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Nine Quick Steps to Create an Atmospheric, Misty Woodland Backdrop

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Read Time: 5 mins

Backgrounds in illustration are often solely responsible for supplying the mood, without detracting from the main point of focus. The following nine steps make use of a few of Adobe Illustrators tricks to quickly demonstrate just that.

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Step 1: Custom Brushes

Custom brushes are going to play a vital role in this tut, so let's get them organized before we go any further. We'll need a few, they'll be used to build the trees, so make yourself a small selection of twiggy, knobby brushes.

The process of working with custom brushes can be followed in complete detail with Rype's tut A Comprehensive Guide: Illustrator’s Paintbrush Tool and Brush Panel.

Step 2: Tree Trunks

Before even thinking about composition, let's build a few trees. The smaller branches we'll arrange later, for now we're just after trunks.

Use the Pencil Tool (N), or the Pen Tool (P), to draw some really basic blobs for the main body of your trees. Follow by drawing the spines of smaller trunks and main branches (and when I say basic, I mean What in the name of all evil is that? kind of basic - do not worry about drawing ability here...).

Apply the various brushes you've prepared and play with stroke weight to give you convincing looking tree trunks. Build a few; the more, the merrier!

Step 3: Outer Branches

Now you've built a bit of volume into your tree trunks you can use the Pencil Tool (N), or the Pen Tool (P), to draw some smaller branches.

Again, apply your brushes and play with the stroke weights to give you the effect you want.

Step 4: Wrinkle

Your trees are looking very... tree-like.. but to enhance our eerie atmosphere let's add a few years to them.

Select the Wrinkle Tool from the Tools Palette.

By pressing the Wrinkle Tool onto your paths, you'll wrinkle them (that may have been an obvious comment). More anchor points will be added and the longer you keep your mouse button pressed, the wrinklier your path (within the Wrinkle Tool area) will become. Move the Wrinkle Tool along paths to wrinkle as you go - but don't go overboard - some pretty ugly paths can be made when custom brushes are applied.

By double-clicking on the tool icon you'll open the Wrinkle Tool Options dialogue. Here you can alter various Wrinkly settings.. For example, you may find it useful to set the tool to wrinkle horizontally as well as vertically. As stated at the bottom of the Options dialogue, in order to alter the size of your wrinkle tool, first select the tool, then hold down Alt and drag the mouse across your screen. The area affected by your wrinkle tool and the extent of wrinkling are altered in this way. Play around with it to decide what you're comfortable with.

Step 5: Expand and Clean Up

Happy with your trees? Good. With them still selected go to Object > Expand Appearance.

All appears to be well, but by checking the drawing in outline mode (View > Outline) you'll see the original paths are still present. This could cause us problems with filling and we don't need them anymore, so let's get rid of them.

You can either use the Direct Selection Tool (A) and select/delete each path individually, or you can use this handy, free plugin. This plugin will allow you to select all open paths in one go and do with them as you please (in our case, remove).

Download it and follow the instructions to add it to your Illustrator Plugin folder. Having done that you'll see 18 extra options have been added to your Select > Object menu. Very useful.

Note: It could be that due to the complexities of your paths, removal of open paths is too much of a job. This cleaning process is only necessary in order to use gradient fills on our trees - should you want to, you could just ignore gradients and use solid fills or color the unexpanded branch strokes.

Step 6: Combine

Having cleaned up your paths, use the Pathfinder Add To Shape Area Tool to create single objects of all your trees. Now they're ready to color.

Step 7: Color and Composition

Set your Artboard to whatever dimensions you wish (File > Document Setup) and then begin arranging your trees. Arrange your composition in any way you want, or replicate what's shown below.

In terms of color, we'll stick to grey/browns for the trees and give them gradient fills so that they fade as they get thinner. Lighten the shade of trees which disappear further into the background. This is a simple, perhaps obvious, but effective way of building up depth.

Step 8: Gradient Mesh

To complete the effect, let's add some mist and the main color of our background with a gradient mesh. Create a new layer and place on it a rectangle of equal dimensions to your Artboard. Give it a color of #3B7894 and change it's transparency to Multiply. Watch the scene come alive..

Now use the Mesh Tool (U) to make a series of points on your rectangle similar to what's demonstrated below.

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select horizontal groups of points and color them to give a subtly stripy effect. The Color Guide palette (Window > Color Guide) will provide you with suitable color variations.

Step 9: Final Touches

Applying a blur (Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur...) to the trees furthest in the background will enhance the sense of depth even more. Also, try adding other elements to your composition; grasses, vines etc and really set the scene.


So there you go - a few Illustrator techniques, an eye for composition and you have yourself an atmospheric backdrop in the time it took to boil the kettle..

Perfect for placement behind a caricature, perhaps a scrolling background in a flash movie. In any case, whatever you place in the foreground will be focused upon, the background will provide the mood.

Maybe this?

Or this? Well, maybe not, but enjoy playing with the possibilities!

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