Draw a cute lion in Illustrator

25 Aug 2014

One of my best friends, Cindy Li has recently given birth to a beautiful baby boy, Apollo, and to celebrate this I've drawn an illustration of a cute lion for her as a small gift. Since I had so much fun creating this little dude, I thought it would be perfect to talk about it here on my blog. This time I'll share some of the basic steps I usually take when drawing illustrations like these, together with a few tips & tricks I sometimes use…

Welcome Apollo

Browse for resources

Learn & inspire

First thing I do is browse around for some imagery to use as a resource. Instead of searching for photos of lions, I decided to search for illustrations of lions, because I needed to draw a cute lion. Cute, but not cartoony. Usually I find a lot of these cartoony illustrations, that I really don't like, but the trick is to filter the useful elements and learn or be inspired by those single elements and reshape all of what you gather into your own style, into your own creation.

Filter the useful elements

Source: iStockphoto

In the pool of images I browsed, I found a couple that gave me some good ideas and direction. For instance this image (3) served me well to draw the line of his head, especially his cheek. These cute ones (1) gave me the idea on how to draw his nose. I liked this one (2) for his hair, and also the dots on his snout. Then when I saw this image (4) I decided to draw him in a frontal sitting position. It's perfectly symmetrical, and this could give him extra cuteness. However this idea was not set into my mind at the time I started drawing, it came later. I hardly ever have the entire image in my head. Things usually evolve step by step. A lot of the ideas come while I'm drawing.

Start with the head

Keep it symmetrical

I know from the start that I love to keep the illustration symmetrical as this is my kind of style. I love the simplicity of it, it's clean, minimal, subtle, modern,… So what I usually do from the start is adding a vertical guide and start drawing along this guide, keeping in mind that everything I draw on one side will eventually be copy mirrored to the other side of this guide.

Draw 1 half of the head
Draw one half of the head

You may wonder how I see where I need to draw if I'm only drawing one half, since it doesn't seem to be obvious to see the *complete picture* while doing this. Well, sometimes I do draw certain elements on both sides e.g. using an ellipse to start with a perfect curve for the lion's head, so I also get an idea on how things will more or less look in the end. It's merely to estimate the outcome because, I always delete the other half afterwards, and have 1/2 of it copy reflected to the other side along the vertical axis, together with all other elements of my drawing. The only exception to this rule is the lion's chin. This is a simple ellipse where I used the spacebar while dragging for perfect positioning of the central point of the ellipse on the vertical guide.

Use Pathfinder options
Use Pathfinder options where you can

While shaping his head, you need to think about how you'll color the different parts of his head. Sometimes it's easy to draw an entire object to divide it up later so you can add a different color to each part. The Pathfinder Divide option is pretty handy for this sort of task. In some cases you can use an ellipse for a perfect curve, and add other paths or elements to get to the shape you want, then the Pathfinder Unite is pretty handy. If you want to be able to modify these different paths at all times, make sure you hold down the Alt/Option key while you click one of the Shape Mode options. This way the effect is non-destructive. However, this function doesn't apply for the Pathfinder options in this palette. They are always destructive.

Reflect along vertical axis
Reflect along vertical axis

You can of course copy reflect at all times. So when you have a certain part ready, it's best to copy reflect to see what you have so far. This way it's easier to get started on the other parts of his head, like his eyes and ears, and also his hair. For the eyes I tried a few variations, such as trying with and without eyebrow, the color of his eye, the shape of his eye (more real looking or simpel round?), the space between the eyes… There is a lot of experimenting until you get the result you're happy with.

Use simple math, use copy repeat

Some elements can be easily done using simple math to make the process easy. For instance for the lion's hair I used 10° as my rotation number. I drew 1 part of the hair, then copy rotated this part at 10°, joined both, copy rotated the element at 20°, then joined both again, copy rotated at 40° and joined the segments again. Then I copied and pasted the last hair element in front, and rotated that one at 10°. Now I had 1/4 of my circle that I copy rotated at 90° and joined. Then I mirrored the half to the other side. To get started with this single hair element and to know where your central rotation point should be, draw a circle first (with the central point on the vertical guide) and turn the circle into a guide by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + 5. You might need to tweak the length or size of this element a little first when you rotate it at 10° as you'll have to make sure the second element will be connected smoothly to the first element. So there might be a bit of undo-ing and tweaking first before you start copy-rotating this element to be sure you end up with a perfect result.

Copy rotate 1 element, join, copy rotate new element, join, repeat…

Later in the process, I decided to change the bottom half of the hair because it looked better to have the hair in the neck longer. First I removed 3/4 of the hair and kept only the top left quarter. Then I used basically the same technique for this edit, only there were less segments as they were a bit bigger. I also manually tweaked a couple of them to create a transition from the smaller to the bigger ones. Once one half of the circle was perfect I copy reflected it and joined the paths.

Choose the right pose

While working on the head of the lion, I was thinking about which pose would suit best to end up with a cute lion. When browsing around I found this sitting pose that I really liked because I could keep things perfectly symmetrical and I thought it would add this extra cuteness as well.

Use Pathfinder Unite

For this step I also used the same mirroring technique, and I tried to use circles & straight lines wherever I could to keep this clean minimal look.

Use Pathfinder Unite

Then I used the same technique for his other legs. Here I also experimented a little bit with the colors to create some depth, to make sure his legs and belly didn't blend together. As you can see in the image above the belly was created based on 2 ellipses which I placed perfectly in the center (using spacebar while dragging).

Keep a consistent style

Don't forget the little details

Details matter

Last but not least, never forget to add extra details to finish things off. I added this detail to the toes of his forepaws. At first I thought it might be too much but in the end I decided to keep it. Choose colors for your background that work well with the color palette of your subject and if you choose a certain style, than make sure to respect it in every element. Don't mix. In this case I'm using this minimal, clean 2D look. Depth is there but only very subtle. So the background and drop shadow are also kept clean and subtle, and the use of gradients is limited to the bare minimum.

Stay organised

Create & name your layers

I just can't stress this enough, but keeping things organised can save you a tremendous amount of time. You might think it's just overkill for such a simple illustration, but it's just a good habit. Maybe it is a simple illustration for now, but you never know what could happen with it in a next phase. It can't hurt to always think ahead. I usually have to hand over my files to other people, and I know how it feels if you receive a well organised file. So it can save headaches and frustration too ;)

So there you have it. I hope these small tips help you in your next creation. Stay inspired and keep experimenting, and mostly keep it fun!


  1. 1 ranjan 25 Aug 2014

    I loved it, thanks for sharing your tips.

  2. 2 Sanjay 28 Aug 2014

    Easy to follow tutorial! I love it! Can you also do a logo tutorial next time? Or an UI app tutorial? I wanted to try that in illustrator. Thanks for the tut!