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What You'll Be Creating
This tutorial was originally published in December 2009 as a Tuts+ Premium tutorial. It is now available free to view. Although this tutorial does not use the latest version of Adobe Illustrator, its techniques and process are still relevant.

The image we'll be working through in this tutorial was actually part of a live brief in 2008 and the finished artwork was eventually used in billboards and bus shelters, press advertising and web banners. Note that all artwork in this tutorial is ©Ardmore Advertising 2008.

Get inspired! Find inspiration for your posters on Envato Market.


I'd describe this as an intermediate level tutorial and throughout the process I'll show how you how to add a little Art Deco glamour to your illustrations by making subtle use of the Gradient and Transparency palettes in Illustrator CS4, as well as introducing an aged paper feel with clever use of texture resource files.

Feel free to pick and choose the most useful parts of this tutorial that'll help you develop your illustration techniques. There's no right or wrong way to create an illustration of this kind, but I'll be sharing some tips here that'll save you precious time in the studio (always important with a press deadline is looming!)

1. How to Create the Rough Sketches

Although not essential, I've always found that an initial sketch will help you through each stage of the illustration process, as well as explain your concept to an art director/client. In a real world environment, a client agreement on a pencil sketch will help smooth the entire creative process, cutting down time spent on making fiddly client amendments.

2. How to Get Started in Illustrator

Step 1

Okay, let's crank up Illustrator! We'll be working to the dimensions of a Press Advertisement here, so key in a Size of 70mm wide and 150mm deep. Bearing in mind this is an illustration for print – set the Color Mode to CMYK as opposed to RGB and let's key in an appropriate name for the file too – in this case "Vintage Ski Illustration."

Step 2 

Now the artboard is open, place your file and scale it down to fit the artboard. Open the Transparency palette and set the Opacity of the sketch scan to 30%, then open the Layers palette. Double-click on "Layer 1," then re-name the layer "Sketch." Now you have a reference image layer you can hide and reveal throughout the illustration process. Note: Remember to delete this layer once your illustration is complete.

3. How to Trace the Sketch

Let's think about the construction of this illustration in terms of layers and work from the background to the foreground. So we'll start with the Alpine background.

Lock the "Sketch" layer and select New Layer from the Layer palette's flyaway menu and name it "ALPINE BACKGROUND." Now select the Pen Tool from the Tools palette and begin to trace the components of the Alpine background from the sketch.

Make sure these drawn objects have no fill color and a bright primary Stroke Color (red or blue). Using the Stroke palette, make all Stroke Widths 0.5pt. By doing this, you'll be able to get a clearer view of your progressing artwork alongside the original sketch.

4. How to Work with the Gradient Palette

Step 1

Let's add some color. We'll begin with the sky. Open the Swatches palette and the Gradient palette. For a great contrast against the snowy hills, let's make sure the sky is a deep, deep blue.

Drag and drop a dark blue from the Swatches palette to the Gradient palette, then add a pale blue. You should now have a gradient ranging from deep blue to pale blue, to white. Click the Angle field on the Gradient palette and key in 90 degrees to ensure the gradient runs from blue (top) to white (bottom).

Step 2

Moving on from the blue skies – let's work on the snowy hills and ski slope. This is where you can see how the subtle use of the same gradient color used at different angles layered on top of each other gives a really clean, crisp Art Deco effect. Again, no hard and fast rules to follow here – just play with different angles until the contrast feels right for you.

Step 3

Looking now to the skis and sticks – simplify the existing gradient used on the slopes by losing the second pale blue step in the gradient palette. Once we've completed this operation, add the same gradient to the shadows from the sticks and skis and make sure the gradient angles sit at -90 degrees.

Now it's time to make use of the Transparency palette. Selecting the shadows from the skis, change the Transparency Mode from Normal to Multiply, then shift the Transparency from 100% down to 80%. This will give your shadow's gradient a nice, deeper shade of blue, appearing to bleed out to no Fill color, instead of the standard white you'd achieve with transparency set to Normal at 100% transparency.

5. How to Add a Glare

Let's add another subtle touch which gives a little depth to the illustration. Adding glare in the top-left corner of the sky gives the feeling of sunlight reflecting off the snowy slopes. We could choose a pre-installed glare filter here – but where's the fun in that!

So, let's draw two circles – one big, one small and make sure they overlap. The larger of the circles bleeds out of the blue sky, so we'll have to use the Pathfinder palette's Intersect Tool to trim it down and fit it to the deep blue sky.

Once we've done this; it's time to return to our Gradient and Transparency palettes. Select both objects and add a gradient fill using a pale blue running to white. This time, we'll make the gradient Radial as opposed to Linear. Moving onto transparency – select Screen and drag the Opacity back to 20%. Remember that subtlety is key in this exercise.

6. How to Draw the Hero Character

Step 1

The background landscape is now looking very clean, so we'll now Lock the "ALPINE BACKGROUND" layer and Turn Off the Visibility – you'll now be able to see the rough sketch layer again.

Now choose New Layer from your Layers palette and name it "HEROINE." Using the Pen Tool, it's a simple job of tracing all the separate elements that make up our heroine (or main) character.

We'll take a step back from gradients and transparencies for a while, concentrating on full strength colors. This will help distinguish the Hero character from the background.

A quick note on skin tone colors: for years I struggled to mix the perfect flesh tone until I looked at the flyaway menu in Illustrator's Swatches palette. From this menu, go to Open Swatch Library and choose Skintones. I find this swatch library invaluable when choosing complementary skin colors.

Step 2

Now it's time to add a little flourish of detail to the hero character's accessories. You'll notice in the last step I'd left the sunglasses, coffee cup and steam trail white.

Lets look first at the sunglasses, here we'll re-introduce the glare effect we'd developed previously. For the basic lens color, we'll use the exact same gradient from the blue sky. This is where Illustrator's Appearance palette can prove a valuable tool.

Select the Blue Sky on the previous layer, while the Appearance palette is open. The Appearance palette shows a preview thumbnail of the current selection with entitled Path. Simply drag and drop this path thumbnail onto the sunglasses' lenses and all the attributes of the Blue Sky object (including gradient angles) will be transferred onto this new object.

Next we'll mirror the glare circles from the previous layer – using the Appearance palette again, we can replicate all the attributes of the previous object.

I've also added a couple of diagonal swoosh lines using the same Gradient Fill and Transparency to add further effect, along with adding an Inset Shadow effect to the lenses using a deep navy blue Fill and setting the Transparency to Soft Light.

I've obviously gone to town here with the reflection theme, but it's by no means essential to chip away at all this detail (especially if you have a deadline approaching).

Step 3

In this step, we'll be introducing the Blend Tool. The body of the coffee cup is made from shapes. One cream, the other a darker cream acts as shading. With both shapes selected, go to Object > Blend > Make. Now repeat the process with the two shapes making the saucer.

Notice the smooth blend from dark to light. With the coffee cup now complete, let's add transparency and a gradient fill to the vapor above the cup. The gradient should run from a tan brown to white, then make the transparency Multiply and bring the Opacity down to 60%.

7. How to Add a Headline

Step 1

Now the character is finished, Lock the "HEROINE" layer and from your layers menu create a New Layer and name it headline. Now type in the headline copy using a nice retro/art deco poster typeface. I've used Featured Item, a lovely free typeface from Once you're happy with type size and kerning etc. Go to Type > Create Outlines.

Now Ungroup all the letters. Then re-select the top line of text and create a compound path by going to Object > Compound Path > Make. Repeat this process for the second line of text. With the type now transformed into two distinct editable objects, we can start adding the effects we've already covered earlier in the tutorial.

Step 2

Unlike adding the drop shadow filter in Photoshop, we'll create an effect of our own using the pathfinder tool. First Turn Off Visibility on all other layers, then hit Command-Y to view the document in wireframe mode.

Select the word "SKI" and go to Edit > Copy, followed by Edit > Paste In Back. Shift this copied object (using your cursor keys) left 2 clicks, then down 2 clicks. Now repeat this copy, Paste in Back, shift process and you will see something like this…

Now open your Pathfinder palette again, select the two words we've pasted to the back, and hit the Minus Front button to create this new Drop Shadow object. Now hit Command-8 to make this new selection a compound path. Let's hit Command-Y and turn the visibility back on for all the layers again to see how we're progressing.

Step 3

Shaping up well isn't it? Finish off the drop shadow effect by adding a Gradient Fill running from navy to white at an angle of -90 degrees, then shift the Transparency to Multiply and pull the Opacity back to 50%.

8. How to Add Texture

Now you'll see pretty much the finished article. It's looking clean and pristine. You could really stop at this point and be sitting pretty. But if you want to add an authentic old paper feel that will really hark back to the Golden Age of Advertising, I suggest adding a texture file.

There are texture resource websites all over the internet. One that never fails to impress me is, you can register for a free account and download from a massive range of texture images.

I've sourced the paper texture file we're using here from them. So we'll open a New Layer and name it Texture, taking care to lock all the previous layers. Note: It's around now, you can delete the "SKETCH" layer and it's contents.

Now drop in the Photoshop file and scale it down to fit the page. From here, it's a simple job of shifting the transparency to Multiply and pulling back the Opacity back to 80%. Voila! Job done!

Final Image

So there you have it. A nice way to give your vector illustrations a little Old World glamour using a few basic Illustrator Tools. I hope you find it useful! The final image is below.

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