Create a Painted Portrait Effect in Illustrator Using the Bristle Brush

Create a Painted Portrait Effect in Illustrator Using the Bristle Brush

In the past, when I wanted to create a paint-like effect, I always opened Photoshop and relied on the trusty old bitmap graphic. That is, until I discovered the Bristle Brush in Illustrator. The Bristle Brush (which is actually a set of brushes) allows you to paint with layers of vector strokes that apply different shades and transparencies to the stroke. The result is a beautiful and realistic looking paint stroke that is 100% vector.

In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how to use the Bristle Brush to create a painting similar to the one I created below.

Step 1 – Tracing the Original Image

First up, find a good portrait photo. I used this image by Helga Weber.

I copied and pasted the image onto a new art board in Illustrator.

Then I clicked (Object | Live Trace | Tracing Options). In the Tracing Options window, I chose “One Color Logo” for the Preset, and then bumped the Threshold up to 220. Click “Trace” and you’ll see that the result is a solid black shape of the girl.

Once you’ve got your trace, click (Object | Expand) to convert the trace to an editable object, and reduce the color to 20% black. With the shape selected click (Object | Hide | Selection) or (Cmd+3) to hide the shape from view.

Very Important: You need to repeat the above steps 3 times. Pasting the image on a new layer each time. For each image, reduce the threshold setting in the Tracing Options window down to (160, 80, and 50) to reveal more detail with each trace. Once traced and expanded, increase the black color by 20% (so… 40%, 60%, 80%).

Also, note that when you paste the image it lands in the exact place the previous images did. So the resulting traced shapes are directly on top of one another.

Step 2 – Painting the Traces

Now that you have all of your traced images on separate layers, you can click (Object | Show All) or (Cmd+Option+3) to unhide all of the shapes. You should have something like this.

Now let’s open the Bristle Brush Library. Click the drop down menu in the upper right corner of the brush panel, and select (Open Brush Library | Bristle Brush).

The brush we’ll be using is the Mop. Our color palette will be shades of blue. So for this first background image, I’m going to choose a very light blue. (C:20 M:0 Y:0 K:0)

Now turn off layers 2,3 and 4 to view only the solid background shape again. With the shape selected click (Object | Ungroup). You may have to do this 2-3 times before the shape is completely ungrouped. Now select the shape again, and choose “Draw Inside” from the bottom of the tools panel. Note: this option will not be available if you are clicking on grouped shapes or multiple shapes at once.

Now click “None” for the fill.

Now select the brush tool, and begin painting in the shape. When you release the brush stroke it will be masked by the original shape.

Very Important: You will need to repeat the above steps for each layer. Some layers may have multiple shapes, once ungrouped, that will have to be colored separately. After all layers are completed you should end up with something like this:


Step 3 – Embellishing with Vector Paint

For the final step, I added some vector paint resources that I had on hand. I used elements from the Vector Paint Drips set, and the Loose Splatters set. I’ve highlighted them in red below so you can get an idea of placement. These are all on a layer below all others.

And below is the final piece. I hope this tutorial has inspired you to create something unique with the Bristle Brush. It truly is a powerful vector tool.

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Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a graphic designer who loves working with various media. He combines traditional art styles with a little experimentation and digital flare. Nathan's works have contained everything from ink and paint to leaves and a box of dirt. Everything is fare game when it comes to his approach to art. Nathan lives in Austin, Texas where he has been working as a designer for 10 years. More of his work can be viewed at GraphicMonkee.

44 Comments

(+add yours)
  1. Alex Molett

    Sweet tutorial! I’m stuck on the painting part. The “Draw Inside” option isnt available & the object has been ungrouped totally so I dont know what’s wrong : [

    • Hi Alex… Make sure that you are only selecting a single object in order for the Draw Inside option to become available.

  2. Alex Molett

    k ya i can’t figure this out. Have you ever considered doing video tutorials instead?

    • Danielle

      Yea, I thought I was the only one. This is a very confusing tutorial, no offence, but this really is a bad tutorial.

  3. dexter

    wow!! this is really awesome – thanks a lot for sharing this masterpiece!!

  4. aman

    I really can’t figure out the “ungrouping” part I ungrouped a layer twice so now ungroup is not available also Draw inside option is not available.

    • Z FUX

      Aman, You must be selecting multiple objects at once. When you ungroup the vector and expand it, in the most of the cases it will generate a greater part of the draw in one unic part, but there will be many other small pieces of the drawing that will remain as single and separated parts. You must do the painting selecting once of these objects at a time. It really works and is a great resource… try it again…

  5. matie

    thanks, very nice and eyecatching. i always try to be good in this program, but sometimes is hard for me. if you allow me i decide to consult w/ you about this matter. thanks

  6. Awesome tutorial Dude.. I just started using Illustrator after checking this tutorial.. thanks for such a nice guide… :)

  7. wow creative man…nice work
    thanks for share

  8. Thanks for this tutorial! Do you have any ideas on how to make the image in CS6 since it now uses Image Trace instead of Live Trace and does not have a “one color logo ” option?

    • Danielle

      Oh, I was wondering about that, ’cause my Illustrator also has Image Trace instead of live trace.

      • Andrea

        You have to go to window>Image trace and it’ll bring up the image trace panel which will allow you to change the settings just like you would with the live trace

  9. This tutorial is very interesting and creative.

  10. :)) Very good. Photoshop version cs5?

  11. Thanks Nathan for keeping up good allocation time by time. This is something really nice trick idea. I’ve never created a painted portrait effect before but just following your tips I just made one not perfect but good enough to impress my friends.

  12. Goh

    Thanks for sharing! I like this tutorial very much,
    result looks better than the one create by software!
    but could u please teach us how to do it using AI CS6 trace?
    Adobe change CS6 trace totally different…
    Thanks!

  13. Liva

    Sorry, but I’m stucked already in first step.
    I got illustrator6, and no command- object- live trace- trace options.

    soo stupic

    • atte

      in cs6 it is image trace

  14. Chin

    Help. I can’t figure out the ‘draw inside’ part. I was able to select draw inside but the color palette changes to black and white. Even I put [C:20 M:0 Y:0 K:0], it displays as white.

  15. Fantastic goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff
    previous to and you’re just too magnificent. I actually like what you have acquired here, certainly like what you are stating and the way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it sensible. I cant wait to read far more from you. This is really a terrific web site.

  16. Juzaily Ramli

    Great tutorial, but I can’t seem to follow it. Using CS6, and it’s got Image Trace instead of Live Trace. Should not be a problem but…. the other details like Path Fitting, Minimum Area, etc. now goes on percentage instead of pixels.

    Can anyone help please?

  17. mujeeb

    hi nathan
    when i ungrouping second layer its comes all small small particle. so which i want to know with you if we gonna one one by small small selection it will take too much time can you tell me some easy way to inside drawing method.

  18. Evan

    Hi! When I do the separate layers, thee white covers up the background layers, so that I only see the top layer. What should I do?

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  30. I need to do so. Thank you for sharing.

  31. wil

    I tried to make this tutorial for hours and the final result is not the same… a great effect, but the way it is explained is a great s**t :P Thank you for sharing anyway

  32. Can you please describe little bit more about “ungrouping” part of this tutorial?

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