Transform a Busy Photo into a Strong Silhouette

Silhouettes can be an essential part of a clean, minimalistic Web or print design. If you have the drawing skills, you can whip up your own silhouettes from scratch. But if drawing isn’t your forte, you can still get in the game — just begin with a photograph and trace it!

Creating the silhouettes as vector shapes allows you to increase the silhouette’s dimensions without losing resolution. You can move the vector file into Photoshop later to add texture, if you wish.

Step 1

Open Adobe Illustrator, create a new document, and go to File > Place and select a raster image — JPEG, BMP, or GIF for example — to place in the document.

Step 2

Choose the Pen tool and change the Fill color to Black by either going to the Swatches palette, or by double-clicking on the Fill color and clicking on the black area in the Color Picker.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 3

Start on the edge of the area to trace and click once. Click the next point, and release immediately if it’s supposed to be a straight line. If it needs to curve, click-and-hold to curve the line. Make your way around the area to trace.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 4

If you curved the most recent path between points, the curve will continue in the next path. To reset the angle, hover the Pen tool over the most recent point, and a small arrow icon will appear. Click once to reset it. Now when you click on the next area to place a point, you’ll have a straight line or a curved one at a different angle.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 5

Zoom into zoom out of the photo by pressing Command and the plus or minus key (PC: Control and the plus or minus key). To move around the artboard, press the Spacebar and click and drag as the cursor temporarily becomes the Move tool.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 6

The Black fill may get into the way and block where you need to see where to click next. So change the Fill color temporarily by clicking the Fill color and then selecting the No Fill on the toolbar.

Step 7

Complete the path around the tracing area. When getting close to the starting point, hover the cursor over the point and click to complete the path.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 8

Change the Fill color to Black, but change the transparency to 25% by going to Window>Transparency and moving the Opacity slider to 25.

You need to differentiate this object you just traced from the area you need to cut out from the shape. Making the traced object transparent lets you see through to the photo and identify where to cut — in this case, the area between the batter’s arms.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 9

Select the Pen tool and trace another area, in between the batter’s arms, or if you’re using a different photo, trace any area that needs to be removed.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 10

Clicking the original object and changing its transparency to 85 percent allows you to see the two different shapes.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 11

Select the two objects by Shift-clicking them with a selection tool or dragging a selection around them. On the Pathfinder palette (Window>Pathfinder), click Exclude overlapping shape areas.

Click on the image below to see a larger version.

Step 12

Now you have a vector silhouette for a baseball-themed design.

Step 13

Delete the placed photo and add the baseball by drawing a circle with a Black fill (hold Shift to get the correct proportion).

You can use your silhouettes in a variety of designs, on their own or in combination with photos.

Step 14

If you like your silhouette but want its fill to be something other than a solid color, try filling it with a texture. To do so, open the vector shape in Adobe Photoshop and drag another photo layer directly above it. Go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask and the texture will appear within the shape of your silhouette.


Posted on: July 30, 2008

3 Comments on Transform a Busy Photo into a Strong Silhouette

  1. I’ve seen a lot of tutorials for Illustrator and not one that I remember uses the template option in the layers dialog.

    By using this option you are able to go into outline view and the picture you are drawing is still there and you aren’t limited to switching back and forth to no fill and fill which can be time consuming, distracting.

    Not a big deal, but for me it’s the first step in creating accurate vectors from photos or scans.

  2. Yes you could use the outline view if you were tracing many different areas and creating a lot of objects. Good point. But you may need to switch back and forth once in a while to see the colors, too. And creating a very complicated trace would defeat the purpose of this, which is to create a simpler look. Setting the Fill and Stroke to None and then tracing one object, then changing the Fill to black, isn’t any slower than switching to Outline and back. But it would save time to use outline view when there’s many different objects that are placed on top of each other, since you’d have to change the visibility of the objects on top. So setting to outline would help in more complicated traces with various objects, different colors, on top of each other.

  3. thanks for the great tip

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