Cartoon you: Illustrator’s Live Trace converts your photo into a drawing

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Photo-based avatars that look like paintings or illustrations are very classy and tend to be rare because few people possess the skills to make them without hours of work. But by following the simple steps outlined below, you will gain the skills to turn your photograph into a painted or illustrated avatar in minutes instead of hours.

1. In Adobe Illustrator ( ), open the raster (pixel-based) image you want to use as the starting point for your avatar. Illustrator can directly open JPEG, TIFF, and many other raster file formats.

2. Select the image on the artboard with the black arrow Selection tool and, on the toolbar-like Control panel at the top of the Illustrator window, click the down arrow beside the Live Trace button. This will reveal the list of Live Trace presets. Select Tracing Options to open the Tracing Options dialog box.

3. In the Tracing Options dialog, activate the Preview option on the right so that you can see the effects, and then try a tracing preset from the Preset menu at the top. Using various presets, you can achieve a number of effects. For instance in my examples below, I used the Simple Trace preset for the black and white drawing effect, the Color 6 preset for the simplified color drawing effect, and the Photo High Fidelity preset to achieve a photorealistic vectorization effect.

The Live Trace Tracing Options dialog.

4. If a preset doesn’t give you the exact results you’re looking for, start with the closest match and then tweak the settings below the Preset field. There isn’t space to fully explain what all these settings do (that took four pages in my last Illustrator book), but here are a few tips to keep in mind as you work.

  • The Max Colors field defines the maximum number of colors used in the tracing, up to 256. Use higher values for more realistic color and lower values to create painting or illustration effects.
  • Adjusting the value of the Blur field, which blurs the original raster image prior to tracing, can sharpen or soften the tracing result.
  • Minimum Area defines the size (in pixels) of the smallest area of solid color. Lower values create more areas and more photo-like colors, while higher values contribute significantly to illustrated and painted looks wherein pixels with close color values are combined into a single color area.

5. When you’re happy with the results, click the Trace button to commit your settings. Unless you break apart the tracing by clicking the Expand button on the Control panel—which enables you to edit each color area as a separate vector path—the Live Trace effect will remain enabled. That means that you can return to the Tracing Options dialog at any time and adjust the trace results. After tracing, you’ll want to save the file as an Adobe Illustrator (.ai) file or, at the very least, export it to a new raster image file. Export the file to GIF, PNG, or JPEG via the File -> Export or File -> Save for Web & Devices command.

Live Trace examples: The original raster image (far left), followed by the results of using the presets Simple Trace, Color 6, and Photo High Fidelity.

That’s it. You now have a photorealistic avatar portrait to use in a variety of documents and online venues.

If Illustrator isn’t your bag, don’t worry. The next two tutorials in this series show you how to achieve painting, illustrative, and other effects using everyone’s favorite toy—Photoshop.

[Pariah S. Burke is the author of Mastering InDesign CS3 for Print Design and Production (Sybex, 2007), and other books; a freelance graphic designer; and the publisher of the Web sites,, and Pariah lives in Portland, Ore.]

[This is the fourth of a series of articles on how to find, build, and create avatars for use on social networking Web sites and chat clients. Stay tuned for more tips on how to create a unique online image.]

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