How To Create a Retro Style Cartoon Character Illustration (+ FREE Halftone Brushes!)

everyone this is Chris from Spoon Graphics back with another video tutorial. Today I’m going to take you through the process
of creating a retro mid-century illustration, complete with distressed print effects. We’ll use Adobe Illustrator to draw the initial
artwork, then transfer it over to Photoshop to dirty it up with textures. It is possible to create the entire artwork
in either application, but I find the best results come from making the most of the strengths
of each software. If you search for images of 1950s cartoons,
you’ll find some great inspiration. The illustrations are sometimes so stylised
that they’re made using basic shapes and lines, so even if you’re not an expert artist, you
can still create stunning illustrative work from something that’s little more than a stick
figure. I’ll show you how to achieve certain visual
traits that give the artwork the appearance of an retro matchbook print, such as the limited
use of colour, halftone shading, mis-registration effects and the all important old paper texture
that turns the clean and crisp vector illustration into an nostalgic cartoon full of character! Like all illustrative forms of art, it’s best
to start off-screen using pen and paper to draw a basic character concept. If you think you’re rubbish at drawing, don’t
worry. Look closely at some existing examples and
you’ll see most are in the style of basic doodles. You’re welcome to download my masterpiece
to follow along with this tutorial. It took me about 30 seconds using a ball-point
pen on some scrap paper, but you’ll see how those awful hands and weirdly shaped legs
add to the character of the art style. Open up Adobe Illustrator and create a new
document. Go to File>Place and navigate to this sketch
file. Scale it to fit the artboard, then in the
Transparency panel, reduce the opacity to 20% so it’s just subtly visible. To avoid accidentally selecting this reference
image while tracing, go to Object>Lock>Selection. Clear the default white fill, leaving just
a black stroke. We’ll begin with the head, so use an Ellipse
to draw a more accurate circular shape. Before releasing, use the Spacebar to move
the shape into position. Draw a second shape to represent the visor. My sketch is a bit rough here, so eyeball
the position yourself. Hold the Shift key to constrain the ellipse
into a perfect circle. Grab the Scissors tool from under the Eraser
tool’s menu group, then snip the circles where they intersect. To easily snap to these points, make sure
you have Smart Guides turned on from the View menu. Hold the CMD key to quickly toggle back to
the selection tool to select the unwanted portion, then delete it. With the Pen tool, click the open end to continue
one of the paths to form the helmet outline. Click and drag the bezier handles to find
the right curvature. The Smart Guides will also help you start
and end a path exactly over the existing paths so there will be no gaps. Use standard shapes wherever possible to create
accurate shapes where they might be inaccurately drawn, like the eyes. When drawing the pupil, swap the stroke to
a fill. Hold shift and select both shapes with the
Selection Tool, then hold ALT to make a copy while dragging them to the other side. The Scissors can then be used to trim away
any unwanted portions where they might be some overlap. The Pencil tool is useful for creating open-ended
lines. Keep your hand over the CMD+Z shortcut to
have a few attempts at creating the perfect stroke. Apply the Round Cap option within the Stroke
panel to any open-ended lines to neaten them up. One of the advantages of drawing in Illustrator
versus Photoshop is you can easily tweak shapes and move things around. Continue tracing the rest of the character
using basic stroked paths. Any points can be tweaked by holding the CMD
key while the Pen tool is active to toggle back to the Direct Selection tool. Once you’ve finished a section, holding CMD
and clicking on some empty space will reset the tool ready for the next path. Wherever you’ve dragged out a bezier curve,
give the open end an extra click to convert the anchor point into a corner. Once you’ve traced the concept doodle, go
to Object>Unlock All and delete the reference sketch. Brushes are a really handy tool for creating
hand drawn effects in Illustrator, but I’ll show you a cool technique that doesn’t rely
upon any third-party resources and gives you much finer control. Activate the Width tool and click and drag
any point or path to alter the size of the stroke in that particular place, giving it
the sought-after tapered appearance of a real brush or pen. While an Illustrator brush would apply this
effect automatically, you can choose exactly which areas should be thicker or thinner and
by how much. This variation in line width is one of those
visual traits that really transforms a child-like doodle into a proper illustration. Clicking an end point will enlarge just that
end of the stroke. Clicking in the middle of a path will make
that part the widest so it tapers on each side. Or you can click and drag a corner point to
make the stroke narrow along both directions. If two points are overlaid exactly on top
of each other it can sometimes be difficult to select the one you want. Temporarily moving one out of place with the
Direct Selection tool, then snapping it back into place after you’ve made the edit is a
useful workaround. Once your linework is complete, go to Object
>Expand Appearance to permanently apply this brushed appearance, then click the Unite button
in the Pathfinder panel to merge all the strokes into one continuous outline. One of the easiest ways to colourise artwork
in Illustrator is using the Live Paint tool. With the artwork already selected, give it
a click with the Live Paint tool to convert it for live painting. Double click the Fill colour block in the
toolbar and adjust the colour to a bright red. Click the areas of the illustration you want
to have this colour applied. Alter the colour selection to a light blue
and apply the fill to other areas. Then repeat the process with a faint yellow
for the face. A great way to add some shading to your illustrations
and to replicate the appearance of real retro prints is to use halftone patterns. Download and open my free pack of distressed
halftone patterns for Illustrator from Spoon Graphics. The easiest way to use these patterns is to
draw a selection across everything in the download file and click Copy, then switch
over to your working document and hit paste. This will automatically transfer all the patterns
into your Swatches panel. You can then hit the delete button to remove
those graphics. Select one of the halftone pattern swatches
as a fill, then use the Pen tool to trace an area of the illustration, keeping within
the black stroke. The scaling of the halftone dots is pretty
large, so go to Object>Transform>Scale. In the options window, deselect Transform
Objects, leaving only Transform Patterns selected. Altering the percentage amount will only apply
to the pattern density without affecting the size of the shape. An alternative method of applying the halftone
patterns is using the Blob brush. With this tool you can paint the areas directly. Each new brush stroke will enlarge the shape
area, so the pattern will flow seamlessly. Currently the artwork is still looking crisp
and sharp. Let’s rough it up by selecting everything,
then go to Filter>Distort & Transform>Roughen. Click the preview to see the result live,
then set the options to Smooth, Absolute, then reduce the Size to a tiny amount that
just subtly roughens the edges without distorting the appearance too much. 0.5px was all it needed in my example. To permanently apply this roughen effect,
go to Object>Expand Appearance. Let’s finish off the artwork with a few extra
details, starting with a background. Use the rectangle tool to draw a large box
to contain the illustration, then give it an indigo fill colour. Place this shape underneath everything else
by choosing Arrange>Send to Back from the right click menu. One trait of old low-cost printing methods
that can be replicated to give your designs a retro vibe is the mis-registration of colours,
where an ink colour isn’t aligned correctly and leaves tiny gaps where the paper stock
shows through. In order to achieve the effect when the artwork
is placed against a coloured backdrop, we first need to knock-out the shape so the artboard
shows through. Draw a selection across everything, then shift-click
the background rectangle to remove it from the selection. Go to Edit>Copy, then Edit>Paste in Front
to make a duplicate of the character illustration, then click the Unite button in the Pathfinder
panel to combine all the objects into one silhouette shape. Add the rectangle back to the selection by
Shift+clicking it again, then with both the rectangle and the silhouette shape selected,
click the Minus Front button in the Pathfinder panel to punch the shape out. You can quickly see the result by moving the
background rectangle out of place to see the white artboard in the shape of the character. If you then use the Direct Selection tool
to select all the elements of one particular colour and nudge them with the cursor keys,
you’ll see the artboard appear in the gaps. The coloured shapes are overlapping the black
outline, but black should always be on top. Use the Magic Wand tool to easily select all
the black objects, then go to Arrange>Bring to Front. Use the type tool to finish off the design
with a bit of text. I’m using the font SignPainter Housescript
to add the title Astro-Boy, which is given a Rise effect using the Envelope Distort feature. Then a few extra details like stars for the
background can be drawn with the Pencil tool, keeping with the rough doodled look. Duplicates can be made by holding the ALT
key while dragging the shape to make copy, then each new star is rotated and scaled to
lessen the uniform appearance. While it would be possible to add some texturing
directly in Illustrator. Photoshop is much more powerful when it comes
to working with raster images and effects. Draw a selection across the entire artwork
and go to Edit>Copy. Switch over to Photoshop and create a new
document, which will default to the size of the illustrator artwork. Chances are it will be quite small, so go
to Image>Image Size and increase the overall dimensions. When you paste in the vector artwork, it can
be scaled up to any size with no loss of quality before it’s confirmed with the ENTER key. Open up an old paper texture. I’ll link to this image from Shutterstock
down in the description. Go to Select All and Edit>Copy, then close
the file and paste the texture into the main document. Scale it to size with the CMD+T shortcut for
Transform. Set the blending mode of the texture to Multiply
to allow the illustration layer to show through. The colouring is a little too dark, so adjust
the Levels under the Image>Adjustments menu. Tweak the sliders to find the right balance. Using the Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation
menu to desaturate the texture slightly helps to remove some of the yellow tint. Download my Subtle Grunge Photoshop Brushes
and double click the ABR file to load the brushes into Photoshop. Apply a layer mask to the illustration layer
and select a brush to add some wear and tear to the artwork. Reducing the Flow amount in the top toolbar
helps to build up lots of detail exactly where you want it. A levels adjustment on the layer mask itself
can also be useful to fine tune the amount of texturing. Darkening the mask adds more texture, whereas
lightening reduces its impact. The final result is a cool looking retro style
cartoon illustration, based on the art style of mid-century comics and advertisement prints. The basic doodle is transformed into a stylised
illustration by vectorising the drawing with tapered brush strokes and colour fills, then
a few tweaks help mimic the visual traits of old prints, like the mis-registration effect,
paper textures and subtle distressing to make it look like the ink has worn away. So if you enjoyed this tutorial be sure to
give the video a like to help recommend it to others. Subscribe to stick around for more of my content,
and head over to my Spoon Graphics website for loads more free design resources. As always thank you very much for watching,
and I’ll see you in the next one.


  1. Rey Gunn said:

    You are amazing.

    April 9, 2019
  2. ppassionfruit said:


    April 9, 2019
  3. Kimber Maddox said:

    Oh I am gonna have to try this one!

    April 9, 2019
  4. Dale Taylor said:

    Another great tutorial Chris

    April 9, 2019
  5. vagrantones said:

    This is so USEFUL!!!! Thank you for sharing such great content 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

    April 9, 2019
  6. Gaston Gaston said:


    April 9, 2019
  7. Julio Saldana said:


    April 9, 2019
  8. Spoon Graphics said:

    📦 Join my mailing list and get a FREE design resources bundle!

    April 9, 2019
  9. Blaine Conners said:

    One of your best tuts! Thanks

    April 9, 2019
  10. TheRossCam said:

    This is amazing! Always love your videos

    April 9, 2019
  11. Jonathan G said:

    I had no idea about the Width Tool. That's amazing

    April 9, 2019
  12. ip man said:

    Thank You….

    April 9, 2019
  13. emma lissette alvarado vasquez said:


    April 9, 2019
  14. Dimitri Dehouck said:

    Thanks for all your sharing. Amazing stuff like always.

    April 10, 2019
  15. Brendan Goodenough said:

    Lovely, Chris..

    April 10, 2019
  16. Luciano said:

    Man, you're very good, congratulations, you do a great job. Thank you.

    April 10, 2019
  17. Daniel Brent said:

    Outstanding tutorial!

    April 10, 2019
  18. Alison Reid said:

    Fantastic! This has so many great tips. Thanks again!

    April 11, 2019
  19. Girl IN Game said:


    April 11, 2019
  20. Girl IN Game said:

    thank you for the free stuff ^^

    April 11, 2019
  21. The DANGEROUS TRUTH band said:

    Very nice Chris thanks!

    April 11, 2019
  22. Taylor Blaikie said:

    Awesome tutorial Chris, thank you so much!

    April 11, 2019
  23. Daavhimself said:

    Without a doubt, the best and most informative tutorial I've ever seen.

    April 11, 2019
  24. balan. arts said: Check out

    April 11, 2019
  25. Ann Glynn said:

    Love your tutorials, so informative, thank you!

    April 12, 2019
  26. timventura said:

    Great tutorial as always. Lots of little incidental bits in there that add to my tool box. Thanks for your generosity!!!

    April 13, 2019
  27. Оксана Пинчук said:

    Thank you very much! So great tutorial and super result, I've just done!

    April 13, 2019
  28. Conrad Aleshire said:

    You need to go back and pathfinder, unite all the black so you're not seeing the cut lines in the black.

    April 16, 2019
  29. Johnny Ancich said:

    Why roughen?

    May 20, 2019
  30. kenneth tan said:

    My layer mask does not work ….

    May 28, 2019
  31. Gaelyn Harvey said:

    so simple yet so strong!

    June 12, 2019
  32. Bailopinto said:

    I love this style, I'm trying to replicate this in my projects 😉

    September 26, 2019
  33. bkdesignr said:

    always great stuff man, thanks!

    September 30, 2019
  34. noura tsuki said:

    Thank you for sharing..

    December 21, 2019
  35. Алексей Грушенко said:

    Hi. How did u do this effect with your brush (7:50), when it's a thin in the start of line and wide in the end?

    January 11, 2020
  36. bonnie fitts said:

    excellent tutorial 🙂

    January 20, 2020
  37. kathys trash said:

    this is sooooo good

    February 23, 2020
  38. sdesign d said:

    10 for the Astro boy

    February 25, 2020

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