Adobe Illustrator Cartoon Snail Tutorial

Below is a tutorial I’ve written for a cartoon character created in Adobe Illustrator. Feel free to check out my other tutorials here. Enjoy!

I start with placing a scanned pencil sketch in Illustrator. Go to File > Place and choose the sketch file. I usually use 72 dpi grayscale scans.

Next, I use the pen tool to trace over my scan. I like to use a color stroked line because it is easier to see. I also close all my paths, so each piece is an individual complete shape.
I remove the sketch once I’m finished tracing.
After I finish tracing, I eliminate the stroke and fill everything with black. With all my shapes still selected, I use object > offset path and set that to -1 pt. This will copy the shapes only 1 pt smaller. These new shapes I fill with white, so I can see them.
Next, I usually like to thicken up my black line by using the offset path again. I also like to scale the new black shapes to get a little line weight variation. Once I have my line weights correct, I zoom in close to make sure that none of my pieces have moved out of place.
Once my black and white lines look right, I start coloring. I start by filling my white shapes with basic flat colors.
After I’ve picked out the flat colors, I start drawing my shadow shapes with the pen tool. Remember to close the path on those too, so they are complete shapes.
Now, I use the pathfinder tools. Go to Window > Pathfinder to make sure the Pathfinder palette is open. The Pathfinder tools are used to combine or cut up two separate shapes. For this example, I’m going to use the Intersect Shape Areas.
First, I need to duplicate the the orange shell shape. I start by selecting the orange shell shape, then double click on the rotate symbol in the tool bar. This will bring up a dialogue box. I set the degrees to 0 and click COPY. This will create a duplicate orange shell shape in the exact same spot.
Next, I select my shadow shape and go to Object > Arrange > Send to Back. With the shadow shape still selected, I shift click on the orange shell. Now that I have both shapes selected, I go to the pathfinder palette and click on Intersect and then Expand. This creates a new shape where the two shapes intersected. I fill this shape with a slightly darker color to make it look like a shadow.
I repeat the last step with the yellow body, the eyes and the drop shadow under the shell.
After I finish the shadows, I can also add in highlights if necessary.
I hope this tutorial helps you create some great characters in Illustrator.

This post was written on Content copyright 2010 Cory Thoman. This post contains advertising links. Please read the About & Policies for more information.

» Tags: ,
  1. Max

    r Cartoon Tutorial – IllustrationInfo is a quite interesting post but quite difficult to understand for me –

  2. Cory

    I try to write the tutorials in a simple easy to understand manner. Let me know if there is a specific step you don’t understand. -Cory

  3. 08/04/23

    Pretty useful tutorial
    Thanks for writing it

  4. 08/05/13

    Indeed was a bit difficult to understand every step you wrote….It would have been better if you had written it pointwise (step 1, step 2, step 3….and so on….) and had not used first person singular while instructing. Anyways……good efforts……thanks.


    Hi, I like this post and think you explained things well throughout. More please . . . .

  6. Jay

    Didn’t understand very much actually…
    How do you “terminate” the stroke. What does offset path really do?

    Not very beginner-friendly.

    Thanks anyway.

  7. Cory

    Jay, you’re probably right. It isn’t necessarily very beginner friendly. I don’t really cover the basics like using the pen tool and switching colors. I may try to add those things in the future, but for now I was focusing on techniques.

    In answer to your questions:

    How do you terminate the stroke? You can eliminate and change the color of the stroke or fill on the Toolbar. There are two large swatches that overlap near the bottom of the Toolbar. There hard to miss because they are the largest things on the Toolbar. One looks like a square (Fill Color) and the other one looks like a square with the center cut out (Stroke Color). You can change the color or choose no color by using the Swatch palette.

    What does the Offset Path do? A path is basically a shape, so you’re either making the shape larger or smaller uniformly. When you use the Offset path it makes a duplicate of the shape that is “x” number pixels larger or smaller than the original shape. I use it in this tutorial to give the illusion of line work, but in actuality it is just a white shape overtop a slightly larger black shape.

  8. 08/10/22

    I have a question about the shadow shapes. You say to duplicate the original shape, send it to the back, and then use “intersect and then expand” to make a new shape. But you have to move the new shape into an offset position from the original shape, first, right, so that it will make a new shape? Otherwise, if both shapes are in exactly the same position, “intersect and then expand” doesn’t do anything.

  9. Cory


    Let’s see if I can answer this. I’ll use the shell as an example.

    You want to duplicate the shell not the shadow shape. Then, you’re using the intersect on the duplicate shell shape and the shadow shape that you drew. The basic point is to trim the excess off of the shadow shape, so it fits the shape of the shell.

    I used to not duplicate the shape and just use the divide on the shadow shape and the shell shape. I started using the intersect instead because I like to keep my original shell shape intact. It’s more forgiving with mistakes.

    Hopefully, that makes sense.

  10. 08/11/04

    Hi Cory,

    Great tutorial, made perfect sense to me. I’m sure your tips will make some of my future projects that little bit easier. Thanks!

  11. KC

    Im a begginer and having trouble finding tutuorials for begginers. I totally dig what Max means. Most tutorials are for people with at least minimal know-how. But please keep in mind that there is people in search of that minimal know-how. Great tutorial and hopefully when I learn the basics this will be very helpful.

  12. Cory


    I’ve started a series of tutorials for people starting out with Illustrator. Hopefully, they are a little more helpful.


  13. 09/05/25


  14. Melissa

    Hi there! I love these tutorials. They’ve really helped me so far. I am completely self-taught in AI , and I have only started working in it over the past month or two. It’s a bit slow-coming.

    I have a couple questions. I see that you made small triangles at the edge of the shell and under his neck to make a sort of line that comes into the drawing. If that makes sense. How would I make something like that in my drawing? I would like to use this offset method to make varied width lines.

    Also, if I wish to do line ‘stripes’ on a drawing–for example, the lines on a twisted rope–how would I connect everything so that the paths are closed? Here’s an example: (this is just a sample, it is not created by me)

    How would I connect the detail lines on the fish’s fins to the rest of the fish? I would like to make my vectors clean. I’m also not understanding how to create a floating object inside the drawing, like the inner fins on the dolphins in the sample above. I’ve had a very hard time learning how to add details like this.

    Thanks in advance, I apologize for all of the questions. I just found this site today. :)

  15. Melissa

    Oh my goodness I figured it out! Thanks to another tutorial of yours for AI doodling, I found exactly what I was looking for regarding my previous questions. THANK YOU!

  16. Cory

    Glad you found the answer. You might also check out my Beginner’s Series:

  17. Zoe

    Thanks so much for sharing the info. Cory. This snail tutorial has been really helpful to me! 😀

  18. 10/01/14

    nice snail tuts … you could give ints on how to get the right colors next time ..

  19. Cory

    Nice idea! I’ll have to add a color tutorial to my beginner tuts:

    FYI: I usually tweak my colors with the color palette. I personally like the CMYK sliders.

    I did have a color tutorial about getting brighter colors:


  20. 10/02/27

    thanks for this lesson but even though it is very hard to draw pencil sketch,this is effective…

  21. crayonmonkey

    Cory! Thank-you!

    I’m very very new to Illustrator (the first time I used it was yesterday), and if I hadn’t found your tutorials I’d have given up on it completely.

    It’ll take a while to get used to grouping rather than using layers, but with your help, I’ll get there…

    I don’t find Illustator intuitive at all once I’ve finished with the pen tool. but you have a logical approach which is really easy to follow. You are now my vector guru!

  22. Cory

    Thanks crayonmonkey! Feel free to check out my beginner’s series too:

  23. Mike

    These are great. I think it’s time to make some Youtube vids about this! Seeing it done is 100x easier to understand. (try Camtasia screen recorder…makes crisp videos…not sure if it works on mac though). Anyways , thx.

  24. 10/07/28

    nice snail tuts … you could give ints on how to get the right colors next time …

  25. 10/08/15

    I had a difficult time understanding how you added the shadow to the snail’s shell. I’ve been trying to figure out how to shade in Illustrator, and I really wish I could understand how you did the shading. You lost me after you did “Object>Arrange>Send to back” on the copy of the shell. How did you get the shading to fill in that certain area of the shell and not the whole thing? Hope you have time to explain it to me.

    Thanks for your other tutorials by the way! I’ve already gone through most of them, and up until this point, they’ve all been clear and easy to understand. Thanks again!

  26. Cory


    Hopefully, I can explain this, so it makes more sense. If you are not familiar with the Pathfinder palette, you may want to play around with that to get a feel for what all the different buttons on it do. Basically, it is used to combine or divide two shapes. Anyway here are the basic steps in more detail for the shadow shape on the shell.

    1. Copy Shell and Paste in to place. (In the tutorial I do this using the rotate, but you can also use the Paste in Front from the Edit menu).
    2. Send the Shadow shape to the back. (This step isn’t always necessary, but it just assures that the new shape isn’t overlapping another shape).
    3. Select the copied shell shape and the shadow shape. (To select multiple shapes, hold down shift and click on the next shape using the Selection Tool from the Toolbar).
    4. Click on the intersect from the Pathfinder palette. (Depending on the version of AI, you may need to Expand the shape).
    5. Change the color of the shape slightly darker. (You can change color with the color palette).

    Hopefully, that explains it a little further. Basically, you used the copy of the shell shape as a cookie cutter to eliminate the excess from the shadow shape using the Pathfinder palette.

    Working with Illustrator is a little bit more like sculpture or working with cut paper shapes than drawing, so it takes a while to get it down. If you have any trouble with some of the basic tools, I’d suggest starting with my Beginner’s Series. It moves a little slower, but I try to explain things in a little more detail in that. Here’s the link:

  27. 10/09/04

    thank you it’s usful for me in my games site thank you

  28. Antonio

    Hi, thats a veri nice snail, I would like to use it for a website of mine. Can I?

  29. Cory


    You are welcome to purchase a RF license of it here:

    Feel free to contact me with any questions at

  30. anderson

    Simple and excellent!
    But with me ,the shadow cover ”half” stroke,do you know why?
    Thank you, Cory.

  31. Pay

    yeah i got a little confused about the pathfinding, but after i while i managed to figure it out, its basicaly what a bolleon does in 3DS max… i really like the images you make, nice and simple but have plenty of character, when you come to sketch the images how do you design your characters? ive done a few tutorials but im not very good at drawing.

    here is my attempt, i changed a few things around

    P.S i sketched it out myself and scanned the image in.

  32. Cory

    Thanks. For the sketches, I start with pencil and paper. Sometimes, I redraw things a few times. Having a light table for tracing and retracing my sketches helps for redrawing and making adjustments and changes. I had a few drawing tips that I wrote a while ago:

    I probably should add practice, practice and practice to that list. :)

    P.S. I like the little snail you did.

  33. Pay

    cool those are some really cool tips, my sister has a light box, i think she will be getting a knock on her door soon lol.

    one of the things i do struggle with a little is perspective, i have some good ideas in my head but its making them look dynamic rather than flat. I guess its all to do with the basic shapes and trying to imagine them in a 3D space. have you got any quick tips for perspective?

    Practive makes perfect :) aint that the truth

  34. Cory

    Perspective! Uh oh. I’m probably not the best person to ask, but I’ll give it a shot.

    There’s a few different strategies that I can think of:

    1. Perspective – This includes the one and two point perspective stuff. Basically, drawing lines to vanishing points. Usually when I do this, I sketch out a rough design and create guides in illustrator on a separate layer that go to my vanishing point.

    2. Overlapping – This is usually what I use. You have your middleground overlapping your background and your foreground overlapping your middleground. I try to have my backgrounds with less contrast, so my foreground can pop forward.

    3. Japanese Watercolors – Old Japanese watercolors used diagonal lines to create perspective. It’s a pretty stylized look, but definitely an approach to look at.

    That’s all I have off the top of my head. I hope that helps.

  35. 11/03/12

    Hi! I just love your tutorial! Congratulations!
    I`we just opened a tutorials indexing website and I would like to ask you to submit your tutorials, it will bring you some extra traffic
    Please give a chance for my website:

    Please let me know about your decision:


    Oh and we also award our users with gift points that can be used to buy ads in our sidebar

  36. John Langton

    Hi Cory-
    I’m not new to illustrator but I’m trying to develop a style for greeting cards and I like what I see in your tutorials. However, I’m hitting a stumbling block in the beginning!
    When you say-

    “Next, I usually like to thicken up my black line by using the offset path again.”

    How do you do this? I have shapes on top of shapes and I’m not sure how you go about selecting the bottom black pieces. I tried copying and pasting the white shapes, but lose the black outlines when I bring them back.
    I think I’m missing something!

  37. Cory


    It’s hard to know exactly what you’re doing without seeing it, but here is a simple tutorial:

    1. Draw a rectangle using the rectangle tool.
    2. Fill the rectangle with a color (any color but black).
    3. Set the stroke of the rectangle to none.
    4. Select the rectangle.
    5. Go to Object > Path > Offset Path.
    6. Put 2 pixels in the dialogue box.
    7. Change the fill color to black.

    That should create a second black box that is a little bigger than the first one. This is the basic concept above for creating the look of a black outline with the offset path.

  38. John Langton

    Thanks Cory-
    I think I was just “overthinking” everything!

  39. 11/05/05

    A good and detailed tutorial. Worth a try. Keep up the good work.

  40. Hyteq

    It is amazing how you can create such an illustrative character design from scratch. I tried but it turned out my snail was rather oddly shaped. Mine kinda looked odd somehow in terms of proportions. I actually wanted to have a mascot design using a snail as a character front but my designing skills prevented me from doing so. I finally went to to seek for some professional designing help and I gave your snail as a reference point for the design I wanted. The character design was great. I have to thank you for the tutorial even though it served more as an inspiration. Your site definitely rocks…

  41. anthi

    really help full tutorial. thank you for sharing

  42. Craig

    Thanks much, you just answered a long-standing question for me!

  43. Fred

    hey Cory … I like your tutorials a lot… but I went over and over the steps for the shadow still cant get it right… is there a chance that you could post a tutorial only on highlights and shadows … pls that would be awsome…
    anyways im just a beginner who thx u a lot for the material u already posted. Its totally awsome.

  44. Cory


    Thanks for the suggestion. As far as creating the shadows and highlights, I’d say just experiment with the Pathfinder tools to see how each one works. Also, the Paste in Front command is good for duplicating shapes in place.

  45. 12/04/20

    Very nice tutorial!! thanks for sharing us!!

  46. Deepak

    Very nice tutorial. Can you please elaborate steps to highlight (like you did for others)

  47. Gez

    This is a nice little tutorial. I’m just experimenting with character figures so this really helps. I love the way the shadow and the highlight completely transforms the character at the end. Simple but very effective!

  48. Nathan

    I agree this isn’t beginner friendly but this definitely has some useful tips in it. And a very clean and professional end result.

    More than anything I want to say thank you for following up on all the questions that have been asked. I think the thread at the end has been just as useful as the post itself.

  49. Sean

    This finally helped me grasp how to use the Pathfinder tools (and alt to expand the result), this removes my dread of tracing the bottom of the shape and fussing with nodes while making a shadow (and vice versa for highlights).

    And thanks so much for covering Object > Path > Offset Path… to create “thick cartoon outlines”. I was trying Appearance > Add new fill with a negative Offset Path Effect, which gives it an “outline” without making a copy of the object, but this doesn’t allow creating the shadow and highlight objects. Your way is simpler and does both. I’d group everything when done so you can re-position them easily.

  50. Saravana

    Hi Thanks for the nice tutorial, can u explain how did u draw that spiral shape please? I want to know how did u create that dual lines…


  51. Cory


    I start by drawing the shape with the pen tool. You can use the pencil or paintbrush tool as well. When I get the shape and line weight I want, I go to Object > Path > Outline Stroke. This will make the shape an object.

    To make the ends of the line come to a point, I switch back to the pen tool (or Delete Anchor Point Tool) and delete one of the anchor points on the end. Depending on your line you may need to add extra points too or use the Direct Select tool to adjust your anchor point handles.

    If that is too much jargon, I cover the pen tool basics here:

  52. Saravana

    Wow, thanks a lot you replied!!! awesome thanks, im following your tutes :)
    – Saravana

  53. Colleen Burr

    Hello Cory
    Have just found this site, it is very helpful, I’m a beginner Ai user.
    You place your scan, trace it then remove your scan. How do you remove the scan? I am not able to select it without the tracing.

  54. Darrell Williams

    Very helpful site. Thanks for taking the time to create all the tutorials.

  55. Mardy Samper

    Good day! Your turorial is really helpful even if im new with illustrator.. I learned a lot from this.. Thank you so much. By the way, i would like to ask do you have any idea how to design tshirts like bicycle uniform or running shirts? Thanks!

  56. 14/02/01

    Wow helpful tutorial, i’ll try your method. Thanks…