This site was last updated 15/3/18
Turning a photograph into a drawing is the subject of this Serif DrawPlus tutorial. In this particular exercise we will be concentrating on turning a photo into an Avatar. However, this method can be applied to any photo of any subject, whether the result we are after is a caricature, a digital vector drawing or as a basis for a cartoon.
With Serif DrawPlus X3 there is the excellent AutoTrace studio that can do a superb job of turning a photo into vector art, but what if you only have an earlier version of DrawPlus at your disposal? If you are using DrawPlus X3, what if you are unhappy with the results you have achieved? This tutorial will work best with any version of Serif DrawPlus that includes layers. I’m going to keep this simple but the project can become more involved and intricate depending on the results we are after.
Remember, whatever you do, have FUN!
Ken (Major Confusion)
Please roll your mouse over this image to see the end result we will be aiming for.
We begin our avatar with the photo. Avatars tend to be square: 100 pixels x 100 pixels, often slightly smaller, sometimes larger, but definitely square in dimensions. Taking our photo we crop it to these square proportions. It doesn’t matter what size our image is, but it helps if the photo itself is as large as possible as this will provide the details we need once we begin drawing; the most important thing about the photo at this stage is composition. Head and part of the shoulders is good, more than this is too much. Avatars also tend to have larger heads than the rest of the body; so to begin with, we want the head to take up roughly one half of our image, the neck and shoulders to take up the other half. We will be adjusting these dimensions later during the drawing process. A word of warning, do not use the original photo, carry out all image cropping on a copy. I prepared my photo in Serif PhotoPlus first.
A word of thanks is in order here to Ali from the Serif forums. Ali has kindly donated one of her photos to be used in this tutorial. If you would like to follow this tutorial using this image, it is available here to download, pre-cropped and is the same version as used throughout the tutorial. Please right click in the image that pops up and save to your hard drive for the image to be made available when working through the tutorial, thank you.
Users of Serif DrawPlus X3 have the benefit of being able to directly open an image file (jpg, png etc) in DrawPlus; the image is automatically accepted as the basis for a new project at the dimensions of the cropped photo file – fantastic! For those without DrawPlus X3, start a new drawing setting the size of the page to the same pixel dimensions as the cropped photo, then import the photo. Our example is 786x786 pixels.
There are two options here:
1) trace the photo, or
2) copy the photo.
For those who doubt their ability to copy, leave the photo on the page. For those who are confident of their ability, drag the photo onto the pasteboard. For the purpose of this tutorial, keeping things simple, I will be leaving the photo on the page and tracing. For those interested, the avatar on my pages was drawn with a few photos scattered on the pasteboard, not traced.
We now have our photo on the page. The first thing to do is name this layer ‘background’. Add another layer called ‘trace’ and copy the photo from the background layer and paste it into this new ‘trace’ layer. Make the image on the ‘trace’ layer 40 to 50 % transparent (there won’t be any noticeable difference until we begin to draw).
Take some time looking at the image, we want to simplify this but not turn it into a caricature, we are looking for a more sympathetic interpretation. Caricatures are fairly easy to create in that certain features of the person tend to be emphasised. These can be funny, but I feel they can also become quite cruel at times, so avoid them (unless I’m making fun of myself). However... having said this we will be emphasising some of the photo – Ali’s eyes and smile will be made more pronounced. These help create a better looking avatar when shrunk down to smaller dimensions.
Add a new layer sandwiched between the two layers calling this one ‘shoulders’. We will be drawing the neck and shoulders on this layer.
Draw the outline of the neck using your tool of choice (mine happens to be the pen tool and is used throughout this tutorial) using as few nodes as possible; this keeps a) the file size down and b) the line as simple and smooth as possible. You will see from this image I have gone over the chin area and into the hair area too, this is deliberate. The head will be on a new layer above this layer and the hair will be on another layer above this, we will create these layers as and when needed. I’ve highlighted the shape and nodes in the screenshot by using an outline to help see the nodes drawn, this is not necessary for our avatar. The only part of the avatar we draw that uses lines at all will be the outer eyes.
With the outline drawn we need to concentrate on the fill (choose no line from the line menu or click on the line in the swatches and click on the transparent swatch). There are options here; we can either have a solid fill or a more subtle gradient fill.
For the Major Confusion avatar I went for the solid fills; these have the advantage of being very simple and can be built up to provide light and shade. We cover this method when we draw in Ali’s nose.
For this part of the image though, I will use gradients to provide a subtle light and shade for the neck as we only really need to keep this part of the avatar very basic but a solid fill here lacks depth and building up more shapes with colour makes the avatar quite hard whereas we are looking for a more feminine take on this image.
The elliptical gradient fill has a centre swatch colour (highlight) of HSL 9, 19, 67 and an outer swatch (shadow) of HSL 9, 19, 49. The screenshot shows how the elliptical fill is placed. To see the path of the gradient simply click the paint bucket icon in the tools toolbar and the path of the fill will be seen, clicking on the line between the coloured circles will place another fill point in the gradient (see pearls below).
Now let’s turn our attention to the shoulders. For this image I am going to use some ‘artistic license’ and alter the shape of the right shoulder to match the left as this will help our final image. We will keep the dress as simple as possible so as not to distract from the face. We’re going to ‘cheat’ here by drawing Ali’s left shoulder with three nodes, copy and paste this shape then flip the copy horizontally, moving it into position of the right shoulder.
If this were a picture of a man I would add some highlight and shadow shapes to the neck to aid definition, as it is, with Ali’s image, her necklace lends itself perfectly to creating a feminine neck definition. We make the necklace up of the individual pearl shapes using a Quick Shape circle given a radial filled gradient with cream outer and white inner fills. This is copied, pasted as many times as needed and moved into position The stone set pendant is draw with two shapes that have a blue white highlight and a blue grey shadow using the elliptical fill. Little gold coloured ellipses are drawn at either end of the pendant where it joins the pearls. These won’t really show in a final small avatar, but I like to add these details if the avatar is to be used at a larger size.
One thing that helps as we progress through the drawing is to turn the ‘trace’ layer off and on using the eye icon in the layers tab as we line up the details. To source colours for the image we can often turn off the drawing layers so that just the photo is showing, this makes it easier to source colours using the colour picker.
I make a point of naming parts as I go along with the drawings, so on this drawing I now have objects named as with this screenshot. The ‘pearls’ are all selected and grouped and so are the parts of the stone set ‘loop’; these two groups are then grouped together as ‘necklace’.
We’ve finished working with the shoulder layer for now.
Save the file.
Add a new layer called face.
We begin this section by again tracing an outline, this time of the face, bear in mind that the hair will be covering part of this shape so we want to go a little further into the forehead area and keep the outline simple. The detail for the hair will come into effect when we draw the hair at a later stage. Notice the ears are left, these will be drawn later.
Once more choose no line and a gradient elliptical fill. We will use three colours for the file this time. The centre is HSL 17, 17, 70. Click almost at the end of the fill line to add another swatch - a small bucket icon is added to the line – set this colour to HSL 19, 21, 44 and the end node to HSL 19, 21, 32.
Where did I get these numbers from? I used the eye dropper next to the swatch, dragged it across to the photo and selected a) a highlight colour b) a colour near the shadows and c) a shadow tone that is slightly darker than b) by lowering the L setting. A little artistic license was used here as the actual photo has a brownish tint - I went for slightly lighter, pinkish tints.
Adjust the fill shape as best as possible to fit in with highlight and shadow area of the photo. This doesn’t need to be an exact match, but something that looks convincing - see the screenshot. Name this shape ‘head’. Looking at the small window in the pages tab helps us get an idea of how a small avatar will look.
With this fill selected, draw the two ears. Select the fill tool and slide the centre fill node towards the lighter node and move the elliptical fill to one side. Name them l-ear or r-ear and, in the layers tab, drag each one below the head. While we are at the ear, Ali’s image has one earring showing, we’ll add another so as to balance the drawing, using the same pearl and gold end fills used previously. Draw these and, giving both an ellipse fill, drag to where the fill looks correct then group the pearl and gold fitting from each earring together and drag below the ‘head’ object.
Save our progress.
This is where we begin to add details to the face and Ali’s features become recognisable. We can start anywhere, but I like to begin with the eyes. Ali’s eyes have make up, so we can get away with making a pronounced eye line.
Trace the outline of the eye slightly larger than the size in the photo. Make the outline 3pts. If this were a man, I would take the shadow or darker shadow tone of the face for the outline and make it a 1pt line.
Add Irises – again I’m going to use artistic license – Ali’s eyes are brown these will be lightened slightly, a gradient fill used then another gradient fill in the opposite direction for the pupil. It’s not entirely necessary particularly as they will be reduced in size for the avatar, but if a slightly larger size is needed this will add a little more realism to the eye.
To this we add top and bottom eyelashes to enhance the feminine shape of the eye. Drag the eyelashes below the eye shape. Finish off by adding eyebrows.
Name each of these parts, and then group as l-eye or r-eye, so that we can identify each object if we need to return and alter anything.
Next up is the smile. Working in a similar way to how we have so far, draw the teeth first – just a white filled shape, no need for detail, followed by the lips; using the eyedropper to select our lip colour. We can make the smile slightly larger too if we wish. I’ve kept to a similar size, just emphasizing the teeth colour, this is sufficient for our purposes here. Group the “lips” and save.
Now we turn our attention to the shadow surrounding the nose. This is built up using at least three shapes and colours. It can be created using just one shape and colour, but I think this lacks depth and the main focus of an avatar is the face, so deserves our attention.
Begin by drawing the darkest part. For this the colour H9, S19, and L59 was chosen. Using this same colour but with a transparency of 40%, the outer nose is drawn. Finally a highlight using a linear gradient fill is drawn; the colours begin as H9, S19, and L74 for the darker part and end as H353, S17, and L83 for the light part. Group these three shapes as ‘nose’.
Save our file.
The face can finish here if the image looks right and we are happy with the avatar so far; we can now move on to the hair. Other things we can add here are shadows and highlights using the same method we used for the nose remembering to think about facial structure as we draw or trace these items. Please bear in mind we do not need to be too finicky with small details as the avatar will be much smaller.
I will continue to add some detail by providing a little more definition for the shadowed sides, cheeks, chin and eye areas using a similar method as used for the nose. In addition I will be using elliptical gradient fills and elliptical gradient transparency for the cheeks and chin.
If you have added some more detail, remember to save the file again before continuing.
Beginning our work on the hair for Ali’s avatar requires a little fore thought and planning. We need to add the background hair to the ‘shoulder’ layer to begin with before moving on to a new layer for the rest of the hair. Draw the lower portion of the hair that represents the hair falling behind the ears and neck, either dragging the shape down through the layer or use the quick way by choosing ‘Send to Back’ from the arrange tab (DPX2 and earlier users will need to use the menu bar for this action). Colour for this area is set to H90, S8, and L5.
Now we can add a new layer called hair adding the background shape first set to the same colour as the previous hair shape. Because this is an avatar we will be making the head larger and the shoulders smaller, consequently, we will be using our ‘artistic license’ and drawing Ali’s hair shorter - just a fraction lower than the chin for now. We can adjust this once we have resized the head and shoulders and blend the base of the hair into the shoulder area.
Keeping the hair simple so as not to detract from the face, add some highlights that loosely match the photo. We do not need to be exact here and spend too much time on detail because when the image is reduced to avatar size, a lot of small details will be lost. To help finish the hair off, select the highlights in turn and add either plain or gradient transparency.
Save our work so far.
Before we continue, save our drawing under a new name (avatar-final) in case we want to return to our original avatar drawing at a later stage to make some other alterations. Perhaps we would like to try and create a slightly more photo-realistic drawing and add finer details or try a caricature of ourselves without the exaggeration of the avatar. All work will now continue on this new file, our original work will be safe.
Now the alterations begin to turn this drawing into an avatar. Delete both the background and trace layers so we only have three layers with our drawing - shoulders, face and hair.
Select the ‘shoulders’ layer. Drag across the drawing with the pointer tool selecting all objects on this layer. Using the transform tab, anchor the layer objects to bottom centre, link the H and W figures and, selecting either box, type in half the value. The neck and shoulders shrink in size.
Clicking on the padlock icon for this layer in the layers tab, lock this layer so that nothing can be selected and transformed in error during the next step.
At the bottom of the layers tab, click on the ‘Edit all Layers’ button, enabling us to select objects on more than one layer; drag the pointer across the entire drawing again to select all objects on the head and hair layers.
Anchor the transform tab to top centre and increase the H figure by around one third to one half the current size; what we are looking for is a head that takes up roughly three quarters of the image size and be the avatar’s focal point.
Generally, if we can make the head the right size it should sit over the neck without us needing to make any alterations to the neck later.
With Ali’s avatar this leaves some gaps. Unlock the shoulder layer, selecting the nodes, resize the hair that sits on the bottom of the shoulder layer upwards to cover the ears as we had it before. This may still leave a little to do to the hair itself to help it fit the appearance of the avatar.
If we are going with the second option, open the image in our image editor – I use Serif PhotoPlus – and resize using the best re-sampling option available to you, for PhotoPlus this is Lanczos3, and set the pixel dimensions to whatever maximum pixel dimensions we need to upload the avatar at. Export this file in the format required appending the size to the end of the word avatar (this way we can keep the original png or tiff file and resize it again for other websites). If jpg is needed try not to compress the file at all because most sites use some form of compression when uploading the avatar to the server. Most photo editing programs provide the file size in kb when exporting the image as jpg or png.
Now we have completed our avatar drawing, why not try drawing other family members?
To help with another variation, here’s one I drew of Mick on the Serif forums. Again the skin tones have been lightened slightly and a slightly exaggerated smile drawn.
Our avatar is now complete. There are a two options open to us as to how it is exported. We can either export directly from DrawPlus at the correct pixel dimensions or (as I do) export as a png or tiff at full size, anything from 96 to 300 dpi – this provides lots of pixels for our image editing program to work with when we reduce the size of this image to the required avatar size, preventing it from becoming too blocky looking.
Roll your mouse over this image to compare the before and after images again.