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How to illustrate in Sketch

Bring your artistic ideas to life using our Vector tools, Boolean operations — and more

Looking to master the art of illustration? Having a design tool you feel comfortable with can go a long way. In this article, we’re excited to help you unleash your creativity with confidence by highlighting some of our Mac app’s key illustration features.

Let’s jump in. 👇

What is illustration, anyway?

When we think of what illustration is, it’s easy to imagine artists creating drawings with pens or pencils. But that’s just one type of illustration. That’s because the meaning of illustration really refers to a picture that explains something or someone. It can be a drawing, but it can also be a painting, a graphic, a collage, or even a photograph.

Anything from a drawing of a comic book character to a diagram of the digestive system in a biology textbook can be an illustration. The point is to visually represent something — be it a concept, a character, a story, or a message.

As technology has evolved, so have our methods for creating illustrations. With plenty of design tools to choose from, artists today can opt to create their work digitally. For example, in Sketch you can combine vector drawing tools, shapes, and colors on an infinite Canvas — which gives you more control over the artistic process. But more on that below.

Tip: Want to see how people have used Sketch to create digital illustrations? Check out Viviane Valenta’s iconic cats, Nikola Lazarevic’s photorealistic cars, or our very own Tiago Alexandrino’s epic 3D work!

An illustration of a Maneki Neko by Tiago Alexandrino.

Our very own Tiago Alexandrino created this 3D illustration of a Maneki Neko.

How to create shapes and vectors in Sketch

Ready to see how you can illustrate in our Mac app? A great way to get started is to get familiar with the different ways to create shapes. In this section, we’ll take a look at three approaches: creating your own shapes from scratch, using a pre-made shape, and using Boolean operations.

Let’s go through them!

Create your own shapes from scratch

A tool you’ll likely use a lot as an illustrator is the Vector tool. You can use it to draw any shape you can imagine. Just hit V to use the Vector tool, click anywhere on the Canvas or Artboard to create your first point, and then click somewhere else to create another point. You’ll then see a line form between these two points — a path. You can continue to create new paths from each point. When you’re ready to complete the shape, close the path by joining the last point with the first point you created.

Tip: While using the Vector tool, you can easily switch between our four vector point types by pressing 1, 2, 3, or 4 on your keyboard.

Hit V to use the Vector tool, click anywhere on the Canvas or Artboard to create your first point, and then click somewhere else to create another point. The line that forms between them is called a path.

If you prefer free-hand drawing, you can also try our Pencil tool. Just like you’d use a pencil in real life, you can click and drag it to form paths according to your cursor movements. As soon as you’re done drawing, we’ll automatically smooth your paths out for you!

You can find both the Pencil and Vector tools by clicking the Insert button in the toolbar, or by using the keyboard shortcuts below:

Tool Shortcut
Pencil tool P
Vector tool V
Straight vector point type 1
Mirrored vector point type 2
Disconnected point type 3
Asymmetric vector point type 4

Use a pre-made shape

Not a fan of drawing every shape out by hand? Save time with a pre-made shape. Click the Insert button in the Toolbar and choose Shape. Then choose between drawing an Oval, Rectangle, Rounded rectangle, Line, Arrow, Triangle, Star, or Polygon. These shapes are just as editable as the vector shapes you’ve made from scratch! More on this in the vector editing section below.

You’ll save even more time using these keyboard shortcuts:

Tool Shortcut
Oval O
Rectangle R
Rounded rectangle U
Line L
A screenshot showing how to add a pre-made shape in Sketch’s Mac app.

To add a pre-made shape, head to Insert > Shape and choose one from the drop-down menu.

Create complex shapes using Boolean operations

Want a more advanced way to create shapes? You can use Boolean operations to combine and create complex shapes. When you have two or more shapes overlapping with each other, select them and choose one of the four Boolean operations: Union, Subtract, Intersect and Difference.

You’ll find them all in your Toolbar, or by using the keyboard shortcuts below:

Tool Shortcut
Union U
Subtract S
Intersect I
Difference X

Tip: Don’t see Boolean operations in your Toolbar? You might have to add them! Right-click anywhere on the Toolbar, choose Customize Toolbar… and click and drag their icon into the bar.

Using the Subtract Boolean operation, you can remove an area of a shape that’s underneath another.

How to edit and style your vectors

Next up, let’s take a look at how to edit and customize your shapes. We’ll look at the power of vector editing mode, and explore some styling options.

Get comfortable with vector editing

Want to tweak your shapes or make them look totally different? Hit Return to enter vector editing mode — this will reveal all your shape’s paths and points. From there, you can either move the points around or adjust their handles. You can even add or delete points to change the form of your shape. When you’re done, just click anywhere outside the shape layer to exit vector editing mode.

Vector editing mode works on all shape layers — whether you’ve created the shape yourself using our Vector or Pencil tools, or used one of our pre-made shapes.

Hit Return to enter vector editing mode — this will reveal all your shape’s paths and points. From there, you can either move, add, or delete points.

Give your layers some style

Time to make your vectors pop. When you have a layer selected, the Inspector on the right of your window will reveal all of its properties — including its styling properties. That’s where you can choose to give your layers a solid or gradient fill, adjust the width and colors of your borders, fiddle with the opacity, or maybe even add a shadow.

Toggling between these keyboard shortcuts will also allow you to style your layers:

Tool Shortcut
Fill F
Border B
Pick a color ControlC
Adjust opacity 0 to 9

You can sample any color on your screen to use as a fill for your shapes. Just hit ControlC to pick a color.

How to export your illustrations

Our Mac app exports to several different file formats. For illustrations, it’s best to choose a format that preserves your paths, points, and layers — which makes it easier to scale and edit your designs in the future. That’s why we recommend choosing vector image formats like SVG, PDF and EPS.

Just select the layers or Artboard you’d like to export, head to the Inspector and click on Make Exportable. Then, choose a file format from the drop-down menu, click Export Selected… and give your file a name and location.

A screenshot showing how to export a document in Sketchs Mac app.

When exporting illustrations, we recommend using vector image formats like SVG, EPS, and PDF.

Now that you know your way around our Mac app, it’s time to dive in and start illustrating! Try combining pre-made shapes or adding your own and playing with styles. You could even try recreating one of your favorite illustrations and discover what features you like along the way.

And if you’re excited about your work, feel free to share it with us on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #MadeWithSketch. We love seeing what you come up with! 🤩