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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

How to Create a Textured City Snapshot Illustration in Adobe Illustrator

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In today’s tutorial, we’re going to explore the process of creating an instant snapshot of a busy city, using nothing more than the basic shapes and tools that we work with on a daily basis.

You can always expand your project by heading over to GraphicRiver, where you'll find a great selection of vector assets to choose from.

That being said, quickly grab a fresh cup of coffee to keep you energized, and let’s jump straight into it!

1. How to Set Up a New Project File

Assuming you already have Illustrator up and running in the background, bring it up and let’s set up a New Document (File > New or Control-N) for our project using the following settings:

  • Number of Artboards: 1
  • Width: 800 px
  • Height: 600 px
  • Units: Pixels

And from the Advanced tab:

  • Color Mode: RGB
  • Raster Effects: Screen (72ppi)
  • Preview Mode: Default
setting up a new document

2. How to Set Up a Custom Grid

Even though today’s project is not an icon-based one, we’ll still want to create the illustration using a pixel-perfect workflow, so let’s set up a nice little grid so that we can have full control over our shapes.

Step 1

Go to the Edit > Preferences > Guides & Grid submenu, and adjust the following settings:

  • Gridline every: 1 px
  • Subdivisions: 1
setting up a custom grid

Quick tip: you can learn more about grids by reading this in-depth piece on How Illustrator’s Grid System Works.

Step 2

Once we’ve set up our custom grid, all we need to do in order to make sure our shapes look crisp is enable the Snap to Grid option found under the View menu (that’s if you're using an older version of Illustrator).

Now, if you’re new to the whole “pixel-perfect workflow”, I strongly recommend you go through my How to Create Pixel-Perfect Artwork tutorial, which will help you widen your technical skills in no time.

3. How to Set Up the Layers

Once we’ve finished setting up our project file, it would be a good idea to structure our document using a couple of layers, since this way we can maintain a steady workflow by focusing on one section of the illustration at a time.

That being said, bring up the Layers panel and create a total of three layers, which we will rename as follows:

  • layer 1: background
  • layer 2: photo stack
  • layer 3: city illustration
setting up the layers

Quick tip: I’ve colored all of my layers using the same green value, since it’s the easiest one to view when used to highlight your selected shapes (whether they’re closed or open paths).

4. How to Create the Background

As soon as we’ve layered our document, we can start working on the project by creating the light background, so make sure you position yourself on the first layer, and let’s jump straight into it.

Step 1

Create an 800 x 600 px rectangle, which we will color using #FFF8F0 and then center align to the underlying Artboard using the Align panel's Horizontal and Vertical Align Center options.

creating the background

Step 2

Apply a subtle texture to the shape that we’ve just created by making a copy (Control-C > Control-F) of it, which we will adjust by setting its color to #808080. Then, simply go to Effect > Photoshop Effects > Texture > Grain and set the Intensity to 40, the Contrast to 50, and the Grain Type to Stippled.

adding the texture to the background

Step 3

Adjust the resulting texture by setting its Blending Mode to Soft Light, selecting and grouping the two rectangles together afterwards using the Control-G keyboard shortcut.

adjusting the texture of the background

Step 4

Lock the current layer using the Layers panel, and then move on up to the next one (that would be the second one) where we’ll gradually build our composition.

locking the background layer

5. How to Create the Polaroid Instant Film Stack

Assuming you’ve positioned yourself on the next layer (that would be the second one), let’s start working on the next section of our illustration, which will house the city itself.

Step 1

Create the main shape for the bottom polaroid using a 360 x 460 px rectangle, which we will color using #E8D4BF and then position in the center of the Artboard.

creating the bottom polaroid

Step 2

Adjust the shape that we’ve just created by rotating it clockwise by an angle of using the Rotate tool (right click > Transform > Rotate > -8 px).

rotating the bottom polaroid

Step 3

Give the resulting shape a subtle, grainy texture following the same process and values used for the background, only this time color the copy using #666666, lowering its Opacity to 40%.

adding the texture to the bottom polaroid

Step 4

Add a secondary texture that will act as a shadow cast by the top polaroid, using a 380 x 480 px rectangle (#333333) which we will position in the center of the Artboard, setting its Blending Mode to Soft Light and its Opacity to 64%.

adding the second texture to the bottom polaroid

Step 5

Select and group (Control-G) both textures together, masking them afterwards by creating a copy (Control-C) of the underlying shape (highlighted with red), which we will paste in front (Control-F) and then simply right click > Make Clipping Mask.

masking the bottom polaroid

Step 6

Add the front polaroid using a 360 x 460 px rectangle, which we will color using #FFEED9 and then center align to the underlying Artboard. Once you’re done, select and group all of the current layer’s shapes together using the Control-G keyboard shortcut, making sure to lock it before moving on to the next section of the illustration.

creating the front polaroid

6. How to Create the Buildings on the Right Side

As soon as we’ve finished working on the polaroid film stack, we can move on to the third and last layer, where we will gradually build our little city.

Step 1

Start by creating the background using a 280 x 340 px rectangle, onto which we will apply a linear gradient using #F9C958 for the left color stop and #F97E58 for the right one. Set the Angle to 90º, positioning the resulting shape as seen in the reference image.

creating the gradient background

Step 2

Zoom in on the gradient that we’ve just created and add the sun using a 112 x 112 px circle, which we will color using #FFD18D and then position at a distance of 16 px from the center of the larger shape’s bottom edge.

creating the sun

Step 3

Start working on the buildings by creating the main shape for the bottom one using a 108 x 112 px rectangle, which we will color using #E87D60 and then align to the gradient’s bottom-right corner.

creating the main shape for the bottom-right building

Step 4

Add the windows using seven rows of five 12 x 8 px rectangles (#BA473C), spacing them 8 px from one another horizontally and vertically. Then group them (Control-G) and position them on the building as seen in the reference image.

adding the windows to the bottom-right building

Step 5

Create the roof using a 112 x 12 px rectangle (#FFEDD7) on top of which we will add two 112 x 2 px horizontal detail lines (#BA473C) vertically stacked 2 px from one another and from the larger shape's top edge. Select and group (Control-G) all three shapes together, positioning them on top of the current building.

adding the roof to the bottom-right building

Step 6

Get creative and add the antenna/roof assembly using a couple of #BA473C colored rectangles, which we will group (Control-G) and then position on top of the previously created shapes. Take your time, and once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of the building’s composing shapes before moving on to the next one.

adding the antenna assembly to the bottom-right building

Step 7

Start working on the next building by creating its main body using a 68 x 104 px rectangle, which we will color using #FFE5C0 and then position on top of the one from the previous step.

creating the main shape for the center-right building

Step 8

Add the windows using twelve 68 x 4 px rectangles (#BA473C), which we will vertically stack 4 px from one another, grouping (Control-G) and then aligning them to the bottom of the larger rectangle.

adding the windows to the center-right building

Step 9

Once you have the shapes in place, select and group (Control-G) them and the building’s larger body together, making sure to position them underneath the bottom one’s antenna (right click > Arrange > Send Backward), before moving on to the next step.

positioning the center-right building behind the bottom one

Step 10

Start working on the smaller side building using a 20 x 52 px rectangle, which we will color using #CCCCCC and then position as seen in the reference image.

creating the main shape for the smaller right-sided building

Step 11

Add the hard shadow cast by the right building using an 8 x 52 px rectangle, which we will color using #BA473C and then position onto the current one’s right edge.

adding the shadow to the smaller right-sided building

Step 12

Create the windows using six 12 x 4 px rectangles (#BA473C), which we will vertically stack 4 px from one another, grouping (Control-G) and then aligning them to the bottom edge of the building.

adding the windows to the smaller right-sided building

Step 13

Finish off the current building by adding the antenna assembly using two #BA473C colored rectangles, which we will position as seen in the reference image. Once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of its composing shapes before moving on to the next one.

adding the antenna assembly to the smaller right-sided building

Step 14

Create the main shape for the top building using a 52 x 56 px rectangle, which we will color using #DDD4C8 and then position on top of the taller one.

creating the main shape for the top right-sided building

Step 15

Give the building a hard shadow using a 12 x 56 px rectangle (#BA473C), which we will align to the center of its right edge.

adding the shadow to the top right-sided building

Step 16

Add the windows using four 4 x 56 px rectangles (#BA473C), which we will horizontally space 4 px from one another, grouping (Control-G) and then positioning them at a distance of 4 px from the shadow that we’ve just created.

adding the windows to the top right-sided building

Step 17

Add the antenna assembly using a couple of #BA473C colored rectangles. Take your time, and once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of its composing shapes together, doing the same for the entire building afterwards.

adding the antenna assembly to the top right-sided building

Step 18

Finish off the current section of the city by quickly creating the crane using a few #BA473C colored rectangles. Once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of its composing shapes together, doing the same for all of the buildings afterwards.

adding the crane

7. How to Create the Buildings on the Left Side

Once we’ve finished working on the right side of the city, we can shift our focus over to the left one and start adding the buildings one step at a time.

Step 1

Create the main shape for the bottom building using a 172 x 36 px rectangle, which we will color using #FFE5C0 and then position as seen in the reference image.

creating the main shape for the bottom-left building

Step 2

Add the hard-shadow using a 12 x 36 px rectangle, which we will color using #BA473C and then center align to the larger shape’s right edge.

adding the hard shadow to the bottom-left building

Step 3

Create the windows using four 160 x 4 px rectangles (#BA473C), which we will vertically stack 4 px from one another, grouping (Control-G) and then positioning them onto the bottom-left corner of the building. Once you’re done, select and group all of the shapes together using the Control-G keyboard shortcut.

adding the windows to the bottom-left building

Step 4

Add the upper section of the building by creating a 96 x 16 px rectangle (#FFEDD7), on top of which we will add three 96 x 2 px rectangles (#BA473C) vertically stacked 2 px from one another. Group (Control-G) and position the shapes on top of the lower body, doing the same for the entire building afterwards.

adding the roof to the bottom-left building

Step 5

Start working on the center building by creating a 76 x 140 px rectangle, which we will color using #CADDCF and then position on top of the one that we’ve just finished.

creating the main shape for the center-left building

Step 6

Add the windows using 16 rows of six 8 x 4 px rectangles (#BA473C), horizontally and vertically spaced 4 px from one another, which we will group (Control-G) and then position as seen in the reference image.

adding the windows to the center-left building

Step 7

Finish off the current building by adding the horizontal detail lines using two 76 x 2 px rectangles (#BA473C) vertically stacked 2 px from one another, which we will group (Control-G) and then position at a distance of 2 px from its top edge. Take your time, and once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of its composing shapes, making sure to position it underneath the bottom one (right click > Transform > Arrange > Send Backward).

finishing off the center-left building

Step 8

Create the main shape for the smaller side building using a 32 x 88 px rectangle, which we will color using #CCCCCC and then position as seen in the reference image.

creating the main shape for the smaller left-sided building

Step 9

Add the hard-shadow using a 10 x 88 px rectangle, which we will color using #BA473C and then center align to the building’s left edge.

adding the hard-shadow to the smaller left-sided building

Step 10

Create the windows using three 4 x 88 px rectangles (#BA473C), horizontally spaced 2 px from one another, which we will group (Control-G) and then position at a distance of 2 px from the shadow.

adding the windows to the smaller left-sided building

Step 11

Add the antenna assembly using a couple of #BA473C colored rectangles, selecting and grouping all of them together using the Control-G keyboard shortcut. Take your time, and once you’re done, do the same for the entire building.

adding the antenna assembly to the smaller left-sided building

Step 12

Start working on the taller building by creating its lower body using a 56 x 100 px rectangle (#E87D60), which we will adjust by selecting and pushing its top-right corner to the bottom by 10 px (right click > Transform > Move > Vertical > 10 px).

creating the main shape for the top left-sided building

Step 13

Add the windows using ten 56 x 4 px rectangles (#BA473C) vertically stacked 4 px from one another, which we will group (Control-G) and then position at a distance of 4 px from the previous shape’s bottom edge.

adding the windows to the top left-side building

Step 14

Create the building’s upper body using a 48 x 20 px rectangle (#BA473C), which we will position as seen in the reference image, making sure to arrange it behind the larger one (right click > Arrange > Send Backward).

adding the upper body to the top left-sided building

Step 15

Add the antenna assembly using a couple of #BA473C colored rectangles. Take your time, and once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of the resulting shapes together, doing the same for the entire building afterwards.

adding the antenna assembly to the top left-sided building

Step 16

Finish off the current section of the city by quickly creating the water tower using a couple of #BA473C colored shapes. Once you’re done, make sure to select and group (Control-G) all of its composing shapes together, doing the same for the entire section afterwards.

adding the water tower

8. How to Create the Bridge

Once we’ve finished working on the buildings, we can shift our focus to the center of our illustration, where we will create the bridge.

Step 1

Start by creating the support towers using two 4 x 24 px rectangles (#BA473C), which we will horizontally space 18 px from one another, grouping (Control-G) and then positioning them in the center of the city as seen in the reference image.

creating the bridge towers

Step 2

Add the deck using a 64 x 4 px rectangle (#BA473C), which we will position on top of the shapes that we’ve just created.

adding the deck section to the bridge

Step 3

Create the horizontal support section using a smaller 64 x 2 px rectangle (#BA473C), which we will position below the deck, at a distance of just 2 px.

adding the horizontal support section to the bridge

Step 4

Add the suspension cables using two 64 x 48 px ellipses with a 4 px thick Stroke (#BA473C), which we will position as seen in the reference image and then adjust by selecting and removing their top and outer anchor points, uniting their center ones using the Control-J keyboard shortcut.

adding the suspension cables to the bridge

Step 5

Create the center pylon using a 4 x 34 px rectangle (#BA473C), which we will center align to the top edge of the cables.

adding the support pylon to the bridge

Step 6

Add the suspenders using six 2 px wide rectangles (#BA473C), spaced 8 px from one another, positioning them as seen in the reference image. Once you’re done, select and group all of the bridge’s composing shapes using the Control-G keyboard shortcut.

adding the suspenders to the bridge

Step 7

Create the little cars using a couple of 4 x 1 px rectangles (#BA473C), which we will position onto the deck as seen in the reference image. Take your time, and once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of the current section’s composing shapes before moving on to the next one.

adding the cars to the bridge

9. How to Create the Clouds

Since we’re pretty much done working on the city, we can shift our focus to the upper section of the horizon and start filling it up using a couple of clouds.

Step 1

Using the Rounded Rectangle Tool, create a couple of 4 px tall shapes (#FFFFFF) with a 2 px Corner Radius, which we will position as seen in the reference image, making sure to group (Control-G) and arrange them beneath the buildings (right click > Arrange > Send Backward).

adding the clouds

Step 2

Add the little airplane using a couple of #BA473C rectangles which we will adjust and position as seen in the reference image. Once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of its composing shapes together, doing the same for the entire city afterwards.

adding the airplane

10. How to Add the Finishing Touches

Once we’ve added the clouds and the airplane, our illustration is almost done. All we need to do now is add the grainy texture.

Step 1

Create a 360 x 460 px rectangle (#666666), which we will turn into a texture following the same process and values used for the previous ones, positioning it in the center of the underlying Artboard afterwards.

adding the final texture

Step 2

Adjust the resulting shape by setting its Blending Mode to Soft Light and its Opacity to 30%. Once you’re done, select and group (Control-G) all of the current layer's composing shapes together before finally hitting that Save button.

adjusting the final texture

Great Job!

So we started out laying some simple shapes but ended up creating a beautiful instance of a living, breathing city by following an in-depth, step-by-step process.

I truly hope you’ve managed to learn something new and useful that you can apply to some if not all of your future projects.

As always, if you have any questions, post them within the comments area and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!

City End Result
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