How to Make a Retro Style Character in Illustrator

How to Make a Retro Style Character in Illustrator

In this tutorial, we're going to make a retro style character in Illustrator from a simple drawing.

Learning how to draw cartoon characters, character design, and creating mascots is just awesome.

Whether your dreams are to create shirts for legends like Johhny Cupcakes, offer mascots for brands, or make an epic children's book.

Consider this tutorial your chance to dip your toes into the intoxicating waters of drawing retro characters.

Here's what you'll learn in this tutorial:

  • How to make a retro style character from sketch to final graphic
  • How to bring historical touches to your work using reference material
  • How to create a retro color palette fast
  • How to use RetroSupply Illustrator brushes and textures to speed up your workflow (although not required)
  • How to add final textures to your work in Photoshop

Our teacher today is Chris "Sick" Moore. I dig Chris because he makes great work, has an unintimidating approach to making cool work, and he's just a stand-up gentleman.

Here's Chris...

Don't Fight Who You Are. Bring Stuff You Love into Your Work.

I’m always amazed as to how many of my designer friends are also musicians or DJs like me. Music and illustration seem to be inexplicably linked.

You may say it’s because they are both creative however I have never met a novelist who ballet dances at the weekend or a web designer who sculpts.

So recently I have been listening to a podcast about country music called Cocaine and Rhinestones and decided to draw a Bob Wills fiddling cowboy (who doesn’t like cowboys)!

In this tutorial, we will look at the project from visual research to finishing touches so you get a good idea of how to manage a project like this to get a retro finish.

Step 1. Research the Style of Retro Character You're Making

Vintage illustrations and photographs American country musicians and instruments

I always start with setting up a Pinterest board or saving images in a folder. To give it a retro-style, I searched for some classic Hatch posters of Bob Wills.

Hatch Print Show is a Nashville printer that specializes in woodcut and letterpressed country posters, usually with 2 colors on white paper. Their golden era was from the ‘20s to the late ‘50s, so perfect for what I was after.

By the way, if you like the typography of these posters then check out the Wood Type Revival Bundle from RetroSupply.

I also wanted to draw the cowboy in a mid-century retro cartoon style like Jim Flora or Cliff Roberts. I have a book by Lanston Hughes called My First Book of Jazz with some wonderful illustrations from Cliff Roberts, so I collected these on my Pinterest board.

Do a little research before you start.

Step 2. Create a Character Sketch-Based on Your Research

Now that you have all your reference material, pick out the features you like. I liked the wonky stars and the colors from the Bob Wills poster, the stance of him with a cigar in the photo, and the fiddle and hands in the Cliff Roberts illustration.

Rough sketch of retro style American country musician with pencil on paper

Tracing other people’s illustrations is not really the done thing. It’s not very creative and there’s little point in it. It’s OK to be inspired but ripping off fellow artists ain’t on.

Take the images you have found and have them in front of you as you sketch.

It’s usually easier to sort out the look and layout on paper first before even touching a computer. A set of quick thumbnails can be worth hours of fiddling about in Illustrator getting it to look right.

I started by sketching very loose shapes. I wanted a nice round cowboy, so I started with a big circle for the body and a smaller one for the head. Using circles and triangles, I created the overall shape of the body.

Step 3. Consider the Lighting on Your Character

Now, consider where the light source is coming from. Usually, it is from above on a diagonal. So imagine the cowboy is 3D and where the light would hit him.

Probably the side of face and shoulder. So where would the shadows be? Typically, the underside so under the fiddle, under the arm, under the hat etc.

Sketch of retro American country musician with arrow pointing from right top corner down to character labeled light source

As this is a retro ‘50s style cartoon, we still want this to be a flat 2D illustration but thickening the line where the shadow would fall gives the design a bit more contrast and makes it feel a bit more satisfying to look at.

Step 4. Ink Your Character on Paper

So now you’ve got your thumbnails, it’s time to sketch it up and ink it.

There’s no real secret to inking your work. Just practice.

Drawing of American country musician character inked in grey and black marker

Here's My Process for Inking My Work:

  1. I used a pencil to sketch out the shapes and gradually worked in some details.
  2. Then I used a felt tip to add thick lines, considering where the shadow would fall.
  3. Next, I then added some lighter grey shades to give the character a bit more depth and roundness.

In the end, I rejected this in favor of a simpler line-based cartoon.

You can skip the inking step and trace your pencil sketch into Illustrator, but I usually find you get a stronger idea of what you want from an inked sketch.

If something looks a bit wrong or wonky then don’t worry, you can fix it in Illustrator later. Remember these are just sketches and no one will see them so they can be as rough as you like.

Step 5. Choose a Retro Color Palette Using Historical Inspiration

Now it’s time to open Illustrator and sort out your colors.

To do this, copy and paste the poster or other source material that you wish to use the colors from.

Vintage Hatch music show print imported into Adobe Illustrator with three color swatches sampled from the poster

Here's how I broke down my color palette for this illustration:

  • The color of the background paper
  • A dark color for the shadows
  • Text and outlines
  • A bright color for catching the eye

Draw three boxes using the Rectangle Tool. Select one box and pick out a color using the Eyedropper Tool.

Repeat this for the other colors in the poster so you will have 3 boxes of different color

Select these 3 boxes with the Selection Tool (Command+V) and select the New Color Group folder icon in the Swatches window

You will get a pop-up and click on “Convert process to Global.”

You should get a row of your new colors in the swatches menu with a little white triangle in the corner.

This means that you can change them at any time (just double click on the box) and they will change automatically in the preview window.

So, if you wanted to change all the strokes and fills from red to blue, you would just double click on the red swatch and move the CMYK arrows to the desired color.

Step 6. Trace Your Character in Illustrator

Now scan (or take a photo) of your illustration, drag and drop it on a layer, resize it to fill the page and lock it using the padlock toggle on the Layers menu.

Trace your drawing on a new layer either using the Pen Tool for a more accurate look or the Paintbrush Tool for a more human look (or a combination of the two is best).  

Don’t forget to work in layers. With this project, I had a background color with the stars in one layer, the body of the cowboy in another and the head on the top layer. It makes it easier to edit and lock elements of your illustration.

To get a nice comic book illustration, I used the VectorHero Brushes from RetroSupply for a lovely inked line. I actually only used two of the brushes, a very thick one and a thinner one, so don’t feel you have to use all of them at once.


Create illustrations just like 1950s commercial artists with this set of vector pen brushes for Adobe Illustrator.

Step 7. Use the Width Tool to Create Depth and Shadow

Your Width Tool is a perfect way to create varying weights to your image.

Here's my favorite way to use the Width Tool:

  • To suggest shadow and suggest lighting
  • To outline primary design elements. You can see I used this, for example, where the right arm is a lot thicker than the line of the pocket on the shirt, which is less important
  • To bring things forward to suggest depth i.e. thick lines for things in the foreground and thin lines for things in the background

For more tips on this subject, check out this article about creating a retro character in Illustrator.

💡Top Tip on Negative Tones:

If you look at the violin bow as it goes over the fiddle, it changes from dark to white (otherwise it wouldn’t show up).

This is a great technique to use and something Cliff Roberts would have done as you can see from his bongos illustration in the VR section.

Step 8. Add the Final Details to Your Retro Character

For the legs and boots, I just designed one and copy and flipped it using the Reflect tool (don’t forget to click the Copy button when you flip it horizontally)

To add a bit of detail that suggest stitching I used a dotted line brush from The Dead Pen Hand Drawn Toolkit from RetroSupply.

The rope detail is a rope brush I made myself, however, to save time, you could use the rope brush from The Drunk Sailor Brush Pack.

One good tip is to draw a box and apply the rope brush from your brush menu.

If the corners don’t meet then go to the FX button in the Appearance window, click on Stylize > Round Corners. Try 5 on the pop-up and adjust (by double-clicking Round Corners in the Appearance menu) until you get the desired effect.

Step 9. Add Textures and Finishing Touches in Photoshop

You should now have a very clean illustration, so let’s rough it up a bit!

Open Photoshop and open your Illustrator file. I plan to print this so I chose 297mm x297mm and 300dpi settings

Import PDF window in Photoshop showing how to open Adobe Illustrator file in Adobe Photoshop

How to Create a Printed Ink Look in Photoshop

Right-hand click on the layer in your Layers menu and convert it to a Smart Object. This means you can change the levels of the FX we’re going to add.

For a bit of subtle roughness you’d get from printing ink on paper, I like to add Ripple. So while the layer is selected go to Filter > Distort > Ripple and add 25% Large.

You can change this at any time by double-clicking on the FX in the Layer menu and adjust it to the desired amount (but remember, less is more)!

Adding Texture to Your Illustrator Work in Photoshop

Now, to rough it up a bit more with textures. The ones I have used here are from Retro Effects | Classic Collection Bundle.

I imported the JPGs and changed the blend settings to Multiply and the Opacity to the right level. But don’t go over the top. You still want people to see the illustration.

A good tip is to color the texture to something that fits with the rest of the palate. To do this, add an Adjustment Layer in the Layers window and click on Hue/Saturation.

Then, click on Colorize to make it just one color. You may need to increase the Lightness and/or Saturation first before the Hue to get a nice color.

Now you have it! Your very own fiddling cowboy, Yeeeee Haaaaaw!

Retro American country musician character created in Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop


Chris “Sick” Moore has been a professional illustrator and graphic designer for the past 10 years, mainly designing record sleeves and gig posters

Taking his influences from B-movie posters, ‘50s illustrators such as Jim Flora, Cliff Roberts, Saul Bass and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, pulp novels and horror comics.

You can see more of his work at and buy is art in his Etsy store. You can also follow him on Facebook and on instagram @chrissickmoore