Create awesome, bold, pop-art vector illustrations from photographs. Turn your friends, pets, or that artisanal sandwich, into art.

Vectorizing a photo is a great way to get into illustration or alter an image for style or impact. Just like using tracing paper, you block and outline shapes then color and shade them.

We use a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to do this.

  • Use Photoshop to increase contrast in the image.
  • Use Illustrator to trace it with vector shapes and lines.

Here's How to Vectorize Your Friends for Fun and Profit — Source Image
Image via Africa Studio.

I’m using this image to demonstrate how to separate a subject from the background when the edges aren’t so sharp or contrasted. Plus, she looks like a fun person who would be friends with someone who wants to vectorize their friends.


Photoshop Prep

Open your image in Photoshop. Then, use a Black & White adjustment layer for a “posterized” look.

Here's How to Vectorize Your Friends for Fun and Profit — Posterize

Use the sliders to reduce the saturation of the colors into blackness, or blow them out to whiteness.

While we want to make the shapes and outlines in the image easy to trace, we also want to use a non-destructive method of contrast. So if you need to come back to the original and readjust it, you can do that in this way:

Save this file, or close and save (the incredible raw power of adjustment layers lets you do this). In Illustrator, create a new document.

  • Hot Tip: Creating a new document may sound obvious, but for some reason, if you open an image directly from Illustrator, you can’t use the paintbrush. You’ll have to create a document and bring the image into it. 

Vectorize It In Illustrator

Drag or place your image file into the new document. Because we prepared our image in Photoshop to be high contrast, we can try some presets in Image Trace — in the Control Bar at the top of the screen.

Here's How to Vectorize Your Friends for Fun and Profit — Using Illustrator

“3 Colors” was a bit too vague, leaving out some details, so let’s use “6 Colors.” These are the most functional for photos because they pick up gradients and transitions better than the more graphical settings.

Also, the more colors you want it to trace, the more complex the image will be. That will take longer to process and increase the level of detail — not actually ideal for most illustrations of this kind.

So start low, and choose the least amount that gives you enough to make a good picture. I don’t think I’ve ever used more than “6 Colors” for tracing people, if that helps.

Here's How to Vectorize Your Friends for Fun and Profit — Image Trace

Right where the Image Trace button was, in the Control Bar at the top, is now a button that says Expand. Hit that to turn the image into the shapes and lines you’ll move around and colorize.


Tweak It

The following are some techniques and tools to customize your image:

  • Select areas of skin and combine them to flatten in the same color.
  • For outlines, change the Brush Definition to “Basic,” then access the Variable Width Profile menu to select an undulating line. This looks more hand-drawn than a static stroke.
  • Simplify the paths so they’re not so choppy. There’s a menu item for this under Object > Path > Simplify, or use the Pen tool to manually subtract anchor points from an overly busy line.

After some tweaking and simplifying, adding some bold colors, you’ll end up with a nice pop-art image. Leave some subtle little artifacts and imperfections for cool textures and a handmade look.

Here's How to Vectorize Your Friends for Fun and Profit — Pop Art Image

Make it even jazzier with some sans-serif titling to complete your design. Then, hang it over your midcentury-modern couch and learn to say “no” to unwanted freelance work when all your friends want one of them too.


Looking for some more practical design tips? Check out these articles.