Joshua Smith, aka maverick illustrator Hydro74, has a style that’s instantly recognisable – combining the thick, clean lines of graffiti with the iconography of tattoos and the symmetry and patterns of vector art. Here he takes you through how he created his latest work, based around his regular motifs of skulls and swirls mixed with this spring/summer’s illustration icon, the owl.

As you follow this tutorial, you’ll discover lots of tricks to help you create better art and work faster in Illustrator. You’ll learn how to improve your skills with line art, shading using flat fills and colour techniques for limited palettes (to keep printing costs down). 

Joshua says that as his techniques are more about drawing vector shapes using the Pen tools than brush strokes, you’ll get better results from a mouse than a graphics tablet. Joshua adds that he wrote this tutorial using Illustrator CS3, as he finds the Pathfinder tool – which features a lot in this tutorial – in CS4 to be painful when dealing with complex paths.

Step 1 First off, I did a really rough drawing of the head of an owl to get the piece in motion. Then I went into Photoshop and made it symmetrical. The goal here with a rough, basic drawing is to allow yourself to be more creative in Illustrator as you click away. You never just want to trace what is there, but add your touch on what feels right and allow that inner creative demon to ask: ‘What if we did this?’. You can use your own sketch here, or download from the Download Zone.

Step 2 Import your image into Illustrator, enlarge it to a decent size and drop the transparency down to 50%. From there, set up a guide in the centre of the image. The goal is to save time, thus drawing one side and perfecting that. Create a new layer to allow you to click off the drawing to see how progress is going.