8 January 2011

Add depth to your art with expert shading techniques

With all the tools and effects that Adobe Illustrator has to offer, it can sometimes be hard to achieve a sense of depth and atmosphere within your images. Often they can come out looking flat and very two-dimensional. In this tutorial, Bristol-based artist Ben Steers will show you how he uses gradient effects and opacity masks to overcome this, as he takes you through how he created his piece, Gone Karting.

Ben has used these techniques to great effect in this artwork, which is based around a lonely bear character who enjoys playing amongst the woods in his time off from fishing and felling trees. When compared to the original flat artwork the gradients not only add a zing to the visuals, they also help draw the eye to the central character.

Step 1 I wanted to take my rather flat 2D illustration and give it some real depth. First, I hid all the layers, except the ‘Sky’, and hit the Gradient tool (G). Using a carefully selected palette of four colours, I used the slider in the Gradient panel (F9) to blend the colours seamlessly. The Gradient tool creates gradients between two colours, so to create the other points, duplicate one of the colour swatches by holding Alt and dragging left or right.


Step 2 Next, the mountains need a layered effect. Using the Gradient tool, I selected and repositioned the gradient slider at an angle of 15°, then selected a gradient from white to a blue/grey for the snowcaps.

Step 3 Now to add depth to the hills. I selected the compound shape and by using the two previous techniques, created a linear gradient using four shades of green running light to dark. By double-clicking on the sliders in the Gradient panel, I made subtle changes to each selected colour by adjusting the CMYK levels.

Step 4 With the background now layered to give the piece more depth, I could move onto the main character. Remembering where the light source was coming from, I used the Pen tool (P) to create a loose shadow line. I filled it with a dark brown, and adjusted the opacity (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + F10) to around 15%. Once this is done, hit Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Adjust the Radius slider to between two and three pixels and click OK.

Step 5 You can achieve a very simple rounded effect on objects, such as the bear’s hat, by using a combination of the Gradient tool and opacity. I duplicated the main shape of the hat by holding Alt and dragging. I created a compound shape using the Pathfinder (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + F9). I selected a Shape Mode of Unite and the Expand Pathfinder, then filled the shape with a dark brown.

Step 6 I used the Opacity option to adjust the opacity of the sliders. In this case, I wanted it to be lighter on the left, so I decreased the middle slider to around 25% and the final one to 0%. This gave a rounded feel to the bear’s hat.

Step 7 I applied the same techniques to the bird character. I made sure to carefully consider how the light would fall on him and, once again, used the Gradient panel and Opacity options to create a rounded effect with a gradient running from light to dark and back to light again.


Step 8 Attention to detail is really important. To finish off the artwork, I explored the image (holding Space and dragging to move around the canvas) and applied the same effects to smaller elements, such as the leaves, trees and house.


Ben Steers

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