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How to Create a Cubist Masterpiece in Illustrator

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Read Time: 22 min

Cubism is one of the most outstanding movements in abstract art. Geometric shapes, vivid colors, simple figures, and textures are all distinctive features of this style. Let's try to recreate the cubist painting in Illustrator inspired by works of Pablo Picasso - after learning some simple techniques you'll be able to easily paint your own cubist composition.


Abstract art is my love. I adore all kinds of abstraction, and I hope most of you do too. It's for this reason, I thought the avant-garde movement would be great for a series of tutorials on historic fine art periods. My first idea was cubism, the most distinctive movement of abstract art. Being simple and pure, but at the same time deep and clever, cubist paintings never leave the audience indifferent. I love cubism - it is fresh, vivid, and crazy, but most importantly, it's rather easy to make.

Cubism, the avant-garde art movement, was born in the beginning of 20th century, and it quickly became a revolution in fine art. Pioneers of cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, offered to use simple geometric shapes to depict any object. Analytic cubism showed any object as a combination of monochrome primitive figures blended into background. On the contrast, synthetic cubism was much more colorful, and it started a technique of collage. Today we'll try to recreate the synthetic cubist style of Pablo Picasso in vector form using only Adobe Illustrator. We'll use simple shapes, the pencil tool (to add a touch of hand work), the scissor tool (to break the objects apart), brushes (to imitate painting), and creative textures to complete the work.

Step 1: Getting started

Create a new document in Adobe Illustrator. Make it 1200 x 800 pixels, the color mode depends on where you want to use your image - use RGB for monitor and CMYK for print. Let's make a background first - create a rectangle covering the entire canvas, fill it with light-blue color. Rename this layer to BG and lock it. Now navigate to WIndow > Swatch libraries in order to choose colors for your work. Open a library you like - for example, Earthtone or Vegetables will be good. The process outlined in this tutorial will be creative rather than technical, so I won't give exact color codes - just choose the hues you feel are good from the color libraries.

Step 2: Creating rectangles

Create a new layer and name it "CHAOS". Here we will create a series of figures in random order. Grab the Rectangle Tool (M) and draw rectangles of different sizes. Create the rectangles over each other varying their size and shape, covering entire document (the background can show through the gaps). I made around 50 shapes. Now we'll change the fill color of the figures - pick colors from the swatch library you selected and re-color the rectangles. Finally, change the stroke to a neutral color with 2 pt width.

Step 3: Adding randomness

To add a randomness, select all the rectangles and go to Object > Transform > Transform Each. Check the Preview and Random boxes, change the settings to your liking. There is no exact numbers - I've changed both horizontal and vertical scale to 120%, and entered 30 for the angle. Play with sliders until you like the result and the rectangles look random enough, apply the transformation. Open the Artistic brush library and apply the Charcoal-Feather brush to the rectangles (Window > Brush Libraries > Artistic > Chalk, Charcoal, Pencil), or try any other natural-looking brush.

Step 4: Duplicating a group

Group all of the rectangles on this layer (Command + G), now choose the Rotate Tool (R) and press Enter. Here insert 180 for angle and click Copy to create a rotated duplicate. Select the copied group, in the Transparency panel (Shift + Command + F10) change it's blending mode to Multiply. The result depends on your colors, so you may want to try other blending modes to achieve the desired effect. You'll have two groups of rectangles on this layer for now.

Step 5: Finalizing shapes

To finalize this colorful craziness, let's add more chaos, select the entire layer in the layers panel (or Command + A). With "CHAOS" layer selected, go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen. Enter 3 for size and 3 for detail, so that the effect is subtle. For points choose Corner and apply the effect. You can easily edit the settings of Roughen in the Appearance panel (Shift + F6), lock this layer now.

Step 6: Starting main composition

Now it's time for main elements of our composition. In cubist paintings, the objects look as they were broken apart and then re-assembled again, in a new fresh way. This can make you think that to imitate cubism, we can simply combine random shapes and sketches - but just like any other abstract art, cubist paintings have their rules. Simple chaotic colorful shapes will rather give you a Suprematism style, where flat geometric primitives build the entire composition. In cubism, on the other hand, we should picture real objects (portrait, still-life, or landscape) applying simple shapes to create new visual space. So we'll make this picture using the rules of Synthetic cubism.

OK, enough theory - let's make a table now. Create a new layer and name it "TABLE". Take a Pen Tool (P) and create a main elements of table - keep the default colors for now. Don't try too hard to make shapes perfect - a touch of hand work is great, perfect proportions don't matter. Make 6 shapes - 4 for the legs and 2 for the table base, just like in the image below.

Step 7: Breaking the table

I mentioned already that cubism presents objects in a new shape breaking it into parts and then re-assembling them. We'll do the same with table now. Take the Scissors Tool (C) and cut the basic table elements (not legs) in two parts each by clicking every object twice - on both sides where you want the cuts (indicated by red circles). The result of this operation will be four open paths instead of two closed objects. Now select every new open path and press Command + J to join them - the table consists of 8 shapes now. I turned off the visibility of the underlying layer for now.

Step 8: Re-assembling the table

Open Pathfinder panel (Shift + Command + F9) and unite every table leg with a part of the table top. To do it, select both shapes you want to unite and press the Unite button on the Pathfinder panel to make a compound shape. Don't press Expand for now, as we may want to transform the elements later. Users of Illustrator CS4 should Alt-click the Unite button to create compound shapes. The result is 4 united shapes.

Now transform every part of the table a bit with Selection Tool (V) - rotate, scale, or move them a bit so that the objects look crazy. You'll want to transform the elements of the compound paths we just created - to do this, select the separate shape with Group Selection Tool, and once it's selected you can select the Black Arrow (V) and move, scale, or rotate it easily. If you are happy with result, you can expand the compound paths - but I suggest that you don't hurry and wait until the entire composition is built.

Step 9: Painting colors

Let's apply colors to the table - change the fill of the 4 parts of table to some contrasting colors from the swatch library you chose at the beginning. I applied brown, beige, and blue. Now change the stroke color of all the shapes to dark brown (for the blue shape I applied a dark blue). Then, select them all and open brushes panel (F5). Find a Charcoal-Feather brush from Artistic brush library we used before and apply it. Finally, select the brown table part and in the Appearance panel (Shift + F6) add a new fill to it. Change it to some geometric pattern - I chose "Checkers Color" pattern from Decorative Geometric-2 pattern library (Window > Swatch library > Pattern). Now in the Transparency panel change it's blending mode to Overlay.

Step 10: Adding detail

For another part of the table, I wanted to use a line pattern. However, all the line patterns are perfectly straight, so, to achieve a random line effect I decided to create it myself. With the Line Segment Tool (backslash) draw a line above the table. Now you must make about 20-30 copies of it. You can do it manually by duplicating a line and pressing Command + D many times to move again. Still, I like to apply the Transform effect to the line: Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform with parameters shown below (Vertical move: -15 px; number of copies: 30). Make sure the lines cover the needed part of table. Then expand the effect (Object > Expand Appearance), now ungroup the lines two times by pressing Shift + Command + G twice, and re-group (Command + G).

Step 11: Distorting lines

To make the lines wavy, select the group of lines, choose Warp Tool (Shift + R) and slightly distort them so that they look more hand-drawn and random. You can use other tools from this group if you want. Now, select the table part you want to apply the line to. Copy and paste it in front (Command + C and Command + F), then bring it to front of all the other objects (Shift + Command + Right Bracket Key). Finally, with the duplicate on top still selected, Shift + Click the lines group to add them to a selection, and make a clipping mask (Command + 7). The lines should be masked with table shape copy now. Lock this layer.

Step 12: Creating a guitar

Create a new layer and name it "GUITAR". We'll make another object here, surprise, it will be a guitar! Let's apply the same break-combine technique. This time it will be more simple. Take a Pencil Tool (N) and draw a guitar body on the right of the table. Again, we don't need a perfect figure - just draw it approximately, and then Alt + Click to close the path. Leave the colors default for now. With the Scissors Tool (C) cut the shape in three parts, and close every part by joining it (Command + J).

Step 13: Applying colors

Now, just like we did for the table, transform each part of the guitar slightly, moving, scaling, and rotating it. Now, re-color every part to different shades of brown, and choose dark brown for the stroke, apply the same brush (Charcoal > Feather) to them. Finally, choose one part of the three and apply an additional fill to it, like we did for a part of the table. Use the Appearance panel and choose a geometric pattern (I used Plaid-3), you may also want to change the blending mode - I selected Soft Light.

Step 14: Adding details

Let's add the details by drawing a guitar neck, hole, and strings. To create an impression of hand work, we won't use Illustrator primitives like the circle or rectangle. Take the Pencil Tool (N) and draw a neck (long shape) and a hole (circular shape) manually. To close the path, don't forget to Alt + Click. Fill them with a medium brown color, apply a dark-brown stroke, and apply the Charcoal-Feather brush to both shapes. Now for the strings, draw 5 wavy lines that start at the top of neck and go wherever you want. Group them together (Command + G), make sure no fill is applied, change the stroke color to 0,5 pt light yellow, apply a Charcoal-Rough brush from Artistic - Charcoal-Pencil brush library. When you are finished, lock this layer.

Step 15: Creating a woman

For those of you who think that the image looks too flat - don't be afraid, we'll texture the image creatively later. At this point we need to make the major object for our painting - the woman. The prototype of our lady is a woman in the style of Pablo Picasso's famous works. Go ahead and look at his most outstanding paintings to get familiar with this style: Women of Pablo Picasso.

Let's start with the figure. Create a new layer and name it "WOMAN". Open the Chalk-Charcoal-Pencil brush from the library - Window > Brush library > Artistic menu, so that this panel is always visible. Now take the Pencil Tool again (N) and draw the shape of a face side view, over the table shape. Alt + Click to close the path. Choose beige for fill color and gray-brown for the stroke and apply the Charcoal-Feather brush to the stroke. Draw a larger shape using Pencil Tool for the hair. Send it backwards (Command + Left Braket), fill it with brown and stroke it with a darker brown. Choose another brush for the hair from same Artistic library - Chalk-Scribble.

Step 16: Adding eyes

Let's add a face, eyes and lips. First draw an eye shape with the Pencil, fill it with a very light gray and use a 1 pt black stroke with the Charcoal brush applied to it. Now draw a circle shape for the iris with the Pencil, change the fill to blue and stroke to black 5 pt, apply a Chalk-Scribble brush from the brush library.

Group both eye shapes (Command + G), and position it on the face shape. With Reflect Tool (O) Alt + Click near the nose, select Vertical axis and press Copy to duplicate the mirrored eye. Move and transform the eye a bit so that the eyes look like the image below.

Step 17: Creating cheeks and lips

Make a circle, this time with Ellipse Tool (L), fill it with a subtle pink color and position it under the eye to resemble a cheek. Add another shape - a triangle drawn with the Pen Tool (P) and place it under the circle, fill with light green color.

Let's create lips now. With our favorite Pencil Tool (N) create two wavy lines for the lips - use no fill and a dark-red 1 pt stroke. The upper lip should be more curvy and long, while lower lip is shorter. Group both lines and apply the Charcoal-Smooth brush.

Step 18: Making a hat

To create a hat, use the Pen Tool (P) - just click to add points, trying to roughly imitate the shape of a hat. Fill it with medium-brown color, and for the stroke choose dark-brown 1 pt. Apply our usual Charcoal-Feather brush to it.

Just like every girl, this one loves flowers - so we'll add a flower to her hat. To make a cubist rose, draw an irregular cornered shape with Pen Tool (P). Then add several more smaller triangular shapes on top of it, transform them to resemble a flower. Change the fill colors to various shades of blue, and apply gray 1 pt stroke with the Charcoal brush used on it. Group all the rose figures together.

Step 19: Adding details

Let's add some small details - for example, my lady needs a more defined nose and eyebrows. For the nose, draw a short stroke with the Pencil Tool (P) to continue the lower line of the nose and apply the same stroke color (gray-brown) and brush (Charcoal) we used for the face. For the brows, just draw two black strokes with the Pencil and apply the Chalk-Scribble brush and position them over the eyes.

The last detail we need here is a touch of geometry. You may skip this step, but I wanted to do it. Create a simple triangle with the Pen over the woman's head, choose any colors (I used orange shades) and apply the Charcoal-Soft brush. In the Transparency panel change the blending mode of the triangle - I chose Color Burn and reduced opacity to 50%. At this point I also selected all shapes on this layer and grouped them.

Step 20: Drawing an arm

We'll create an arm now - it's not a difficult task. Grab the Pencil Tool (N) and draw an irregular closed path for the arm. I've chosen a warm brown color for the fill and a darker shade for the stroke. As usual, apply the Charcoal-Feather brush to it. To create a hand, use the Pencil - don't try to make it perfect, number of fingers is the only demand here. Fill it with a beige color, and apply the same stroke we used for the arm, apply the Charcoal-Feather brush.

We only need nails to complete the woman. Use simple triangle shape made with the Pencil or Polygon, then apply Filter > Stylize > Round corners with a radius of about 10 px to smooth the corners. Choose a red or orange color fill, and make 4 more copies to place it on every finger. Now group all the shapes we just made - an arm, a hand, and 5 nails. The lady is ready, you can lock this layer. At this point I moved the "WOMAN" layer under the " GUITAR" layer, so that the guitar strings go on top of the figure.

Step 21: Additional shapes

I thought that the background looked too patchy, so I decided to add one more layer over the "CHAOS" layer. I named it "TRIANGLES" and created three simple triangular shapes near the corners of our document. If you do the same, then apply different fill colors to them and a neutral stroke with a brush from Chalk-Charcoal-Pencil library. Now select the entire layer and go to Effect > Distort & Transform > ZigZag, enter parameters you like and apply. Also, in the Transparency panel change the blending mode (I chose Screen) and reduce opacity. Lock the layer.

Step 22: Coloring

The major composition is ready now. Take a look at the colors on the picture - if you feel they are okay, just move to the next step. However, I wanted the temperature of my painting to be colder. This is very easy to fix - create a new layer on top of others and name it "COLOR". Now create a rectangle that covers the entire picture, and fill it with the desired color. I chose a deep greenish blue (#015353). Open the Transparency panel (Shift + Command + F10) and, with the rectangle selected, choose a blending mode that looks best - try Soft light, Color, Overlay, or any other. You'll need to reduce the opacity of this shape to make the effect more subtle. Lock the "COLOR" layer now.

Notice how we changed the emotion of the image by adding a touch of a cool hue to it. This is a very easy method of changing the color temperature of your image or adding a color to the entire picture or only a part of it. You can use a gradient as well, or gradient mesh, and try various blending modes to darken or lighten the composition, or add a contrast to it.

Step 23: Texturing

At this point the composition looks too flat - it's normal for a painting in synthetic cubism style. However, it lacks important details and focus, as many vivid colors are mixed together, and major objects blend in the background. It is not a problem, as synthetic cubism was a parent movement of collage, so we'll make an accent of it. We will apply different textures to the background and main objects separately. This way we'll emphasize the difference of these two surfaces, and make the painting look more realistic. Of course, it would be great to texture every object separately to imitate a hand rendered work, but it would take too much time and effort, and the final document will be enormous in size. So we'll make only three textured surfaces - one for the background, one for the objects, and one for the overall texture of the entire image.

Let's start with background texture first - create a new layer over the "TRIANGLES" layer but under other layers that contain main objects. Name it "TEXTURE-1". Draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (M) 1200 x 800 px to cover the whole document and fill it with white-to-black gradient. Go to Effect > Artistic > Sponge (brush size - 2, definition - 12, smoothness - 5), apply another effect: Effect > Artistic > Rough Pastels (stroke length - 8, detail - 10, texture - canvas, scaling - 100, relief - 15) to roughly imitate brush strokes. Change the shapes' blending to Soft Light, Lock the layer.

Step 24: Second texture

Illustrator raster effects can generate various types of random textures, try them and select the best one. The main idea is to create a different type of surface, so that the background and main objects contrast. To do it, we'll mask the second texture on a new layer.

Create a new layer on top of all others and name it "TEXTURE-2" . Create a rectangle across the canvas with white-to-black gradient applied. Now apply Sponge effect again (brush size - 2, definition - 12, smoothness - 5), and for the second effect use Effect > Artistic > Paint Daubs (brush size - 9, sharpness - 15, brush type - simple). This effect looks like old cracked paint on the picture.

Step 25: Masking the layer

We can mask the texture object now and create other textures on this same layer. I want to mask the entire layer rather than a separate object so we can add any other objects we like to this layer, and all of them will be masked. I decided to create a layer transparency mask rather than a clipping mask, because the number of objects we need to add to mask is enormous, which is very uncomfortable for a clipping mask.

Unlock the layers "TABLE", "WOMAN", and "GUITAR" . Now select the entire table layer, then holding Shift select the whole woman layer, go to the guitar layer and holding Shift select the guitar shapes except for the strings. You'll have all the main objects selected now. Copy everything (Command + C) and re-lock the layers.

Select the "TEXTURE-2" layer clicking the circle on the right of it's name, and go to the Transparency pane, click on the right of the layer icon to activate the mask, and paste objects in front (Command + F). Make sure Clip box is checked, change the fill and stroke colors of mask objects to white. Unite all objects of the mask in the Pathfinder panel, go back to normal mode clicking the object icon in the Transparency panel, and change the blending mode of this layer to Overlay. Now the texture is visible only on the major objects of composition, you can add any other texture object to this layer, they all will be masked. Lock the layer.

Step 26: Third texture

Create the last layer on top of others and name it "TEXTURE-3" , we'll create a texture to cover the entire document here. Draw a rectangle that is a bit wider than the artboard, fill it with medium gray color. Copy it and paste in front (Command + C and Command + F) and hide the copy for now (Command + 3). With the original rectangle selected, go to Effects > Artistic > Film Grain (grain - 4, highlight - 0, intensity - 10). Apply Spatter effect from Brush Strokes library to make the texture more random (spray radius - 14, smoothness - 7), go to Effects > Brush Strokes and apply Angled Strokes effect (direction balance - 50, stroke length - 15, sharpness - 3).

Step 27: Last texture

Un-hide the gray rectangle we copied before, select it and go to Object > Create gradient mesh, enter 4 for columns and 4 for rows (or you can insert different values if you want). Select mesh points separately with Direct Selection (A) and change their color, I used yellow, orange, brown, and blue, you can also move the handles of anchor points to control the color transition. Once you are ready, go to Effects > Texture > Grain (intensity - 40, contrast - 50, grain type - clumped), and apply a Dry brush effect from Artistic effects library (brush size - 1, brush detail - 8, texture - 2).

Step 28: Finalizing

Change the blending mode of the entire "TEXTURE-3" layer to Overlay - select the layer and go to Transparency panel, you can also reduce the opacity or choose another blending mode you like. You may also want to choose different modes for objects on this layer, in this case simply edit them separately.

If you think that 4 texture layers are too much - you can remove them or make them transparent. However, I think the textures we just made added a touch of hand work to our image, you can combine techniques of texturing to your liking, as Illustrator raster effects generate plenty of great random textures. You may want to save the ones we made for future artworks, to do this, save the texture objects in Graphic Styles panel and name them accordingly. The result is below.


That's all, and the painting is ready now! We just created an vector artwork in the cubist style. Pablo Picasso and his numerous colorful works in synthetic cubism gave us an inspiration for this image. I think the only thing we missed is a title - let's name this painting "Woman with guitar". Not very creative, I know, but Picasso liked to use such simple names for his artworks. Play with the settings and try various blending combinations - even our "Woman with guitar" can look different when changing the blending modes of texture and color layers, just look at the image below.

The techniques we applied while creating this masterpiece can be used to make any image in a cubist style. Use simple shapes and brushes, pencil and pen, scissors and pathfinder, effects and textures, vivid colors and blending modes to create your own Picasso painting. Print it, frame it, name it, and enjoy - although not all your family members will understand this crazy geometry, you could always say that it's a lost work of the outstanding cubist artist Pablo Picasso.

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