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Create a Bald Eagle Illustration for Independence Day in Adobe Illustrator

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Read Time: 15 min

Living beings are usually complicated and quite hard to draw. An eagle for example, look at all the feathers! It could take you all day! Actually, not. Adobe Illustrator provides tools to draw repetitious things in no time. Do you want to learn how?

1. Prepare Your File

Step 1

First you need to prepare your reference. For this tutorial's purpose I used Bald Eagle Stock by Crystal McEvan. Place your reference inside new file, then:

  • click the first layer and select Duplicate "Layer 1" from the Layers menu
  • click the first layer again and select Template from the Layers menu

Now you've got two templates - one for colors, and one for shapes. Lock them both to avoid mistakes.


Step 2

Now you need to take a good look at your reference. Creating in Illustrator is like building - you need to plan all the elements first. As you can see, our eagle is built of seven basic parts: one eye, one beak, one head, one barrow, two claws, one tail and two wings. To succeed, you need to build them one by one, not all at the same time.


2. Create the Eye

Step 1

The first part we'll take care of is the eye. Create New Layer, grab the Ellipse Tool (L) and draw a black pupil. Hold Shift to create perfect circle.


Step 2

Now draw another, bigger circle (it will simulate the blending between the pupil and the iris). Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to pick a color for it.


Step 3

Draw yet bigger circle to simulate the iris. Don't worry about the color, we'll take care of it in a second.


Step 4

Put a Gradient on the iris. The colors don't need to be perfectly accurate, we can make it more pronounced than in reality.


Step 5

Now we'll add some shine to the eye. Copy the iris and fill it with some random color. It should be placed above the iris layer. Move the white copy a bit lower.


Step 6

Come back to the Gradient panel again. Your gradient should be white and... white. Change the upper part's Opacity to 40%, and the lower one's to 0%.


Step 7

While the lower part is practically invisible now, it's a good usage to remove even invisible parts. Select both iris and it's copy, and select Intersect from the Pathfinder panel.


Step 8

Now add a big, black circle behind all the eye to fake the eyelids.


3. Draw the Eye Surroundings

Step 1

The eye is done now, but it can't just hang there. Now we'll build a little pit where the eye is placed. First, draw some kind of brow (it's not really a brow, but it looks like this, just look at the reference).


Step 2

Copy "the brow" and put a lighter color on it, then move it a bit up and left. Now it's time for the pit itself. draw a shape according to the dark you can see around the eye. Then use Mesh Tool (U) to convert it to mesh.


Step 3

Put some more Mesh Points around the eye. We're going to use them to blend the pit into the head.


Step 4

Select all the outer points (use Lasso Tool (Q) to select multiple points at once) and reset their Opacity to 0%.


Step 5

To make the blending smoother, select some other points too and change their Opacity to 60%.


4. Create the Beak

Step 1

Time for the beak now. Start from the nose hole, it should be quite easy. Use Ellipse Tool (L) for it.


Step 2

Prepare a base for a another mesh. Use Rectangle Tool (M) to draw a rectangle in general color of the beak.


Step 3

Go into Outlines Mode (Control + Y). Now you can see only outlines and the lower reference layer that you converted into Template on the start. Use Direct Selection Tool (A) to move the points and adjust the borders to the shape of the beak.


Step 4

Use point's handles to smoothen and bend the lines without adding new points. If you want to move some point, but all the shape breaks in result, just hold Shift while moving it.


Step 5

This is how it should look:


Step 6

We're going to use mesh points to add various colors to the same object. First we need to locate the areas of colors and put new mesh points there using Mesh Tool (U).


Step 7

Go out of Outlines Mode (Control + Y) and move the beak a bit to see the reference. Use Eyedropper Tool (I) to add colors to the areas. Again, you can use Lasso Tool (Q) to select multiple points at once.


Step 8

After covering all the beak with colors, move it back to its place.


Step 9

Select the edge of the beak and reset it's Opacity to 0%. This part should blend into the head.


Step 10

Now draw a pert eagle smile. You can use Paintbrush Tool (B) or anything you like.


Step 11

Draw "the lips" too (right, they're not lips... but what would you call that?).


Step 12

Time for the lower part of the beak. It's going to be a mesh to. I guess you know what to do?


Step 13

Shape and add mesh points to the shape.


Step 14

Some transparency to blend into the head...


...and it's done!


5. Create the Eagle Head

Step 1

It's time for the head. Draw a white shape within its borders, then hide the layer - we're going to use it later.


Step 2

The head is all covered with feathers, but it would take a lot of time to draw them all. That's why we're going to create a brush for it. Draw something like three grey leaves - it will be one cluster of feathers (you can draw just one, copy it and change their colors to save time). This cluster should be vertical!


Step 3

Select the feathers and click New Brush on Brushes panel. Select Scatter Brush and click OK.


Step 4

Change the Rotation to Rotation and make it relative to Path. You should also lower the Spacing, so that all the feathers were placed next to each other. The exact value will depend on the size of your cluster, so try something random, click OK., draw a line and check if it looks right. If it doesn't, just double-click the brush on the list and change the value.


Step 5

When you're happy with your brush, use it to draw all the feathers on the head. Start from the lowest row and then cover it with another. Change the size from time to time to make it more natural.


Step 6

The feathers are just strokes at the moment, so if you want them to be edited just like shapes, you need to go to Object > Expand Appearance with the strokes selected.


Step 7

Use the Eraser Tool (Shift + E) to erase dispensable feathers. Also, you can make your "white head" layer visible again - it will fill eventual gaps. You may want to change its color to grey.


Step 8

Add some more feathers, trying to keep natural direction. Now it has better "hairstyle" than on the reference!.


6. Add Shading to the Head

Step 1

The head looks a bit flat at the moment. We need to add some shading and lights. First, draw something like this using random color:


Step 2

Go to Gradient panel and create a gradient of three colors. Blue (90%) is a reflection of the sky, brown and peach (70%, 0%) - reflection of dark feathers. White catches as many reflections as possible!


Step 3

We need to blend the beak more into the head. Draw a random shape behind it and fill it with dirty orange (100%, 20%) gradient.


Step 4

To distinguish the actual head from the neck, add a bit of gradient with color of the sky and dark feathers (10%, 50%).


Step 5

Now time for some light too. Draw it as some white, ragged shapes.


Step 6

Change its Blending Mode to Soft Light. It will make it more subtle.


Step 7

That's our result so far:


7. Rendering the Eagle's Body

Step 1

Now we'll build the barrow. It's completely covered with feathers too! We need another brush. Draw some weird shapes in various shades of brown.


Step 2

You know how to make a brush, right?


Step 3

Draw a general shape of the barrow in dark brown.


Step 4

Use your new brush to cover the barrow. Remember the hints I've given you some steps ago - first the lowest row, one covers another, mix the sizes and directions. Don't forget about cutting the edges with Eraser Tool (Shift + E).


8. Adding Shading to the Barrow

Step 1

Again, we need some gradients to avoid the flatness. Draw a lightened part with blue and peach.


Step 2

For the shaded part draw some ragged shapes again and merge them together by selecting Unite from Pathfinder panel.


Step 3

Use Eraser Tool (Shift + E) to cut any unnatural smoothness.


Step 4

Put a default black and white gradient on the shape. If every part of the shape gets its own gradient, select them all and Compound Path (Control + 8).


Step 5

Change the Blending Mode to Multiply. Now it's blended quite nicely.


This is where we are now:


9. Vector the Claws

Step 1

Now we have came to the claws. They should be easy to built with Mesh Tool (U). Do you remember this technique? Draw a rectangle first, then click it with Mesh Tool (U) wherever it needs to be bent.


Step 2

Move the points to achieve a proper shape.


Step 3

And put the colors on it.


Step 4

Claws should be covered with something scale-like. We're going to create another brush to speed this process up. Draw a single scale and convert it to a brush. The most important options here are Rotation and its relativeness to the Path. Again, you need to experiment with the Spacing to get it right.


Step 5

Draw a line of scales on the finger.


Step 6

If it stands out too much, you can lower the Opacity.


Step 7

Now just copy the finger and its scales to get all the claw done.


Step 8

This step is optional. If you think it already looks oK., skip it, but if you want to blend the fingers together, you can use a gradient like this:


Step 9

Build the second claw of two fingers. When it comes to their scales, use Eraser Tool (Shift + E) to remove some of their sides and fix the perspective. Then, add some brown mesh blob to create a shadow of the claws. Don't forget about changing the edges' Opacity to 0% for better blending.


10. Render the Bird's Tail

Step 1

We could've built the tail with a brush, but I think there's no need to create one for the main feathers. There's just a few of them, and they should be precisely placed. So, draw one feather in quite light color.


Step 2

Change its Blending Mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 60%.


Step 3

Copy and paste the feather to create a whole tail. You can turn the second template off to see it better.


Step 4

Duplicate all the feathers and Unite the copy through Pathfinder panel. Fill the shape with white.


Step 5

Put the copy under originals to see the result.


Step 6

Now there is a need to create new brush. Can you see this pattern in the upper part of the tail? We're going to simulate it with little feathers like this:


Step 7

That's how you can do it:


11. Add Shading to the Tail's Shading

Step 1

The tail is placed under the eagle's body and it definitely needs to be shaded. Draw a shape like this, then convert it to Mesh and add some points around the edges (you probably know what we're going to do next).


Step 2

Add a gradient look to the mesh to create shading and shadow.


Step 3

Draw some lights with a tapered brush, just a little.


Step 4

There should be a shade on the opposite side. It will be a similar process to shading of the barrow. Can you remember it?


Step 5

Again, put a black and white gradient on it (Compound the Path to unite the gradient - Control + 8) and change the Blending Mode to Multiply, Opacity to 60%.


Step 6

Draw some darker edges of feathers on this side.


Step 7

Change its Blending Mode to Soft Light and Opacity to 20%.


We're quite far now!


12. Draw the Eagle Wing

Step 1

Here comes the most interesting part. Wings have complicated structure and it needs to be understood first. Get round to take a good look at the scheme below. As you can see, a wing is built of layers. Each of them is made of different kind of feathers - first short and round, then longer and sharp. One layer covers another.


Step 2

First, let's cover this hardly visible part with some general shapes. We'll take care of it later.


Step 3

Use the brush we've created before for the barrow. Cover only the part shown below. The rest of it needs more precise treatment. You can also use this brush to cover the general shape from the step before.


Step 4

Create new brush like this (yes, it's just part of the previous one). The direction is very important!


Step 5

Use your new brush to fill the rest of the "green layer".


Step 6

Time for another brush - it will make these tiny feathers on the top, highlighted by the sun.


Step 7

Just like this. Don't go too regular on this, these feathers should seem to blend into the others.


Step 8

To fill the areas you are most likely left with, draw a shape like this shape under the feathers. Use a dark color for it.


Step 9

As you can see, another (pink) layer is built of slightly longer feathers. Zoom your reference in and look at these feathers, then try to draw one of them. You don't need to be perfectly accurate, just keep the colors (avoid gradients - brushes don't like them).


Step 10

Rotate your feather to vertical position and convert it to a brush.


Step 11

The situation gets complicated now. Some of the feathers should be placed in a row - you can draw them easily with your brush - but the rest, on the left, are placed radially. We'll need another brush for it.


Step 12

Use the same base as before, just rotate it a bit. The exact angle is hard to define, you may need to experiment with it.


Step 13

That's how it should look:


Step 14

Another layer will be quite similar to the previous. Here's the base feather for this:


Step 15

And again, it'll work well for the row, but for this "hand" structure you'll need...


Step 16

...a bit rotated version of the same brush. Just to get this result:


Step 17

Here (yellow-green) we can find much longer and bigger feathers. You know what to do with them (as you probably noticed, it's more like guessing than copying the feathers).


Step 18

The radial "hand" structure is less visible here, still you need to take care of it too.


Step 19

The last (red) layer contains only radial structure. It's just a few feathers, so my advice is not to create any brush for it and place them all manually.


Step 20

You can use Eraser Tool (Shift + E) to make the feathers more realistic.


Step 21

The wing is done! But we're not finished yet.


13. Create the Other Wing

Step 1

Copy all of the wing and move it to the right. Make sure you've copied all the feathers (locked layers are not copied).


Step 2

Go to Object > Transform > Reflect and choose Vertical to reflect the wing. Resize it and rotate to fit the reference (perspective makes this wing look shorter).


Step 3

Some of the feathers are placed at different angle (it's perspective again). Rotate them so that they're closer to the body.


14. Create the Background

Step 1

We need some simple sky for our eagle to fly. Draw a blue Rectangle (M) for it under all the layers (hide the reference layers, you don't need them anymore).


Step 2

Use the Mesh Tool (U) to put some colors in the sky.


15. Add Highlights

Step 1

We've got a sky, and there's a lot of light in the sky, both direct and reflected. I placed the light source behind the eagle, in the left upper corner, so our bird needs to be lighted from behind. To create any light draw a shape around the place you try to lighten.


Step 2

Then put a gradient on it. Use the colors of the sky. Adjust the angle to the angle of the part you're lightening - the upper part should be strongly visible, the lower should blend into the rest of the body (0% Opacity).


Step 3

Locate all the lights and create them. Use all the colors you see on the sky - here the right wing should be lighted in pink, the left - blue.


Awesome Work, You're Done!

That's all! Now you know how to create any brush you need, how to use gradients for shading and how to blend meshes into background. Good job!

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