I was doodling in my sketch-book the other day and made a very quick drawing of a cat in a magician’s hat. I thought it was a rather cute idea so I decided to re-draw it using Adobe Illustrator. If you are an absolute beginner to vector drawing and AI, following my process will show you how simple and fun it can be to turn your sketches into colorful graphics which can be placed onto mugs, posters, shirts and more.
Step One: Preparing the cat sketch
I like to trace over my drawings in Illustrator, so I’ll need to prepare the original drawing. For this I use Adobe Photoshop however any graphics tool will work. I cut out my sketch using the polygonal lasso tool and then go to Image > Adjustments > Brightness and Contrast. My goal is to darken the sketch so it will be more easy to see.
Step Two: Creating a new AI document for our cat
I save the darkened sketch as a .jpg file and then open up Adobe Illustrator. I click File > New to choose a document size. I also have the option here to set up margins or bleed, but since this is not yet intended for print, I don’t need to worry about those for now. The reason I’m going to use Illustrator for this instead of just sticking with Photoshop is that Photoshop is based on raster images.
QUICK SUMMARY: Raster images are made up of pixels, small points on a display. Thousands of these points come together to form a completed image. Vector graphics are composed of lines and curves which are essentially equations from one point to another. Raster images are best for photographs and highly-detailed, representational artwork.
Vector images are best for logos and more stylised illustrations. The benefit of vector as opposed to raster is that, because a vector graphic is calculated by a computer, it can be re-sized up or down essentially infinitely. If you make a raster image bigger than its original size, you’ll inevitably start to see ugly artifacts on the image.
Since I want to print this artwork on various products, it makes sense for me to use a vector program, since I will be able to manipulate the artwork without any loss of quality.
Step Three: Importing the cat sketch
I click and drag my original drawing into the new AI workspace I’ve just created. Once I’ve imported it, I like to click on the ‘Lock’ icon to the immediate left of the drawing in the layers panel.
Step Four: Laying out shapes
This drawing is quite simple and so it can easily be put together using Illustrator’s vector shapes. I use the ellipse tool, found on the tool panel, and draw a simple oval. At this point, I’m simply tracing over my original sketch. I’m also going to unlock the bottom sketch (by clicking the lock icon again) and rotate it. This way it will be easier for me to draw the shapes. The completed drawing can be rotated again to match the original sketch at the end of the piece.
Step Five: The Pen Tool and Bezier Curves
For some of the more particular shapes, I need to use the pen tool. This can be found in the tools panel. By clicking with my mouse on different areas, (in this case, the cat’s ear) I will create a series of anchor points which together comprise a shape. To control these points I hold down the ‘ALT’ key and hold down the left mouse button to move the point around. I hold down the pen tool icon on the tools panel to select ‘Convert Anchor Point’. This will enable me to edit the bezier curves associated with that anchor point and create beautiful smooth curves.
Right now the ear is a solid yellow with an annoying black stroke. I’m going to lower the opacity of this object using the transparency panel at the top so I can better see the sketch underneath.
Step Six: Copying over the cat’s ear
Now that I’ve completed one ear, I’m now going to mirror it to the other side. I select the shapes for the ear and then right click. I select Transform > Reflect. If you are performing the same operation, be sure to select the ‘Preview’ checkbox. Choose ‘Copy’ to create a duplicate. You can also change the reflection axis if you would like to copy the shape vertically.
Step Seven: Adding more details to the cat
I’m now going to start using the same tools as before to add features to the cat, such as eyes, mouth and nose. I can also control the stroke of any paths I create with the pen tool to create a more graduated, natural look. I have no set idea for the colour of the cat so now I am also playing and testing out different colors. In Adobe Illustrator this is as easy as selecting a shape and then picking out different colors from the swatch panel. If you have dozens of different objects, you can also make selection easier by clicking one and then going to Select > Same… > Fill & Stroke. This will gather up all objects in the image which share the fill and stroke color.
I need to merge the head and the ear shapes for this cat. I’m now going to go to Window > Pathfinder to bring up the pathfinder panel. I select all the objects I want to merge and then click the ‘Unite’ icon, which is the top-most left icon on the panel.
Step Eight: Adding the hat
My cat needs a magician’s hat. To do this, I’m going to draw one out using the pen tool. It’s as simple as clicking four different points to form the ‘cone’ of the hat, and then controlling the bezier curves to create more organic forms. I’ve also drawn out some whiskers using the pen tool. I convert them from strokes to shapes by highlighting them and clicking Object > Expand Appearance. This way, when the cat is resized up or down, the shapes will follow suit. If we didn’t convert the strokes to shape, the whiskers would stay at stroke width 8pt even when the cat is tiny, so they would of course be too large.
Step Nine: Finalizing the cat
Since this is a very simple image, I don’t want to spend too long on it. I add in some shadows and specular highlights, as well as some cute stars and a typeface. This illustration is presently too complicated for use as an effective logo but would look nice on a cap, a shirt or as a sticker. To mock-up my image, I first select everything in the file and press ‘Copy’. I then open Photoshop again, create a new document and paste the contents of the clipboard as a Smart Object. This handily allows me to scale the vector object up or down without losing quality.
To put this drawing on a product, I can either send it to a drop-shipping service, print and iron it onto a shirt or take it to a professional print shop. If you end up mocking up your new drawing digitally, be sure to watermark your finished image so everyone can visit your site or blog. Finished!