How to Make a Neon Calavera Girl Vector Portrait in Adobe Illustrator

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
Celebrate Día de los Muertos in style with this vibrant, neon calavera girl portrait created in Adobe Illustrator. Manipulate basic shapes, render areas of design with linear and radial gradients, create custom brushes, and use the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) to draw fine details within your design. We'll draw assorted flowers and really use that dark background to make this design POP from the page.
Create a New Document in Adobe Illustrator (mine measures approximately 12.5 inches square) and use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw a large black square over the artboard. This sets up our document.
  1. Using the Ellipse Tool (L), draw a white circle.
  2. Drag the bottom anchor point downward with the Direct Selection Tool (A) to create a more oblong shape.
  3. Add two anchor points midway in the lower half of the head shape's path with the Add Anchor Tool (+).
  4. Use the Anchor Point Tool (Shift-C) to convert the newly added points to corners.

Drawing the Head

For the basic face, we'll start with the eyes.
  1. Draw a circle and pull out the left anchor point with the Direct Selection Tool, as was done with the face in the previous step.
  2. Convert the right-most anchor point to a corner. Copy (Control-C) and Paste (Control-V) the left eye and Reflect it over a Vertical Axis to create the right eye.
  3. Align the two eyes so they're level with each other. Draw a small black circle for the start of the nose.
  4. Drag out the top anchor point of the nose circle to create a long teardrop-like shape.

Drawing eyes and a nose

Pull the bottom anchor point of the nose upward creating a convex curve at the bottom of the nose.
For the hollows of the cheeks, use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a curve below the eye that mimics that contour of the eye socket itself. Curve outward and to the lower left so there's space created between the cheek and the mouth. Complete the shape by softly curving upward to the start of the shape and following the contour of the jaw.
To complete the nose, draw a vertical ellipse that overlaps the top of the nose cavity. Select both objects and hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel.

Drawing cheek hollows

Let's complete the basic face design by drawing the mouth.
  1. I've started with a quick sketch of a mouth drawn with the Pencil Tool (N). If you choose to do this, Group (Control-G) together the mouth components, reduce their Opacity to 50% in the Transparency panel, and Lock the layer in the Layers panel.
  2. Using one of the drawing tools (either the Pen Tool or the Pencil Tool), draw a curving, elongated shape that starts at the center of the mouth and widens toward the left corner of the mouth. Repeat this shape on the other side.
  3. Draw two small pink circles with the Ellipse ToolUnite them in the Pathfinder panel.
  4. Pull down the lower center anchor point with the Direct Selection Tool to get the central point of a heart.
  5. Delete the left anchor point that's between the bottom and side points and adjust the shape of the left side of the heart by manipulating the anchor point handles.
  6. Draw a rectangle that bisects the heart shape. Use the Shape Builder Tool (Shift-M) to Merge the right half of the heart and the rectangle. Delete this newly created shape.
  7. CopyPaste, and Reflect the left half of the heart to form the right side and Merge the two shapes with the Shape Builder Tool.
  8. Place the two mouth shapes above the pink heart in the Layers panel and Delete the initial sketch drawn at the start of this step.

Drawing the mouth

Like the mouth, I'm starting this section with some sketching. Using the Pencil Tool or the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B), draw a curling, flowing hairstyle for your calavera girl design. I focused on creating shell-like shapes and framing the face with curls on both sides. Change your stroke color to indicate the placement of flowers within your composition as well. Group together your sketch components.

Sketching out the hair

Use the Pen Tool to trace portions of your hair design. Set the fill color to a Linear Gradient that goes from bright purple (#9933ff) to black. Adjust the angle of the gradient of each hair section with the Gradient Tool (G). Adjust the distribution of the gradient's colors within the Gradient panel.

Drawing the hair

Within the large sections of hair, take the time to draw small or thin shapes with Linear Gradients that go from black at 100% to 0% OpacityGroup together your hair components drawn within the last two steps. Hide the hair sketch layer in the Layers panel.

Layering gradients to create complex hair

CopyPaste, and Reflect the left hair group over a Vertical Axis for the left side of the design. Align the two groups in the Align panel.

Reflect the hair over a vertical axis

Sugar skulls are heavily decorated. This project is no different. Select the shapes drawn on the cheeks and change the fill color to a Linear Gradient that goes from dark purple (#120024) to white, with the darker color at the top of the shapes. Reduce the opacity in the Transparency panel.
Select the other facial features and set them to dark purple (#120024) instead of black. Use the Pencil Tool to draw a flower-like shape around the contour of the left eye socket. Choose a bright fill color for it, like teal (#00cccc).

Add subtle face details

The centers of the eyes will have daisies. Easily create them by using the Polygon Tool to draw a 15-sided figure. With it selected, go to Effect > Transform & Distort > Pucker & Bloat and enter 72% to create a many-petaled daisy. Expand the shape under Object and draw a small circle for its center.

Create an easy daisy

Place your daisy in the center of the eye. I chose a pink daisy with a yellow center. Let's create some dots around the eyes. Draw a curving line with the Pen Tool and set the stroke to dark purple.
With the stroke selected, go to the Brushes panel and Create a New Scatter Brush. Adjust the size and spacing variations of your new brush in the options seen below. I set the Size Minimum at 53%Size Maximum at 88%, and Spacing Minimum at 113%.
Apply your new brush to strokes around the eyes and you instantly have lines of little dots and circles.

Create a custom scatter brush

Let's add some additional (and some optional) details of the eye.
  1. Draw eyelash shapes that start at the inner corner of the eye and kick out to the left in feather-like shapes.
  2. Draw another line of dots with your custom scatter brush. Change its color by going to Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork.
  3. Draw a highlight on the center of the daisy with a circle whose Linear Gradient goes from white at 100% to 0% Opacity. Set the Blend Mode to Screen or Overlay in the Transparency panel.
  4. Copy and Paste the daisy's petals. Set its fill color to a Radial Gradient in the Gradient panel that goes from pink to white (with white in the center).
  5. In the Transparency panel, set the Blend Mode to Overlay and place the copied petals over the main daisy.
  6. Continue adding additional dots, highlights, outlines, and shapes with various levels of opacity to create complex, brightly colored eyes. Repeat the process on the right eye (or just Copy, Paste, and Reflect).

Drawing additional details on the eyes

Use the Blob Brush Tool, set to 1 pt in the tool's options, to draw little scallops along the upper and lower lip in order to form a teeth-like design. Follow the curve of the mouth and check the angles of your own teeth for reference if need be.

Draw scallops to form teeth over the mouth

Again with the Blob Brush Tool, draw five lines emanating from the top center of the hair line. To create a simple spider web, draw five lines of progressively longer scallops across the vertical and diagonal lines. Increase the size of your brush for the outer line of the web.

Draw a spider web on the forehead

Further render the skull face with shapes drawn with the Pen Tool to accentuate the contours of the temples and jawline. Set the Linear Gradient to dark purple at 100% to 0% Opacity. Create depth on the mouth by drawing one of these shadow shapes on the upper lip.

Render the planes of the face

Select the main head shape and change its fill color to a Radial Gradient that goes from white to dark purple. Adjust the radius with the Gradient Tool so that the shape of the gradient is oval and white is at the center of the face.
Draw highlight shapes that accentuate the cheek bones, chin, and nose. Vary the colors used for highlights (I chose white for skull pieces and brighter purple for the nose).

Rendering the skull face

Marigolds vary in size and shape a great deal. As such, the rest of the flowers resemble them and their varied forms. Use your flowers of choice for reference, and follow along below for the general idea of flower building.
Use the drawing tool of your choice (in this case, I find the Pencil Tool to be quite versatile) to draw long petal shapes with ruffles tops. Set the fill color to a Linear Gradient that goes from pink (#ff3399) at 100% to 0% Opacity.
Angle the gradient so that the opaque color is at the ruffled end of the petal. For the flower's center, layer hastily-drawn, flower-like puff-ball shapes (see below). Group together all of your flower's components when satisfied with the overall design.

Drawing small marigolds

The next marigold is drawn similarly to the center of the previous design. Layer yellow and orange fluffy, flowery, puff-ball shapes onto each other, drawn with the Pencil Tool. Vary the shapes' opacity, Blend Modes, and gradients used. I chose to use Linear Gradients of yellow to yellow or yellow to pink, all of which vary in opacity. Group the second marigold's components together.

Layering gradients to create a form

Let's play with another daisy just to mix things up. Follow the process from Section 3, Step 2. Apply the same radial gradient as that used on the skull in Section 4, Step 4 to the petals. Apply a Radial Gradient to the center of the flower that goes from orange to yellow. Group the daisy components together.

Rendering a daisy

I found that during this next step, while drawing, if I retained the previous flower gradient I could see my pieces easily. This marigold has many, many pieces, and is a very large, thick flower.
  1. Draw a teardrop-like shape to begin the center of the flower.
  2. Continue layering teardrop-like shapes of various sizes around the center point of the flower.
  3. In total, I drew ten teardrop shapes for the center of the marigold. Group them together.
  4. The larger petals are similar to those drawn in the first step of this section. They're ruffly at the ends, but shorter than the first marigold design. Draw them around the center of the flower.
  5. Continue layering petal shapes. You'll likely find that you have to rearrange them quite often in the Layers panel. I found it easiest to Group sections as I went, making the organization of my Layers less of a chore.
  6. At this point, there are over 20 large petals within my marigold design.
  7. This is the final form of the marigold. There are over 40 petals drawn in total.
  8. My final Linear Gradient goes from yellow-orange at 100% Opacity to pink at 0% Opacity. Adjust the gradients' angles as needed with the Gradient Tool. You may find it easiest to select large groups of petals and approximate the angle of each gradient versus doing each shape separately.

Drawing marigolds

Place the flowers at the top of the head. Vary the colors, scale, and rotation of your flowers. Play around with their placement until you have a composition that you like. Draw leaves with Linear Gradients going from bright green (#ccff00) at 100% to 0% Opacity.

Add leaves and arrange the flowers

This is my flower composition so far. Note how some of the hair pieces were brought forward so that flowers could be nestled within the hair, rather than only being above or behind the hair group.

The flower composition

Use the Pen Tool to draw a rectangle with a scalloped top. CopyPaste, and Reflect the shape over a Vertical AxisUnite the two shapes in the Pathfinder panel. Set the fill color to null and the stroke color to a Radial Gradient of white to dark purple with the stroke's Weight set to 3–5 pts.

Drawing a crown

This is my final composition for the flower crown within my design. Let's move on to additional details in the face and drawing the character's neck and chest.

The finished flower crown

Zoom (Z) in on your character's face and draw swirling designs on the jaw with the Blob Brush Tool. Consider tear drops, splashes, paisley, flowers, circles, triangles, diamonds, and other designs often seen on sugar skulls. Refer to Mexican artwork if you want ideas for motifs. Repeat on the other side of the face.

Doodle shapes and designs on the face

For the next, draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool. Set the fill color to a Linear Gradient going from dark purple to white. Convert the lower anchor points to curves with the Anchor Point Tool and angle the handles of those points inward to create a curving neck shape.
Use the Pen Tool to draw shoulders and the top portion of a chest. Unite these shapes in the Pathfinder panel. Make sure the darkest color of the gradient is beneath the head.

Draw the neck and chest

The blouse of my character is a set of transparent shapes. Using the Pencil Tool, I drew layers of wispy, scalloped-edged shapes in dark purple with the Opacity set to 30–60%. Some of the shapes were drawn to denote ruffles in the shirt while others are ruffles and cuffs in the collar.
For the pink shoulders (and the cheeks of the face), draw shapes that overlap the shoulders with a Radial Gradient that goes from pink at 100% to 0% Opacity and the Blend Mode set to Overlay.

Use transparent shapes to create clothing

Like the designs on the face drawn in Step 1 of this section, the details of the shirt were drawn with the Blob Brush Tool. Outline the ruffles of the shirt and the collar, create lace, and draw buttons. Set the fill color to a Linear Gradient that goes from white at 100% to 0% Opacity.

Draw ruffles with gradient shapes

Group together your calavera character and lock the layer within the Layers panel. Use the Pencil Tool to sketch out one half of your frame design. Repeat the motifs from the sugar skull itself (splashes, flowers, spider webs, etc.). Reflect the left side of the frame design to create the other side. Group together your sketch.

Quickly sketch out your frame design

Now that we have our composition figured out, let's work on some of the designs within it. I chose to draw more intricately drawn marigolds. Moving away from the artboard, I referenced bouquets of marigolds and recreated their scribble-like lines with the Blob Brush Tool.

Draw more flowers

Draw the left side of your frame design. Mine starts with marigolds, swoops down with splash and fluting designs, and ends in a spider web. I drew it in three sections and put them together on the artboard according to the sketch drawn in Step 1 of this section.

Draw the full frame design

Hide the sketch layer and place your freshly drawn frame group over the artboard. CopyPaste, and Reflect to get the right side of the design.
Draw a small rectangle on the bottom of the artboard that has a Linear Gradient going from dark purple at 0% to 100% Opacity. Place this below the frame group so your character recedes into the background near the bottom of the composition.

Use a gradient to recede into the background

To complete your design, set the fill color of the frame design to a Linear Gradient that goes from pink to bright purple to teal (or another spectrum of colors that you used within the flower crown of your design).

Add a gradient to the frame

Perhaps on this occasion I should borrow from the intrepid explorer Dora and say, "Lo hicimos!" because we did it! We've completed our Día de los Muertos inspired calavera girl illustration. Share your version of this style of design in the comment section below. For more fantastic tutorials, check these ones out:

The final illustration


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