I'm working on a program that will require a lot of flat styled vectored images. I'm very comfortable with Photoshop but fall short in the artistic department. I've been practicing and am happy with many of my results, but the designs take me days to complete. The issue I keep running into is "seeing" the highlights and shadows on objects while still seeing the big picture at the same time.

I'm looking for a way to get the image as close as possible to the desired final result in Photoshop before working on vectoring the entire design so I can have a reference for the shadows, highlights, and color changes. I've tried using the Cutout filter to achieve this but it usually just adds to the struggle when vectoring.

How can I edit an image in Photoshop so that I can quickly create a vector from it?

For example, here's an image I used for practice and the final vectored result.

enter image description here enter image description here

  • Hi Daniel, wish the tutorial I used to learn this still existed... if only it weren't 15 years ago haha I've been doing this too long. Anyhow, are you currently doing any prep work in Photoshop before tracing it in Illustrator? Nice results though!
    – Ryan
    May 23, 2016 at 16:13
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    @DanielStorm alright one more question then --- is there a reason you're not doing the final vector in Illustrator? When I have a few minutes I'll try to make a tutorial of how I might do it - not that I'm an illustrator.
    – Ryan
    May 23, 2016 at 16:19
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    @JohnManly why not blur image in one layer and unblur another?
    – joojaa
    May 23, 2016 at 16:39
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    The more complex the image, the harder it is it to vectorize. There is a site I've used in the past that yields pretty good automated results, if you want to look into it. vectormagic.com/home.
    – DLev
    May 23, 2016 at 16:40
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    Illustrator seems to me to be a much more appropriate tool to create anything that deals with vectors. Its Trace tool would let you vectorize anything really quickly without having to "learn" all of Illustrator May 25, 2016 at 1:31

4 Answers 4


Alright I'll give it a quick whirl. I'm using https://unsplash.com/photos/VGpp0LcHZT4 as the image

enter image description here

I'll start by Duplicating that layer a few times so I've got some copies of it and then I'm going to use the Median Filter. Median Filter is a great tool to find the average color of a region giving it almost a paint like quality. This first pass I'm looking at the overall image only:

enter image description here

Now I'll use one of those handy duplicates looking at the eye and other detail areas.

enter image description here

Hold Alt, click mask, paint in the details. I did the eye and a little bit of the beak:

enter image description here

Alright now I'm going to Stamp Layer Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E which will give me a new copy of everything as one layer. Then I'll Posterize that layer:

enter image description here

Going to Duplicate this Posterize layer. On the bottom (original Poster layer) I'll change blend mode to Soft Light. On this new one I'm going to do Filter > Find Edges:

enter image description here

Then I'll use Hue/Saturation to desaturate the lines then change their mode to Darken and adjust the Opacity to your needs:

enter image description here

Then as a final step in the prep you can add a layer between the lines and the image with a solid tone (some shade of gray) and lighten its opacity to help you see the line work:

enter image description here

I would then bring this into Illustrator to draw these segments. Start with the largest shapes first. Keep the PSD open in Photoshop so you can reference the different layers as you go. And since you mention struggling to see lights and darks you can always create Luminosity Masks or create a Palette in the HSL or LAB color space if it helps you.

Hope this helps you. The other thing that will get you illustrating quicker is a lot of practice and making sure you're using the Pen tool well.


Threshold is your friend for turning complex, high-detailed photos into simplified black and white versions in Photoshop. Going from the threshold version will often give you better solid outlines to work over in vector illustration. This is just one technique, but it's one that I have been using before Illustrator introduced Live Trace, and one I still use today to simplify reference photos before illustrating.


Your probably better off using illustrator to get a vector image out of a non vector.

Illustrator has a nice auto trace feature. While not 100% perfect it can get the job done in some images with the right set of information in the image.

Just open the image in Illustrator and click the auto trace button in the toolbar.

If that doesn't work with the right quailty then you may be out of luck and will have to hand do it all


This will be a very short answer.

Look for "Cartoon Photoshop" https://www.google.com/search?q=cartoon+photoshop

There are a lot of tutorials and processes.

The basics probably are some kind of posterize (color reduction), edge detection, saturation.

  • Hey Rafael, it seems to me that this is more than a comment than an answer, because it doesn't offer the solution in itself, only pointers on how to find them elsewhere. Mind if I convert it to a comment?
    – Vincent
    Jun 1, 2016 at 13:28

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