Draw a basic cartoon dog in Adobe Illustrator

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If you enjoy drawing cartoons, you are probably already familiar with Adobe Illustrator and have come to appreciate its outstanding array of vector based tools. Today we are going to put some of these tools to work as we create a basic cartoon dog.

If you are new to the digital character design process, be mindful that our goal is to create an animation friendly illustrator file (complete with layers) suitable for import into Adobe After Effects, Flash, and Photoshop. Subsequent animation tutorials will pick up where this tutorial leaves off, so be sure to save your work!


This tutorial came about after I drew a quick 10 second sketch on the wall board during one of my class lectures.  I wanted my class to see that sometimes it pays to jump in feet first and make things happen.  Wall boards, sketch pads, and everyday mobile phones are perfect for this course of action. The students timed me as I quickly sketched out a basic cartoon dog. Once time expired, I stepped aside so each student in the class could take a quick photo and upload the image to their email address.  Here’s the sketch from that day in class.  Download the sketch here (or draw your own ten second sketch) and prepare to import it into Adobe Illustrator.


Step 2

Launch Adobe Illustrator.  Go to File>New to create a new document, at the top of the dialog box name the new document Brown Dog (or “Perro Cafe” if you like the Spanish version).  Under Profile, select “Video and Film”, then set the Size to HDV/HDTV 720.  This will give you a width and height dimensions of 1280X720, then click OK.brown_down

You will see a new Artboard with a Transparency Grid and Safe Frames already set up for you.  If you would like to turn the Transparency Grid off you can select View/Hide Transparency Grid.  Then select the Artboard icon at the bottom of your left-hand tool bar.  Then select the Artboard Options icon in the top menu bar.  You will be able to turn on or off the Safe Frames.


 Step 3

Next, go to File>Place.  Navigate to the location of the dog sketch you just downloaded.  Once you locate the sketch image, click Place to bring the image into Adobe Illustrator.  You will see a Placement Icon on your mouse, so click on your Artboard and drag out the dog image until you are happy with the size of the image.

dog_placedog_place03 dog_place02

At this point you may need to adjust the sketch image size, so click on the Selection Tool (V), grab one of the corner edges with your cursor and scale down the sketch so it sits safely within the boundaries of the Artboard.  Next, go to Window>Transparency and bring up the Transparency palette. In the Transparency palette, change the layer’s blending mode to Multiply and the opacity to 80%.  This will help you trace the shape of the dog.  Double click on the sketch layer in the layer’s palette and rename it Sketch, then lock the layer so it stays in place from now ’til the end.


Quick Note:  In some cases you may find that your dog image is larger than the Artboard in Adobe Illustrator.  When this happens, select the dog image and size it down so that if fits safely within our new document’s artboard. 

Step 4

The base color we are going to be using for the brown dog is #985023. Select the color thumbnail to pull up the color picker and enter the color number (as highlighted in blue) then click OK. Next, click the Create New Layer button at the bottom of the layers palette and name the new layer Body.  Drag the Body layer down so it sits below the Sketch layer and once again change the layer’s blending mode to Multiply (this is so we can see through our layers to be able to adjust); we will do this to each layer.


Step 5

Now lets do a digital redraw of the brown dog using a few basic tools from the Illustrator tool panel.  With the Body layer still selected in the Layers palette, choose the the Rounded Rectangle Tool to trace the body of the dog.



Step 6

In the Layers palette, make a new layer, name it Muzzle, and change the blending mode to multiply.  Once again, using the Rounded Rectangle Tool, draw the muzzle according to the sketch. Once that is done, use the Add Anchor Point tool (found within the Pen tool menu or  use the keyboard shortcut +) and the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift+C) to make adjustments. This will allow us to extend the muzzle and smoothly transition into the neck area.




Step 7

Each piece that we build you will need to make a new layer, name accordingly, and remember to change the blending mode to Multiply.  After you draw the head with the Rounded Rectangle Tool, use the Line Segment Tool () to draw a horizontal line directly through the middle. Select both the line and the rectangle and open your Pathfinder palette (Window->Pathfinder) and click Divide [picture]. When you use Pathfinder, it automatically groups the objects together so you need go to Object -> Ungroup (Ctrl+Shift+G) so you can delete the bottom half of the rectangle. Now use your Convert Anchor Point Tool and Direct Selection Tool to adjust it to fit the sketch.




Step 8

You can now use the Ellipse Tool to draw the nose (color # 3c1c0d), neck, eyes (on separate layers), pupils, ears, and butt dots. Make sure you’re adjusting it as you go with the Direct Selection Tool, Convert Anchor Point Tool, and Add Anchor Point as needed.


Step 9

No we’re going to tackle the tail by using the Pen Tool. Make sure you are overlapping the tail with the body. You can click and drag the Pen Tool to make a curve or just click to make angles. If you make it all angular, you can go back and adjust each with the Convert Anchor Tool.

BrownDog9arevised   BrownDog9brevised

Step 10

Now we have to make his little legs with feet. You can easily use the pen tool to construct his leg.



Step 11

Once you’ve made one of his legs you’ve basically made all four! All we need to do now is duplicate the leg and place them. Use your Selection Tool (V) and while you have the leg selected hold down Alt and drag the leg to the left. (quick note: make sure you let go of the mouse button before you release Alt). Then you can use Ctrl+D to duplicate what you just did. Go ahead and place the legs where they need to go.

BrownDog11a               BrownDog11brevised

Step 12

If you noticed they are all on the same layer. We need to fix that! Luckily for us, it’s an easy fix. Make a new lay then select the second leg. On the layers palette there is a colored square showing that you have something selected. Click and drag the colored square directly up to the new layer. TA DA! You can now put each leg on a new layer and name them accordingly (Front_L_Leg, Front_R_Leg, Back_L_Leg, Back_R_Leg). For the back legs we used the color # 7f4121.

BrownDog12a     BrownDog12b

Step 13

The only thing left is to make his mouth. So go ahead and make a new layer. We are going to use the same color that we did for his nose: #3c1c0d, but that’s going to be the color of the stroke. Make sure you turn off your fill and choose the color for the stroke. We’re going to use the pen tool to draw a simple mouth. Open your Stroke palette and up the stroke size to 5 points.

BrownDog13a   BrownDog13b

Step 14

Now to make the dog look more opaque, we are going to select our picture. You can use your Selection Tool and click and drag over the entire Art Board. Go to your Transparency palette and change all the layers back to Normal. And then you just need to go adjust the layer order to make sure the back ear goes behind the head and back legs are behind the body as well. Throw a nice solid background layer behind him and TA DA YOU’RE DONE!!!  Now, jump forward to the next lesson and get ready to animate this little feller in Adobe After Effects.



Check out this sneak preview of the cartoon dog walk cycle: