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How to Create a Stained Glass Effect in Illustrator


This tutorial shows how to create a stained glass effect in Adobe Illustrator. The method is rather quick and simple, but the outcome looks very nice - especially when you use a beautiful image for reference. Let's get started!

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Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS3
  • Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 30 minutes


I decided to create a stained glass effect when I saw one very beautiful Tiffany lamp. And, although it might be easy to create a mosaic with Illustrator raster effects, I thought it would be better to make it a different way. The simple method I describe in this tutorial involves only a few tools. Also, you'll get better results with a reference image - whether it's your own sketch, a photo, or any other image you like.

Step 1

Let's open Adobe Illustrator and create a new document. Make it default A4 paper size (210x297 mm horizontal), but your image may be created in any size. I set it to RGB color mode, but you can choose CMYK if you prefer.

Now we'll need a reference image, and you need to know something about it. Resolution and quality doesn't matter, it can be a small photo. For a stained glass effect it's better not to choose high-frequency images, which means images with many small details, or with very distant objects.

It'll be rather hard to reproduce tiny areas with so many glass pieces (you'll have to create each of them). Thus, city landscapes or detailed portraits are not the best choice. Choose a low-frequency image like a still life, flowers, or a landscape. See the examples below.

Step 2

Okay, when the reference image is chosen, place it in your document (File > Place). I used a great photo "Spring bouquet" that the Russian photographer Nattalia Shloma kindly allowed me to use in this tutorial. She has some amazing flower compositions that are perfect for stained glass effects.

Position and scale the placed image to your liking, so that the main object is in the center. Then click twice on the layer in the Layers panel (F7) and rename it to "photo." Check the "template" option, also enter 100% in the Dim To field. This way the image will be visible even in outline mode.

I left some blank space to fill it with glasswork later, and I also decided to crop it with a clipping mask. Simply create a rectangle the same size as your document, select both the rectangle shape and the image, and then press Command + 7.

Step 3

Now create a new layer and name it "Glasswork." Choose the Line Tool (\) and make sure your bottom layer with a reference image is locked, so you don't accidentally select it. Colors do not matter now, you'll change them later, so you can choose a vivid stroke color to work with.

Now it's time to create the basic shape of the glasswork. This is the most time-consuming part of tutorial and requires some patience. Draw the rough draft of the glasswork, so that the lines are the borders between glass pieces.

Start creating lines that follow the main objects in your image. Make sure that every line touches either another line or the image border with its endpoints. You are making future glass pieces, keep it in mind - so the idea is to break the surface down into separate objects. Avoid open line ends, it's very important, so overlapping is the key!

Turn on smart guides (Command + U) for help. This way you'll see where the lines intersect. You don't have to copy the reference image exactly. I decided to make the table flat and clean, dropped the fallen tulip, and change the vase shape.

Step 4

The flat areas like the wall or table will consist of larger glass pieces, while smaller objects (flowers and leaves) need more detailed work. Try to draw lines that roughly follow the borders of every object. Remember: It's better to create smaller glass pieces where we do not actually need them, than to create one huge piece where we need more detail.

Here I replaced the mimosa with more simple leaves to avoid too much small detail. You can switch to outline mode (Command + Y) if the line color disturbs you. That's what I have for now.

It's easy to know you're ready for the next step: just turn off visibility of the bottom layer, and you'll see if the lines look recognizable. Make sure every important object of your reference photo has the appropriate glass piece bounded by lines on the top layer.

Check twice that the lines touch each other or the image border. Correct gaps and any points that are bit over the border - just move them into place with the Direct Selection Tool (A). You'll be able to correct it later though.

Step 5

Once the lines' draft looks OK, select all the lines you created (you can simply click the circle beside the layer name in the Layers panel). Now choose the Warp Tool (Shift + R) and start deforming lines to make them wavy - begin with large glass pieces using the default tool size. When you come to working on smaller pieces, change the tool settings to a handle more subtle areas - click Enter and adjust intensity, simplicity, and size.

You can also change the Warp Tool size quickly by holding Alt and dragging inwards or outwards (to constrain proportions also hold Shift). Make the line work repeat the shape of image objects. You have to end up with something similar to the image shown below (I made the bottom layer invisible).

Step 6

Well, the last thing to do before adding color is to create a rectangle that will be the image border. Make sure it has no fill and it touches the lines so there are no gaps. Now, select the whole layer (lines and rectangle together), group these objects (Command + G) and give this group a 3pt stroke of light brown color (#BC8B0F).

Now you should make a copy of this group, we'll use it later: press Command + C and Command + F. The copy appears above the original group. Hide it for now by pressing Command + 3 or clicking the eye icon beside the group copy in the layers panel. Below shows what it looks like with the bottom image turned off.

Step 7

Now we'll add some color to our artwork: select the original group of line work and go to Object > Live Paint > Create (Alt + Command + X). This turns the group into a Live Paint Group - the bounding box around it might change a little. Now you can recolor the space between lines with the Live Paint Tool (K).

To choose swatches I suggest that you go to Window > Swatches Libraries and select the combination you like (I used the "Food" and "Nature" libraries). Simply click the color swatch as a fill color and bring the tool cursor to the area you want to paint, it will be indicated with a wide selection. Start painting the entire image with colors you like (don't change the stroke color though).

Step 8

You may face some problems when painting your glasswork. If some areas appear as a single one due to gaps between lines, select the line endpoint with the Direct Selection Tool (A) and move it to close the gap.

If you feel that some lines are missing, draw new lines and deform it with the Warp Tool, then select both the new lines and the Live Color group and go to Object > Live Paint > Merge. The lines will be added to the group.

Keep painting your image - you can change the color of any piece in this group if you like with the same Live Paint Tool. Switch the bottom layer's visibility off to check the fill of glasswork. Below is what I have so far.

Step 9

To complete the basic shape of glasswork, unhide the backup group you duplicated in Step 6 (press Alt + Command + 3). Select the duplicate and change its stroke to 2 pt and dark yellow color (#EAA00C). Now copy the group in front again (Command + C and Command + F) and give this one a 1 pt stroke and light yellow color (#FCD515). This way the glass borders look as if they are made with copper foil.

Finally, let's crop the image. Draw the rectangle above the glasswork so that it covers the entire canvas (or you can copy one from the bottom layer). Make the layer a clipping mask (select the "Glasswork" layer in Layers panel and choose Make Clipping Mask in the fly-out menu). You can lock the "Glasswork" layer now, as the basic work is done.

Step 10

Create a new layer and name it "Realism" (as we'll add some realistic details now). Create a rectangle that covers the whole canvas again (or copy the clipping path from the layer below). Duplicate it twice and hide the copies for a moment (Command + C and Command + F). Select the first one and make it's fill 50% black with no stroke. Now go to Effects > Artistic > Sponge, enter these values:

  • Brush size: 2
  • Definition: 12
  • Smoothness: 5

You can go to the Opacity panel now (Shift + Command + F10) and change the rectangle's blending mode to Overlay. Now, with it still selected, again go to Effects > Sketch > Plastic Warp, and enter the following:

  • Highlight strength: 9
  • Detail: 5
  • Smoothness: 11

It will create a nice glass texture. You can reduce it's opacity for a more subtle effect. Also, if your document has different dimensions, you may want to change the effects' settings a little bit.

Step 11

Unhide the first rectangle copy and fill it with a white to black radial gradient. Move the gradient's center point with the Gradient Tool (G) wherever you want to imitate the light outside the glass window. Now change the rectangle's blending mode to Soft Light.

Step 12

The image looks good already, but if you want to add extra lighting, select the third rectangle above two others, fill it with a gray color and turn it into a gradient mesh (Object > Create Gradient Mesh), enter 4 for rows and 6 for columns. Now change some point color to white, selecting them with the white arrow (A), and move some points and handles to create the shapes of the color transitions.

Now, again change the mesh mode to Soft Light and adjust the opacity if you want. This object imitates additional light sources outside a glass window. At this point I also changed the colors of the Light Paint group slightly. That's it, below is my result.


In this tutorial we made a stained glass effect with simple method using several Illustrator tools. You can use most images for reference to create this effect, but try to avoid high-frequency pictures.

This method produces good results when created from scratch, as you can randomly make a line work and paint it as you like. Moreover, even the simplest ornament with this effect applied looks nice - look at the image below. Hope you've found something useful for yourself in this technique.

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