Vector illustration can produce beautifully clean, precise artwork, but the results can also be a bit soulless. Here Mark Oliver creates those clean, precise shapes and then ‘grubbies’ them up for a more organic retro look. He also gives you a recipe for transforming shapes to fit a predefined isometric projection without having to do any calculations.
You can modify this tutorial to work on an illustration of your own as long as it conforms with the projection used. Import a 150dpi greyscale scan of your drawing and then follow the steps outlined below.
Time to Complete
3 - 4 hours
Files for this tutorial are downloadable from
I start by roughing out my illustration with careful consideration of the isometric projection I want. I then make my final drawings on tracing paper over a sheet of printed guidelines. In this case I scanned my sketch into a file called RW_drawing.tif.
To work on the image in Illustrator, I created an A3-sized document and imported my sketch. In the Layers panel menu, I selected Options for ‘Layer 1’, renamed the layer ‘Drawing’ and ticked the ‘Dim images to 50%’ checkbox. I then locked the layer and saved the file under the name Radio Wave.ai.
This and the next step show how to create guides for the isometric projection. Select New Layer… from the Layers panel menu and name the result ‘Guides’. Use the Line Segment tool (
\) with the Shift key held down to draw a horizontal line right across the page. Double-click the Rotate tool ( R) and enter an angle of 30°. Using the Selection tool ( V), hold down the Alt key and drag out as many copies as you want to become guides.
Select all the lines, then copy and paste them. Using the Reflect tool (
O), click once at the top of the page and then, holding the Shift key, click once at the bottom of the page. Select all of the lines again, turn them into guides ( View > Guides > Make Guides) and lock the layer.
Next I created a layer named ‘Box’ and drew a rectangle of about the same size as the right-facing panel of the object in my illustration. I rotated it by 30° with the Rotate tool. Then I double-clicked the Shear tool, entered a Shear Angle of -150°, checked the Horizontal radio button and entered 30° into the Axis box. This gave me a shape with the correct projection to match that panel.
For the top panel, I rotated my initial rectangle by 30°, then sheared it through -30° with an angle of 30°. For the left-facing panel, I rotated it -30° and sheared through 150° on a -30° angle. I then moved and resized the resulting objects to make up the rhomboid shown.
I then created two circles to match the elements in the drawing, rotating and shearing them in the same way as for the right-facing panel. Next I selected both circles and combined them (
Object > Compound path > Make). With the compound path at the front ( Object > Arrange > Bring to Front), I selected both it and the rectangle beneath. I then hit the Minus Front button in the Pathfinder panel ( Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + F9) to subtract the front shape from the rectangle.
Next I removed the stroke from the sides and circles before applying some gradient fills with suitably retro colours – I went for an orangey-red.
Now I made a new layer named ‘Panel’ beneath the ‘Box’ layer and drew a circle in it with a buff-coloured gradient fill and no stroke. I copied it and pasted it in front (
Cmd/Ctrl + F), then imported the file RW_resource1.tif. With this image selected, I opened the Transparency panel ( Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + F10) and selected Multiply from the dropdown menu, leaving the opacity at 100%. Then I placed the image centrally over the circle and resized it to fit.
I sent the image backward (
Cmd/Ctrl + [) and then, with Shift held down, I selected the top circle and the imported image and created a clipping mask ( Object > Clipping Mask > Make). With the Selection tool, I dragged across the two circles and imported image and grouped them ( Cmd/Ctrl + G). Then I rotated and sheared it to match the right-facing side, positioning the result behind the box so part of it could be seen through the holes.
Separately, I made four objects (provided in the file RW_resource2.ai) which I copied and pasted into a new layer named ‘Mechanics’ at the top of the layer stack. With both of the orange objects selected, I copied them and pasted them in front, then used the Reflect tool to create an additional pair of objects as shown.
With all six objects selected, I applied a 3D effect (
Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel) using the parameters shown above. If you want, you can adjust the lighting, too, by hitting the More Options button.
Next I opened the file RW_resource3.ai, copied all the objects and pasted them into a new layer called ‘Wings’. I selected the four shapes that define the edges of these objects, copied them and pasted them in front. Finally I gave these shapes a thin black stroke, removed the fill and clicked elsewhere to deselect them.
Now I imported the file RW_resource4.tif over the top shape and sent the imported image backwards. I chose the Multiply mode in the Transparency panel, then moved the image around until I was happy with the look within the outline. Next I selected both the imported image and the outline and went to
Object > Clipping Mask > Make. I dragged a selection across this top object to select all parts and grouped them, then repeated the steps with the other three shapes.
With all four ‘wings’ selected, I did a Copy followed by a Paste In Front, then reflected the copies horizontally. To make the eight wings face right, I selected them and applied the transformations of step 5. Then I placed all the elements as I wanted, resizing as necessary, before creating yet more elements to add interest.
Once I was satisfied with the overall result, I deleted the ‘Drawing’ layer and turned off the ‘Guides’ layer.
It was time to create one more layer, named ‘Sea’, at the bottom of the layer stack. In this layer I dragged out a shape behind the image with the Rounded Rectangle tool, adjusting the radius of the corners using the Up and Down arrows with the mouse button down. When I was satisfied I gave it a retro blue-green gradient with no stroke.
The very last step was to find a texture to give the illustration an aged look. Suitable images can be found online, but I chose to scan the back of an old map (RW_resource5.tif). The pages of old books would have worked too. I brought the scan into a new layer named ‘Texture’ at the top of the layer stack. Then I chose ‘Multiply’ in the Transparency panel and set the opacity at 60%. Ta-dah!
Based in Brighton, UK, Mark Oliver has won awards for his digital illustration and art for children’s books. He also creates interactive Flash animations for clients such as the Science Museum in London. Recent projects have included isometric vector art for a map of the Sea Life London Aquarium, and illustrations for the book Aliens: An Owner’s Guide, with words by Jonathan Emmett. Contact