Creating icons and illustrations using custom brushes in Illustrator

simple bike icon

If you ever need to create a simple but effective illustration or icon and are bored of the effect you are getting with just an outline, it may be an idea to use custom brushes in Illustrator to give your lines a bit of character.

Here is a simple trace of a motorbike that was transformed with the aid of a couple of new brushes I’d created in Illustrator. The whole process takes a few seconds.

How to make a custom Illustrator brush

Let’s start with an easy one. Make a long, thin ellipse by dragging the Ellipse Tool (L) on the artboard, making sure it’s filled black and has no stroke for simplicity’s sake.
making an ellipse illustrator screenshot

Now copy it (cmd-ctrl-C) and choose New Brush… from the Brushes palette dropdown menu. Make it an Art Brush.
new art brush illustrator

Make sure the arrow points along the ellipse and not at a right angle to it.

art brush options illustrator

Click OK. Your new brush will appear in your Brushes palette.

Now we’re going to make another brush with a slightly different shape. Go back to the original ellipse, select the two middle anchor points using the Direct Selection Tool (A) and drag them horizontally holding down the shift key. This will give you an ellipse with a blunt end.
editing an ellipse in Illustrator

Now copy and follow the same process as above to create a new custom brush. Now your Brushes palette should have two brushes in it looking more or less like this:

Brushes palette in Adobe Illustrator

Tracing an image in Illustrator

The process of getting a basic outline shape of your image starts off with a Google image search. Here is a basic bit of royalty free clip art I have found but it could have been any old image of a motorbike.
motorcycle clip art

Once you have an image you want to trace or base your illustration on, go File > Place in Illustrator to put it on your artboard. A little trick I like to do is, in the Layers palette, lock the layer that the image is on and then create a new layer to do your tracing on – this helps to keep your tracing paths free from the image box.

I traced over this quickly using the Pen Tool (P) and the Ellipse Tool again for the wheels.
motorbike trace in Illustrator

Applying the custom brushes to paths

Now get rid of the image you were tracing which will leave you with just the paths – give them a stroke so you can see them.
bike outline

Now the fun begins! Select with the Selection Tool (V) one of the paths and click which ever custom brush you would like. So here, for example, I have applied the flat elliptical brush onto the top path. As you can see, you may need to play around with the stroke widths, etc., to get it to look right.
applying custom brushes in illustrator

I applied this flat elliptical brush on the wheels as well but on the other path I applied the other brush with the blunt end to create an exhaust!
black bike outline

The shape can be imported into Photoshop to give it some extra effects to make a simple and attractive shape that can be used as an illustration or an icon.

simple bike icon thumbnail

So, I hope you found this tutorial helpful. Do you use Illustrator? Do you use custom brushes? Do you have any other tips to create illustrations like this one?

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