Turn a Photo into a Nagel-Inspired Vector Portrait

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Put a Retro 80s Spin on a Photograph

Nagel Style Portrait of Jacqueline Howard
This is me in a Nagel-inspired portrait. Jacci Howard Bear

I had a Patrick Nagel poster on the wall of my condo back in the 80s. If the name isn't familiar, the poster style probably is (especially if you were a teen or older in the 80s). Famous for his minimalist, stylized women, his work is often mimicked, even today.

Some of the stand-out features of Nagel's illustration style for his seductive women (and men too):

  • High contrast white skin and black hair
  • Perfect red lips
  • Minimal details… mostly eyes, eyebrows, mouth, the suggestion of a nose, and perhaps a few shadows to define the cheeks and other parts of the body
  • Geometric shapes and blocks of color (both as background, foreground, and the subjects' clothing)

"Nagel’s woman is complicated - which is the key to her subliminal appeal. She wants attention, sometimes flauntingly, but remains distant. She appears intelligent, self-possessed, but removed."

Although you could recreate his look with figures you draw yourself, for some it may be easier and desirable to take a photo of yourself or some other person and turn it into a Nagel-like image.

On the next couple of pages we'll explore some of the techniques for recreating this minimalist style from actual photographs.

And what will you do with your artwork? Some ideas:

  • Turn it into a poster
  • Use it as an illustration in a brochure or newsletter
  • Turn all the mug shots for a brochure or newsletter into stylized images (be sure the overall style of your publication is compatible with this minimalist style)
  • Create a Facebook (or other social media) profile picture
  • Turn Senior photos into vector portraits for your class reunion nametags (especially if you graduated in the 70s or 80s)
  • Turn your illustration into a background image for your computer, tablet, or smartphone (that's what I did with some that I created).


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How to Vectorize a Photo With a Nagel-Inspired Look

Nagel-Style Portrait of Michael James
Here are the basic steps for turning a photo into a piece of minimalist artwork. Jacci Howard Bear

 A photograph contains a lot of information. But for this minimalist style you're going to throw out most of it.  And although you can use an image editor such as Photoshop, I recommend using illustration software such as Adobe Illustrator. Vector art is the way to go. 

The basics:

  • Use your original photo as a reference. Ideally, place it on a template layer, lock it in place, and dim it a little.

TIP: No matter what software you use, layers make it easier to create, fine-tune, and try alternative versions of your artwork.

  • Using whichever drawing tools work best for you (pencil, pen, paintbrush) draw paths around the main large shapes in your photo. This is primarily the hair (or hat in our example), the skin (face, neck, any other body parts that show), and the clothing. Fill each shape with a different color to make it easier to differentiate each one. You can change the colors later.

TIP: If you're not familiar with vector drawing, learn more about anchor pointscontrol handles,  and pen tools (such as in Photoshop and Illustrator).

  • Hide those layers of skin, hair, and clothing temporarily. Again, using the original photo as a reference, draw key shapes (eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose, ears)
  • Hide and unhide layers as necessary and work on fine-tuning the shapes you've drawn. You're going for simplicity but you may want to draw in a lot more features than you'll ultimately use. Hide and unhide those features until you find the right look for your project.
  • Do the same with other parts of the photo including jewelry, glasses, shadows on the clothing, etc.
  • Once you have the main subject the way you want it, lock it all in place and work on adding a new background (if you want).

These are the basics. Some things to consider:

If you want a more stylized appearance you may want to redraw eyes and mouth so that they are more perfect in shape. It depends on how much you want the finished image to look like the original subject. In the examples within this tutorial I  attempted to keep the basic faces recognizable as the original subjects.

Start with blocks of solid color but then experiment with gradient fills for irises, lips, clothing, or shadows. However, to keep with the spirit of the Nagel look, don't  use too many fancy effects.


On the next page I'll show you some more variations and ideas for your stylized photos. Below, you'll find tutorials that go into more detail for creating this look.


 Cheryl Graham: Create a Vinyl Record and 80s Album Cover

This is the tutorial I originally used to create my first Nagel-like artwork. Skip past the vinyl record portion, if you wish, to Part II. See how the author takes a photograph  and gives it the Nagel treatment, somewhat reminiscent of a Duran Duran album cover  (Rio) created by Patrick Nagel. In the end, I tended to work with both the pencil and pen tools.

"Nagel's work is deceptively simple and stark. But once you try to duplicate his style, you fully appreciate the mastery of communicating so much with very little. The old adage "Less is More" certainly rings true. With Illustrator, however, it's easy to delete and refine objects until you get it just right."

Melissa Evans: Vector Art with Photoshop

While this isn't exactly Nagel style, the process can be adapted by simply eliminating much of the detail and playing with the colors. If you prefer working in Photoshop, try this tutorial.

"...vector art does take a lot of time and patience. Especially if you want to create OUTSTANDING art."


Mousetivity: I will turn your photo into my version of a Patrick Nagel pop art for $5

If you rather have someone else do it for you, the price sounds good. Note that I have no connection to or experience with this artist but check out the images on the page.


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Stylized, Minimal Artwork 3 Ways

Nagel Style Portrait Trio
Same original photograph, three ways. Jacci Howard Bear

If you like the Nagel-inspired look but want something with more realistic colors you can do that. Just be sure to change the colors of shadows and other details if necessary to show up against different background colors.

In the trio on this page you'll see black hair and two versions of dark blonde/light brown hair. The skin color changes in the third image.

Another way to have fun with these kinds of photos is to play with backgrounds and accessories. Notice the subject is wearing glasses in these images and in my own portrait on page 1. But plain old glasses are boring (Yet often easier to work with than drawing the eyes). I added see-through polka dots on my glasses and zig zigs in the image on this page.

If your subject is wearing earrings (or even if they aren't) have fun with those as well. Create exaggerated hoops or dangles.  Add bangle bracelets, a necklace, or even a scarf or hat where there were none.

When you change the colors don't forget to try it against different background patterns and colors. Often plain black or white is all you need.

In addition to drawing the needed shapes on top of your reference photo, for some images you might get acceptable results using auto trace or Live Trace.  Try it with high-contrast images to at least provide a starting point for your work.

Have fun and don't get too caught up in exactly replicating the images from Patrick Nagel's gallery -- but definitely browse the images for ideas and inspiration.

BONUS: In minimizing details you will inevitably find that this style provides an instant facelift for your subjects. Wrinkles magically disappear! Everyone appears younger and more Photoshopped. It's an illustration, go with it.

Like the idea of more perfect skin and fewer wrinkles but want to keep your image as a realistic photo? These Quick Photo Fixes fix red eye, bump up underexposures, whiten teeth, conceal blemishes, and just make you look better and younger.