Like watercolours, spray cans and crayons, vectors are just a tool. But in the right hands, powered by the right imagination, the results of vector-based graphics can be spectacular.
There are certain areas where vectors really seem to take flight. For character art, the ability to render figures in a couple of shapes is hugely attractive. “I think there is something appealing about the simple, geometric shapes that vector-based characters are made out of,” says Jon Ball of illustration and graphic design firm Pokedstudio.
The combination of the digital crispness of vectors with raw, natural scenes makes a gorgeous counterpoint, which hints at a sharper version of nature hiding inside your computer, like a 21st-century Narnia. Of his style of work, Adrian Ven Delzel says: “I needed a medium that enables me to give expression and inspiration to thousands of details; the light forms and lines [of vector art] seemed very attractive for this.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the whizzy features in Adobe Illustrator and forget about the artistic basics, though. Adrian believes that just because Illustrator puts the rainbow at your fingertips, it doesn’t mean you have to make use of the whole spectrum. He bemoans “the strange use of colours – often you come across very good compositions, very well thought-out, but they’re ruined by their colour range.”
Meanwhile, illustrator Gary Fernández argues that there’s a more fundamental issue at hand, one that lies at the heart of the phrase ‘digital art’. “I feel that digital is considered an end, rather than a means. In general, people tend to think about how to resolve an image in the least time possible, rather than thinking about how to obtain a better image. The result is an image that lacks soul and is crammed with effects.”
Each of the artists we showcase here has gone beyond the boundaries of genre to create illustrations that, while they’re made from vectors, are so much more than their means of creation. Perhaps the key is to master the tool – and only then, focus on the work.
The enigmatic digital artworks of Barcelona-based artist Adrian Van Delzel are populated by strange creatures that only come out at night. Looking at his artwork is a little like spotting Bigfoot in Fantasia – the exotic beasts stand frozen and symmetrical in the middle of fantastically detailed psychedelic landscapes.
“My images always have a central theme, normally one that’s related to nature and to hidden feelings,” he explains. The mystery of his images is intentional: he describes them as an attempt to communicate complex feelings that are hard to express in words, as well as “tracings of melancholy and of our roots as animals.”
Inspiration arrives in a complete form for Adrian. After sketching his creatures in pencil, “I never retouch or change them: they come out exactly as they are,” he says. Adrian traces his scanned pencil sketches in Illustrator before digitally adding a landscape.
This apparent simplicity belies the immense detail that Adrian works in. “In many cases, the process takes me weeks,” he says. “For example, [in Secret Spirit] each of those feathers is made up of four or five layers, overlaid with transparencies. I’m an obsessive.”
Finally, he creates the lighting effects. “They’re little more than Clipping Masks and gradients, overlaid on the final composition,” he says.
Adrian has long been impressed by vector art. “I remember seeing the work of other [vector] artists and being left speechless – it seemed unattainable.” Having taught himself Illustrator, it’s become his key tool. “I don’t use any other programs – it seems like a betrayal,” he explains. “If I start with vectors, I finish with them.”
Adrian finds that there’s an inherent minimalism to working with Illustrator. “Vectors limit me to showing only what needs to be shown,” he says. “Without them, my art wouldn’t be the same.”
Not all artists want their work to instantly seem digital. Magnus Blomster combines Illustrator with a hand-drawn style to make the image seem an implausibly perfect pen-and-ink drawing.
“My main reason for choosing vectors is that I am a perfectionist,” he says. “If something goes wrong – no matter how insignificant – when I’m doing an ink drawing, I start over from scratch and thus very rarely finish any. I don’t think it aids my style in any particular way since my style is what it is – but it has certainly increased the rate of finished images.”
Magnus’ often erotic images feature women surrounded by curlicues. He describes his style as a blend of Art Nouveau (“I have known and loved [it] since I was a little boy,” he says) with religious symbolism, pornography and “general weirdness”.
His work refuses to fit into illustration trends – possibly because he never set out to be a professional illustrator. “I’ve always drawn. The getting paid for doing it part just sort of happened by itself.”
To create a piece, Magnus scans a pencil sketch, then painstakingly traces its lines as closed paths. “I always use the Pen tool with 0.1pt red lines on top of a sketch, to be able to see what I’m doing,” he explains.
He selects everything on the layer, removes the lines and, in a separate layer, fills the shapes. “After that, still with everything selected, I bring up the Pathfinder and use the Unite tool, then hit Expand to make everything on the layer one single shape.”
Finally, he adds layers for the background and face colours. He uses the Pen, Ellipse and Pathfinder tools – “No other effect or filters or trickery. All lines are filled shapes.”
The secret of Magnus’ success is to work in immense detail while avoiding fancy tools. This approach keeps file sizes manageable, but it’s also key to the way he views Illustrator: “more as a pen than a program,” he says.
"I love to create slightly offbeat characters and weird worlds,” says Jon Ball. In his professional guise as Pokedstudio, he has turned this love into a career, creating quirky yet highly polished miniature worlds for clients including MTV, the BBC, PlayStation, Doritos and Penguin Books.
Jon explains that vectors are a natural fit for the way he works – “I like using simple geometric shapes to create characters and worlds” – but it’s not the only application he’ll use. “I do about half my work in vectors, and half using 3D; most pieces tend to be a mix. I usually take works into Photoshop for some final editing,” he adds.
To illustrate his creative process, Jon talked us through how he created his art print Octobeast. He says: “I started with a sketch – though I don’t always. Often my sketches are very simple, just the main element and its relationship to the rest of the picture. I then create some simple shapes in Illustrator. The most complex shape in this picture was probably the eye.”
He continues: “I used various gradient fills for the iris and for the lens. Using custom brushes I created some veins around the eyeball, and made some transparent layers for highlights.”
Other elements were brought in on separate layers, then he exported the image into Photoshop to add in the creased-paper texture. “This could be done in Illustrator, but it starts to get really slow when you add large raster layers in,” Jon says.
While the methods involved in creating images like this are surprisingly simple, Jon points out that the skills needed are anything but. “You could argue that these vector characters are simple to make and less time-consuming than a hand-drawn or 3D character, but having experience in most media I don’t think that’s true. You need a certain eye to get the proportions and shapes of vector characters right. Creating good and unique characters in Illustrator is just as hard as in any other media.”
Stylised and elegant, with a muted – almost sombre – colour palette, Gary Fernández’s images are digital art at its sharpest. The Spaniard moved from graphic design in fashion magazines into illustration, providing imagery for high-profile ad campaigns and showing his work in exhibitions worldwide.
This sharpness is what draws him to vectors. “I like the cleanness of line,” he says. His figures are often set against blank backdrops, but they’re usually surrounded by very detailed elements.
Vectors have another advantage. “I like the ability to work on details to the maximum [size], which is only possible with vectors,” he says.
The same principle works at the other end of the scale: vectors can be scaled infinitely. For artists like Gary, whose illustrations sometimes appear on billboards, that’s a big relief.
This method also makes it easy to experiment, allowing Gary to play with colours and placement of elements. However, as with all the artists we spoke to, his creativity doesn’t begin on a screen.
“My first stage is with pencil and paper,” he explains. “Then I work up each of the elements until I achieve a detail and a form that I like.
“Then comes the vector stage, which is when I trace all the drawings, develop the composition and the details,” he says, explaining that he works on each element individually before arranging them in the final composition. Next he adds colour, limiting his palette to the bare minimum.
“The final stage is Photoshop, where I polish imperfection and give the final touches,” he says.
It’s a simple but detailed process – in terms of Illustrator tools Gary uses little more than “Knife, Scissors, Eraser and above all Cmd + Z.” His results are slick but what shines through most is the imagination, hovering in a circus-like space somewhere between Disney and Dalí.