The Low Poly Portrait

I’ve been talking about photography a lot over the last few weeks, and not much about design and artwork. Today, I want to talk about design, and one of my favorite techniques, the low poly portrait.

This portraiture technique is one I have been practicing for about a year now. It’s a very fun but time consuming technique, but I love how it looks in the end. It’s also great for those beginning with Illustrator. You will only need to change a few settings, the pen tool, and the eye dropper tool. A low poly portrait is either made up of triangles or arbitrary shapes, but all made up of straight lines. I’ll be teaching the triangle version, since that is what I have practiced most. So let’s get started on how to do it. You’ll need Adobe Illustrator and a lot of time.

For those just starting on Illustrator, definitely use a image for reference. For my example, I’m going to use an image of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List that I already made a low-poly portrait of.

The first step is setting your grid. This will determine how detailed your image will be in the end. Grid lines that are closer together will allow you to create smaller triangles and create more details, grid lines further apart will create a less detailed image. For this example, my grid lines will be 0.5 inches apart with 6 sub divisions inside.

Grid settings

Make sure grids in back is not checked so you can see your grid above the image. I like to use a bright color like cyan for the grid lines so I can see it, but this is up to you.

Next we’re are going to make our guidelines. This is a very important step of the process, think of this as the skeleton of your portrait. The guides will serve as reference for your triangles later. Another important step for this project is making sure you have “snap to grid” turned on. This will make it so much easier to line up guidelines and triangles later. Toggle your grid visibility with CMD+’, and toggle “snap to grid” with CMD+Shift+’.


Make sure “snap to grid” is on

Ok, now that we’ve corrected our settings, let’s make our guide. Create a new layer, lock the image layer and make your guide. I use a bright color for this. I like to start with a line surrounding the subject’s frame, like this:

Guideline surrounding subject

This is great for creating an initial frame that you will build on eventually. Notice I don’t have my grid turned on. Instead of following the grid, I just follow the subject, and the “snap to grid” feature will automatically align the path to the grid.

The next step is filling in the guides. Start outlining distinguishable features. Like Oskar’s cigarette, his hairline, his lips, his shirt and jacket, his eyes, and so on. If you have a good eye for differences in skin tones, outline those as well. For instance, outline the shadow his nose casts on his face, or the subtleties of his ears. Your skill level and perception will determine how complicated you need your guides to be. This is what my guide looked like in the end.

Guide final result

You probably wouldn’t guess it was an outline of Liam Neeson, but like I said before, this technique creates images that look great in the end.

Now that your guide is finished, you can start coloring. Create a new layer and lock the guideline layer. This is a very fun part of the process, and the most time consuming. For this part of the process, you will need to be able to distinguish between tones and subtle colors, or else your portrait will not look very realistic (unless that’s what you’re going for). A good tip for this part of the process is making triangles that border the guide lines. Using the pen tool, connect three adjacent points on a guideline with a path and a line between the first and last point. Sometimes when I start the coloring, I wonder where to start, and this is where to start if you don’t know where to begin. Since you are making a portrait out of triangles, there are two things that must be done.

  1. Adjacent triangles must touch two of each others points.
  2. All lines must be straight

If you don’t meet both of these criteria, something will be off about your portrait and it won’t look right.

Like I said, this part can take a while, so put on some music, grab some coffee, and get to work.

Periodically, I like to have both the triangle and image layers visible to see how well the triangles are imitating the image. If you are working with a very small grid and therefore a more detailed portrait, your triangle layer should look very similar to the image layer. If you’re doing something like my Schindler portrait, the triangle layer should look relatively similar to the image, but they will still be easily distinguishable.

Comparison between triangle and image layers

After you are finished filling in your guides, you have two options for the background.

  1. You can keep going and make the background low poly as well, but it’s blurry and may be hard to create definitive guides and triangles
  2. You can stop and make a simple one color background or multi-tone gradient

I almost always choose the second option. This technique is already one that imitates life very acutely, and putting the finished work on a one color background or gradient makes it more like a piece of art than an imitation of life. But again, it’s your project and you can do whatever you like.

My Schindler portrait ended up like this.

Low poly portrait of Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler in Shindler’s List, May 2017

I really love this technique and I have used it a lot on my design page and I think it is a great technique for anyone to learn. I’ll be doing more design tutorials and other things in the future, see you next week.


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