May 10, 2018

How to create a vector woodcut portrait

I've been experimenting with creating vector woodcut portraits, which is a bit of a nuisance. I knew it was possible in programs for pixel pushers, but I wanted to see if it could be done in a vector drawing program. Of course I used my favorite Affinity Designer for this. It is Microsoft's developer award winner of 2018! Many things to consider when constructing such drawings. Still a tad confusing at this point. After approximately four trials and errors I arrived at this level of design complexity. I used my vector portrait of Abe Lincoln (its exported png of course) as the image for this test. The images were duplicated several times and to each a different 'Threshold' setting was applied, which exposes more or less of the original image. After applying these values, the images must be Rasterized in order for this woodcut effect technique to work properly.

The image Threshold values are
indicated in the Layers panel

Below you see various versions of the portrait with layers turned on or off. Click on the portrait to see the different versions in Google's lightbox for better comparison. For those seriously interested in mastering this technique, I would urge them to study this article all the way to the end; Affinity Designer has so many options and each of them can add to the quality of the artwork. The appropriate options for this particular technique are all described here.

Abe Lincoln vector woodcut portrait
with all layers visible

In the Layers panel all layers are marked
visible which results in the image above


The portrait with the zero degrees Curves turned off

This is what you see in the Layers panel
with the 0 degrees Curves turned off


The portrait with 0 and 30 degrees turned off

This is what you see in the Layers panel
with the 0 and 30 degrees Curves turned off

If you do exactly what it says below in Affinity Designer, you should get a proper result. For this portrait I created 6 different sets of sine lines that mask the image and rotated them 15 degrees relative to the previous one, starting a zero degrees. The sine stroke width was as thick as the space between the strokes. The image size is 1000 x 1000 pixels.

Working method:
  1. Create a sine line, using snap to grid and standard grid lay-out
  2. Duplicate it until entire page is covered 
  3. Select all lines and ‘Expand Stroke’ 
  4. Combine all expanded strokes – after which they will show as a single ‘Curve’ in the Layers panel 
  5. Duplicate a number times of your choice 
  6. Rotate each of them to different angles, making sure they cover entire page – you have to enlarge them until they do 
  7. Import an image 
  8. Duplicate it to the same number of combined strokes / Curves that you duplicated in step 5 
  9. Apply a different ‘Threshold’ level to the original image and duplicates 
  10. 'Rasterizeall images 
  11. Drag each image inside a curve so that the Curve serves as a mask 
  12. Make sure none of the Curves has a fill or stroke width assigned 

The 0 degree sine lines Expanded Strokes
that were combined, given an outline for visibility.
Note: The final result should have no outline or fill
assigned to any of the Curves!

This is what shows in the Layers panel
when only the 0 degree Curves are visible,
that have the above settings applied (temporarily)

  • The initially drawn wavy sine line is duplicated to cover the entire page, then Expanded Stroke (under Layers in the menu bar) was applied, after which they were Combined which results in a single Curve in the Layers panel
  • The rotated Curves must be enlarged to cover the entire page
  • The Curves, as described in the previous point, were duplicated and rotated in increments of 15 degrees
  • The combined strokes shown as Curves will show up over the images. Hit the Magnifier Zoom tool to see the result without the Curves overlaying them 
  • Each Curve containing the rasterized image can be manipulated in several ways – opacity, type of filter
  • I gave the Curves a 3% Gaussian blur to make the portrait more realistic, also selecting Scale with Object, hence the fx shown in the Layers panel. This is a function not present in Illustrator or CorelDRAW. It opens up a world of possibilities the competition is incapable of
  • The Rectangle shown in the Layers panel can be switched on or off and given any desired colour fill. The document itself was given a transparent background
  • I started this portrait with wavy sine lines, but any shape of curve could of course work
  • The rotation angle of the duplicated Curves is in the names of the layers; I used increments of 15 degrees, but also here different angles could give the desired result
  • When a satisfying construction of Curves is found, probably any image could be used to turn into a woodcut portrait or drawing
  • This was a first experiment for this type of drawing, when more effective constructions of the Curves are found I may update this blog entry

Improved result

Some further improvements applied to make it look more woodcut like - is as in the image below:

Improved result of vector woodcut portrait

This was done by editing the original image that is on top of all layers, as shown in the Layer panel below to 54% Opacity and using the Add filter. The values are displayed inside the red rectangle.

Layer settings for best result

The idea is to simply stop at nothing to achieve the desired effect. 

A Great Tip!

If you click on one of the Curves in the Layer panel, that basically are the containers of the rasterized images, and then select Lock Children in the Interactive menu bar below the Main menu bar, you can move, resize or rotate the Curve container while its children - the rasterized image - remain in place, do not resize or rotate while you are editing the container Curves. This allows you to alter the effect of the Curves containing the rasterized image in the portrait, dramatically changing its appearance instantly without any hustle, allowing you to make the image look exactly the way you want.

The beauty of Affinity Designer is that 99% of all actions can be undone or re-done. It is non-destructive and parametric and has a huge number of undo levels (set to 1024 standard). It also has a history panel that allows you to change any action at any time. These functions (among a great number of others) really set Affinity Designer apart from its competition - qualities that graphic artists most definitely appreciate.

Final result

And here's what Abe Lincoln's vector woodcut portrait may look like when framed after some more tinkering was applied - background fill with 100% noise and a 36% opaque rectangular overlay with 100% noise and a Glow filter. The frame was drawn in 3D in Rhinoceros:

And here's an other one. Monsieur Voltaire. In this one I did not rasterize the images, which allowed me to experiment with even more parameters - Threshold, fx and rotation angle of the Curves masking the images.

When using the above mentioned settings, it allows endless tinkering that often results in very different results of the same subject in this type of portraits. Affinity Designers parametric qualities make it possible.

Another magnificent function

When clicking an image in the Layer panel that is contained inside a Curve (or not) a button appears in the Interactive Menu Bar that read 'Change Image'. Clicking this button does exactly that; it will open a dialogue box that allows the user to choose another image that will replace the original one, keeping the centers of the original and replacing image aligned. If the image are roughly similarly sized, this means that in the case of creating woodcut portraits or other types of artwork, the existing Curves can be used as a template in which different images can be placed! An absolutely brilliant option of Affinity Designer.