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How to Create a Realistic Reindeer with Gradient Mesh in Adobe Illustrator

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Read Time: 10 min
This post is part of a series called Christmas Illustration Content.
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Did you know Rudolph was a female? Only reindeer ladies have their horns in winter. But, it's not why I'm here. The reason is I'd like to show you how to draw a realistic reindeer with fluffy fur, using Gradient Mesh and more, in Adobe Illustrator. Moreover, you don't need to be a professional to learn it! Ready to try?

Step 1

To draw anything realistic you need to either be a genius, or use a good reference. A genius wouldn't need a tutorial tho, so... let's look for a good photo of thing you want to draw. You can use some free stocks to find one, like alaskastock - this is where my reference comes from. When you find your perfect reference, you need to prepare your workspace for future actions. Paste your photo to a new file, then select the layer with it and choose "Duplicate layer" from Layer menu.

Step 2

You should now have two copies of the photo. Select the first layer (the lowest one) and choose "Template" from Layer menu. When you do this, this layer will be visible in Outlines Mode (Ctrl+ Y). So, this layer will make template for shapes, and the other one - for colors.

Step 3

Before you draw anything, you should imagine what parts it will be built of. It will let you save some time later. Look at the concept sketch of my idea - you're going to build one head, one mouth, one eye, one ear, one barrow, one leg, one tail and two hooves.

Step 4

Let's start actual drawing now. Draw a circle using Ellipse Tool (L), adjusting it to the shape of the eye. Remove stroke and fill the shape with the color of the eye.

Step 5

Use Mesh Tool (U) to convert the ellipse to the shape (click anywhere inside the shape to do it). Now the shape is built of points that define it. You can move them anytime with Direct Selection Tool (A) and color every single one of them separately.

Step 6

Prepare a mesh, putting new points everywhere you need to put a color. Move the handles to define the shape in more 3D-ish way - it should look like a ball, not a circle anymore. Then select the points and pick a color for them with Eyedropper Tool (I) (select areas of points with Lasso Tool (Q) and single ones with Direct Selection Tool (A)). The closer the points are, the sharper the color difference between them.

Step 7

Now let's come to the eyelids. Create a layer under the eye and draw a circle, then convert it to mesh with a point using Mesh Tool (U) again.

Step 8

When you need to move some point without breaking the shape, just hold Shift and move it with Mesh Tool (U).

Step 9

Put new points and color them like this:

Step 10

Now it's time for the part under the lower eyelid (I guess it's just a part of it). Prepare a brown rectangle using Rectangle Tool (M) and put a single mesh point on it (I call such a shape a template block, and it's used for any kind of complicated meshes). Use it to create this part, grabbing the points and dragging them to the places you want them to be. Add new point every time you need more complicated edge. Use the handles of every point to transform the shape too.

Step 11

Create upper eyelid (or whatever this part is) with a circle converted to mesh. If you want to bend some line without adding new mesh points, add an anchor point (use Pen Tool (P) and click "+"). You can now transform its handles, but it's not a mesh point and you can't color it.

Step 12

Now it's time for antlers. It's an important method, so listen carefully. First create a template block in color of bone.

Step 13

Copy it (you're going to use it for all the antlers), go into Outlines Mode (Y), then adjust the block to first part of the antlers.

Step 14

Go out of Outlines Mode (Ctrl + Y) and add more points to copy the colors from the reference. A tip: when you want to add some shines, use light blue rather than white. It gives more natural effect, simulating the sky's reflection.

Step 15

Now repeat steps 14-15 to cover all the antlers. When you need to blend the parts so that's they're a whole, pick the border points of one part and color them with colors picked from the other part's border.

Step 16

This is how I did the right part of antlers:

Step 17

And the left one (unfortunately, it can't be copied and reflected from the right, because of the perspective and light):

Step 18

The antlers shouldn't be totally smooth, they're bone, not glass. Create New Layer and draw some quick lines that will simulate some roughness.

Step 19

It should blend into the antlers, so select it, change the Blending Mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity if needed.

Step 20

Now you need to cut off the edges of the roughness texture. As mesh isn't a shape, it doesn't "know" somethings inside or outside of it. To convert its copy to shape, select the mesh and go to Object > Path > Offset Path, and change the value of Offset to 0.

Step 21

There should appear a new object under the mesh; select this object, remove its stroke and fill it with solid color. Then move this object above the texture.

Step 22

Select all the texture and click Ctrl + 8 to compound it to one object. Then select both the texture and mesh-shape, and choose Intersect from Pathfinder.

Step 23

Let's build the head now. Start with the ears - create a brown template block and adjust it. Then select the ear, go to Object > Transform > Reflect and choose copy to create another ear.

Step 24

Create similar template block to draw the mouth. Again, adjust the shape in Outlines Mode (Ctrl + Y), then colors outside of it.

Step 25

Use the same technique for lower part of the mouth.

Step 26

Create a layer below the previous ones, and adjust it to the general shape of the head.

Step 27

Now color the head with rather general colors. It doesn't need to look perfect, but try to be as accurate as possible. When you're done, hide the layer for now.

Step 28

There's a shadow of the ear covering the eye. Draw it as a black shape, then select it and go to Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Add some black blur to blend the shadow into the head.

Step 29

Now lower the Opacity of the shadow a bit.

Step 30

Now it's the most important part, drawing hair. Excited? That's a technique I've discovered recently, and I think it's quite good. First, draw a single hair with Pen Tool (P), no stroke, just black fill.

Step 31

Select it, go to Brushes panel and click New Brush icon. Then choose "New Art Brush".

Step 32

In the window that appeared select Tints for Colorization Method and click OK.

Step 33

You've just created a new brush - you can find it in Brushes menu now. Save it for later, then prepare whole set of brushes - draw some tufts of hair, try different combinations, and make brushes of them with the way I've just showed you.

Step 34

Choose one of the brushes you made (check which works the best for it) and draw the first layer of hair, starting from the cheeks.

Step 35

To color the hair easily, convert them to shape by selecting them and going to Object > Path > Outline Stroke.

Step 36

Now you can color them, picking the color of fur that's the closest to them. Then draw another layer and repeat Steps 34-35.

Step 37

Cover all the head with this technique. Look at the reference to make sure about direction of hair.

Step 38

Now select all the hair, and choose Soft Light Blending Mode from the Transparency panel. Turn the layer with head mesh on to see the effect.

Step 39

Add some additional hair to make it look better - cover the ears, blend the mouth with them etc. Just look for any mistakes and fix them.

Step 40

Time for the rest of the body. Start with the legs - it's going to be simple and quick. Create another template block and adjust its shape to the straightest leg. Color it too.

Step 41

Copy this leg and adjust it to other.

Step 42

Copy this bent leg and reflect it with Object > Transform > Reflect.

Step 43

Now adjust its shape to this leg.

Step 44

The colors and surface are completely wrong, so adjust them to the reference. You can remove mesh points with Delete key.

Step 45

And the last leg, copied from the straightest one and adjusted.

Step 46

Let's go to the barrow. Draw a huge template block for it first, containing all the barrow. Then adjust its shape to the reference, shaping the surface too. Try to stress the thigh, part of the arm and spatula, that are placed in this part of body.

Step 47

Now color it carefully, adding points when needed. It should look similar to the head you did some time ago. Well, I think now you can guess what you're going to do next.

Step 48

No, not fur! Let's build all the body before finishing it, OK? That's going to be easier this way. Build a hoof of another template block...

Step 49

...then copy it and adjust to the others.

Step 50

Fur tends to fold and show partings if the skin with it bends. To achieve this effect, draw black lines in the places where you can see it.

Step 51

Now change these objects Blending Mode to Soft Light.

Step 52

/K, time for fur. Grab your favorite brush (or create new, if you didn't like those) and draw first layer of the fur. Use different shades and sizes for the best effect.

Step 53

That's how you should go. Let your hand loose, don't try to draw straight lines, let your tufts cross. Nature is messy.

Step 54

Here's how I covered all the back...

Step 55

...and the bottom. Notice how many colors I used.

Step 56

Now do the trick with Soft Light. Voila! Wait... now it looks like an old 3D model with fur made of textures. How to fix it?

Step 57

To avoid this effect go under the layers with fur and draw some new tufts. Be careful, the colors must be as similar to the others as possible. Look at the areas where legs connect to the barrow - they need to be covered too. Basically, don't let any edges show.

Step 58

Come back to the folds and partings in the fur. They look fake among detailed fur, so add some details to them too. You can use your hair brush for it, just don't go too long. I decided white looks better now.

Step 59

Hey, didn't we forget about something? Add further detailing to the tail.

Step 60

Use hair tufts and single hair to blend the hooves into legs. Prepare two versions of those coverings, for hoof in the air and on the ground, and them copy them for the rest of hooves.

Step 61

The legs look a bit bald, so add some fur for them too. Use the technique with Soft Light you've just learn't. Tip: use short, thin hair.

Step 62

That's how it should look:

Step 63

I just noticed the tufts from hooves don't blend too good because of the light difference (light source gave a warm shade to the legs, but not to the tufts). Time to correct this mistake, and many others, if you took any. Because it's the end, and it's up to you if you find it perfect enough to stop now.


Your reindeer is now ready to be sent for Christmas presents! Hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and learn't new techniques on creating fur and using Gradient Meshes.

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