Portrait Morph


Refer to the following additional Resource Links:

Student examples of variations on this assignment

Screen shot 2013-03-21 at 3.23.41 PMPortrait Morph transformation/progression

Shape transformation through a series of progressive steps can visually illustrate progressive motion or  movement within a composition. This exercise will help you to isolate this particular design principle and master Illustrator’s drawing tools.


Using a two-dimensional flat, drawing of a famous or recognizable person, gradually alter the shapes until they change into the face of another famous person. This transformation sequence must use a total of five steps. Between famous person (step 1) and famous  person (step 5) create a self-portrait (step 3). Steps 2 and 4 will be transition steps. The famous person at step 5 will be drawn using gradients for a 3D effect, not flat shapes only as in the drawing at step 1. Therefore, the overall transformation will progress from flat shape to three-dimensional form (flat to fat), as well as from recognizable person to self-portrait, which is a posterization, to a new recognizable face, which utilizes dimensionality and chiaroscuro. You will also include a short phrase or quote from the person at step 1 and gradually alter it with each step, which morphs it’s meaning into a new phrases until it transforms completely into a quote from the person at step 5.

It is best if your choice of people makes some connection by comparison or contrast. If both people were comics for example, the morph could imply that there is possibly a connection between both of their styles of comedy. This is an example of a direct or literal connection. You do not have to make such a connection. Instead it could be satirical or otherwise indirect in nature. An example might be morphing a comic into a well-known politician, therefor implying something about that person’s political views. This is a visual story-telling opportunity.

It is key to your success that the amount of change between each step is equal to the amount of change between all steps. The overall “speed ” of the transformation should be smooth and even. The easiest way to make this happen is to work a bit on each step at the same time, not to completely finish one step and move to the next, etc. Better designs have each part gradually change throughout the entire sequence.

You can have shapes gradually join one another to create larger pieces. You can also have shapes gradually get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether. Use a logical reason for things changing from step to step. Don’t have things get smaller in step 2, then bigger in step 3, something new appears in step 4, etc. There is no logic or hint that any of those changes would happen from the previous steps. Think like a film maker or animator. Give the viewer a visual hint of what you are about to do based upon what kind of change you have already shown. This is a linear sequence. One thing leads to another, logically.

Each step/face is approximately 2 3/4” x 3 1/4”. Once you have something to look at for each of the five steps then look at the sequence as a whole. Judge the evenness of the speed of transformation, the smoothness.


Step 1

Create a high contrast, shape oriented version of the person chosen for step one. Refer to the Groucho image to determine the minimum level of detail that is needed for step one. Pay attention to the direction this person is facing as it will determine the direction of each face on steps 2 through 5.

Key Tips for Step I

  • set the stroke color to none and the fill color to black to draw with the pencil. This is the opposite settings that we might normally use with the pencil tool.
  • Use Beziér handles to control smooth curves, not a lot of points.
  • You can alternatively turn the grayed scan layer off or on to check your progress.
  • Look for simple shapes that are repeated throughout the drawing. Use cut, copy, paste, and duplicate functions to speed up your work. Modify the shapes by reflecting, scaling or rotating shapes.
  • Group smaller sets of shapes within the drawing (such as the eye shapes) and then stretch, rotate or scale the entire group to get the look you want.
  • This is a high contrast drawing. Look for shadow and highlight shapes as well as shapes of objects (hats, glasses, eyes, etc).

Step 2

Your second drawing should not be the one that becomes step 2. Instead, do step 3, your self-portrait first, before doing step 2. Looking at both the completed steps 1 and step 3, create the in-between drawing—step 2. Decide if you want the image at step 2 to be “realistic” or collage-like, perhaps cubist in nature. This decision will determine how you proceed on this drawing and on step 4.

Key Tips for Step 2

  • If you want a more “realistic” or believable character at this stage, do not cut parts from step and step 3 and reassemble them here on step 2. Instead, simply open up the files for both step 1 and step 3 and position them on the right and left sides of your screen. Draw on a new file window open in the middle of your screen. Use steps 1 and 3 as visual references only. You are essentially creating a new, believable person for this step and will again at step 4.
  • If you want a more collage or cubist character at this stage, cut parts from both step 1 and 3 and reassemble them together on a new file for step 3.
  • Your goal in either case is to achieve something that looks 1/2 way between the two, a “love child” of steps 1 and 3.

Step 3

Your Self-Portrait. This drawing should be a “posterization“. Looking at the shading on your face, break this pattern of light down into 5 or 6 specific shapes of gray value. A nice stylistic option for this step is a technique that is well represented in the movie “A Scanner Darkly.” This link is a good reference for achieving this effect.

Key Tips for Step 3

Screen shot 2013-02-20 at 10.38.52 AM

  • Change your color palette to Grayscale, not RGB or CMYK
  • Create Swatches of 10 levels of gray (10%, 20%, 30%… 100% black) and make those swatches spot global colors. Do this by first opening up the black color and changing the color mode to grayscale, saving this to the swatches pallet and then making each of the additional levels of gray and adding them to the swatches pallet. If you have done this correctly the swatches will each have a white triangle in their lower right corner (indicating global color) and a black dot in the middle of the triangle (indicating spot color).

Screen shot 2013-02-20 at 10.39.34 AM

Step 4

Your 4th drawing should not be the one that becomes step 4. Instead, do step 5 or your famous person before doing step 4.

Keys for Step 4

The approach for step 4 is similar as it was for Step 2. Average the qualities from the drawings that you have in step 3 and step 5 to create step 4.

Step 5


This fifth step should be rendered as realistically as possible. The gradient mesh tool is the single most effective tool in achieving this modeling/chiaroscuro effect. However, combinations of all gradient tools and special brushes are usually necessary to achieve a lifelike 3D form. Your 3 main tools or options for achieving shading in Illustrator are the mesh tool, the blending of two shapes, and the gradient fills.

Online tips and tutorials for getting the most from the Gradient MESH TOOL:

Keys to Step 5

  • First draw the main contour of the face, excluding hair, ears, beards, etc.
  • Change your color palette to Grayscale, not RGB or CMYK
  • Create Swatches of the 5 or 6 levels of gray and make those swatches global colors
  • Fill the face shape with a 50% gray value. Then lower its transparence (opacity) so that you can see the photographic image underneath.
  • Using the gradient mesh tool click once on the location of the main highlight, usually the tip of the nose.
  • Adjust the resulting mesh lines so that the vertical one follows the middle of the nose up through the center of the forehead and down through the middle of the lips and chin.
  • You may have to delete a shape contour point in order to reposition a mesh contour point. Then add the shape contour point back if necessary, now on the other side of the mesh point.
  • Generally, add as few mesh lines as possible. Add them by clicking on an already existing mesh line and on a point where other facial highlights occur, for example on the cheek bones. Adjust the lines as necessary to follow the basic bone structure of the face.
  • Add separate shapes for ears, lips, nose eyes on top of the main face mesh.
  • Use radial gradients or blended shapes, or gradient meshes on these smaller individual feature shapes to give them dimension.
  • Smooth the value between these added features and the main mesh by sampling the values with the eyedropper. Then fine tune by adjusting points, and using feathering.
  • Hair and beards, can be created with the watercolor brushes. Adjust weight and color (Value) of the brush shape for the best results.

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