Convert a photo into an Illustration

By Chris Lovelady

Posted on Friday, August 6th, 2021

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There are so many companies out there selling clip art that the sheer number of images seems overwhelming. But for me, it never seems to fail that the one piece of clip art I need is the one I can’t put my hands on—often it’s some specialized tool or unique image. My solution is to take a photo and trace it using the CorelDRAW tracing tools. Adobe Illustrator has similar trace tools that are very powerful, too. I use the photo as a basis to create a new illustration to use in the logo.

For this design, we needed a horseshoe, hammer and nippers. The horseshoe image was an easy find. I found a nice one on iStockphoto. It’s a great source for affordable clip art as well as photos that can be used for digital printing.

The farrier’s hammer and nipper proved to be impossible to find—they were just too specialized. So I used photos of the tools taken on a white background to make it easier to separate the background from the tool. Sometimes the client will have a photo that they want incorporated into a layout as an illustration. If they provide a low-resolution image, you’ll first need to add a Gaussian Blur in Photoshop to help reduce some of the pixelization that is present.

This technique can be used in so many different ways. In Photoshop, you can experiment with different effects and textures to enhance your photo or clip art to create some neat effects, especially when combined with the tracing tools in Corel or Illustrator.

Chris and Debi Lovelady’s shop, Vital Signs, is in Thomasville, Georgia.

From SignCraft, November/December 2009

First, I adjust the contrast to increase the contrast between the lights and darks, and sharpen the edges tool. These tools are found in the Filters drop-down menu. In the case of the nipper photo, there is a cast shadow that I will remove with the eraser tool.

I then rename and save the file as a .JPG, being careful to not save over the original file. Then I import the file into CorelDRAW to do the tracing work needed to create the new vector image. In this photo you can see the difference in the raw image and the blurred one. The reason that I am blurring and sharpening the edges is because the tracing program will create a jagged edge following the pixels. You will find that you can work with this until you have a satisfactory image that will trace with little or no cleaning up in the vector state.

Once you begin the tracing you will notice Preset Tracing Option under the Outline Tracing Outline will choose one of the presets and it will open a new window that will give the ability to change and affect the trace. I like how this window shows you in live time how the image will look as you make changes. When you make a change, the setting tab will refresh, giving you the ability to get it right before you actually do the tracing. Here is where you can adjust the Detail, Smoothing and Corner Smoothing to get the look you are striving for.
There is a color tab here where you can reduce or increase the number of colors in the image. I have found that some pictures, depending on the blending or color change, can produce a very complex vector image. So this is a way to reduce the size and complexity of your file.

Even though I have selected Remove the Background on the setting tab of the tracing window, you can see that the tracing picked up some of the subtleties of the white background. This is where some of the editing and clean-up come into play. I will remove the original bitmap image and begin to remove the background shape that I will not want. I also look for colors that are very close in color and value; if they are next to each other, I can weld them together to again reduce the number of shapes and the size of the file.

Now I am ready to clean up the edges. Here I am selecting the common nodes that the two shapes are sharing. I move that to begin to make the shape more round. When you trace an image the shapes are on the same layer and will often share node space at the corners—so be sure to select both nodes when editing the shapes.

Now I am able to use the Node Editing Tool to change line segments to curves and round the area that I’ll need to be smoothed more. After cleaning up the new vector image to my satisfaction I’ll add a black outline to the nippers to refine the edge and image even more.

I will select the whole image, duplicate it and then weld all the shapes together to create one silhouette image. I will then create a contour to the outside of the image.

Finally, I combine the new outline to the original vector image, and it is ready to be added to the new logo. It is now possible to enlarge the image and not get pixelization.

Here’s how the completed illustration looked as part of the logo.