American illustrator and digital artist Tracie Ching lives in the shadows. And the light. And everywhere in between. A fan of indie movies and comic supervillains, she creates graphic portraits with elaborate crosshatching effects. See how she uses custom brushes and the Blend tool in Adobe Illustrator to define light and dark with lines.

Block in basic shapes

Tracie uses the Pen tool to draw the outline and basic shapes that will make up the composition. She uses a distinct color, light purple in this case, to clearly define the base sketch that will eventually be hidden as she adds detail.

Sketch of man’s face in solid gray on black background. Man’s facial features are drawn with light purple hashmarks.

Create custom vector brushes

Tracie starts her project by creating a set of five custom brushes. To make them, she uses the Ellipse tool to draw an elongated shape. She refines the shape by altering or adding anchor points on the path. To change a rounded path to an angled one, she selects the Anchor Point tool from the toolbar and double-clicks the anchor point. To tweak a shape, she uses the Direct Selection tool to drag individual anchor points.

When she’s happy with the overall shape, she adds it to the Brush panel (Window > Brushes > New Brush) as an Art Brush, and then sets the Colorization Method to Tints. This option allows her to easily change the brush color later.

Ellipse tool is used to create custom brushes from elongated shapes. New brushes are added and tweaked in the Brush panel.

Draw freeform shapes

For the non-uniform elements, such as the strands of hair, Tracie draws freehand using a variety of custom vector brushes. She changes the width of the strokes to simulate different thicknesses of the hair strands.

Close-up of the man’s eye and forehead show strands of hair drawn with freehand vector graphics.

Add crosshatching for shading and highlights

The core of Tracie’s work is done with crosshatching. Using this technique, she’s able to generate intricate shading effects. To create the crosshatching, Tracie draws a few strokes with a custom brush. Then, she uses the Blend tool (Object > Blend > Blend Options, followed by Object > Blend > Make) to create a set of parallel strokes. She then creates another set of strokes at a different angle, again using the Blend tool, and overlays the two sets to create the crosshatch pattern.

Crosshatching effect is achieved by drawing parallel lines and duplicating them with the Blend tool.

Crosshatching with one color

For a more concentrated shading effect, Tracie uses the same color for both sets of strokes in the crosshatch pattern. She uses this effect in the shadow of the forehead and the ridge of the nose, as well as the highlight areas to simulate light falling on the forehead and the side of the nose.

Crosshatching shadow effect is achieved by overlapping sets of parallel lines with the same color stroke.

Crosshatching with two colors

For a stippled effect, Tracie uses black and gray to create the crosshatch pattern. Because gray is the same color as the surface of the face, the effect is subtler and simulates engraving.

Crosshatching stippling effect is achieved by overlapping sets of parallel lines with different color strokes.

Contain patterns with a clipping mask

Tracie uses a clipping mask to keep certain effects within the boundaries of a shape. For example, the shape of the eye is a clipping mask that keeps the shading of the eyeball from extending beyond it.

To do this, she uses crosshatching to create shading in the white of the eye. Then, she selects the eye shape with the crosshatch marks and chooses Object > Clipping Mask > Make. (Note: The clipping mask shape must be arranged above the layers in the layer stack of the artwork it is clipping.)

Close-up of the man’s eye shows clipping masks used to constrain areas of shading.

Manipulate mood with Global color

In the early stages of her design, Tracie usually works in grayscale and limits herself to three colors: dark gray for the surface of the face, black to define the shadows, and pale gray for the highlights.

In the Swatch Options palette (Windows > Swatches > Swatch Options), she defines each of these colors as Global — a timesaver that allows her to change any or all of her three colors throughout the illustration at once.

When the line work is done, Tracie sets the mood of the illustration by adjusting her three colors. She enables the Swatches panel (Window > Swatches), and then changes the CMYK values of her Global colors.

For this illustration, she replaced the dark gray with a dark blue (C=100, M=75, Y=10, K=35). Pale gray became light blue (C=100, M=20, Y=0, K=0). And for added visual interest and drama, she changed black to a rich, 4-color black (C=100, M=100, Y=100, K=100).

Left: Man’s face is black, white and gray. Right: Man’s face is changed to light blue, dark blue and black with global colors

Add finishing touches

With the colors now chosen, Tracie tweaks the crosshatching in a few areas to make the final adjustments to her dramatic portrait.

Man’s portrait in light blue, blue, and black. Crosshatching is used to show shadows and light, and add depth.


About the artist:

Tracie Ching received a sketchbook when she was just 5 years old, so she may have been destined to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. But when graduating during the Great Recession didn’t immediately lead to employment, she used her free time to explore Adobe applications. Teaching herself graphic design, Tracie gravitated to Adobe Illustrator for the flexibility that vector artwork allows.

She’s now been illustrating professionally for five years and is best known for her alternative movie poster designs that combine the look of engraving with silkscreen.

Tracie has always been drawn to turn-of-the century styles and grew up collecting samples of Victorian, art nouveau, and art deco designs. These ephemera inspire her work today, serving as reference material for the lettering, decoration, and architecture of those eras.

With a supervillain haircut, Tracie draws like a fiend and balances her career with motherhood like a hero.

Follow Tracie Ching

Production music courtesy of Epidemic Sound

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