It’s easy to associate vectors with flat shapes – but creating Illustrator images with real depth needn’t be a headache. In this tutorial, Thomas Burden (who works under the name ...There Will Be Unicorns) shows how you can create striking, vibrant work in Illustrator using a simple colour palette and basic blur effects – particularly Illustrator’s built-in Gaussian Blur effects.
Along the way, you’ll also learn how to bring simple shapes to life, and how to create charming characters and elements, using only basic Illustrator and Photoshop.
Shading elements in Illustrator with the Gaussian Blur leaves your objects completely editable. Once you’ve scaled these elements to the right size, you can import them into Photoshop for a quick brightening up and some tweaks to layer blending modes and styles.
The net effect is fresh, clean and irresistibly cheerful.
Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop
Time to complete
Files for this tutorial are downloadable from
It’s a good idea to start by sketching on paper: I find it easier and quicker to mark out rough compositions and characters or elements by hand first. These are very rough, though, and I don’t even bother scanning them in, preferring to take snapshots with a digital camera for speed. Scan yours in if you prefer.
Loosely trace these jottings in Illustrator, using the basic Shape tools in combination with the Pen tool to keep a uniform and simple look to all the elements. Then choose a colour palette – keep this as simple as possible. I usually use no more than 10 colours. Use these as a base to work with while getting the major compositional elements in place.
We’ll focus on creating one element, as almost everything is created using the same process. Open
Rainbow Volcano.ai from the project files in Illustrator. Then select Illustrator > Preferences > General. Tick the box marked Scale Strokes & Effects. This ensures that any stroke and effect applied to an object will scale relatively to the object it is applied to – which is key here, as adding strokes and effects is the bulk of what we’ll be doing.
Select the red shape that I created from a basic rounded rectangle shape. This will form the base of the rainbow volcano, and, once shaded, coloured and duplicated, will form the rest of it too. Hit
Cmd/Ctrl + G to group the object and double-click it to enter the group. Now draw a highlight line with the Pen tool ( P), just inside the top left of the shape, with a white stroke and a thickness of 3.5 pixels with rounded ends.
With line selected click
Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur and set it to 10. You will see the effect appear in the Appearances panel on the right. If this is not open then select Window > Appearance from the menu or use Shift + F6. Double-click the effect in the appearances panel at any time to edit it.
Now reduce the opacity of the line to 29%. There you have it – a highlight.
Now we need to mask the group so that any shading we apply stays within the borders of the shape. Select the background shape again and go
Cmd/Ctrl + C > Cmd/Ctrl + F > Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + ] to copy it and paste in the same place, then bring the copy to the front. Click the Make/Release Clipping Mask button in the bottom left of the Layers palette to mask the group.
Now we need to add the shading around the edges of the shape. Select the background shape and
Cmd/Ctrl + C > Cmd/Ctrl + F to copy and paste on top of itself. Knock out the fill of this new shape and change the stroke colour values to C0, M100, Y100 and K32. Thicken the stroke to 10 pixels.
In the menu bar, click Effect. Don’t then click Apply Gaussian Blur, as this will use the last-used settings. We want to use slightly different settings for the shading – click Gaussian Blur and set the radius to 40 pixels.
In the Transparency palette, change the blending mode to Multiply and reduce the opacity to 90%.
Double-click on an empty space to exit the group. Then, holding down
Alt/Opt + Shift, click and drag a copy of the group directly above the original. Make it slightly smaller and place behind the original group by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + [.
Double-click the new group to enter it, then select the background shape and change the fill to a deeper orange. You may find it difficult to select the background shape as the Gaussian Blur effect on the shading may overlap it: to get around this, place the shading line at the back of the group by selecting it and hitting
Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + [, and then change the colour of the background shape, before placing it at the back again by selecting it and hitting Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + [.
Using the Pen tool (
P), draw a shape that will become the shading at the bottom of the section. Fill with the same colour as the shading stroke, set the blending mode to Multiply and reduce the opacity to 56%.
Then, in the menu bar, select
Effect > Gaussian Blur and set it to 30 pixels. Double-click in an empty space on the art board to leave the group.
Repeat Steps 11 to 13 for the yellow, green and blue rings of the volcano, changing the colour of the shading to match each layer.
Group all five layers of the volcano by clicking and dragging a box around all of them with the selection tool and then hitting
Cmd/Ctrl + G. Then Cmd/Ctrl + C to copy the new group.
Now open up unicorns.psd file in the project files in Photoshop. Select the ‘background elements’ layer in the layers palette and paste
Cmd/Ctrl + V the volcano vector object. Select As pixels in the dialog box that pops up.
Position it in line with the splash at the bottom of the large rainbow on the left. Then, in the Layers palette, click and drag the layer onto the Create new layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette to duplicate the layer.
Set the blending mode of the new layer to Soft Light and reduce the opacity to 70%.
Select both layers by holding down
Cmd/Ctrl and clicking on one then the other. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + E to merge the two together. Double-click the new layer to bring up the Layer Styles box. Select Bevel and Emboss’ from the styles list on the left. Uncheck the Use global light box and set the depth to 100%. Set the size to 100 pixels and the soften to 16 pixels. In the Shading option set the angle to 101º and the altitude to 64º. Then set the highlight opacity to 24 and the shadow opacity to 100.
Duplicate this new layer again by dragging onto the Create new layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette. Set the blending mode to Multiply and the opacity to 20%. Select both layers and merge again using
Cmd/Ctrl + E.
Now duplicate this layer by holding
Alt/Opt while clicking and dragging, place it in front of the smaller splash and rainbow to the right and resize ( Cmd/Ctrl + T) to fit.
As a final adjustment, select the top layer, ‘Foreground elements’, in the layers palette. Then in the menu bar, select
Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast. Set the brightness to +6 and the contrast to +18 and the image is complete.