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How to Create a Digital Doodled Snowflake in Adobe Illustrator

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Much of my childhood included hours spent cutting out odd shapes from folded pieces of paper and unfolding them to reveal the weirdest snowflakes I could imagine. Join me in Adobe Illustrator for a fun twist on this classic craft project.


1. Prepare Your Design

Step 1

Draw a large circle (mine is eight inches in diameter for printing purposes) with the Ellipse Tool (L), fill set to null, Stroke Weight 1pt.

Using the Line Segment Tool (\) to dissect the circle vertically. Copy (Control-C) and Paste (Control-V) the line and Rotate it 45 degrees. Repeat twice so there's eight equal sections in the circle (hold down Shift while rotating and you'll hit the correct angles). Align the lines and circle to the center. Group (Control-G) together the lines and lock the layer.

Snowflake-001

Step 2

Add a new layer. I sketched out my general idea for the snowflake design, imported the sketch into Illustrator and adjusted it to fit in the top left section of the circle. Lock the "sketch" layer in the Layers panel.

Snowflake-002

2. Sketch in Illustrator

Step 1

I find it easiest to keep track of everything if the guidelines are on one layer, the sketch on another, and the art layer between the two. As such, create a new layer and grab the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B). Double-click the tool in the toolbar to bring up the options. This section works best if you're using a tablet with pressure enabled. Adjust the options so the Fidelity and Smoothness are way down. I've kept the brush round, so the angle doesn't matter too much. The size is set to 5pt weight and Pressure with a variance of 4pt. Make sure Merge Only with Selection is selected so you don't run sketches lines into each other, in case you'd like to change shapes easily while sketching. Hit OK.

Snowflake-004

Step 2

I'm using my initial sketch as a general guide for this part. I want to flesh out the design a bit more, however, within the circle's section. You'll only be working in one section for the entirety of the tutorial. Draw a couple wispy ghost shapes. The shapes being drawn in these steps are paper shapes, versus cut-out ones (like little faces, etc).

Snowflake-003

Step 3

Continue doodling the snowflake design. Mine is filled with swirls, little ghosts, paisley-like shapes, clouds, hearts, and a wispy speech balloon. Work to fill up the section with designs. The drawn word "hey" and the little faces are components to be "cut-out" of the "paper".

Snowflake-005

3. Build Shapes with the Pen Tool

Step 1

Group together your Blob Brush sketches. For the time being I'm switching to a bright blue for my fill color. Using the Pen Tool (P), outline your drawn shapes. Little ghosts, swirls, etc. Every shape needs to be connected to another one, and the connection cannot be too thin. The idea is to make this a design that could actually be cut out of paper and unfolded as a snowflake. If connections are too delicate, they would rip.

Snowflake-006

Step 2

As you create shapes with the Pen Tool, adjust anchor points with the Direct Selection Tool (A) so curves are rounded and edges are smooth, rather than sharp or rigid. The style of this design is one that flows around the circle. It's a gaggle of smoky ghost shapes curling around in a pattern.

Snowflake-007

Step 3

Make sure shapes aren't kept open: close/join all anchor points so your shapes are complete. Draw additional shapes to join them to one another. There should be many holes in the snowflake, but not large, gaping ones. The design is detailed and intricate versus being quick and open.

Snowflake-008

Step 4

When you're content with the basic design (note that there will be more cut-out pieces in the next section), Select all of the "blue" shapes (I've hidden the designs I drew with Blob Brush Tool in the Layers panel) and Unite them in Pathfinder. Make sure to hit the Options in the Pathfinder panel so you can Make a Compound Shape rather than a group (it's what I prefer in this context).

Snowflake-009

4. Edit the Design

Step 1

Start by drawing around the section with the Pen Tool. The aim is to limit the design to the section and delete any run-over design areas. Select this new shape with the design and hit Minus Front in Pathfinder.

Snowflake-010

Step 2

I think there's too many large holes and gaps in this design. There's also some additional cut-out in the speech balloon, little ghosties, etc. that need to be made. As such, start with some new connections. I've added a few shapes so swirls connect with each other through the design and connecting pieces that are already there are thickened. I've also added a piece to the left side of the design so there's more points of connection in the full design. Unite in Pathfinder. The "hey" was drawn with the Blob Brush Tool and will be cut out in the next step.

Snowflake-011

Step 3

The little eyes are drawn with the Ellipse Tool and the mouth, with the silly tongue, is drawn with the Pen Tool. Note how the tongue shape connects with the rest of the ghost's body. Ideally, the same would be done with the lettering, but as this is a small detail and this is a digital piece, it's got some floating pieces. Draw cut-out shapes in a contrasting color so you keep track of them easily, Unite them together in Pathfinder and, with the main design and the cut-out shapes Selected, Minus Front in Pathfinder.

Snowflake-012

5. Rotate the Design

Step 1

With your finished design and the guide circle Selected, grab the Rotate Tool (R). Hold down Alt and Select the center point of the circle. A dialogue box will pop up (as seen below) to give you Rotate options. In Angle type 360/8 (a circle has 360 degrees and you've got eight equal sections). If you select Preview, you should be able to see that the design will rotate perfectly to the next section. Hit Copy in the dialogue box.

Snowflake-013

Step 2

You'll be left with two identical pie slices of design. Hit Control-D six times, all eight of the circle's sections will be filled with your initial design. you'll notice the circles have been copied as well. Delete the extra circles in the Layers panel.

Snowflake-014

Step 3

Select all eight sections and Unite them in Pathfinder. Repeat the steps of this section to add additional shapes in the center or along the sides of the snowflake design.

Snowflake-015

6. Create a Wood Panel Background

Step 1

Change the fill color of the snowflake design to a light cream. Draw a square with the Rectangle Tool (M) and place it behind the snowflake. For the time being, hide your snowflake design in the Layers panel.

Snowflake-016

Step 2

Using the Pen Tool with the fill set to null and the stroke set to 1pt (the weight and color, really, are of no consequence, it just looks nice to see brown for this step), draw wiggly lines that extend beyond the brown background square. Any shapes inside the square (encased entirely inside, I mean) must be closed. Try to mimic the look of wood grain: curving, wavy lines, various teardrops and diamond shapes layered upon each other.

Snowflake-017

Step 3

Continue this across the square until it's completely filled. You have the option of completing it half way, Grouping the lines together, Copying and Pasting them, and Reflecting the group over a Vertical Axis. Once finished, select the wood grain lines and the square and hit Divide in Pathfinder. You'll be left with complete shapes, ready to have gradients applied.

Snowflake-018

Step 4

With the Gradient Tool (G), apply a dark brown to brown gradient to each shape (easiest to select all and apply the same gradient). Change the angle and other gradient options of each gradient shape for some variation in design. I like to alternate between a lighter color near the top and darker color near the bottom through each layered shape.

Snowflake-019

Step 5

Alternatively, you can just use flat colors, as most of the wood grain will be obscured by the snowflake anyway.

Snowflake-020

7. Shade the "Paper" Snowflake

Step 1

Copy and Paste the snowflake design. Apply a Linear Gradient going from 20% to 60% Opacity, both colors dark purple. Place it behind the snowflake, slightly off center to the right and down. In the Transparency panel, set the Blending Mode to Multiply.

Snowflake-021a
Snowflake-021b

Step 2

Using the same gradient as in the previous step, draw shapes that will help define the dimensional quality of the paper cut-out (this is where, once again, we have the advantage of the design being digital versus being a simple cut-out snowflake). Choose certain elements (like the ghosts, the speech balloon, etc) to pop out of the design and draw shadow shapes with the Pen Tool that follow the contour of the design shapes. Focus on the first section of the overall design that you began this tutorial with (unhide the guide circle and line layer).

Snowflake-022

Step 3

Layer shadow gradients on top of each other, playing with their opacity so there's added depth to the snowflake design.

Snowflake-023

Step 4

Once satisfied with the gradient shadow shapes, Group them together, and use the Rotate Tool to copy the shadows around the circle to the other seven parts of the design.

Snowflake-024a
Snowflake-024b

Step 5

Finally, use the Direct Selection Tool to select and delete the slim line separating each design section as well as to manipulate the central shapes so the middle has larger cut-outs than seen previously. Add or subtract additional shapes as you see fit to complete your snowflake design.

Snowflake-025

Awesome Snowflake, Great Job!

With some very simple tools you've created an intricately designed snowflake, ready for winter (whenever your winter may be) in celebration of fantastic paper art, which is a craft worth exploring. In order to create a simple snowflake from your design, stop after section four. You can print the design and use it as a template to cutaway the negative space from the first section, after folding up the circle. For more fun design projects like this one, check out Robyn Wilson Owen's Tricky Paper Lettering tutorial, and Beto Garza's 3D Paper Bird tutorial .

Snowflake
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