Can anyone please tell me what this greyscale vector style is called and how can I achieve it?


I was informed I should put my image in Photoshop and adjust the levels and run the cutout filter before live tracing in AI. I cant get this to turn out right though.

The image above is a super bad 5 minute live trace after some PS tweaking to try and show you what I mean, it makes a bunch of smaller blobs of grayscale versus bigger blobs.

How can I apply a high contrast artistic effect to a monotone image, where highlights and shadows are exaggerated, and there are few shades of grey?

  • 2
    hi user2793044, welcome to GDSE and thanks for your question. Could you tell us what you have tried to achieve this effect, and why it didn't work? We are not an 'ask-a-tutorial' site, mainly because the answers would be very long. Therefeore, we expect some effort in your question, so we can give you succinct and accurate answers. Thanks again!
    – Vincent
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 8:41
  • sorry its late and im running on little sleep...ive been in PS adjusting(in diff combinations and diff step orders) posterizing(sp?),levels,cutout filter,brightness,and curves nothing seems to be able to get me close to that...the best i can get is a bunch of smaller "blobs" of grayscale colors but i want larger to put on a tshirt such as above
    – Jodfie
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 8:48
  • 1
    Let's just say it's probably not an easy process. You might get somewhere with Illustrator's LiveTrace, but you'll have to tweak the resulting shapes by hand.
    – Vincent
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:09
  • oh i know im going to have to do that...but i was told i should "prep" the image first in PS first and get it ready for live trace and ill get better results
    – Jodfie
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:10
  • Then please update your question with that, it'll help get you a good answer from one of our resident Illustrator experts :)
    – Vincent
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:11

4 Answers 4


I found a quickish method!

You had almost all of the workflow, and the 'cutout' part that you had, is what I was missing when trying at first.

Starting with this image, because I couldn't find the one you're using:

The longest part for me was masking out the background. You may also need to add a Black & White adjustment layer after step 2 if you're using a colour image, but want monotone. Here's the workflow I used, though there may be a few 'unnecessary' steps:

  1. Paste image into Photoshop.

  2. Right click the layer in the Layers panel and choose Duplicate Image....

  3. Go to ImageAdjustmentsPosterize... and adjust the first layer to 4 levels and the second (duplicated) layer to 2 levels.

  4. Go to FilterFilter Gallery... and select the Cutout filter. Set the Number of Levels to 4, the Edge Simplicity to 4, and the Edge Fidelity to 2. Use it once on each layer with the same settings.

    using cutout filter in PS

  5. Set the Opacity of the second (duplicated) layer to 62%.

  6. Add a Brightness/Contrast... adjustment layer and put the brightness all the way up, leave the contrast at 0.

  7. Mask the background if you want to, I prefer a clean background for this effect, so that's what I did.

  8. Save for Web...

  9. Drag and drop the new file on to an artboard, or use the open function, in Illustrator.

  10. Use Image Trace / Live TraceHigh Fidelity Photo.

    Disclaimer: I cannot speak for the results in anything below Adobe CC, but I naively assume that you should get a very similar result in Adobe CS5 & CS6.

  11. Save and grin like Ray Charles. :)

Also tried and tested on a famous image of Steve Jobs. It required 3 layers, and different opacity levels, and I found it better to run the image through PS and up the contrast after Live Tracing, the rest of the workflow was almost identical.

  • 1
    this is amazing! and exactly what i was looking for! I appreciate your help greatly!
    – Jodfie
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 21:02
  • This still doesn't look as good as the original image that the OP is trying to copy, but that may be because the source photo was said out, lit, and photographed with that in mind, and likely had some manual tweaking.
    – Keavon
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 0:50
  • 1
    i knew i wouldn't be able to get a exact and ill still do some editing to merge some of the blobs together and etc...but thats mush less shapes then the original of my subject i posted the live trace of
    – Jodfie
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 5:12

You might be able to achieve this using filters, but I would actually consider redrawing the photo entirely using Illustrator a similar vector tool.

You can do this using the Pen Tool. To make things easier, start by pasting the photo you want to convert, and maybe turning it into B&W and increasing the contrast. That will give you a nice base to work on top of. Then simply (easier said than done, I know) draw the different shades (areas) with the pen, one per layer so you can easily edit them.

You can later apply some texture on top of the vector drawing to avhieve the effect you see on the picture.

  • thank you for your answer i was hoping for a easier way to that than this lol...
    – Jodfie
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 9:33

It's called posterization (as it was a technique to allow for making posters easier via screen printing, block printing, or lithography).

The most common ways to achieve it:

  • use the 'posterize' filter in your raster image editor of choice (photoshop, pixelmator, GIMP, etc.)

  • use a vector tracing tool (as previously mentioned)

  • +1 In my opinion the best way would be to combine both of those. First convert the photo to black and white, boost the contrast and posterize it in Photoshop. Then bring it into Illustrator to manually trace the different "levels". This way you'll get some guidance as to where to place your anchor points but still have complete control over the final result.
    – gburning
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 17:29

The first image looks like a direct Live Trace in Illustrator. In order to get better results you can boost the contrast of the image before live tracing it and after that as well. This is how the results look like:

enter image description here

It's a good idea to clean some important curves and lines, so that they don't look so random.

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