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How to Enhance an Illustration by Adding Shadows

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

The Pathfinder panel is one of the most versatile features of Adobe Illustrator. It comes in handy on so many occasions, and in today’s quick tip I will show you how you can use it to enhance your illustrations by adding shadows to them.

1. Define Your Task

Carefully look at the illustration you have to add shadows to. Define where the light source would be, and how the light will fall on your object. In this case, I have Super Mario holding the famous Super Star, which is our source of light, so we will work on shadowing Mario's figure.

Define where would the light source would be

2. Group the Bigger Parts of Your Object

To make things easier, we will separate our Mario into a few groups: head, arms, and body/legs.

Group the illustration in few objects

3. Adding the Shadows

Step 1

Let’s start with the head. Using the Pen Tool (P), draw a shape over the head where you would like to add the shadow. Try to imagine how the light will fall on the object and guess where the shadow will fall. It might sound a bit confusing, but it’s actually quite simple.

 Use the pen tool and draw a shadow shape

Step 2

Copy the head and select the shadow shape we just drew using the Pen Tool. Use the Paste in Front command (Control-F) to paste it in front of the shadow shape. You can double check the order of things in the Layers panel (F7).

Copy the head group and paste it in front of the shadow shape

Step 3

With a single click, select the top head layer and open the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder). Click on the first icon in the Shape Mode, Unite. This should merge all of the head layer contents into one (the head, hat, everything).

Using the Pathfinder merge all of the head items

The result should look like this.

The head and its contents are merged in a silhouette shape

Step 4

Now select both the merged head object and the shadow outline object and use the Intersect command from the Pathfinder panel. The part where they intersect will be our shadow.

 Use the Intersect command between the shadow outline and the merged object

Step 5

The result should look like this.

Select the new shape and pick a grey color

Now, click the shape we just got, and open the Swatches panel (Window > Swatches). We are going to need a light shade of grey for the shading, so pick the eighth one in the grey row labeled as C=0 M=0 Y=0 K=30.

Step 6

Open the Transparency panel (Window > Transparency). Open the Blending Mode tab and choose the Multiply one.

Use the Multiply belning mode to get transparency and shadowing effect

Voila! We made a shadow perfectly aligned to Mario’s head! Now let’s do the same to the rest of the image, going from top to bottom.

Step 7

Lets move to the left hand. Using the Pen Tool we draw the shadow shape over the hand.

Using the Pen tool we draw the shadow shape over the hand

Step 8

Copy (Control-C) the grouped left hand, select the shadow shape and Paste it in Front of it (Control-F). Select the hand and apply the Unite command from the Pathfinder panel.

Copy Paste in front and merge the hand

Step 9

Now select the merged hand object and the shadow outline. Using the Intersect command from the Pathfinder panel, you will get the desired shade. 

Use the Intersect command between the shadow outline and the merged object

And using the Transparency panel, we are setting the Blending Mode to Multiply.

Using the Transparency panel set the blending mode Multiply

Step 10

Repeat these few steps on the rest of the parts.

  • Right hand

The progress on the right hand

  • Body and legs

The progress on the body and legs

  • And feet

The progress on the feet

Now, we have all the shading we needed! The result should look like this!

The illustration with added shadows

But, to enhance the lighting effect, we can add a dark background.

Step 11

Using the Rectangle Tool (M), draw a rectangle and color it some dark color, let’s say C100 M100 Y25 K80.

Draw a rectangle and color it

Step 12

Now stretch the rectangle over the artboard and move it to the back of the image.
Go to Object > Arrange > Send to Back.

Stretch the rectangle and set it to the back of the layers

And as one famous architect said, the devil’s in the details. We can add one final detail and that’s an outer glow to our glowing object: the Super Star.

Step 13

Select the yellow base of the star. Go to the Effects > Stylize > Outer Glow. A dialog box will appear. Set the Mode to Screen. Choose a yellow color, drop the Opacity to 75% and set the Blur at 6 mm.

Create a glow using the outer glow effect

Great Work, You Are Done!

Well, that’s it! We managed to enhance the illustration and give it a new light!

Adding shadows to flat illustrations is always welcome—it takes the illustration to a whole new level and gives us a better image of the environment our character is in.

The final result

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