Thank you so much!

  • Carla

    Really straight forward and easy to follow. Many thanks

  • sm faruque

    Real helpfull tutorial thank you verymush

  • Arthur

    Gracias, its very interesting way for the illustrate!

  • no


  • Bibek Bajracharya

    Thank you for this amazing tutorial.
    May god bless you. 🙂