Drawing Abe, from Paper Sketch to Digital Artwork

By Von Glitschka

Although I’ve been making my living as an illustrator and designer for a long time, I still have fun doing it. Here, I share a process I discovered while playing around with Adobe Illustrator Draw and Adobe Illustrator CC.

Using a photo of Abraham Lincoln as a reference, I make a simple contour drawing on vellum. My goal is to create intriguing patterns while still retaining enough of Abe's essence that he's recognizable.

I scan the final, refined sketch at 600 ppi.


Time to go digital. On an iPad Pro, I launch the Illustrator Draw app, create a new image layer, and select the scanned sketch from the iPad camera roll. I’ll use the sketch to guide my digital inking efforts.

I resize the image and lower the image layer opacity. Now I’m ready to draw with my five customized inking brushes.  For this illustration, I want an organic feel to the line—imperfect but still intentional, a nice balance of thick and thin. (There’s more information about custom brushes in the video below.)

For me, digital inking is far more forgiving than traditional. If I screw up a traditional drawing, I either start over or have to figure out how to work with the mistake. Freed of those limitations when I ink on my iPad, I experiment a lot. If I don’t like something, I simply two-finger-swipe to the left to undo it.

I also isolate areas and draw them on their own layers because it allows me to make sure my styling is consistent with other elements before I commit to any one area. Once I feel everything is looking good and is stylistically compatible, I tap on the top isolated layer once and select Merge Down until all the isolated layers are one single layer.

Click the image to watch a screengrab video of Glitschka inking in Illustrator Draw.


From Illustrator Draw, I export the file to Adobe Desktop Apps and select Illustrator CC. Within moments, the inked drawing opens in Illustrator on my desktop. (It really is that easy. It’s like having a personal creative wormhole.)

I select all of the shapes and click the Unite button on the Pathfinder panel to join the lines. The artwork has exactly the look I want; however, because every stroke of my pen in Illustrator Draw formed a vector shape, it has way too many anchor points. I need to clean it up to make it easier to work with. To reduce the number of anchor points, you can go to Object > Path > Simplify and experiment with the Curve Precision and Angle Threshold. (As you’ll see in the video below, I prefer to use a plugin to remove unnecessary anchor points.)

For the coloring stage, I place the outline of Abe’s head on its own layer and the interior shapes on a layer above, where they’re easily selectable.

When I work in this style, I initially set up a limited color palette and create a tonal family of shapes. The tonal family consists of eight base colors and eight accompanying shadow colors. For the line work, I set up process black made from c60 y20 m20 k100. This rich black will work well with the gamut of colors and reproduce well when printed.

Click to watch Glitschka color and shade the mosaic.

I start coloring by selecting an interior shape in my artwork, and using the Eyedropper tool, I sample the tonal family on my artboard to apply that color to the shape. For me, this is faster than clicking on a swatch color in the Swatches panel to fill each shape. I repeat this process until the base colors feel right and no one color dominates.

Now I want to give the flat colors depth by adding shading. First, I decide that the light should appear to be coming from a top-left source shining down. Then I select the Blob brush, which will match the style of my existing line work nicely, and use it to draw out the shading.

I always choose a pure magenta when I draw out my shading with the Blob brush so it doesn’t accidentally unite with other shapes in my artwork. To understand how I purposefully join the new shading shapes with the base colors using the Pathfinder and compound paths, watch the video above.

The shading adds a lot to the portrait.


I love adding textures to vector-based artwork, which can be too stark. One favorite is a splatter texture I created by loading an old toothbrush with India ink and flicking my thumb over the bristles onto white paper. I scanned the results at 600 ppi and saved it as a bitmap TIFF file. (I prefer bitmap textures to vector-based textures because bitmaps are more organic-looking and easier to use than vector-based textures, which can add thousands of anchor points. Bitmaps are also easier to edit in Photoshop, and they’ll auto-update inside illustrator after you edit them.)

I place that TIFF texture file on its own layer in my Illustrator file and set its color to process black. On a new layer above that, I place another speckle texture I created and colorize it yellow from the tonal family. Finally, I place a distressed texture I made by crumpling a printout of black toner into a ball, flattening it, crumpling it again in a different direction, flattening it, and so on. I color this texture white and adjust the opacity to 45% to eat away a little at the design. 

Click to see Glitschka appliy textures that give vector artwork a more organic look.

I did a very rough sketch of this idea about two years ago, but it wasn’t until I started experimenting in Illustrator Draw that I discovered a process I could use to pull off what you see here. Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.” (OK, what he actually said is more complicated, but that was the gist of it.) It’s a good principle, and it’s as applicable to design and illustration as it is to theoretical physics.