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The Secrets of the Appearance Panel: Multiple Fills

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Read Time: 27 mins

In this tutorial, we'll explore the Adobe Illustrator Appearance panel and learn to create objects that look like groups of many shapes, but consist of only one shape with multiple fills applied, with no brushes used. We'll dive really deep into the the Appearance panel and unlock its secrets. Illustrator enthusiasts will love this detailed tutorial!

Final Image Preview

Below are the images we'll be creating in this tutorial using the Appearance panel. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS3/CS4
  • Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 60 minutes


The more you explore Adobe Illustrator, the more you'll learn about it's magic and get fascinated by it's secrets. I oftentimes like to make up vector challenges for myself, and this time I wanted to create a flower in Illustrator with only one shape, using no brushes. That is a moment when the Appearance panel is everything - the perfect tool for managing your complex object. Today we will learn the magic of the Appearance panel, the ways to use it and its advantages, and then we'll create several objects with it's help to practice the skills.

Theoretical Part

Let's start with theory, so that even beginners understand the secrets of multiple items and the Appearance panel.

1 - Where is the Appearance Panel?

The Appearance panel was introduced in the 9th version of Illustrator, and it was a very creative and smart developers' decision to add this tool. It brought object modifications to the next level, opening new horizons for vector designers.

I suggest that you open up the Appearance panel to be able to access it at any moment. To bring it up, go to Window > Appearance, or press Shift + F6. You'll see an ordinary Illustrator panel that looks rather simple, but you can't even imagine what is hidden in it!

2 - What Appearance Means?

The Appearance panel is a place where all modifications of a particular object are listed and made. Actually, it applies not only to shapes, but to text, groups of objects, entire layers and so on. Therefore, any object on your artboard has some appearance, and it can be viewed in this panel. To access it, select the object and then go to the Appearance panel - and you'll see it as a list of elements. Perhaps, you'll see only stroke, fill, and default opacity shown there, if no other changes were made.

Important Note: Make sure an object is selected when you access the Appearance palette. When nothing is selected, this panel shows elements of the last selected objects, but nothing happens when you edit it.

3 - What is Shown There?

Of course, when I said "all modifications" are shown in the Appearance panel, I did not mean actually all of them. It is not similar with the History panel in Photoshop, so most of the actions you apply to the object are not listed there. Only modifications that alter the object appearance are written - that is why it is called Appearance (more like layer styles in Photoshop). Therefore, when you move the object, transform it with any transform tool, cut it, edit points, and so on - these actions have nothing to do with this palette. On the other hand, anything related to the object's fill, stroke, opacity, blending mode, brushes or effects applied will always show in the Appearance panel.

4 - Appearance Possibilities

When the targeted object is selected, you see its fill, stroke, and its general opacity in the Appearance panel. However, you are able to add more fills or strokes to it (I'm not sure how many, but I've added up to 30 easily). Here is the biggest secret - multiple fills and strokes are very powerful! There are several ways of adding them in the Appearance panel:

  1. Select either fill or stroke in a stack (depending on what you want to add) and press the small Duplicate Item icon. This way the copy will appear on top of the original, inheriting all of its parameters (type, color, opacity, mode, brushes, and effects).
  2. Select either fill or stroke in a list and drag this element onto the Duplicate Item icon. Also you can choose Duplicate Item in the fly-out menu. These are equivalent to the previous method.
  3. Go to the panel fly-out menu and choose Add New Fill or Add New Stroke, then a new fill or stroke will appear on top of all the other elements, and it will have no effects or brushes applied to it (however, it will inherit the color and type of the last chosen fill or stroke). If an item is selected in the stack, the new one will be added on top of the selected one.

This way, you can add many fills and strokes to any selected object. This also applies to other items in this panel, like live effects. It may not sound inspiring at the beginning, but consider this: there are two types of strokes (color and pattern) and three types of fills (color, gradient, and pattern), now multiply it by sixteen blending modes, one-hundred opacity levels, countless variety of stroke width and types (also plenty of effects) - and you're starting to understand how many things that can be done with this panel!

5 - Changing Items

When you add a few more fills or strokes to an object, you can then alter their color and type by choosing the particular element from the list in the Appearance panel, then pick the color, gradient, or pattern in the Swatches panel.

For strokes you can change the width and type in the Strokes panel (Command + F10). Users who use the Illustrator CS4 version may pick the color or change the stroke width right in the Appearance panel, which is handy.

Of course, try altering opacity and blending modes of any item in the Transparency panel (Shift + Command + F10). To delete an item, simply drag it to the Trash icon. All the items in the Appearance panel are handled individually - only you can't move or transform them separately with the usual tools.

6 - More Advantages

You can't just take any particular fill or stroke and edit its points or transform it, because it is not a separate object but a part of the object appearance. However, there are ways of altering the shape of any item in the Appearance panel.

The Effects menu gives you enough amazing options for dressing object fills and strokes the way you like - either together, or separately. You can move and rotate the item using the Transform effect, turn it into another figure with Convert to Shape effect, offset the path applying the Offset Path effect, and many more great effects, such as: shadow, glow, and Photoshop filters like blur or texturizer. You have to try them to realize their power. Once applied to the item, effects are shown in the Appearance panel with the FX symbol.

7 - Order of Items

Another great thing about the Appearance panel is the possibility to change the order of items for any object. You can easily drag one element up or down in the stack to achieve the needed result. Moreover, you can do it with effects too. When the effect is applied to the entire object, it is positioned on a separate level in the Appearance panel. Still, you can drag it on any item to use it on particular fill or stroke.

Sometimes changing the order of items in the Appearance panel will result in a completely different outcome. In Illustrator CS4 version you also may hide items by clicking an eye icon on the left of it. I recommend you to visit this brilliant Vectortuts+ tutorial that explains a lot about the Appearance panel and the order of elements in it: Using Effects to Create a Cool Design.

8 - Where We Can Use It

Multiple strokes and fills, as well as other items in the Appearance panel, may appear very helpful and save plenty of time. You can use advantages of the Appearance panel in cases where several elements of similar shapes must be positioned on top of each other by simply adding a few additional fills with different parameters, rather then creating several separate object.

You can also use it to create multiple strokes on a single editable path rather then using a few copies of the same path. Also,the Appearance panel is great for creating evenly distributed copies of objects or it's parts (fill or stroke) with the powerful Transform effect.

It is possible to create elements that are masked with the top items so that the background shows through, just like an opacity mask, with multiple fills or strokes only. You can even try using the Appearance for more complex objects, where every item has a different shape - in this case you'll need to apply certain effects to achieve the result.

9 - Where We Can't Use It

Unfortunately, although Appearance panel is very powerful, it has certain limitations, and not everything is possible to create with it on one object. By default, every fill and stroke added in the panel has exactly the same shape that the original object has. So, it may sometimes be hard to change the shape of items if you need to.

You can't use Appearance panel to create elements with really different shape, as it's not easy to present it with multiple fills on one object (but you can use it if you need a rectangle or ellipse, with the help of the Convert To Shape effect.

It's impossible to make one object that consists of several elements of drastically different point amounts and type - as we can't edit points of fills in the Appearance panel.

Also it may not be easy to create many elements positioned too far from each other or too randomly scattered. For all those situations it is better to create different objects, rather than trying to fit various elements in one object via the Appearance panel.

The image below shows fills with different shapes, point types, and scattered to randomly, which demonstrates these problems.

10 - Saving Effects

There is one more advantage of the Appearance panel that I love to use very often. Imagine you create a complex object, add many fills and strokes, apply effects and brushes, adjust opacity and blending - and the work is finally done. You then want to try this combination of items on other objects, while not spending so much time for modifications again.

There is a simple way to save the combination of all items in Appearance panel to apply to any other object. Simply select the object, open the Graphic Styles panel (Shift + F5) and press New icon. The Appearance will be saved as a graphic style (similar to Photoshop layer styles), you can name it and apply it to selected shapes.

Practical Part

If you read the explanation above carefully, you understand how invaluable the Appearance panel is for making work in Illustrator easier and more fun. Let's apply the knowledge we gained by putting it into practice.

We'll create five objects with the help of multiple fills in the Appearance panel, from the easiest to the more complex. We will be using the Appearance panel all the time, so make sure it is open in your document (Shift + F6).

We'll implement primarily fills and effects today. In this tutorial we'll use very few strokes and won't be using brushes - multiple strokes were explained in the tutorial How to Create Roads and Rail Tracks on a Path, while brushes are so amazing that they will need a separate tutorial to cover in depth.

11 - The Sun: Beginning

Let's create a new document in Adobe Illustrator - I made it 1200 px by 800 px in RGB mode, though you can choose other parameters. We'll start from the easiest object - the sun. Create a circle (L) 100 px by 100 px, give it no stroke and a subtle yellow-to-orange radial gradient fill.

12 - The Sun: Adding Rays

Now, while the circle is selected, open the Appearance panel (Shift + F6) and add one more fill. We want to add rays to the sun, so we'll apply the Pucker effect. But the only problem is that this effect will create rays depending on amount of points in the shape.

We have only four points - not enough for sun rays. So go to Object > Path > Add Anchor Points, this command adds four more points. Now we can choose the bottom fill and go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Pucker & Bloat, and move the slider to the left about 130% - the rays are ready.

13 - The Sun: Adding a Hole

Although the sun looks nice already, I decided to add one more element to it - it is not necessary, but it gives a creative detail to the object. Honestly, the real reason I add this step is because I want you to learn one trick with the Transparency panel.

We will make a hole in the sun, so that the background is visible. Select the sun and add one more fill on top. It's color does not matter, so I changed it to black. Now go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, and reduce both the horizontal and vertical scale to 50%. You'll have something similar to the image below - not very pretty, but be patient.

14 - The Sun: Finalizing

Now, with top black fill chosen, open the Transparency panel (Shift + Command + F10) and reduce its Opacity to 0%. It will become invisible. Go back to the Appearance panel, and choose the topmost line that says Path, and back in the Transparency panel check the Knockout group option. The top black fill will knock out all the bottom fills, and the background will show through!

This Transparency panel option works for groups where objects with 0% Opacity serve as masks, although this trick affects separate objects as well. I also altered the main fill (second) moving the yellow gradient slider to the right to make the transition faster.

The sun is ready! All its elements are actually Appearance items, while the shape remains a simple circle. We applied three fills to this shape, one effect, and Transparency options. You can check it in outline mode (Command + Y). Now you may want to save this combination of effects as a graphic style - name it "sun."

15 - Clouds: Main Shape

Let's move to another object - the clouds. First, we'll create the basic cloud shape with the Ellipse Tool (L). Create several ellipses so that they form the image we need. Don't make them big - my resulted cloud was 180 px by 90 px.

Now unite ellipses into a single path by pressing the Add button in the Pathfinder panel, press Expand (or simply Alt-press the Add button to unite and the Expand with one click). Change the fill color to a light blue (#AFEBF9) and the stroke to a vivid blue (#57E0FF) at 1 pt wide.

16 - Clouds: Volume

Now we'll use a simple trick to add dimension to the cloud. Add one more fill in the Appearance panel and change it to a default white-to-black gradient. Change the gradient angle either in the Gradient panel (Command + F9) or with the Gradient Tool (G) to -90 (from top to bottom). Now go to the Transparency panel and change the fill blending mode to Overlay.

17 - Clouds: Softening

To make the cloud more cloudy, let's soften it's edges. With the shape selected, choose the topmost line in the Appearance panel saying Path (make sure the effect applies to the entire shape, rather than to any one particular fill) and go to Effects > Stylize > Feather, and enter 10 pt. Now the effect appears in the bottom of the Appearance panel, and you can change the settings any moment. The cloud looks much better now.

18 - Clouds: Duplicating

I've mentioned before in the Theoretical section that we can make copies with the Appearance panel. Let's duplicate the cloud. Again, with the entire shape selected (topmost Path line in the Appearance panel), go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, and change the Horizontal Move to -60 pt, and Vertical Move to 30 pt. Check Preview and enter 1 for the number of copies. If you like the outcome, apply the effect.

19 - Clouds: More Copies

We could make more copies in the last step transform effect, but they would look too evenly distributed. We better apply one more effect to create more clouds.

Again, with the entire shape selected go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform (in the prompt window click Apply New Effect). This time, change the Horizontal Move to 70 pt and Vertical Move to 30 pt. Also enter 1 for copies, and reduce both the Vertical and Horizontal Scale to 90%. If you are happy with result, apply the effect.

The clouds are ready! They are nice and soft, and there are several copies, while the shape remains simple. All the effects we see are just magic tricks of the Appearance panel. Here we used two fills, one stroke, and several effects. You can save it as graphic style to apply to other shapes later - name it "clouds."

20 - Daisy: Beginning

We'll proceed with creating another object - let's make a daisy. Create a circle (L) 40 px by 40 px. Fill it with a blue radial gradient going from a lighter (#00A6E0) to darker shade (#345197) of blue.

Now select the fill in the Appearance panel and go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, here enter 60% for the Vertical Scale and 145% for the Horizontal Scale. Leave the other sliders intact, but make sure to choose the middle-bottom point in the little proxy on the right to assign the point of transformation. Apply the effect and the petal is ready!

21 - Daisy: Petals

Again, with the only fill selected, go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, choose Apply New Effect. Here enter 100% for both the Vertical and Horizontal Scale, leave the middle-bottom point in the proxy, and type 45 for the angle. For the number of copies enter 7 and apply the effect. Now we have eight petals for our daisy.

22 - Daisy: More Petals

Now we'll make another row of petals. Duplicate the only fill we have in the Appearance panel - you'll get two of the same fills. Choose the bottom copy and double-click the top Transform effect line. We'll edit it so that these petals are visible under top ones.

Change the Vertical Scale to 80% and Horizontal Scale to 180%, now you'll see the bottom petals. Still, they are not positioned properly, so let's rotate them. With the bottom fill selected, again go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, choose Apply new effect. The only parameter we need here is Angle - change it to 22,5, while the number of copies we need is 0, and transformation point we need now is central. Apply the effect and see the result.

23 - Daisy: Center

Now, add new fill using the fly-out of the Appearance panel. This way the new fill will be added with no effects, as when you copy the existing one. Apply a yellow-to-orange gradient to it.

Now again go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, you only need to move it a bit down, so change Vertical Move to -20pt and apply (enter 0 for copies and central point for proxy). Now add a subtle shadow to this fill (Effect > Stylize > Drop shadow), use orange for the color and change X and Y shift to 1 pt.

24 - Daisy: Texture

To complete the central part of the daisy, duplicate the top yellow fill and change the fill from gradient to pattern texture - I chose the Mezzotint pattern (Window > Swatches Libraries > Patterns > Basic graphics > Textures). You can try other pattern from this library - the only demand we have is we need a random texture here.

Now simply change blending mode of the texture fill to Overlay in the Transparency panel - and you'll have nice textured surface. Just keep in mind that the pattern fills are as powerful as other items in the Appearance panel.

25 - Daisy: Finalizing

You probably noticed that the new texture fill has drop a shadow effect left from duplicating. We don't need it here, but don't delete it. Take the drop shadow line on the top pattern fill and drag it down to the first blue fill. This way we just moved the effect from one item to another.

Now double-click it and just change the shadow color from orange to blue. Now duplicate it by dragging it to the New button in the Appearance panel. Drag it down to the bottom blue fill. Now all the items cast a subtle shadow.

The daisy is completed! It looks like a complex group of many objects, while it consists of a single shape - all the elements are made with Appearance panel. We applied four fills, including a pattern fill, and various effects to it. Again, save the object as a graphic style to use it later (but mind the size of the objects when applying it).

26 - Ladybug: Basic Shape

It's time for a more challenging object - we'll make a lady-bug now. Create an ellipse (L) 120 pt by 100 pt. Please, make it this exact size, as all future modifications will be based on it.

Leave the stroke 1 pt black, and change the fill color to red (#E21B25). Select the red fill in the Appearance panel, and add some inner shadow by going to Effects > Stylize > Inner Glow. Here change the color to red, Opacity to 50%, and Blur to 12 pt.

Add a new fill in the Appearance panel and change it to a white-to-black radial gradient. Now in the Transparency panel change its blending mode to Overlay to make the lighting.

27 - Ladybug: Adding Wings

Now we need wings - or, the border between them. We need a thin black path in the middle of the ellipse. Although it seems impossible, we'll create this with effects.

Add new fill with no effects and black for the color color on top of the stack in the Appearance panel. Now go to Effects > Convert to shape > Rectangle. Here we can turn any shape into rectangle - what we need is a very thin (2pt) and 120 pt long rectangle. We can enter absolute dimensions (120 x 2 pt), but this way later, when the ladybug is saved as a graphic style and applied to another shape, this fill may not fit the shape if it has different size.

So I suggest that you enter a relative rectangle size: 0 pt extra for width and -49 pt extra for height. Finally, apply Effects > Warp > Arc to this fill, and reduce the bend to 15%.

28 - Ladybug: Making the Head

To add the head, create a new black fill in the Appearance panel without any effects. Now go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, and reduce the new fill and move it so that it looks like a head: reduce the Horizontal Scale to 40%, Vertical Scale to 45%, and enter 50 pt for the Horizontal Move. The head is ready, the only thing we need to do is drag this fill from the top of stack to its bottom in the Appearance panel.

29 - Ladybug: Creating the Legs

The more difficult part of this object is its legs - it's rather hard to create with fills. You can add six black fills, convert them to thin rectangles, and then transform separately. But I think this approach is very long, and I offer you a more creative method. We'll use only one additional stroke for it - although I promised to use multiple fills only, I think you'll forgive me this exception when you see this fun technique.

Add one black stroke to the object in Appearance panel. Now in the Stroke panel (Command + F10) adjust some parameters: change the width to 20 pt, make sure the Butt Cap icon is chosen, select Align Stroke to Outside icon, and check Dashed Line. Here, assign the following order: 2 pt stroke - 56 pt gap. Voila! The dashed stroke turned to six legs. However, if you have a different size of initial ellipse, you'll have to choose the exact gap size yourself.

30 - Ladybug: Adding Dots and Finalizing

We've come to the most challenging element of the ladybug - the dots. Of course, we can create them by duplicating the head, fill six times and then transforming every dot manually to position them onto it's body. But, again, I found a more clever way of adding dots that you might like. We will need just one more stroke for it - as long as we already used one.

Add one more black stroke to the object in the Appearance panel. Now uncheck the Dashed option in the Stroke panel for a minute, leave it 20 pt wide, but choose the Align Stroke to Center icon.

Now go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform, and reduce both the Horizontal and Vertical Scale to 65%. Go back to the Stroke panel, and check Dashed Line again. Here enter 1 pt for stroke and 37 pt for the gap. Finally, change the cap option to Round Cap - and the stroke turns to six nice dots! Again, this numbers work if the initial ellipse size is 120 pt by 100 pt, or you'll have to choose the gap size manually.

The ladybug is ready - the only thing left here is to add a drop shadow to the entire object (dark red color and 50% for Opacity). It was not easy to make this object, and you can save the effects as a graphic style now. The object still remains a simple ellipse - check it in the outline mode (Command + Y). For this object, we used four fills and three strokes, and numerous effects.

31 - Rose: Beginning

Now we came to the last and most complex object in this series - the rose. Create the base for it - an ellipse 80 pt by 65 pt (please note, that all effects will be based on this size).

Make it no stroke and give it a pink radial gradient fill that goes from lighter pink (#E23770) to a darker shade (#BA0053). Now go to the Appearance panel and apply a Transform effect to make 4 copies of this petal, entering 72 for angle and choosing middle-bottom point in the proxy.

32 - Rose: Adding More Petals

Duplicate the fill by dragging it to the New icon in the Appearance panel, now go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform to apply a new transformation. Enter 85% for both Horizontal and Vertical Scale to reduce the petals, and insert 30 for Angle to rotate them. Make sure the center point is chosen in the proxy and apply.

Now to add even more petals, again duplicate the top fill in the Appearance panel, click the small arrow to show the effects applied to it, and double-click the bottom Transform effect. Change the transformation settings: enter 85% for both Horizontal and Vertical Scale to reduce the petals, and insert 30 for the Angle to rotate them. Make sure the center point is chosen in the proxy and apply.

33 - Rose: Center

To create the central part of the rose, add a new fill to it through the Appearance panel flyout menu. Change the gradient to yellow-to-orange, now go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform and reduce the Horizontal Scale to 50% and Vertical Scale to 60%, now change the Vertical Move to -30 pt, and apply. The fill will be scaled down and positioned in the center. Now go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Roughen, then enter 5% and Relative for Size, 10 for Detail, and Smooth for Points.

Now duplicate the top yellow fill and change the transform settings by double-clicking it in the Appearance panel. Change the Horizontal Scale to 30% and Vertical Scale to 40%, also change the direction of the colors in the gradient by dragging the yellow slider and holding Alt to the orange one, so that they change position. I'm not sure if a rose can have such a center, but in my fantasy it surely can.

34 - Rose: Creating the Stem

Add a new fill to the rose via the Appearance fly-out menu, and make it green. Now go to Effects > Convert to Shape > Rectangle, this time choose Absolute for the size at 4 pt Horizontally and 250 pt Vertically.

Now go to Transform effect and change only the Vertical Move to -200pt and apply. The last effect for the stem is Effects > Distort & Transform > Zigzag, then enter 2 pt for Size, check Absolute, enter 4 Ridges per segment, and choose Smooth Points. Lastly, drag the stem to the bottom of the stack in the Appearance panel.

35 - Rose: Making the Leaf

Let's finish the flower with a leaf. Add a new fill to the rose, no matter where exactly. It may be on the bottom or on the top of the stack. Change it's color to green, a little lighter shade than the stem.

Now transform it this way (of course, by going to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform). Now enter 60% for Vertical Scale, insert 30 pt for Horizontal Move, -150 pt for Vertical Move, and enter 40 for the angle. Now this fill reminds me of leaf, if your initial object size was exactly like mine.

36 - Rose: Modifying the Leaf

With the last green fill chosen, go to Effects > Warp > Flag, choose Horizontal, and enter -20% for Bend to distort the leaf. Now in order to add dimension, apply some inner shadow: go to Effects > Stylize > Inner Glow, and change Opacity to 50%. Set the color to dark green and Blur to 10 pt. You can copy this fill now to add more leaves - only with edit Transform effect applied to it (Angle, Scale, and Move).

37 - Rose: Finalizing

The rose is almost ready, the only thing I wanted to add is a subtle Drop Shadow effect to the bottom yellow central part, and another one with the same parameters to the entire shape. Now it looks as though the flower is laying on a surface.

Voila! The rose is ready - this was the most complex object today, and nobody can tell that it is made with only one shape! It took eight fills and plenty of effects, as well as some patience, to create this flower. Save it as a graphic style and name it "rose," but I can't promise that it will look great on other objects without tweaking some settings.


Today we learned how to work with the Appearance panel, its secrets, advantages, and limitations. We put theory into practice by creating five different objects in the Appearance panel. We created nice cartoonish elements that consist of only one shape each, while they look like a group of various objects.

Some of them were rather simple, while others were challenging and a bit tricky, like the ladybug and rose. You can go on and continue the theme with some scenery or create your own objects with the Appearance panel. I hope both vector beginners and Illustrator maniacs (like me) found something useful in this tutorial.

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