7 days of PS Actions, graphics, templates & fonts - for free!* Unlimited asset downloads! Start 7-Day Free Trial
  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Illustration

Create a Painted Look Unicorn from Stock in Adobe Illustrator

Scroll to top
Read Time: 12 mins

In today's tutorial I'm going to show you how to illustrate a unicorn using a stock reference of a horse as a base. The final illustration has a painted style to aim to break away from the cell shaded look.


If you're active in any vector community which welcomes fan art, you may have been plagued with the uprise of My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic fan art. It's not a bad thing, anything that introduces others into creating vector art can only be a good thing.

In today's tutorial I'm going to show you how to illustrate a unicorn using a stock reference of a horse as a base. The final illustration has a painted style to aim to break away from the cell shaded look.

I'm going to be using a stock image from Photodune, which you can get for as little as $1 USD. So let's get cracking!

Step 1

I'm going to start my New document how I usually do, by File > Placing my stock image on the canvas. I'm going to double click on the layer and rename it "Reference" and click on Ok. Create New Layer and rename this to "BG" and add a white fill, 50% Opacity, Rectangle (M) across the canvas. Then lock the layers. Create New Layer twice to add a "Sketch" and "Bases" layer.

Step 2

For sketching on top of the stock image, I'm going to be using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift + B). Double click on the icon in the Toolbar to access the Options. I've changed the Size to 3pt and it to be influenced by "Pressure". This is so it gains benefit from my graphics tablet.

I've then sketched the concept in mind of having a unicorn in motion, with hair bursting out from the frame. I've used a Rectangle (M) frame to hide portions of the stock image and to also help me frame the sketch, so I have a better idea of my vision.

Step 3

I've reorganised my layers and placed the "BG" layer on top of the "Sketch" so it's dimmed it. This will make it easier to trace from.

Step 4

I'm wanting to use a calming palette which is the opposite to the hectic movement I'm hoping to create in the illustration. So first I'm going to select the light grey/brown shade in my default CMYK Swatch panel and then use the Color Guide panel to select "Complementary 2" Harmony Rule as I rather like the variety in browns and blues. Blue of course being a calming color.

Click the button "Save color group to Swatch panel" to add the colors to your Swatch. If you use the drill down menu, you can select the range of colors you get. I've opted for Warm/Cool colors as shown below.

Step 5

I'm going to now use the Pen Tool (P) to draw my initial base shapes for the body and back of the hair. Then I've used 80pt Stroke Weight lines with Profile "Width Profile 4" to create the tapered lines. I've estimated the placement of the horn for now.

Step 6

For a painted style, the shapes will need to be irregular and almost wavy. Being precise is not required, as long as your shape is in a similar type of shape which is required. Then we'll lower the opacity and overlap it over other shapes in a similar style. These will be all created with the Pen Tool (P).

So the initial shading shapes will use the light grey/brown in a transparent linear gradient... this will help keep an almost water color look to the shapes as it won't give hard edges. These shapes will be set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 10%.

Once done, Group all your shading shapes (Ctrl + G). Don't worry about the shapes overlapping the base shape, as this will be resolved next step.

Step 7

Duplicate the base shape for the horse and then use this to create a Clipping Mask (Ctrl + 7) with the shading group. This will hide the overlapped edges. From now on, any shading for the body will be added to this Clipping Mask group. I've used the cream color for the fill of the unicorn base shape.

Step 8

I've added further shading shapes, this time with dark blue and light blue linear gradients. The dark blue have a Blending Mode of Color Burn and Opacity 5%.

The light blue are Blending Mode Color Burn and Opacity 20%.

Step 9

I'm going to work on the unicorn horn now. Use the Ellipse Tool (L) to draw two circles as shown below and then create a Specified Steps Blend (Ctrl + Alt + B). Ignore the colors as this is just to show the transition in shapes.

Object > Expand the shapes so you're left with several circles. In the Align panel, you'll want to set the Vertical Distribute Space to 8pt and Align to Key Object.

Step 10

Using Pathfinder > Unite, combine the shapes. Then use Pathfinder > Minus Front, remove half of the horn and then remove the bottom of the horn to give it a flat edge as shown below.

Step 11

Now that I've got my horn shape, I'm going to use Effect > 3D > Revolve with the below settings.

Step 12

Select the horn shape and Object > Expand it. Using Smart Guides (Ctrl + U), draw the shape for the horn. I would have used the shapes created by the 3D Revolve effect, however this would have created many unnecessary points.

Step 13

As I did with the body, I'm going to add shading to the horn. These shapes will use the same shading light grey/brown gradient as used on the body of the unicorn. It will be set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity10%. Once done, the shapes will be Grouped (Ctrl + G) and then added to a Clipping Mask group of the horn (Ctrl + 7).

Step 14

I'm going to use the Blob Brush Tool again (Shift + B), so double click on the icon on the Toolbar to access the settings. I've increased the Size of the brush to 7pt and then clicked on Ok.

I've then built up the shading with transparent linear dark blue fills set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 10% and dark brown shapes with the same settings. Once done, I've added them to the Clipping Mask group. I've lightened the original horn shape so it's a more golden shade of the light grey/brown.

Step 15

To make it look like the horn is coming from out of the head and not just placed awkwardly on top of it, I've added a crescent of the cream fill around the base of the horn. I've then added shading shapes to represent the shadow of the horn trailing off. Use the same gradients and Transparency settings as the body shading to ensure an even distribution of shading.

Step 16

I've reduced the Opacity of the strokes created for the guide for the hair. I'm going to use this to trace over to draw the beginning of the tail/mane.

I'm going to use my Width Profile 1 art brush to draw the strands of hair for the tail and mane. I'm going to use a sandy brown shade with a 3pt Stroke Weight. Although I'd usually use the Paintbrush Tool (B) to draw hair, for the initial strokes I'd use the Pen Tool (P) as I'd have more control over the strokes. This is ideal for much longer strokes where control is vital to the shape.

Step 17

Using the Pen Tool (P), I'm going to use the strokes to now draw the base shapes for the hair and then place them above and below the unicorn body and horn, where appropriate.

I've then Grouped (Ctrl + G) the strands depending on the area of them and organised them accordingly. I've reduced the Opacity of the groups to 20%.

Step 18

In the Appearance panel, I've added a New Fill and used some dark blue transparent radial gradients. Using the Gradient Tool (G) for each shape, I've positioned and shaped the gradients to the left of the hair shape, as the light source is coming from the right. These are then set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 30%.

Step 19

Now I have the basic strokes as a guide for further strokes. I'm going to start building up to create shadows and highlights in the hair. The first are 5pt Stroke Weights of medium brown. All strokes us the "Width Profile 1" art brush. These are set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 20%.

The next load of strokes are much thicker and are to bring out the shadow in the overlapping sections of the hair. They are a dark blue and 10pt Stroke Weight. They are set to Blending Mode Color Burn, Opacity 10%.

Step 20

I'm going to add highlights to the hair now. These will be the medium brown with a 5pt Stroke Weight and set to Blending Mode Color Dodge, Opacity 20%

Once you've drawn your strokes, you'll need to organise them so they are Grouped (Ctrl + G) with the corresponding hair base shapes.

Step 21

Time to start building up shading around the face. First around the eyes, mouth and nostrils. These shapes will have a medium brown fill set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 30%.

I'm going to introduce more blue tones into the body by adding dark blue shapes set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 5%.

Now add more medium brown shapes but not as dark as before in Opacity. So these will be set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 10%.

Step 22

With the same combo of medium brown, dark blue and medium brown shapes as described in Step 21, add the same to the horn with the Blob Brush Tool (Shift + B).

Step 23

Usually I'd go into a lot of detail with the eyes, however on this occasion we need to maintain a painted look. So I've compromised and used the Blob Brush Tool (Shift + B) again to add fine detailing. I've added highlights around the eye with cream and set to Blending Mode Screen, Opacity 30%. Then I've added darker detailing with medium brown set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 70%.

To add more detailing as well as a hint of blue into the eyes, I've used the dark blue transparent radial gradient and inverted it. Instead of using the Blob Brush Tool, I've used the Pen Tool (P) here. These shapes will be set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 100%.

Step 24

I'm going to use the Paintbrush Tool (B) with a default art brush called "Chalk - Scribble". This is going to have a 5pt Stroke Weight and a light blue stroke color. Use this all over the body and set the strokes to Blending Mode Color Burn, Opacity 5%. Once done, Group the strokes (Ctrl + G) and place them in the Clipping Mask group for the body. This add a slight texture to the body.

Step 25

For my shape for the body, the bottom line of the shape is not completely horizontal. So I'm going to select the Clipping Mask shape and the base shape and nudge it slightly so the bottom line is completely flush. This is to help tidy it up for the finished piece.

I've then put a blue rectangle behind the white frame. I don't want too strong of a color that is distracts you from the unicorn, which is why I've opted for a pale shade.

Step 26

I want to maintain a painted texture in the background and a plain blue rectangle won't cut it. So I'm going to add some 10pt Chalk - Scribble strokes in the background with a medium blue stroke color. These will be drawn with the Paintbrush Tool (B) and set to Blending Mode Multiply, Opacity 7%.

I've then included these strokes with in a Clipping Mask group for the blue square (Ctrl + 7).

Step 27

After thinking about the frame, the straight clean edge isn't following the style of the rest of the illustration. So I'm going to use the Paintbrush Tool (B) and Chalk - Scribble 5pt art brush set to Blending Mode Normal, Opacity 50%. Firstly adding white strokes over the top of the blue Rectangle Clipping Mask group in the "BG" folder.

The next strokes will need to be laid over the top of the unicorn illustration along the bottom.

Step 28

As hair is not completely smooth and because I want to add more movement into the hair, I'm going to add some 2pt medium brown strokes around the mane and tail. These will be set to Blending Mode Normal, Opacity 50%. Place these strokes on top of all the Chalk - Scribble strokes as they are breaking out of the frame.

Step 29

I'm going to increase the size of the blue rectangle in the background. In order to do this, I'm going to need to select the Clipping Mask for the blue rectangle, as well as the Chalk - Scribble strokes around the frame. I've then used the Free Transform Tool (E) to increase the width.

You may notice some parts of the straight blue rectangle become exposed. Remedy this with more white 50% Chalk - Scribble strokes where required.

Step 30

Finally I'm going to use the Artboard Tool (Shift + O) to set out the boundaries of my art board so it makes it easier when Saving for Web & Devices.


I hope you've enjoyed today's fabulous unicorn tutorial. When it comes to mythical creatures, remember that anything goes. Whilst people have a preconception of what they look like, you're only limited by your own imagination. So jump straight in and have a go.

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Design & Illustration tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
Start your 7-day free trial*
Start free trial
*All Individual plans include a 7-day free trial for new customers; then chosen plan price applies. Cancel any time.