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In this tutorial, you'll learn some great tips and tricks on using multiple gradients and Blending Modes to create an enchanting dark elf character in Adobe Illustrator. You'll see the work flow from sketch to finish and see how creating your own brushes can add those fine refining details your illustration may need.
1. Sketch Your Illustration
I start by creating the sketch of my design using the Pencil Tool (N) with a fine Stroke Weight of around 0.1pt. This thickness is convenient because it easier when drawing smaller parts when you're zoomed in at about 300-700%. You'll also benefit from using this thickness when you're drawing more detailed areas such as the face and hands.
The sketch is created in two steps as a rule. The first draft consists of the construction lines. After the rough drawing is ready, I Group (Control + G) the lines and choose a light gray color for them. To create a second sketch, I Create New Layer over the first one. It has a black stroke color so I can clearly see the new lines over the top of my light gray construction lines.
As soon as everything is ready, the first draft can be deleted. I then set my second sketch to Blending Mode Multiply and Opacity 60-90%, it depends on the saturation of the background. The drawing should be clear and visible, but it should not dominate. It should not detract attention from the image itself while you will work with color and drawing depth. When everything is ready, I Create New Layer for "color" under the layer of my sketch.
2. Prepare Your Composition
When you want to create an effect of the smooth transition of color, the glow in this case, it's best to use a Radial Gradient. If you don't modify the gradient, by default the center of the gradient will be placed in the center of your shape. At first I create a square with the Rectangle Tool (M) and then I stretch it with the Free Transform Tool (E), moving around the shape to the most pleasing position.
Do not be afraid to go beyond the edges of your image. The excess can be cut or removed with the Eraser Tool (Shift + E) easily or even cropped at the end of the process with the Artboard Tool (Shift + O). Avoid using Knife tool for cutting gradients. This will result in the placement of the gradient being recalculated.
3. Recycle Vector Elements From Older Work
I always keep the pieces of my vector illustrations in separate files for recycling them afterwards as backgrounds in new work. They are easy to transform, stretch, and colorize. This flexibility is one of the major benefits of working in vector. All this gives interesting and unexpected effects, and helps create vector textures. This is an example of one such file, which I have collected for natural scene compositions.
After I select the elements I wish, I then play around with Blending Modes and Opacities until I get the achieved look. I then want to alter the colors and the most convenient way I have found is via Edit > Edit Colors > Adjust Color Balance.
4. Render Your Character
After creating the rough background, I add a new layer above it and finally I can start drawing the character. I intentionally don't create 100% Opacity objects, ensuring the character blends into the background colors. This prevents the character from looking "pasted in". The best tool for drawing is the Pencil Tool (N) without a stroke, with gradient color to transparent darker fill color. In the case of a dark background, such choice provides smoother color transitions.
I've added a separate layer under the snake and over the elf girl. I began my work with volumes of shadows and mid-tones using all the same gradients from color to the transparent and changing shapes to Blending Mode Multiply.
I've marked the dark areas on the face with harsh and swift strokes. I've changed the Opacity of the shapes for this, however I've kept the Blending Mode at Multiply. It is the best way for working with tone just in this mode.
After the shadows and mid-tones are drawn, I've switched the Blending Mode to Normal. This will help as I begin to render illuminated parts of the body.
While painting the darker elements it is rather difficult to get the tones balanced. It could be too light or too flat and extra dark. However I'll go back and use Edit > Edit Colors > Adjust Color Balance, adding the desired shade and intensifying one of the colors.
After the tone adjusting and darkening, facial features could look too sharp and in deep shadows. I want the elf girl to appear more feminine and beautiful, so I'm going to adjust the shadowing style of the face adding a single gradient over the top. This object has a Blending Mode of Screen. This mode is better than Normal because it doesn't destroy the contrast, it will just lighten the area, maintaining the depth without any smoothing. Usually I use this mode in case of need to clarify something without losing the drawn depth and shades of color.
I use Blending Mode Multiply for detailed drawing of the face: eyebrows, lips, nose and pronounced cheekbones. The mode Normal is good for highlighting the illuminated parts and smoothing the edges of shadows. For highlighting areas of the skin, I use a blue tinted gradient. Then I start drawing detail shapes on hair. A Radial Gradient from color to transparent is one of the most convenient effects in Illustrator. It helps create a painted effect which is mimicked in raster-based programs such as Photoshop.
For adding more contrast it is better to use the brush, it highlights the most important details, it's precise and often easier to control. I create a New Calligraphic Brush and make sure the brush Diameter is influenced by Pressure.
Using this brush, I finish the details of the face. Her face is now made more provoking, clear and attractive. This is the focual point of the whole composition.
5. Render the Glowing Snakes
I've started drawing the snakes. I've decided to make their heads and stomachs glowing, leaving their backs dark. For creating an interesting color overflow which would be in harmony with them, I've used Blending Mode Difference. I like it because often it gives unexpected shades and mix of colors. When I come to a dead end in search of the needed color, I often switch to this mode and start experimenting to see what would happen. It helps me to find unexpected color combinations. For such experiments and searches of the required colors there are also other convenient Blending Modes such as Overlay, Color Burn/Dodge, Saturation and Hue.
With help of the Eraser Tool (Shift + E), I've removed the extra pieces which came over the background.
I've hidden all layers except the one containing the snakes. With the Eraser Tool, I begin to delete unnecessary pieces overlaying the background and elf. This is a very handy tool, as in the traditional art on paper, the eraser often is also a drawing tool. With its help it's easy to create create the smooth edges of the snakes' and save time.
With help of two Radial Gradients, shown on the left from the below screenshot, I've rendered the glow coming from pet's stomach and head. I've used Blending Mode Hard Light and Screen for this.
Blending Modes Hard Light and Color Dodge give a nice effect. However, be careful and don't overdo these modes. They still "burn out" color and make the color quality poor. Therefore it's interesting to work over them in Normal mode with lighter gradients.
Double-click on an object to enter Isolation Mode, return to normal editing mode by double-clicking on a blank space. I've drawn a cross hatch texture for the snakes and the Object > Expanded them so I can fill them with a gradient. You can use Gradient on Stroke if you're using CS6 or above, however with this many shapes, it may become slow to work with.
6. Create the Elf Armor
With Blending Mode Difference, experimenting with color, it is relatively easy to achieve the effect of burnished steel and chromium plating. All this is due to its specific overlay on the light and dark areas of the image. It creates a great effect for rendering the armor.
Another great Blending Mode for the experiments is Color Dodge. This mode, unlike the other brightening options, illuminates contrasts without smoothing. However, it is better to use it with a lower Opacity. With 100%, it behaves at extremes and is not always pretty, especially on the light areas. After using it for creating the objects, I move the slider manually, checking on which Opacity percent will be the best variant to save.
7. Add Atmosphere to the Composition
I'm going to create a brush for painting stylized smoke or flashes of magical light. At first I've added semi-transparent objects in Blending Mode Normal and Grouped them (Control + G). Then I've dragged them to the Brushes panel. I've created a New Art Brush with the Colorization Method set to Tints. I've then used this brush to create thin wisps of smoke using a fine Stroke Weight, around 0.5pt.
With the newly created brush I've added emphasis to the glowing parts of the snake, as well as added depth to the hair, highlighting some of the locks. At the same time I begin drawing and detailing of the pet, hands and suit of the elf girl.
8. Zoom In to Spot Any Errors
Don't forget to zoom out the image. Rather often the errors are not visible at full view and I like to make my illustrations as perfect as possible.
I've decided to fix elf's nose, to draw it in slightly different form. I've redrawn the tip on top of the drawing, with the strokes set to Blending Mode Multiply.
As before, I've used Blending Mode Normal for smoothing out any sharp transitions between objects and gradients.
9. Refine the Illustration
There is a good method for creating interesting grass textures. I create an object and fill with a Radial Gradient. Then I take the Knife tool and finely cut with it in one motion, without lifting the pen from the tablet.
To my taste the snake has became too independent to the elf. So once again I turned to my favorite Radial Gradient which goes from blue to white.
10. A Great Tip on Working With Heavy Vector Files
Despite the fact that I didn't use too heavy brushes and effects, which could absorb a lot of computer memory, the file has became too heavy. It really distracts from the process of work. There was a time gap between the movement and its displaying on the screen. Just for such cases there is a trick. I draw a few clumsy black lines aside on a separate layer. I save the file and then it is Exported as a JPG.
I open the panel "Save as", again save the file but with a different name. I delete everything except those black lines and the remaining construction lines on the top layer. I drag from the folder the same JPG image. Then I combine the image of black lines on JPG with objects in the file, after that I close layer with the JPG.
Now the file is lighter and you can draw. When zooming in it shows the pixels, but don't pay attention. It doesn't matter because it will be deleted later. I draw in a layer which is above the JPG, carefully drawing the details of all not finished pieces. For drawing I use all techniques already described above. When everything is ready, I Group all the objects. I open the file from which the JPG was exported.
After creating a layer, I drag the group into it, carefully overlapping the black lines of both images. It's ready. You can save the final version.
Although Illustrator begins to work slowly with a heavy file, this maneuver with a JPG helps to avoid the difficulties. And when you have a very large image with a complex background rich in details, you always can create a special "file for the assembly" and repeat the trick with a JPG several times during your work. The black lines are more for convenience because it's easier and faster to combine them rather than looking closely at the face to line up. The best way for combining is shifting to Outline mode.
Well Done, You're Now Finished!
Here we have the final vector illustration. I hope you've picked up some great tips on working with different Blending Modes and gradients. With a little patience, you can create a similar painted look in Adobe Illustrator.