How to Turn a Photo into a Nagel-Inspired Vector Portrait

Here are some ideas to give your photos that '80s style

What to Know

  • Using the original photo as a reference, draw your subject's main shape. Then fill in the details, like eyes, mouth, hair, and jewelry.
  • Key elements of Nagel's style include high contrast white skin and black hair, red lips, minimal details, and geometric blocks of color.
  • Use auto trace or Live Trace with high-contrast images to at least provide a starting point for your work.

If you're of a certain age, the name Patrick Nagel probably rings a bell if you're thinking about art from the "Me" Decade, the 1980s. If the name isn't familiar, his poster style probably is (especially if you were a teen or older during that period). Famous for his minimalist, stylized women, his work is often mimicked, even today.

How to Vectorize a Photo With a Nagel-Inspired Look

 A photograph contains a lot of information, but for this minimalist style, you're going to throw out most of it. Although you can use an image editor such as Photoshop, it's recommended to use illustration software such as Adobe Illustrator.

Nagel-Style Portrait of Michael James
Jacci Howard Bear

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.

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.

If you're not familiar with vector drawing, learn more about anchor points, control 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.
  • 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).

More 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, we 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.

Nagel Style Portrait of Jacqueline Howard
Jacci Howard Bear

Elements of Nagel's Style

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."

Uses for Nagel-Inspired Images

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.

Here, we'll explore some of the techniques for recreating this minimalist style from actual photographs. Once you have crafted your own piece of Nagel-inspired art, you can showcase it in one of the following ways:

  • 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 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.

Stylized, Minimal Artwork 3 Ways

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.

Nagel Style Portrait Trio
Jacci Howard Bear

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

Play With Backgrounds and Accessories

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 the first portrait shown above. Since plain old glasses are boring (yet often easier to work with than drawing the eyes!), we added see-through polka dots on the glasses in the first portrait 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, or 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.

Use Auto Trace With High-Contrast Images

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.

Downplay Flaws and Have Fun

Like the idea of more perfect skin and fewer wrinkles but want to keep your image as realistic as possible? A few quick photo fixes correct red eye, bump up underexposures, whiten teeth, conceal blemishes, and just make your subjects look better and younger overall.

Ultimately, have fun and don't get too caught up in creating an exact replica of one of the images from Patrick Nagel's gallery -- but definitely browse the images for ideas and inspiration.

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