Adding depth to your characters

Are your characters designs looking a little flat? We show you how to make your creations leap off the page by creating the illusion of depth.

When most people hear the words ‘vector art’ the first things that probably come to mind are flat shapes and solid colours. In the ever-changing world of digital character design, your personal style almost always determines your illustrative technique, and while some styles suit the ‘flat’ effect, others will require a little depth to create more of a three dimensional effect.

In this tutorial we’re going to show you how you can add the illusion of depth to even the most simple vector illustrations by combining the effects of Illustrator’s versatile linear and radial gradients. Along the way we’ll also demonstrate how subtle (and believable) accents can be applied to your illustrations to increase their visual appeal.

By working with the basic tools of Illustrator, including the Transparency and Pathfinder functions, and combining these with more complex features such as clipping masks, you can easily create a dynamic vector illustration that breaks the stereotype of flatness’ In order to follow this tutorial you’ll need access to Illustrator CS? Where can I get it? It’s available as a free trial download at Adobe.

Download files for this tutorial [ 1.3MB]

Part 1: Preparation is everything

First you need to set up a document for your illustration in Illustrator…

Planning your composition

Strong character designs should evoke an audience response even before they’ve been perfected in a graphics program such as Illustrator. When designing characters that are more ‘graphic’ in nature, as opposed to ones drawn in a more realistic style, it pays to apply some basic design principles such as composition, colour and hierarchy, to make your work that much stronger.


Select File > New and create a document measuring 480 × 290mm – this will be the art board for your illustration. Open the sketch file provided in the download (sketch.jpg), and place the image in the document (File > Place).

Step 1.1


In the Layers palette, lock the layer and change the layer type to Template in the expanded options. Rename this layer ‘Template’.

Step 1.2


Clean up your Swatches palette by trashing all but your basic linear, radial and standard solid swatches. This will make colour management easier down the line.

Step 1.3

Part 2: Bringing your character to life

This character’s most distinctive feature is its mask. Here’s how to create it…

Traditional techniques

Although you may be using a cutting-edge program to produce your final image, what will really make or break your illustration is how effectively you employ traditional drawing techniques …yes, we mean pencil to paper. Light, shadow, texture, dimensions, perspective and line quality all play a crucial role in the impact your digital illustration will have.


Create a new layer for the mask and call it Skull Mask 2. Begin following the contours of the drawing, and create the basic shape of the mask, eyes, nose and other details. Next you’ll add some depth to the skull and its elements.

Step 2.1


Select the skull, and then select the black-and-white radial gradient from the Swatches palette. Replace the black swatch with a 30 per cent black swatch. Change the Location of the Gradient Slider to 87 per cent, then apply it with the Gradient tool. Give the skull a 0.5pt stroke.

Step 2.2


Copy the skull and paste it behind the original image (Ctrl/Cmnd-B). Shift it over to the right, and adjust the bottom points of the teeth with the Direct Selection Tool as above. Fill this duplicate skull with a linear gradient of white and 60 per cent black. Give this skull a 0.5pt stroke.

Step 2.3


Add a linear gradient to the eye socket to simulate light and shadow. Fill your circles
with a radial gradient (Pink to White) for the flushed cheeks, and set the blending mode to Multiply. Experiment with placing additional elements on the skull.

Step 2.4


Create a triangle underneath the beak and apply a Gaussian Blur (Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur) with a value of 1.0. Set the object blending mode to Multiply. Drop shadows add realistic accents, and play a major roll in creating depth in the finished illustration.

Step 2.5


Create a shadow underneath the skull using the technique in the previous step. Follow the contour of the skull with the Pen Tool, and fill that section with 30 per cent black. Add a 1.0 Gaussian Blur, and set the blending mode to Multiply. The skull should now look like it’s resting on top of the face.

Step 2.6

Part 3: Clean lines

Keep everything dean and streamlined with clipping paths…

To mesh or not to mesh?
When used to their fun capability, gradient meshes can produce stunning levels of realism in Illustrator. However alternating between Linear and radial gradients (as in this tutorial) can provide an equally convincing impression of depth, without the complexity. Consistency is the key: always remind yourself where your light is coming from, and where shadows should fall and draw your gradients accordingly.


Create a new layer under Skull Mask 2 called Body 2, and begin drawing the body of your character. When drawing the belly texture, make sure you draw the shape beyond the contour line of the body – we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Step 3.1


Repeat Step 2 in Part 2, and add a radial gradient to the main body shape; don’t forget to set the Gradient Slider to 87 per cent. The harsh transition between the two colours helps with the illusion of roundness. Apply the gradient until you achieve an effect similar to that shown above.

Step 3.2


Continue adding the rest of the elements using linear gradients, maintaining consistency between light and shadow. Add your drop shadows at this point as well. Experiment with larger Gaussian Blur values to vary the softness of the shadows you’re placing.

Step 3.3


Notice how we’ve drawn over the body contour on these two shapes. This wasn’t a mistake – we’ll be masking those shapes with the same lines of the body to create a single, seamless shape. With a mask, there will be no issues of alignment with the edges of the body.

Step 3.4


Before we mask, let’s add a radial gradient to the belly shape. Select the main body, and copy and paste in front (Ctrl/Cmnd+F) then bring to front (Ctrl/Cmnd-Shift+S). You should now have a duplicate body above the rest of the shapes.

Step 3.5


With the duplicate body still selected,. Shift-click the belly shape and arm drop shadow to add them to your current selection. You should now have three items selected. Create a clipping mask (Object > Clipping Mask > Make) to achieve a continuous body line. Select the arm and bring it to the front, or it will appear behind the drop shadow.

Step 3.6


Draw a circle to use as a guide for the candyfloss. Draw a smaller circle at the top of the circle guide, then press Alt+Option and drag the shape to the bottom to duplicate it. Group the two smaller circles, copy them, paste them in front (Ctrl/Cmnd+F) then rotate. Repeat this process until the perimeter of the circle is closed.

Step 3.7


Draw another circle in the centre of the one you’ve just constructed, Select the entire candyfloss shape (including the new circle) and Alt-Option-click to ‘Add to shape area’ in the Pathfinder palette. All your little circles, as well as the large one, will be combined to create a single shape. Apply a suitably candyfloss-coloured radial gradient.

Step 3.8


Now draw a rectangle as a stick for the candyfloss. You’ll need two rectangles to complete the illusion, one below the hand and one directly behind the arm. The hand is shown without a fill here so you can see the set-up. Apply a gradient to create shadows where appropriate.

Step 3.9

Part 4: Transparency effects

Here’s how to give some chic glasses a realistic touch…


Create a new layer named Glasses. Construct the basic frame, and make sure the area where you’ll be putting the transparent lenses is hollow.

Step 4.1


Add a lens shape behind each eye opening. For a trendy ‘Hollywood’ look, fill the lenses with a linear gradient running from burnt orange to pale yellow.

Step 4.2


Change the object opacity of each lens to 55 per cent. Add some white highlights to the glasses and change their opacity to 60 per cent. ‘Now create a drop shadow for the glasses, using the same techniques as for the skull mask. Change the drop shadow’s blending mode to Multiply.

Step 4.3

Part 5: Other characters

It’s time to give our smaller character some attention…

Gaussian Blur versatility

In this tutorial we use a Gaussian Blur to simulate a drop shadow without actually using Illustrators built-in drop shadow effect. Try using Gaussian Blur with varying values on other shapes to create clouds or mist. Layering objects with Gaussian Blurs and varying opacity values adds a three-dimensional, dream-like atmosphere to your compositions.


Lock and turn off the Glasses layer and create two new layers: Body 1 and Skull Mask 1. Build the skull and body using the same techniques as for the main character. Don’t add the texture lines to the hair just yet – concentrate on getting the skull mask and body drawn and coloured.

Step 5.1


Now let’s focus on getting that hair textured. Select the Line Segment Tool and draw a line that extends above and below the hair shape. Hold Shift, and Alt-Option-drag the line over to the right to duplicate the line. Step and repeat (Ctrl/Cmnd-D) the line until it fills the entire shape.

Step 5.2


Select aIl the lines you’ve just drawn and group them (Ctrl/Cmnd+G). Select the main hair shape and copy and paste in front (Ctrl/Cmnd+F) then bring to front (Ctrl/Cmnd+Shift). You now have a duplicate hair shape above the other shapes.

Step 5.3


With the hair still selected, Shift-click the grouped set of lines and then go to Object > Clipping Mask > Make. You’ve now added some simple texture lines to the hair.

Step 5.4


Using the Direct Selection Tool, select the top-most hair shape (the one we used for the mask) and add a stroke around the edge using the same colour swatch as for the texture lines. This effect completes the seamless transition.

Step 5.5


Repeat Steps 2 to 5 for the smaller portion of hair on the right side. You should now have a completed illustration of the smaller character.

Step 5.6

Part 6: Fine details

Using small accents can have a big impact on your finished illustration…

Adding typography

When designing a composition that includes both type and characters, try to create a relationship  between the two. If you know how much copy to expect before you start designing, all the better –
you can plan for this in your composition during the sketch phase. Tie in your text even more with your  characters by adding illustration aspects in or around your copy area. Have fun with it, but don’t forget about your visual hierarchy. Ask yourself: “What do I want my audience to see first”


Create a new layer and name it Accents. Move this layer to the top of the stack. Begin drawing white highlights that suggest the shine on a round, glossy object. For now, just concentrate on placing the highlights.

Step 6.1


Select all your highlights and change their opacity to 20 per cent in the Transparency dialogue box. Try mixing up the opacity values until you achieve a look you’re comfortable with. This completes the glossy effect.

Step 6.2


You can also add some interesting shadow accents by using a linear gradient (white to 30 per cent grey), and changing the blending mode to Multiply. The white disappears, and you’re left with a smooth gradation from shadow to colour.

Step 6.3

Part 7: Adding background touches

Set the stage for our characters with some bright elements and contrast.


Lock all your existing layers and create two new layers: Background and Grass. Locking the layers prevents you from accidentally adding elements to the wrong layer. Move the Background layer above your Template layer, and the Grass layer above your Accents layer.

Step 7.1


On the Grass layer create a triangle with the Polygon Tool. Hold Shift, and Alt/Option-drag the triangle to the right to duplicate the shape. Step and repeat the triangle until it fills the entire width. Select the row of triangles and select ‘Add to shape area’ in the Pathfinder palette.

Step 7.2


Lock the Grass layer, and begin drawing the rest of the background elements included in the sketch. Feel free to add more (or less) to the composition as you see fit Bear in mind that we’re going for simplicity, to keep the focus on the two characters we’ve just drawn.

Step 7.3


Fill the Background layer with a radial gradient in a dark colour. Reposition the gradient effect behind the rainbow with the Gradient Tool. For the sky, draw a rectangle across the document and fill it with a linear gradient from grey to white. Set the blending mode of this shape to Multiply.

Step 7.4


Time for some background texture. Draw a tiny white square, and within this an even smaller circle. Fill it with 50 per cent black. Select both shapes and drag them into your Swatches palette. You now have a pattern swatch. Draw a rectangle and fill it with your pattern. Set it to Multiply, and reposition
it to sit just above the background gradients.

Step 7.5


Create a new layer named Sparkles. Draw some thin triangles, copy and rotate them, then combine them in the Pathfinder palette. Compose a bunch of smaller and larger sparkles to your liking. Select all your sparkle elements and go to Effects > Stylise > Outer Glow. Adjust your glow settings to Screen, 85 per cent Opacity and a 1.2mm Blur.

Step 7.6

The Final Result

characters depth
Characters depth Final Result

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