Turn a real-life drawing into a digital illustration

Tracing real-life drawings is a great way to practice using the shape tools and get the hang of the incredibly powerful and versatile Pen tool. With this guide, you’ll see just how easy this is. And don’t worry if you think you’re not that great at drawing — once you’ve traced your image, you can easily refine it or even completely transform it.

We’ve included a line drawing you can use to follow along with this tutorial, which you can download below.

Download Sketch

Pen tool basics

The Pen tool is a very useful and versatile tool. To get the hang of it, there are few key things to keep in mind: 

  1. From the moment you place your first anchor point, you’ll be drawing a continuous path.
  2. Anchor points can be sharp or smooth.
  3. In addition, smooth points have direction lines, which are adjustable.
  4. To finish drawing path, you can close it or leave it open.

To add a sharp anchor point, simply click anywhere. Sharp points are also known as corner points.

To add a smooth point, instead of simply clicking, hold down the mouse and drag. Smooth points have direction lines which determine the direction of the path.

To add a smooth point, instead of simply clicking, hold down the mouse and drag. Smooth points have direction lines which determine the direction of the path.

If you’d like to make some adjustments after adding a point, you can press and hold the Command ⌘ key, then drag either of the direction line’s endpoints. You can also delete the most recently added anchor point by pressing the Backspace ⌫ key.

When you add a smooth point, you can also break apart its direction lines. To do that, click and drag to create a smooth point, then press and hold the Option ⌥ key to break the two sides apart, making sure to keep the Option ⌥ key pressed until you release your mouse.

When you add a smooth point, you can also break apart its direction lines. To do that, click and drag to create a smooth point, then press and hold the Option ⌥ key to break the two sides apart, making sure to keep the Option ⌥ key pressed until you release your mouse.

Closed and open paths

A path is finished by closing it or leaving it open. To close a path, click the first anchor point or press the Enter ⏎ key. To leave a path open, you can double-click anywhere or press the Esc key.

First steps

Before you get the shape tools out, first examine the drawing. Illustrations are commonly made up of a few main shapes and smaller ones that add detail, so first try to identify its main shapes. In our drawing, that would be the hair, head, arms, body, legs, and skateboard. We’ll start with those main shapes and move on to the details later.

Drawing the head and hair

Using the tips and tricks outlined above, let’s trace the basic hair shape. Don’t worry if the shape doesn’t look quite right at first, you can refine it later. The color we’re using here is #67060D, but feel free to chose your own.

Now would be a good time to draw the ear — we’ll do this by subtracting one shape from another. From the Pixelmator Pro menu at the top of your screen, choose Tool > Draw > Ellipse and draw an ellipse over the ear. Select both layers in the Layers sidebar, Control ⌃‑click them and choose Subtract Shapes.

For simple round shapes, like the head, it’s easiest to also use a basic ellipse shape. Draw another ellipse, then move it below the hair layer. The color we’re using for the head is #FF8860. To refine the shape of the head without having to adjust anchor points and direction lines, you can use the Transform tool in Pixelmator Pro, which works nondestructively with shape layers. Choose Edit > Transform (or press the Command ⌘T keyboard shortcut), then resize and reshape the layer. To draw the neck, you can use the Pen tool.

Drawing the arms, legs, and torso

We’ll stick with the trusty Pen tool for the body and in the video below you’ll see one way you could draw the arms and torso. In our illustration, these are one shape and the legs are made up of two main shapes. For the arms and torso, the color is #FFB839.

Tip

When you see that other shapes will cover certain parts of the shape you’re drawing, you don’t have to worry about getting it exactly right. For example, we don’t need to draw the bottom of the torso exactly because the legs will cover it.

This is a flat illustration so it doesn’t have lines and shadows in the classic sense but we still need to add depth. There are lots of different ways to do this — we’ll use slightly darker colors in certain areas, but not necessarily exactly where shadows would fall.

Here, we’ve filled the leg closer to the viewer with #0F9FA4 and the other with #007477. After drawing it, drag the darker leg behind the lighter one in the Layers sidebar.

Another way to add some depth is using some darker shadow shapes, like here, under the arm. It doesn’t look exactly like a shadow but it definitely adds depth. The color we’ve used here is #F68F00. Draw the shadow to be slightly larger than the area it should fill, then use it to create a Clipping Mask. This way, the shadow will fill the entire shape and you won’t have to precisely draw its edges.

Feel free to experiment with other ways of adding depth!

Drawing the skateboard

The skateboard itself is another relatively simple shape, which the Pen tool is perfect for. The color here is #50A6C7.

We’ll add some depth here too — duplicate the shape you just drew and make it darker (we’re using #003A55), then move it below the original shape. After doing this, you’ll need to edit the path of the darker layer manually to make it line up correctly with the ends of the lighter layer.

Tip

To quickly duplicate a layer, press and hold the Command ⌘ and Option ⌥ keys, then drag the layer you’d like to duplicate.

For the wheels, a neat trick to getting a consistent cylindrical shape is to draw two ellipses and edit the anchor points of one of them to extend it back to the original. Below, you can see what that process looks like.

To do this, first draw an ellipse. The darker wheel color is #92213A. Then, duplicate the ellipse, move it to the right edge of the wheel, and divide that path. To do that, make the shape editable To quickly make a shape editable after drawing it, you can press the Enter ⏎ key — this will show the shape’s anchor points and let you edit them. Then, Control ⌃‑click an anchor point and choose Divide Path. Move the two new anchor points towards the other ellipse. To make the shape closed again, Control ⌃‑click one of the end points, choose Start Drawing and finish the path. Finally, change the color of the longer shape to #FF1449 and, in the Layers sidebar, move it below the darker ellipse.

Finishing touches

To finish off the illustration, you can add some smaller details as well as a background. Be creative! And if you’d like to check out our finished artwork together with all the layers, you can also download the Pixelmator Pro file below.

Download Illustration


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