There are many reasons why Adobe Illustrator is an excellent application for creating icons. The same elements can be used as building blocks to ensure consistency and speed up your workflow. Learn a range of techniques, from basic shape-building to more complex lighting effects.
PART I — PENCIL
One thing that's important when creating a set of icons is consistency. Not only in style, but in size, perspective and lighting (for more on effective icon design, check out this article). To that end, we'll get some help from Illustrator's 3D effects in setting up the basic shape.
Click once with the Polygon tool to create a hexagon. It can be any color.
Go to Effects > 3D > Extrude & Bevel. Enter the values below. The Extrude Depth may vary, depending on the size of your hexagon and your preference for how tall you want the icons to be.
Go to Object > Expand Appearance. Then ungroup the shapes. You'll probably have to select ungroup twice. Delete the top shape. File the remaining three shapes with yellows, as in the image below. The left face has a gradient fill, which goes from the medium yellow to a slightly darker one.
Choose the Convert Anchor tool (Shift + C) and click and drag on the upper left corner point to round the top of the shape. Hold down the shift key as you drag to constrain to 90 degrees, which will keep the side of the pencil straight and the curves more uniform. You can also turn on Smart Guides to help. Do the same with each shape, to round the tops.
You can now click the lower handles of these curved points to get rid of them. This is not absolutely necessary, but I think it makes for a cleaner file.
Select the center shape and go to Object > Path > Offset path. Choose —4 pixels (or according to the size of your shape), so that the new shape is slightly inset from the original one.
Fill the new shape with a white-to-black linear gradient, as in the image below. In the Transparency panel, change the Blending Mode to Screen, and set the Opacity to about 50%.
Make a copy of the right face, and drag it aside. Option-drag another copy, positioning it slightly below and to the right. Take the Shape Builder tool (Shift + M), hold down the Option/Alt key and drag to remove the highlighted shapes.
Align the remaining shape on top of the right side. Then as you did in Step 7, fill it with a gradient and change the Transparency settings.
Use the Pen tool to draw a triangle for the point of the pencil. Turn on Smart Guides to position the center point in the center of the pencil shapes.
Fill the shape with a gradient, as shown in the image below. Use the Gradient tool to angle the gradient slightly to conform to the angle of the sides.
For the lead at the tip, draw an ellipse and center it with the triangle shape. On the Pathfinder panel, click the Divide button. Delete the excess ellipse. You could use the Shape Builder tool, but in this instance, it leaves behind too many unnecessary points.
Make a copy of the three main pencil shapes. Use Pathfinder > Add to merge them into one shape. Option-drag a copy above the original. Use the Shape Builder tool to delete the lower shapes, leaving a thin shaving for the pencil. Color this with a very light yellow, and position it above the yellow pencil shapes.
Use the Shape Builder tool to delete the overlap on each side.
Add highlights to the tip by drawing a thin triangle, as in the image below. Use the Pen tool and follow the curve of the yellow shape. Fill this triangle with a linear gradient, then adjust the Transparency settings, as before. Double-click the Reflect tool to reflect and copy this shape. Lighten the right highlight, as shown.
For added dimension, add a bevel to the bottom of the pencil. First draw a thin triangle going from the edge of the left pencil shape to the intersection of the left and center shapes. Using Smart Guides will help get it just right. Reflect-copy this shape and position it on the right side.
Draw a long, thin rectangle the same width as the center shape. Use the Direct Selection tool (A) to move the lower points in line with the right and left triangles. Again, Smart Guides will help.
Fill the bevel shapes with darker yellows, as in the image below.
The pencil is finished. Select all and group.
For a glossy reflection, select the pencil group and reflect-copy it on the horizontal axis. With the Direct Selection tool, drag the side points so the angle of the paths match that of the original pencil shape. Do this on both sides.
Draw a rectangle and fill it with a white-to-black radial gradient. Position it above the reflected copy, as shown. Select both the rectangle and the pencil copy, go to the Transparency panel, click the fly-out menu and choose Make Opacity Mask.
You can reposition or otherwise edit the mask by clicking its thumbnail in the Transparency panel.
The completed pencil, with reflection:
PART II — PAINTBRUSH
Draw a perfect circle with the Ellipse tool. You can either click on the artboard and enter equal values, or hold down the Shift key while dragging with the tool. Now, to ensure consistency with the pencil, apply the same 3D Extrude & Bevel effect as before.
Under the Surface options in the 3D dialog box, choose No Shading. Expand the 3D circle.
Fill the top oval with a dark gray. Merge the two halves of the cylinder. Fill this shape with a red gradient, as in the image below. This will be the base shape of the brush handle.
To make the shape for the metal band, first make a copy of the cylinder object. Option/Alt drag another copy below the original. Select both objects and click Divide in the Pathfinder panel. Then delete the bottom shapes.
Draw an oval and align its center with the edge of the shape you just created. Copy the oval and align it to the other side. Merge these three shapes. Fill the new shape with a metallic gradient. To access the metal gradients, click the Swatch Libraries menu at the bottom of the Swatches panel and navigate to Gradients > Metals.
Create a highlight for the top edge of the metal in the same way you created the metal band. Starting with a copy of the top ellipse, drag-copy, Divide, then deleted the excess.
A large part of this tutorial involves making shapes from existing shapes, as in Step 3. Make a copy of the metal band shape you just created. Use the Scissors tool (C) to cut the path, as in the image below. Discard the middle section, leaving only two curved paths.
Position the paths above and below the "bulges" on the metal band. You may have to adjust the paths with the Pen tool.
Once the curved paths are in place, expand them (Object > Path > Outline Stroke). Zoom in and delete the excess shapes with the Shape Builder tool (Shift + M). Hold down Option/Alt to remove shapes.
Fill the expanded strokes with the same metal gradient. In the Transparency panel, change the Blending Mode to Multiply. The finished metal band (technically known as the "ferrule") is below.
As you did for the edge highlight in Step 5, Create a shape for a shadow below the ferrule. Fill it with a dark red and change the Blending Mode to Multiply.
For extra depth, create a wide band on top of the brush handle. Make a copy of the handle shape. With the Direct Selection tool, marquee-select the top points and move them down. Select the bottom points and nudge them up.
Fill the band with a black-and-white gradient, as in the image below. Change the blending Mode to Screen and the Opacity to about 70%.
As you did with the pencil, create a darker shape below the cylinder for a little extra depth. The finished brush handle is below.
For the brush bristles, draw an ellipse that's a little wider than it is tall. Take the Eraser tool (Shift + E) and cut out a section of it to form a tip, as in the image below. You may have to simplify the path if it's too choppy. Go to Object > Path > Simply to smooth it.
Fill this shape with a three-stop gradient as shown.
Go to Object > Path > Offset Path. Enter a negative value to create a smaller version of the shape. Fill it with the lighter color from the gradient above. Change the Blending Mode to Screen and reduce the Opacity to 20%. Now move it down a bit.
Draw a small, slightly curved path. Change its Width Profile in the drop-down menu in the Control Bar.
Make several copies of this stroke, then re-size and position them as shown. Go to Object > Expand Appearance. Often, this results in too many points on a path, so go to Object > Path > Simplify.
Select all these objects and fill the set with a linear black-and-white gradient. Place on top of the bristle shape. Change the Blending Mode to Multiply and reduce the Opacity.
Draw a curved triangular shape for a highlight. Or copy one of the strokes from above and modify it. Change the Blending Mode to Screen and reduce the Opacity to 60%. Reflect-Copy this shape and position it on the other side.
Create a new shape by copying the main bristle shape, then drawing an ellipse, as in the image below. Divide the two in the Pathfinder panel. Take the bottom shape and place it above the bristles. Fill it with orange, and change the Blending Mode to Multiply.
For the paint itself, select the main bristle shape and offset it by 2 pixels. Take this new shape, and create some organic drips by erasing through the shape with the Eraser tool.
Fill the paint shape with a gradient that goes from one color to a tint of that same color.
Offset this shape by negative 2 or 3 pixels. Fill the new shape with a black-to-gray liner gradient and change the Blending Mode to Screen.
Offset the second path, and simplify it if necessary. Your drip should look like the image below.
Much like you did in steps 17 and 18, draw small curved paths for the highlights on the drip. Apply the same Width Profile from before. Change their Blending Mode to Screen and the Opacity to 60%.
The reason for using this method, rather than colored strokes and a normal color gradient, is that you can change the underlying color without needing to change each shape on top. So if you decide you want purple paint, for example, all you need do is change the fill of the bottom object.
Create a shadow for the "paint" by offsetting the base shape, then using that new shape as the shadow. Change its color to brown, and its Blending Mode to Multiply. Erase any part that is hanging over the top or sides. Position the paint over the shadow.
Your completed brush tip should look something like the image below.
Group all the elements of the brush tip, and place it behind the brush handle. Scale it if necessary so it looks as though it is attached. The dark oval should go behind the brush tip, for a sense of the bristles being seated in the handle.
Since the brush is round, we can cheat a little on the reflection, rather than using the Opacity Mask method. Create a rectangle the same width as the brush handle. Fill it with a three-stop radial gradient, that goes from red to light red to white (or transparent). The trick is to place the gradient's center well outside the center of the rectangle, as in the image below.
Place the rectangle behind the brush and align it to the brush handle. Move it up or down as necessary. The brush is now complete.
PART III — PEN
Make a copy of the brush handle, minus the metal band. Change the red gradient to a black and dark gray one. The screened band remains the same.
Place points on either side using the Add Anchor tool (+). It will help to draw a guide so the points are placed at the same level. Move each point toward the center at an equal distance. I usually just press the right and left arrow keys, counting the number of clicks.
Use the Convert Anchor tool to make the sides curved. Lastly, move the points on the screened band to align with the new shape.
As you've done throughout the tutorial, copy the top oval and use it to create a new shape for the edge. Fill it with a radial gradient, as in the image below.
Draw a new oval shape and center it on the existing one. Fill it with a gray-to-black gradient as shown, to give the illusion of depth.
The completed pen handle is below.
To construct the nib, use the Pen tool and draw a path with three points, as in the image on the left. The take the Convert Anchor tool and drag the top and bottom points to create curved sides. Turn on Smart Guides to constrain the drag to 90°.
Reflect-copy this path, then join the points as in the image below.
Draw a thin vertical rectangle and an ellipse. Center them with the main nib shape. Select all and press Minus Front on the Pathfinder panel.
Fill the nib shape with a metallic gradient. I used the default Gold swatch, then made the colors brighter and more saturated.
To give the nib a bit of dimension, Option-drag to make a copy. Fill it with a deep gold and send it behind the original.
Align the top points, as in the image below. Move the side points so they're in line with the original.
Make a copy of the nib shape and use it to create new paths. Cut the path at the points shown below. Discard all the segments except the ones highlighted.
Place these highlight paths on top of the gold nib. Change their stroke profiles and adjust the points so they line up with the main nib shape.
An upright pen wouldn't normally be filled with ink, but we'll put some in for contrast. Draw a black shape and send it behind the nib, as shown.
Then draw two ellipses for the ink drop. The top one is filled with a liner gradient as a highlight.
Lots of pen nibs feature some kind of decorative engraving. Find an ornament or other element. There are tons on the Web for download. Here's a list of ornament graphics from several sources.
Create a symmetrical arrangement with your ornament. Change the blending mode so the gradient shows through.
The bottom of the nib has to align with the top oval on the base, so it will look like it's recessed. Therefore the bottom must be curved. Make a copy of the top oval, and turn it into a guide (View > Guides > Make Guides).
Align the bottom of the nib with the bottom of the guide. Add a point to the bottom of the nib shape, then use the Convert Anchor tool to make it curve.
Select the nib and the top oval. Option/Alt drag to make a copy of both objects. Go to the Pathfinder panel and choose Divide. Delete all but the bottom shape, which will be used as a shadow.
Place the shadow shape on top of the nib. Fill it with a solid gold, and change the Blending Mode to Multiply.
Align the nib, with shadow, on the base. Make a copy of the reflection from the brush, and change the gradient to shades of black. The completed pen is below.
Illustrator is ideal for making icons. Vector paths and objects can be copied, cut up and repurposed infinitely, without degrading. Working with building blocks in this way ensures consistent shapes and clean files. It also saves time — who wants to draw the same path over and over again?