Get started with vector illustration in 10 easy steps

Ben the Illustrator explains how to create vector illustrations using Adobe Illustrator, explaining the key tools and offering expert tips.

For me personally, vector illustration is one of the most satisfying and exciting creative outputs there is – once you’ve learned the basics it’s pure enjoyment, playing with shapes and colour. This article will guide you through the first few tools and tips you’ll need to be on your way making vector illustrations with Adobe Illustrator.

So what exactly is vector illustration? Vector illustrations produced in Adobe Illustrator (as opposed to pixel-based illustrations produced in Photoshop) are essentially made up of lines and points, which form shapes, which you then build up in layers to produce the artwork.

Here I’ll take you through 10 steps that will introduce you to the fundamentals, including the key tools, and get you started on the road to translating your creative vision into incredible vector illustrations…

01. Setting up


The Artboard is the blank canvas you will create your vector illustration on

On first opening Illustrator, you’ll need an Artboard: this is the document/area you work on. Click File>New, and apply the size you’d like for your image (if size is irrelevant when you’re learning, choose A4 from the dropdown menu). In the Advanced section you can also choose from CMYK (if you’re illustrating for print) or RGB (if you’re working for the web).

When I work I always use Illustrator to trace from a scanned pencil drawing, although of course, you can draw freehand into Illustrator. If you’d like to trace from a scanned drawing then click File>Place and choose your drawing from your computer.

02. Save as you go

As you work it is best to get into the habit of saving your work as you go along. Firstly click File>Save As… to name your file and choose where to store it on your computer.

Every time you then want to save the file as it stands at any moment just click File>Save, or use the shortcut key Cmd+S. I recommend getting into the habit of saving like this every minute, so nothing is  ever lost should your computer crash. You can repeat this process to save separate, newer versions of the artwork as separate files.

03. The tools menu

You’ll see a great selection of tools in the menu on the left-hand side of your screen (the ‘toolbar’). Some of these, such as the pen tool and mesh tools, can take some time to learn. But when first getting started I recommend opting for the Pencil Tool (just click N to select it quickly –  this is the Pencil Tool’s shortcut key). If you have a Wacom tablet then you’ll find the drawing tools far easier to use, but you can still understand how it works from using a mouse.

04. Your first shape


Draw your first shape on the Artboard with the Pencil tool

Draw a shape on the artboard with the Pencil Tool. When you finish you’ll see it highlighted by a vector line, made up of vector points.


Your vector line is highlighted with vector points

f you draw a second shape, the first will no longer be highlighted or selected. You can choose to select shapes by clicking on the black arrow Selection Tool (shortcut key V).

05. Changing the look

With a shape selected, you can play with how it looks. For example the Stroke Menu Box (usually found on the right-hand side or click Window>Stroke) enables you to alter the thickness of the line and the Colour, and Swatches Menu Boxes (again, click Window>Colour/Swatches) let you choose colours for both the outline and ‘fill’. To switch between the fill and outline colours, click between the filled and outlined squares in the top right of the menu box.

06. Colour palette


The Swatch menu contains a range of colours to choose from

For a wider selection of colours, open a palette. In the top right corner of the Swatch menu box click Open Swatch Library>Colour Books. Then I recommend starting out with Pantone Process Coated for a good selection of colours.

07. Shape tools


The Shape Tools are perfect for something more graphic than hand-drawn

If you’re not ready to be drawing into Illustrator, or want to create something more graphic than hand-drawn, the Shape Tools are perfect. Use shortcut key M for rectangles and L for circles; there are  more to choose from by holding down the Shape Tool icon in your toolbar.

Select each shape to play with its outline or fill colour

Select each shape to play with its outline or fill colour

To create a shape, click and drag the Shape Tool cursor on your artboard. You’ll see that these act in the same way as shapes drawn with the pencil tool. Again, select each one to play with their outline or fill colours. To create a square or a perfect circle, hold down the Shift key as you click and drag the shape on your artboard.

08. Free Transform


As you create shapes you’ll see how they layer on top of each other

Being a vector, any shape you make is adjustable independently of everything else around it, so colours can be changed at any time. You can also resize or rotate a shape using the Free Transform Tool (shortcut key E). You can use this tool to squash or stretch a shape. To resize the shape without altering the shape itself, hold down Shift while dragging.

Unlike stretching an object in a pixel-based program like Photoshop,  when you enlarge a vector shape, there is no loss in quality. As you create shapes you’ll see how they layer on top of each other: a new shape will always be above previous shapes as you build up an image. In the Layers Menu Box you can alter where a shape sits by dragging it up or down in the list.

09. Working with type

Illustrator also has everything you need for working with type

Illustrator also has everything you need for working with type

Aside from the drawing and shape tools, Adobe Illustrator also has everything you need for working with type. To get started, select the Type Tool from your toolbar, click anywhere on your artboard and start typing. You can then select your type and – as before – resize, rotate or colour your type however you like. You can of course also choose different fonts, lettering thicknesses and spacing options from the Character Menu Box (click Window>Type>Character).

Export your vector illustration as a jpeg to share or show online

Export your vector illustration as a jpeg to share or show online

When you have your first vector masterpiece complete you may want to export it as a jpeg to share or show online. To do this simply click File>Export…, name your artwork, choose JPEG from the drop-down menu and click Export.

10. Going further

Vector illustration is all about building up shapes into a recognisable image

Vector illustration is all about building up shapes into a recognisable image

As I said at the beginning, vector illustration really is an enjoyable process. You can achieve work that is anything from bold and eye-catching to subtle and elegant. As with anything worthwhile in life. it takes time and dedication. But starting with a basic understanding of the tools mentioned, followed by further learning about and experimenting with other tools and effects, you’ll soon be on your way to creating professional vector illustrations.

Creating a vector illustration like this takes time and dedication - but is ultimately very rewarding

Creating a vector illustration like this takes time and dedication – but is ultimately very rewarding

Do you have any tips for newbie illustrators you wish you’d been told earlier in your career? Give a little back to the community in the comments box below!

Words: Ben the Illustrator

Based in the Somerset town of Frome in the UK, Ben is a nature-loving picture maker and founder of The Mighty Pencil. Follow him on Twitter @BenIllustrator.




Adobe Illustrator for beginners: 11 top tips

Master some cool tools in Adobe’s vector illustration software with our quickfire guide.

Adobe Illustrator is a vector drawing tool, meaning you can create artwork that can be scaled infinitely without any loss of quality. It’s a fantastic tool for logo design, creating complex vector artwork and playing with illustrated typography design. But coming from Photoshop you may not be savvy with Illustrator and its unique ways: so we’re here to help.

From using Bézier points and curves to strokes and fills and adding a more natural look to your vector artwork, read on for some Illustrator secrets for those new to the application.

01. Get to grips with Bézier


Bézier control points and curves let you create just about any shape you can think of

Bézier points and curves are the thing you need to master if you’re going to be able to use Illustrator to create – well, just about anything. Whilst rather tricky to get to grips with at first, Bézier control points and curves offer the freedom to create just about any shape you can think of.

Manipulating points controls the curves, and using the Alt/Shift keys in conjunction with the pen tool (clicking on a curve to add more control points for instance using Alt) you can start to define complex organic shapes in no time at all. The best advice is to practice and discover for yourself how they work.

02. Bézier shortcuts

But a great tip for controlling Bézier curves with more accuracy is to use the Alt key after you’ve created a point. Hold down the Alt key after creating a point and you can position the next point without manipulating the curve.

In addition, holding down Shift will snap your next point to a 45-degree angle. By using these kind of shortcuts you can easily trace raster images in Illustrator (maybe for a logo design and so on).

03. Strokes and paths


Use the Strokes panel to adjust the weight and type of stroke

By default, Illustrator strokes your path (whether created using the Pen tool or a shape tool, etc) with a 1pt black (and fills your shape with white if you connect up the points). You can change the colour or fill using the swatches panel (or indeed the tool options bar at the top of the interface).

The small stroke and fill tool below the main tool panel lets you swap between the two when the object is selected. Using the Strokes panel you can adjust the weight and type of stroke, as well as where the stroke is applied (from CS6).

04. The Appearance panel


The Appearance panel gives a quick overview of your strokes and fills at any time

To get a quick overview of your strokes and fills at any time (along with any effects you’ve applied) use the Appearance panel. You can also quickly change the stroke and fill type and colour from here, including opacity. If you’ve applied an effect, you can quickly click the name of it to go back and tweak it. Incredibly useful.

05. Easy brushes


Use the Brushes panel to quickly apply paint strokes to your lines

If you thought Illustrator and vector graphics was about solid shapes and non-natural media effects, think again. You can, using the Brushes panel and Illustrator’s huge range of brush libraries, quickly apply, for instance, paint strokes to your lines.

Double-clicking the brush in the Brushes panel enables you to edit it – and these changes will be reflected automatically on your illustration. You can even create brushes from scratch using vector graphics you’ve designed. The possibilities are endless.

06. Use the Symbolism tools


Use Symbols to create complex illustrations quickly

Similarly, Symbols are a great way of creating complex artwork quickly. Say you want a flock of birds. Simply draw one bird, then select it and using the Symbols panel arrow menu, you can turn it into a symbol. Next, select the Symbol Sprayer from the tool panel and spray it around your page.

You can then use the other Symbolism tools to resize, colour and rotate only certain instances of the symbol, giving a more natural effect. Try it, it’s very easy!

07. Warp with ease


Experiment with the effects tools for original results

If your objects are looking a little uniform, you can use the effects tools to warp, roughen, pucker, bloat and generally subtly change their appearance.

In the Tool panel, click and hold on the Width tool to bring out the effects tools flyout. Then, use one or each tool (they are brush-based) to gently warp and tweak your object. By double-clicking on each tool in the flyout, you can change options – so experiment!

08. Quickly edit type


Illustrator is brilliant for editing type

One of the great things about Illustrator is its fantastic type tools. It’s great for laying out type as part of an illustration, but better for editing type. Type out a font, make it larger using the Character panel or Tool Options bar. Then select the box the type is in (not the text itself) and go to Type>Create Outlines.

You can now edit the letters as you see fit by adjusting the Bézier points. It’s great for experimenting with new variations on standard fonts. And there’s some even better stuff coming with Illustrator CC.

09. Selecting similar objects


You can easily change the colour of many objects at once

Once you’ve become accustomed to drawing more complex shapes in Illustrator and have built up an illustration, you may want to change the colour of many objects at once. But some of those objects may be partially hidden under others, and there may be absolutely loads of them!

So to make things easier, select one of your objects and then go to Select>Same and then choose the option you want (maybe Fill Colour). All your objects with that fill colour will then be selected and you can change them all at once by using the swatches panel.

10. Easy blends


The Blend tool is a great way to create gradients

There are a few ways to create gradients in Illustrator (the Gradient panel and Gradient Mesh tools are worth experimenting with and getting your head around) but a great way is to use the Blend tool.

Simply create two shapes with different colour fills (for a gradient effect choose no stroke) and then, with the Blend tool selected, click on the first object and then the second. If you double-click the Blend tool in the Tool Panel before doing this you can change the type of blend it applies (and if you keep your blend objects selected it will apply the changes to that blend).

11. Use presets with the new Pencil Tool


Quick presets let you create a smooth, fluid path with fewer points

If you’re using Illustrator as part of the Creative Cloud then the Pencil Tool now lets you use quick presets to create a smooth, fluid path with fewer points, or a path that more closely matches your drawing intent.

As well as curves, you can now use the Pencil Tool to easily draw straight lines too, which you can constrain to 0, 45 and 90 degree angles if you choose. Adobe’s also added the ability to continue drawing from the end points of an existing path, and you can now close your paths with a curved or straight line. These two videos show how: