How do you turn a photo into a Nagel-inspired vector portrait?

If you’ve reached a certain age, the name Patrick Nagel probably sounds like a bell when you think of the art of the ‘I’ decade – the 1980s. If the name isn’t known, the poster style is likely to be like this (especially if you were a teenager or older during this time). Known for his minimalist, stylized women, his work is often imitated, even today.

  1. Put the twist of the 80’s on a photo
  2. Vectorize a nail style photo?
  3. Stylized, minimal drawing in 3 ways

Put the twist of the 80’s on a photo

Some of the notable 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, hints of a nose and maybe a few shadows to define the cheeks and other parts of the body

  • Geometric shapes and color blocks (both background, foreground and subject clothing)

“The Nagel woman is complex, which is key to her unconscious attraction. She wants attention, sometimes generous, but remains aloof. She seems smart, obsessive, but distant.”

While you can mimic his appearance with shapes you draw yourself, for some it may be easier and more desirable to take a picture of yourself or another person and turn it into a Nagel-esque image.

Here we take a look at some tricks to recreate this minimalist style from real photos. If you’ve created your own Nagel-style artwork, you can display it in one of the following ways:

  • make it a poster

  • Use this as an illustration in a brochure or newsletter

  • Turn any brochure or newsletter circles into stylized images (make sure the overall style of your publication is compatible with this minimalist style)

  • Create a Facebook profile picture

  • Turn older photos into vector portraits for class reunions name tags (especially if you graduated in the 70s or 80s)

  • Turn your illustration into a background image for your computer, tablet or smartphone.

Vectorize a nail style photo?

The photo contains a lot of information, but for this minimalist style you will throw a lot of it away. While you can use a graphics editor like Photoshop, illustration software like Adobe Illustrator is recommended.


  • Use your original photo as a reference. Ideally, place it on the template layer, lock it in place and darken it a bit.

Whatever software you use, layers make it easy to create, modify, and try out alternative versions of your artwork.

  • Use the drawing tools that suit you best (pencil, pen, brush) to trace the outlines of the main large shapes in the photo. This is mainly hair (or a hat in our example), skin (face, neck, other parts of the body that are visible) and clothing. Fill each shape with a different color to make it easier to distinguish each shape. You can change the colors later.

If you’re unfamiliar with vector graphics, learn about anchor points, control handles, and pen tools (such as those in Photoshop and Illustrator).

  • Hide these layers of skin, hair, and clothing temporarily. Again, use the original photo as a reference and draw the main shapes (eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose, ears)

  • Hide and show layers as needed and work on refining the shapes you’ve drawn. You strive for simplicity, but you may want to use a lot more features than you will end up using.

  • Do the same with other parts of the photo, including jewelry, glasses, shadows on clothes, etc.

  • Once you have the main subject the way you want it, lock everything in place and work on adding a new background (if you want to).

A few more things to consider:

If you want a more stylized look, you can change the eyes and mouth to get a more perfect shape. It depends on how much you want the finished image to resemble the original object. In the examples in this guide we have tried to make the main faces recognizable as the original subjects.

Start with solid blocks of color, then experiment with gradient fills for the iris, lips, clothes, or shadows. However, don’t use too many fancy effects to keep the spirit of Nagel’s image.

Stylized, minimal drawing in 3 ways

If you like Nagel’s style but want something more realistic, you can. Just be sure to change the colors of the shadows and other details as needed to show them on different background colors.

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

Another way to have fun with these types of photos is to play with the background and accessories. Note that in these shots and in the first portrait above, the subject is wearing glasses. Since plain old glasses are boring (but often easier to work with than drawing eyes!), we’ve added transparent polka dot glasses on the lenses in the first portrait and added zigzags in the image on this page.

If your item has earrings (or even if they don’t), have fun with it. Make exaggerated hoops or pendants, or add bracelets, a necklace, or even a scarf or hat where there were none.

If you change colors, don’t forget to try them on different backgrounds and colors. Often only black or white is all you need.

In addition to drawing the necessary shapes on top of your reference photo, you can get acceptable results for some images with Auto Trace or Live Trace. Try to do this with high contrast images to at least provide a starting point for your work.

Love the idea of ​​more perfect skin and fewer wrinkles, but want your look to be as realistic as possible? A few quick shots will correct red eyes, increase underexposure, whiten teeth, hide imperfections and simply make your subjects look better and younger.

Finally, have fun and don’t get too carried away with making a replica of one of the images from Patrick Nagel’s gallery – but be sure to browse the images for ideas and inspiration.

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