Today we will create a vector drawing of the main character from the Chinese novel “Journey to the West”, the Monkey King. The tutorial will show you drawing techniques for Illustrator,tips for character design and composition setups. Whether you’re an advanced Illustrator user or a beginner, you’ll be able to complete it easily.
Difficulty: Beginner – Intermediate
Completion time: 1-2 hours
Tools: Illustrator CS3
- Gang of Three font from Dafont.com
Final Image Preview
Even if you haven’t read or heard the original the story, you have most likely seen this character in movies, like The Forbidden Kingdom and The Lost Empire, as well as in popular games like League of Legends or Heroes of Newerth.
Before we start drawing anything, we need a solid research for this character. Let’s take a look at his background!
Son Wukong is a monkey born from a mythical stone, who joined a clan of monkeys, earned their respect and became their leader. Unhappy with his current status, he started seeking immortality. He departed to civilized lands, where he learned martial and magic arts from a Taoist monk. Later on, he was cast out from the temple for bragging about his skills to the other students.
He later acquired a Bo staff, a golden armor, a phoenix-feathered cap and cloud-walking boots. How he got them is extraordinary, but let’s stick to the moments that change only him.
Further on, he rebels against the Heaven for being treated as an outcast, defeats the Army of Heavens, gets captured for 49 days in a cauldron of sacred fires, where he gains even more power, escapes and starts to decimate the Heaven’s remaining armies. Seeing no solution to his rebellion, the Heaven resorts to calling its deity and gets him imprisoned for 500 years by Buddha himself.
After 500 years, he is granted to serve a pilgrim in his journey to retrieve the Buddhist sutras, but he is still shackled with an enchanted headband. During this time, he faithfully serves the pilgrim and upon his return, he received enlightenment for his services.
Let’s make a brief of what we know about him:
Anatomy and apparel:
- has the aspect of a monkey
- wears a chain armor
- wears boots
- wears a feathered cap
- wields a red Bo staff
- has a water / sake bottle tied to his waist
- holds an enchanted headband
Personality, actions and skills:
- trained in martial arts
- high mobility and agile
- likes to fool around
- can jump on clouds
- goofy, but smart when he must make a decision
Now that we have some characteristics written down, let’s decide how our Wukong will look like.
Since he uses a staff to fight, you can find some references in poses and techniques for Bo staff fighting. He is agile and uses a lot of movement, and out of all fighting styles, Wushu staff fighting is the perfect technique for him.
Open YouTube and look for some Bo staff fight footage from competitions. I’ve paused where I saw interesting poses, made some screenshots and drew a few sketches.
From this set, I chose this one, with the character standing on one foot, meditating. As you can see, I drew only the pose, showing only the body proportions, not details.For now, we need a solid base to build our details upon, there’s no point diving into details.
Next, some rough sketching.
Monkey-like characters need a monkey-like face, right? Draw a monkey-like face, with lots of hair on the sides and flat nostrils.
For the armor, we need light materials for mobility, but in the same time to provide some protection. Let’s go for a reinforced leather armor. Since he has a wild nature, don’t use fancy and perfect details, just go for rough shapes.
For padding and bindings, we’ll use cloth bandages and rope. If we want to maintain his animalistic nature, we need to add subtle imperfections and the rope bindings are just the perfect touch.
Since we chose a light armor, we can make a strong, imposing belt. Instead of a belt buckle, I chose a shishi head. Why is that, you say? A shishi has an interesting figure, it’s a symbol of protection and it fits in quite nicely.
The lower part of the body is the key to mobility, so my choice for the armor was light leather padding and very loose cloth pants. Because I want a ninja-ish look, I added leather straps for the feet and rope-tied sandals with ash-filled footpads to reduce the noise while running.
To protect the knee caps, I added rope-tied metallic pads.
I didn’t want to draw a feathered cap, so instead I drew a one-shoulder cape. Why did I do this? Because it balances the illustration: it’s placed opposite to the left foot and has a similar shape. That, and the Assassin’s Creed fashion hype – it looks pretty damn cool.
Drawing the Bo staff in his hand is self explanatory, you can’t draw a monkey king without it. The enchanted headband is the one meant to shackle him, so I went with that, since I didn’t draw the phoenix-feathered cap.
The water bottle is just a personal addition and it suggests he is a wanderer.
In brief, what we know about his appearance is:
- reinforced leather armor
- metallic belt
- boots made from leather straps
- ash-filled foot pads tied with rope
- reinforced leather armbands with cloth bandage padding, all tied up with rope
- red bo staff with metallic golden ends
- loose cloth pants
- torn cloth cape
- water bottle
- torn cloth padding for the thigh armor
Now that we have a solid base to work with, let’s turn this into vector.
Create a new document (File > New…) and create a new document of 600 x 400 px in RGB color mode. This size is only generic, we won’t use the canvas’ borders at all.
Click-drag the scanned sketch onto our canvas. Grab the Selection Tool (V), hold the SHIFT key and resize it. Click the “Embed” button.
Rename the layer to “sketch” and lock it. Click the “Create new layer” button and name it “Outline”. Now grab the Brush Tool (B), go to the Brushes palette (F5), double-click a brush and use the settings below. We will use a pressure-sensitive brush to create a fluid look.
Start by drawing the major outlines, disregarding the textures on surfaces, small details or shadows. Try to draw the lines with sharp ends and leave no blunt areas. The headband was forming an “X” shape with the staff, so I made it tied to the staff instead of leaving it on the head.
The cloth beneath the thigh armor will create nice color transitions and will suggest he is not royalty and cares less about his physical aspect. The same goes for the shredded cape.
Instead of putting the headband on his head, I’ve decided it would be better to tie it to the staff and with less swirling. Now they don’t form an “X” on the design and it balances it nicely.
Start adding some details. For the shoulder pads, I chose a fish-scale leather texture. The idea came from the samurai’s armor, who has small iron pads bound together in a fish scale arrangement. For the metal reinforcement, I added a fire-shaped border.
The arms also need some protection, so I made the armbands covered with small metallic spheres and tied with ropes directly onto the arm. The hand wraps beneath it protects the skin from direct contact with the leather armbands.
The belt. This part has to be large and imposing, that’s why it’s going to be a fully made of metal. Like in boxing, the huge belt suggests he is a champion, a feat we really want to stand out for our character.
Lower armor texture is similar to the shoulder pads: fish-scaled leather with metallic reinforcement, but with torn cloth beneath it. Again, don’t try to draw it to perfection, leave it as it is if a line is a little crooked.
Knee cap pads are fully metallic, with some extra spheres on the surface, mainly because it looked flat and boring.
The staff is wooden and it needs a texture too, so let’s draw that too. Here’s how to draw it: first, draw some omega-shaped lines longitudinally, then draw a few straight perpendicular lines on them.
For the rope texture, you need to draw pairs of small, oblique lines, alternating the sides – two left, two right and so on.
Looking back in our research brief, I must choose some light boots or a footwear to suggest the idea of mobility and swiftness. After a bit of research in Oriental footwear, I chose the jika-tabi, a shoe with a split-toe design. Instead of drawing them as a 1-piece boot, I made them as leather wraps, mainly because it makes him look more agile and swift. Actual, ornate boots would only add an idea of stability and self-control, something a monkey will never have. If it would have been a rhino, then yes, strong and heavy boots would be perfect.
After an overall look, I noticed the “funny” element is missing. Now it just looks like a master meditating and I want that piece of goofiness added. So instead of adjusting the pose, his reaction and expression is perfect to tweak.
OK, reaction, but to what? Let’s see: we need something not very detailed, to be in motion in order to attract attention and to interact with the monkey king. That’s how I got to the idea of a flying shuriken (ninja star) slicing a small piece of the headband.
To suggest the motion of the shuriken, simply draw some cartoon motion lines and more sharp tips. To create a visual path to it, make the monkey king look at it. Grab the Selection Tool (V), select the left eye and hit Delete. Draw another one, wide open, looking at the shuriken. Do the same for the mouth, but draw a simple oval shape to make him look surprised.
Grab the Brush Tool again and paint in the strong shadows on the character, but only for the elements that need to stand out more. Don’t be afraid to add too much, there are many elements and the shadow gets distorted.
Now that we have a good setup, we can begin throwing in the eye-candy: the coloring. Create a new layer, name it “palette” and double-click another brush and use the settings below. This is a thick and less precise brush, made just to fill the outline, don’t try drawing any details with it.
Using this brush, draw some strokes with the colors shown in the image below. If you want to add more colors, please draw a sample on this layer, so you have it at hand at all times. Lock this layer.
Create a new layer, name it “base colors”, grab the Eyedropper Tool (I), click the desired color, grab the Brush Tool (B) fill each area with its own color. It doesn’t have to be perfect, we can always trim it later on. Lock the other layers, just so you don’t mix them up.
Grab the Selection Tool (V), select the entire artwork (CTRL+A) and go to Object > Expand Appearance. Lock this layer, create a new one and name it “shadows”.
Select a color from the palette, double-click it and make it darker and more saturated. Now draw a sample onto the “palette” layer, then draw the shadows, with the light source set in the top right corner.
Repeat STEPS 16-17 for the highlights, but make the colors lighter and a bit desaturated.
Here’s a neat trick to add depth to objects: when you paint in the highlights, make sure you add more on the side with the light source and just faint glosses on the other side.
Let’s make highlights for the hair: draw intense light on the right and just a few thin strokes in the left. The same rule applies for the shadows. For the armor, make each shine, but more intense for the ones in the right.
Right now, the outline is too strong and stands out too much. Let’s fix this.
Unlock all the layers except the “sketch” layer. Grab the Selection Tool (V), select the entire artwork and go to Object > Expand, then go to Object > Path > Clean Up. Hit OK.
Grab the Magic Wand Tool (Y), hit Enter and change the “Tolerance” value to “0”. Select the outline, double-click the Foreground color and set it to a dark, saturated red. Now it looks warmer and it blends in nicely with the rest of the colors.
You should make this a general rule for your drawings: never draw outlines in pure black, always use a dark tone of the dominant color for it. It may look good on paper, but digitally, the colors are more intense the lack of paper texture makes every mistake stand out more.
Now we have a finished character, but we also need a scenario for him to fit into. Since he’s standing on one foot, let’s place him somewhere dangerous. He can jump on clouds, so I guess a very high mountain peak is just perfect.
Create a new layer above the “sketch” layer and ALT+click onto the empty “lock” box. This command will lock the other layers.
Grab the Brush Tool (B) and draw the basic surface of the mountain. Use only straight lines to make it more imposing.
In the Brushes palette (F5), select the first brush (Round, 1 px, pressure-sensitive). Now we can start adding some detail to the rock. Draw thin and chaotic lines in a wavy shape, as well as some small circles. Don’t try to be very precise, their only role is to suggest the texture.
From this point, shading and lighting process is similar: create new layers below your current, paint in the base color, then add the shadows and highlights.
Where there’s a mountain peak, there are also clouds, right? Let’s draw some really cool clouds!
Create a new layer below the “mountain base” and name it “cloud outline”. Now grab the Brush Tool (B), select the last brush we created and start drawing large spirals in an “S” shape.
Using the same brush and the same color, draw come “3” shapes near the spirals, both near and in-between them.
For the base color, use a light blue. Use a large brush to fill them faster and don’t be very precise with it. This is a background element, we don’t want it to stand out much.
Highlights: paint the inner area of the spirals with white. Shadows: Paint the opposite area, so you have a highlight > base color > shadow succession.
Add more clouds in more areas using the same technique.
Let’s add a nice mood with a soft background. Select the “sketch” layer, unlock it, select the sketch and delete it. Now grab the Rectangle Tool (M) and draw a large rectangle, like below.
Open the Gradients window (Window > Gradients) and create the gradient shown below. To change the colors, double-click the tiny squares on it. The gray dot above it controls the color flow, nudge that one a bit to the right, too.
Grab the Crop Area Tool (SHIFT+O), select area you want to show in print / picture and grab the Selection Tool (V). Use the Horizontal Type Tool (T) if you want to add a title to it. Draw a type box, type in your text and set the font to “Gang of Three”.
Monkey king tut (15.0 MiB, 590 hits)
Monkey king tut (15.0 MiB, 590 hits)