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Create a Vector Tree with Custom Brushes and the Gradient Mesh Tool

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Read Time: 6 min

In this tutorial you will learn how to create a leaf-filled, vector tree - step by step. Some of the techniques we'll use are custom made brushes to create the leaves, and Gradient Mesh Tool for creating light and shadows. So let's get started!

Final Image Preview

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Tutorial Details

  • Program:Illustrator CS3/CS4
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Estimated Completion Time: 30-60 minutes

Step 1

First, we'll work on creating the custom brush.

Select the Pen Tool (P) and draw the shape of a leave. Fill the shape with green and set the Stroke to a darker green.

Step 2

Create a curved line with the Pen Tool (P) across the leave using the same color as the leaf's Stroke.

Step 3

Make two copies of the leaves and change the color of the fill to a darker and a lighter green. Group each leaf (Command + G). Now make a duplicate of each leaf (Command + C) and (Command + V).

Step 4

Place the leaves next to each other so some of them overlap, and rotate (R) each leave so that they are all tilting towards the same direction.

Step 5

Double-click on the Scale Tool. Make sure that Scale Strokes and Effects is selected and press OK.

Step 6

Now Select all the leaves and group them (Command + G)

Step 7

With the leaves still selected, set the width to 45px. Make sure that the Constrain Width and Height Proportions option is activated.

Step 8

Set the stroke to 1pt. Select the leaves. Now open the Brushes window. In the top-right hand corner of the window there is a small triangle facing down - click on it. Chose New Brush...

Step 9

Select Scatter Brush

Step 10


  • Size: Random between 76% - 134%
  • Spacing: Random between 65% - 119%
  • Scatter: Fixed - 6%
  • Rotation: Random between 41° - 110°

Step 11

Now we'll go over how to draw the tree.

Create a new layer and call it "background picture." You need a picture of a tree to use as reference while drawing the tree. I've chosen to use a picture I took myself, but you can use any picture you want, since we'll only use it to trace the trunk of the tree.

Step 12

Place the picture of the tree in the "background picture" layer and lock the layer (Command + 2).

Step 13

Create a new layer and name it "trunk."

Step 14

Select the Pen Tool (P) and start tracing the outline of the tree in the "trunk" layer.

Step 15

Hide the "background picture" layer. Fill the shape with a dark brown color and set the Stroke to none.

Step 16

Now we are going to create some shades on the trunk. Select the Brush Tool (B), and with a round brush paint a thick line on the inside of the trunk following the outline of the first shape. Fill it with a darker brown and give it a Transparency of 45%. Repeat the same on the left side of the trunk.

Step 17

Select a lighter brown and place a line in the center of the trunk with a Transparency of 30%.

Step 18

Select all the parts of the trunk and group them (Command + G), and then lock the layer.

Step 19

We are now going to use the brush created before to finish the tree.

Create a new layer and call it "leaves." Lock all the other layers.

Step 20

Grab the Brush Tool (B). Select your new leaf brush from the brush pallet. Make sure the fill is set to blank. Paint an outline of where the leaves from the tree are going to be placed.

Step 21

With the Brush Tool still selected, start painting in all the empty space inside the outline you just made. Leave a couple of holes to make the tree more realistic, and retouch the borders by adding extra leaves.

Step 22

Now we are going to create some shading and light on the leaves with the help of the Gradient Mesh Tool. Create a new layer and name it "light," and lock the other layers.

Make an outline of the silhouette of the top of the tree with the Pen Tool (P) or the Pencil Tool (N). It doesn't need to be precise, but try staying within the edge of the leaves.

Step 23

Fill the shape with an average green color and set its stroke to none.

Step 24

With the shape still selected go to Object > Create Gradient Mesh. Check the preview box. Set Rows to 4, Columns to 4, Appearance of Flat, and Highlight at 100%, then press OK.

If you get an error message read the following (Extra) tip.

Extra - Skip if You Don't Get an Error Message

If you get an error message saying that "the path has too many points to create a gradient mesh", then you can do one of the following:

  • Redraw the shape without as many points
  • Or go back, select the shape, and go to Object > Path > Simplify. Check the preview box, and bring both the Curve Precision and the Angle Threshold down until the Current pt is under 100. Then you are ready to repeat Step 24.

Step 25

We are now going to color the gradient mesh and you can chose any colors you want based on what effect you want. For the example I'll choose some colors that will create an effect that there is sunlight reflecting on the left side of the tree and a bit of shadow on the right.

Select the shape you've created and click on the Direct Selection tool (A)

The gradient mesh has created 16 sections in your shape. With the Direct Selection Tool click on the middle of the first shape.

With that area selected, chose a yellowish color that is not too bright.

Step 26

Repeat the step above selecting the other areas of the gradient mesh and giving each area an appropriate color. I've chosen to place brighter shades of green and yellow on the right and darker green on the left and bottom of the mesh. You can see what colors I've chosen for each area below.

Step 27

With the Selection Tool (V) select the shape with the gradient mesh.

Step 28

Open the opacity window (Window > Transparency). With the shape still selected Set the Mode at Soft Light and Opacity at 71%.

Final Result

Now you have the tools to create your own vector forest.


If you have extra time you can retouch the edge of the gradient mesh with the Direct Selection Tool, if necessary, so that it matches better with the form of the tree. You can also use the same technique to add more realistic shadows to the trunk of the tree.

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