Tired of of the same old solid outlines and strokes in your drawings? Adjust the brush settings in Adobe Illustrator using these four steps to instantly add a hand-drawn look to your designs.

Adobe Illustrator is the go-to program for creating vector art. It provides many easy ways to create original illustrations. You can trace using the pen tool, freehand using the brush tool, or use Image Trace, which allows the program to automatically trace an imported image using control settings.

In this guide we’ll add gritty texture and varying line width by applying Brushes to mimic hand-drawn lines. This will give your illustrations a more natural look by creating depth and adding character to static strokes and outlines.

Step 1: Create and Plan Your Illustration

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Original Image

I’m going to use this photo to show how textures applied to strokes can make the plants stand apart from the geometric planters. I’ve already made the basic vector shapes of the picture and colorized it for the background. Use our guides listed at the end of this article to learn about the tools used to trace pictures.

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Base Image

Note: For this exercise I want to keep the general look flat, using as few colors as possible. I’ll keep the background in locked layers beneath the plant strokes so I can easily navigate and select only the parts I want to change with brush effects.

Create a new layer for the plants. Using the Brush tool, I’ll freehand some strokes over the existing plants, to mimic their natural direction, and then I’ll add some more to fill it out (because I wouldn’t want anyone to think my plants are less than healthy.)

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Brush Tool Strokes

A great way to show depth while retaining a minimalist style is to use a two-color scheme: base color and highlight. I’ll use this on the plants so the light parts support the dark parts, acting like highlights. Copy the layer with all of your plant strokes and paste it over the image as a new layer. Select the strokes and make them a shade of green. Then move it up and to the left, following the light source – this will be used as the highlights layer.

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Copy and Paste Layer

Step 2: Choose Brush Definitions for Texture

From here on, we’re only discussing the layers of the plant strokes. I’ve locked all other layers.

Open the Brushes window by clicking on Window > Brushes. In the Brushes window, click on the Brush Libraries Menu icon at the bottom left. From that pop-out menu, hover over Artistic, then click on Artistic_ChalkCharcoalPencil.

This will bring up a new menu containing a list of brushes. There are many other textures and styles to explore, and the techniques in this guide can transfer to any of them.

To select all the plant strokes in the bottom layer, I’ll turn off visibility for the top layer of plants and hit Command + A.

After selecting a few options from the list, I chose one called Charcoal – Soft. It looks a lot like the original plant and is already preset to taper at the ends – instead of abrupt terminations of the strokes they will gradually come to a point.

I turn on visibility for the the top layer of plant strokes and choose a suitable brush for them as well. Simply choosing the same preset is not ideal – I don’t want them to be copies of each other because that doesn’t look natural. Charcoal – Feather to be a nice complement.

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Brush Tool Settings

Step 3: Apply Varying Line Width Profiles

We could stop here, but let’s make it better using Stroke Profiles to make the illustration more dynamic.

Go to Window > Stroke to open the Stroke window. If you only see the Weight setting, click on the hamburger menu in the upper right and click on Show Options. This is where the magic happens.

At the bottom of the window, find the Profile menu. This contains options to apply undulations and tapering profiles to strokes, instead of the uniform static width. With the strokes selected that you wish to manipulate, click on one of the profiles to see how they change the dynamics of the stroke(s).

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Line and Width Profiles

For the highlights layer I chose the third profile down, Width Profile 2. (I call it “Sp’nife” for spoon-knife. That’s not an official name but it needed something more creative name than Width Profile 2.)

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Line and Width Profiles

Compared to the image above, this almost seems like each stroke was treated or created separately. Just the right amount of variation to mimic highlights on the leaves of a plant.

Step 4: Customize the Stroke Attributes

Let’s further separate the organic strokes from the minimalist geometry by varying the stroke width and direction of the Profiles.

First, change the stroke size of each group. Select the strokes in the top layer of highlights. In the Strokes window, locate the Weight, and use the up/down arrows or enter a value to reduce the weight of the strokes. For the size of this project, 10×10″, .75 pt. works well.

Then select the strokes in the base layer and increase their weight. 1.25 pt. provides a good amount of weight contrast to the highlights.

For the highlights, I’ll change the direction of the stroke profile. In the Profile drop-down at the bottom of the Stroke window, next to the selected stroke profile, you’ll see an icon of two arrows pointed at each other with a dotted line between them. Use this option to switch the direction of the profile.

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Reverse Profile Direction

It may seem subtle here, but with this number of strokes going all different directions, it can make a healthy impact on the overall relationship with the other parts. Play with this to make sure you’re not missing any details.

4 Steps to Add Hand-Drawn Character to Digital Illustrations – Reverse Profile Direction

After tweaking these extras controls in the Stroke panel, I’ve created a really interesting contrast between the plants and the flat background of the planters. Now the dark layers serve as both plant matter and shadows against the planters.

Use these techniques to bring your strokes to life and turn a flat illustration into something more interesting.


For more guides on the tools used to create killer illustrations, check these out: