how to turn a photo into a cartoon

Among my many oddities, I’m a fan of turning photos of people into illustration. Not that odd, you say? Well, I then like to send the final product to people I like. Still not odd enough? Fine! I turned photos of my favorite Japanese pop star Kimeru into stickers and mailed them to him! Happy?
He liked them btw, Showed them in his blog.

After practicing my tracing and cartooning skills for a while, I collected a few tips that I find effective. If you wanna know how to turn a photo into a cartoon (and creep out your own favorite idol) go ahead and read this tutorial. Hope you find it helpful! 🙂

This time my cartoon is a present to the guide who guided me in Bhutan. I drew the Bhutanese king and queen and later I will turn the print into a pinback button. It’s actually popular in Bhutan to wear pinback buttons with photos of the royal couple, so hopefully he will like my gift.


How to turn a photo into a cartoon – 8 golden tips

1. Don’t be too realistic

Some may disagree with me, but I like to leave the realism to the photo. Why would I want to have something that looks just like the photo when I already have the photo?

I think a once a photo becomes a cartoon, it should look like a cartoon. For that we don’t need to be so loyal to realism.
For example, the many values of shades and highlights in real life can be reduced to 2-3 shades in your illustration; Small, unimportant features, such as fine wrinkles or textures, can be ignored.
Noticeable folds in the fabrics can be marked with a few lines and many strands of hair can be grouped into bundles.

Look what happened when I followed the photo too zealously. The queen’s hair part didn’t  translate well into my cartoon. I decided to replace the obvious gap with just one simple line.


2. Focus on the atmosphere rather than on the details

The overall atmosphere in the photo is very important. To me, capturing the atmosphere is just as important as capturing the character’s trademarks.
Once you recognized the atmosphere in the picture, you can enhance it by adjusting the details in your illustration.

Take a look at the queen’s hair. What I really wanted to take from the photo was not the position of each strand, but the softness of the hair. With the queen’s eyes, I cared more about the confident, calm look than the angle of the lashes.

I had a hard time choosing how to draw the king’s hair line. A jagged line looked more natural, but I thought the king was going for a very neat look for this photo, so I drew his hairline in a clean, smooth stroke.


The royal couple is known in their country for their kindness and care for the people, so I kept it in mind when creating their expressions. You can see how I drew the eyes of the king bigger and more welcoming than they appeared in the photo.  I also added a spark to their eyes, to make them look more lively and turn the image more cartoon-like.

3. Smooth out the lines

Whether you draw your outlines with a brush, or the pen tool like me, make sure your lines are smooth and curvy. Unrefined curves really bring down the quality of the whole image.

4. Change things

Some parts of the photo might be tricky to trace. If you must choose between keeping your illustration similar to the origin or keeping your illustration refined and awesome, go for the refined and awesome.

For example, the flowers in the queen’s hair didn’t look so great when I traced them accurately, so I replaced them with different ones.

5. Keep your characters similar to the real people

Ok, that’s kinda obvious. But sometimes it’s hard to achieve.
In the photo, there are many elements that help defining the character’s features, such as light and shadow and different color shades. In the cartoon, we have to create the features with less. That’s why I often see that even though I traced the photo precisely, the features don’t look as similar to the origin as they should.

A good tip is to look at other photos of the same person (if you have them). Collect notes about the person’s most identifying features. Then try to enhance these features in the illustration.
For example, I found that the queen’s mouth is very unique, with her heart-shaped upper lip. The king has a charming crooked smile that appears in many of his photos.
(Seriously, don’t they look like a Hollywood couple??).

6. Think colorful

It’s tempting to grab the eye drop tool and sample all of our colors directly from the photo. After all, we ARE recreating this photo, right? Well, not quite. In the cartoon world, colors are different. Here is why:


We can all see that the queen’s collar is golden-yellow, But if we sample the colors from the photo we get the values that appear on the right. They are muddy, dull and pale. Use these hues and your illustration will look muddy, dull and pale.

Instead, pick the more vibrant hues of the original colors. Your illustration should look vivid and shiny!

7. Be ready for corrections

After I colored the image I noticed that some of the outlines didn’t look as good as I wanted them. It happens to me quite often, as the colors create volume and curves that the outlines don’t express. No worries, I just went back to the outlines and fixed them.

8. Take care of the details (don’t be lazy)

Here I don’t mean the details of the photo, but the details of your illustration. It takes patience, but zooming in and working on the details is the way to turn it from good to great.
In my illustration I added a few details, such as the strand of hair that slides on the queen’s forehead and the pattern of her collar. I also added gloss to the king and queen’s hair. I created a background, to make the image look complete.
Another task that required patience was drawing the pattern on the king’s outfit. I could have replaced the pattern with something plainer, b the Bhutanese take great pride in their beautiful hand-weaved textile, so I felt it should show in the image.
However, the exact shapes were not so clear on the photo so I drew them as I wished, keeping in mind that the end result should look lavish.


And there you have it! Now you know how to turn a photo into a cartoon and make it look great.

Let me know what you think and feel free to share your own tips and techniques. I’d love to learn from you!