How To Create a Retro Style Cartoon Character Illustration

Hello everyone this is Chris from Spoon Graphics back with another video tutorial Today I'm going to take you through the process of creating a retro mid-century illustration, complete with distressed print effects

We'll use Adobe Illustrator to draw the initial artwork, then transfer it over to Photoshop to dirty it up with textures It is possible to create the entire artwork in either application, but I find the best results come from making the most of the strengths of each software If you search for images of 1950s cartoons, you'll find some great inspiration The illustrations are sometimes so stylised that they're made using basic shapes and lines, so even if you're not an expert artist, you can still create stunning illustrative work from something that's little more than a stick figure I'll show you how to achieve certain visual traits that give the artwork the appearance of an retro matchbook print, such as the limited use of colour, halftone shading, mis-registration effects and the all important old paper texture that turns the clean and crisp vector illustration into an nostalgic cartoon full of character! Like all illustrative forms of art, it's best to start off-screen using pen and paper to draw a basic character concept

If you think you're rubbish at drawing, don't worry Look closely at some existing examples and you'll see most are in the style of basic doodles You're welcome to download my masterpiece to follow along with this tutorial It took me about 30 seconds using a ball-point pen on some scrap paper, but you'll see how those awful hands and weirdly shaped legs add to the character of the art style Open up Adobe Illustrator and create a new document

Go to File > Place and navigate to this sketch file Scale it to fit the artboard, then in the Transparency panel, reduce the opacity to 20% so it's just subtly visible To avoid accidentally selecting this reference image while tracing, go to Object > Lock > Selection Clear the default white fill, leaving just a black stroke We'll begin with the head, so use an Ellipse to draw a more accurate circular shape

Before releasing, use the Spacebar to move the shape into position Draw a second shape to represent the visor My sketch is a bit rough here, so eyeball the position yourself Hold the Shift key to constrain the ellipse into a perfect circle Grab the Scissors tool from under the Eraser tool's menu group, then snip the circles where they intersect

To easily snap to these points, make sure you have Smart Guides turned on from the View menu Hold the CMD key to quickly toggle back to the selection tool to select the unwanted portion, then delete it With the Pen tool, click the open end to continue one of the paths to form the helmet outline Click and drag the bezier handles to find the right curvature The Smart Guides will also help you start and end a path exactly over the existing paths so there will be no gaps

Use standard shapes wherever possible to create accurate shapes where they might be inaccurately drawn, like the eyes When drawing the pupil, swap the stroke to a fill Hold shift and select both shapes with the Selection Tool, then hold ALT to make a copy while dragging them to the other side The Scissors can then be used to trim away any unwanted portions where they might be some overlap The Pencil tool is useful for creating open-ended lines

Keep your hand over the CMD+Z shortcut to have a few attempts at creating the perfect stroke Apply the Round Cap option within the Stroke panel to any open-ended lines to neaten them up One of the advantages of drawing in Illustrator versus Photoshop is you can easily tweak shapes and move things around Continue tracing the rest of the character using basic stroked paths Any points can be tweaked by holding the CMD key while the Pen tool is active to toggle back to the Direct Selection tool

Once you've finished a section, holding CMD and clicking on some empty space will reset the tool ready for the next path Wherever you've dragged out a bezier curve, give the open end an extra click to convert the anchor point into a corner Once you've traced the concept doodle, go to Object > Unlock All and delete the reference sketch Brushes are a really handy tool for creating hand drawn effects in Illustrator, but I'll show you a cool technique that doesn't rely upon any third-party resources and gives you much finer control Activate the Width tool and click and drag any point or path to alter the size of the stroke in that particular place, giving it the sought-after tapered appearance of a real brush or pen

While an Illustrator brush would apply this effect automatically, you can choose exactly which areas should be thicker or thinner and by how much This variation in line width is one of those visual traits that really transforms a child-like doodle into a proper illustration Clicking an end point will enlarge just that end of the stroke Clicking in the middle of a path will make that part the widest so it tapers on each side Or you can click and drag a corner point to make the stroke narrow along both directions

If two points are overlaid exactly on top of each other it can sometimes be difficult to select the one you want Temporarily moving one out of place with the Direct Selection tool, then snapping it back into place after you've made the edit is a useful workaround Once your linework is complete, go to Object > Expand Appearance to permanently apply this brushed appearance, then click the Unite button in the Pathfinder panel to merge all the strokes into one continuous outline One of the easiest ways to colourise artwork in Illustrator is using the Live Paint tool With the artwork already selected, give it a click with the Live Paint tool to convert it for live painting

Double click the Fill colour block in the toolbar and adjust the colour to a bright red Click the areas of the illustration you want to have this colour applied Alter the colour selection to a light blue and apply the fill to other areas Then repeat the process with a faint yellow for the face A great way to add some shading to your illustrations and to replicate the appearance of real retro prints is to use halftone patterns

Download and open my free pack of distressed halftone patterns for Illustrator from Spoon Graphics The easiest way to use these patterns is to draw a selection across everything in the download file and click Copy, then switch over to your working document and hit paste This will automatically transfer all the patterns into your Swatches panel You can then hit the delete button to remove those graphics Select one of the halftone pattern swatches as a fill, then use the Pen tool to trace an area of the illustration, keeping within the black stroke

The scaling of the halftone dots is pretty large, so go to Object > Transform > Scale In the options window, deselect Transform Objects, leaving only Transform Patterns selected Altering the percentage amount will only apply to the pattern density without affecting the size of the shape An alternative method of applying the halftone patterns is using the Blob brush With this tool you can paint the areas directly

Each new brush stroke will enlarge the shape area, so the pattern will flow seamlessly Currently the artwork is still looking crisp and sharp Let's rough it up by selecting everything, then go to Filter > Distort & Transform > Roughen Click the preview to see the result live, then set the options to Smooth, Absolute, then reduce the Size to a tiny amount that just subtly roughens the edges without distorting the appearance too much 0

5px was all it needed in my example To permanently apply this roughen effect, go to Object > Expand Appearance Let's finish off the artwork with a few extra details, starting with a background Use the rectangle tool to draw a large box to contain the illustration, then give it an indigo fill colour Place this shape underneath everything else by choosing Arrange > Send to Back from the right click menu

One trait of old low-cost printing methods that can be replicated to give your designs a retro vibe is the mis-registration of colours, where an ink colour isn't aligned correctly and leaves tiny gaps where the paper stock shows through In order to achieve the effect when the artwork is placed against a coloured backdrop, we first need to knock-out the shape so the artboard shows through Draw a selection across everything, then shift-click the background rectangle to remove it from the selection Go to Edit > Copy, then Edit > Paste in Front to make a duplicate of the character illustration, then click the Unite button in the Pathfinder panel to combine all the objects into one silhouette shape Add the rectangle back to the selection by Shift+clicking it again, then with both the rectangle and the silhouette shape selected, click the Minus Front button in the Pathfinder panel to punch the shape out

You can quickly see the result by moving the background rectangle out of place to see the white artboard in the shape of the character If you then use the Direct Selection tool to select all the elements of one particular colour and nudge them with the cursor keys, you'll see the artboard appear in the gaps The coloured shapes are overlapping the black outline, but black should always be on top Use the Magic Wand tool to easily select all the black objects, then go to Arrange > Bring to Front Use the type tool to finish off the design with a bit of text

I'm using the font SignPainter Housescript to add the title Astro-Boy, which is given a Rise effect using the Envelope Distort feature Then a few extra details like stars for the background can be drawn with the Pencil tool, keeping with the rough doodled look Duplicates can be made by holding the ALT key while dragging the shape to make copy, then each new star is rotated and scaled to lessen the uniform appearance While it would be possible to add some texturing directly in Illustrator Photoshop is much more powerful when it comes to working with raster images and effects

Draw a selection across the entire artwork and go to Edit > Copy Switch over to Photoshop and create a new document, which will default to the size of the illustrator artwork Chances are it will be quite small, so go to Image > Image Size and increase the overall dimensions When you paste in the vector artwork, it can be scaled up to any size with no loss of quality before it's confirmed with the ENTER key Open up an old paper texture

I'll link to this image from Shutterstock down in the description Go to Select All and Edit > Copy, then close the file and paste the texture into the main document Scale it to size with the CMD+T shortcut for Transform Set the blending mode of the texture to Multiply to allow the illustration layer to show through The colouring is a little too dark, so adjust the Levels under the Image > Adjustments menu

Tweak the sliders to find the right balance Using the Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation menu to desaturate the texture slightly helps to remove some of the yellow tint Download my Subtle Grunge Photoshop Brushes and double click the ABR file to load the brushes into Photoshop Apply a layer mask to the illustration layer and select a brush to add some wear and tear to the artwork Reducing the Flow amount in the top toolbar helps to build up lots of detail exactly where you want it

A levels adjustment on the layer mask itself can also be useful to fine tune the amount of texturing Darkening the mask adds more texture, whereas lightening reduces its impact The final result is a cool looking retro style cartoon illustration, based on the art style of mid-century comics and advertisement prints The basic doodle is transformed into a stylised illustration by vectorising the drawing with tapered brush strokes and colour fills, then a few tweaks help mimic the visual traits of old prints, like the mis-registration effect, paper textures and subtle distressing to make it look like the ink has worn away So if you enjoyed this tutorial be sure to give the video a like to help recommend it to others

Subscribe to stick around for more of my content, and head over to my Spoon Graphics website for loads more free design resources As always thank you very much for watching, and I'll see you in the next one

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