Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create Art Deco type art

It’s much easier to create immaculate type than you might think, as Adam Pointer demonstrates – with an art deco twist

This tutorial’s featured artwork began life when Adam Pointer was commissioned by design agency Zip ( to produce a piece promoting the Sunday night event at the now-defunct London West End club, The End.

Adam recently reworked the original, and here he takes us through how he created and assembled the different elements to bring an art deco feel to type illustration.

The ‘C’ detailed here appears on the first in a set of 11 flyers that together spell out the name of the event: Clandestino. The night was billed as ‘a sultry gathering for the cosmopolitan house crowd’, and the keywords for the original brief were: colourful, seductive, European, fiesta, glamorous and secretive. Adam decided that a fun interpretation would be to put his own spin on pinup-girl imagery and have female figures interacting with giant letterforms.

This Masterclass focuses on his process, which he says is about creating, selecting and positioning elements without resorting to any great wizardry.

“I am self-taught in Illustrator and don’t consider myself particularly technical,” he says. “I learn new things all the time.

“I think the most important thing is to have an idea and a strong visualization of what you are trying to achieve before you begin. Then, hopefully, the process will be pretty straightforward and enjoyable too.”

Time to complete

8 hours


Illustrator CS2 or higher


The ‘C’ shape took its inspiration from decorative letterforms and wood type. You can simply use a bold serif font and add your own embellishments to create a similarly shaped letterform.

If you’re starting with a letter from a font, convert it to outlines (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + O). Use the Direct Selection tool (A) to manipulate the points and make it appear more like custom lettering.


Add some depth to the letter using colour. Following the outline, build up shapes using the Ellipse tool (L) or Rounded Rectangle tool.

Combine the shapes in the Pathfinder panel (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + F9). Select the shapes and Alt + click on the Unite button in the Pathfinder panel to combine them into one element that remains editable with the Direction Selection tool.

Fine-tune each shape by drawing with the Pencil tool (N) and smoothing with the Smooth tool.

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These graphics aside, we need some more complex elements such as birds and trees. These are best hand-drawn (what’s more, I prefer to draw on paper rather than with a tablet).

I start with a pencil drawing and once I am happy with it, I work over the outline in black ink and erase the pencil. I then scan the drawings, place the files in Illustrator and click on the Live Trace button in the control panel.

It’s worth experimenting with the tracing options. While the default settings are usually fine, you might want to try different presets depending on the complexity of the artwork. For more complex drawings, you might want to create your own preset.


To create the impression of reflections in water, mirror your desired object (in this case the palm trees) by copying the object and pasting it in front of the original (Cmd/Ctrl + F). Choose the Reflect tool (O), double-click it, select Horizontal and click OK. Position the object.

Then, using the Rectangle tool (M), create a set of long thin lines across the reflection that give a sense of depth through being more closely spaced as they approach the ‘horizon’. Select all and go to Object > Compound Path > Make (Cmd/Ctrl + 8). Reselect the artwork you would like to punch out, go to the Pathfinder panel and Alt + click on the Subtract from Shape Area button.

Repeat Step 3 for other decorative elements (for example, I made flamingos for later use), and reflect some using the technique in Step 4.


Sketch a sitting figure using photos of a model as a reference; you can shoot your own photos or find four or five stock photos to inspire you, though do not slavishly copy them.

When you are happy with your sketch, draw the outline in ink. Scan it and then bring it into Illustrator, using Live Trace as before. Position it approximately where you want it.

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Draw a quick palm-leaf shape. Overlay four copies on top of each other in alternating colours of black and gold, slightly reducing the size from one to the next. Group these, then double-click on the Rotate tool (R). Select an angle of 36° and hit OK. Copy the group and repeat the rotation to form a circle. Put a black disc and a suitably art deco-style letterform (I used the letter C again) at the centre.


It’s time to your various embellishments – the motif from Step 6, bird silhouettes plus other ornaments – to the black letterform. You can vary line styles and thicknesses for more interest. Clean up as necessary with the Pen tool and Smooth tool.


It’s time to return to the figure. Create a new layer and paste in a copy of it. Cut out the arm shape with the Pencil tool. Return to the layer with the original figure and cut off the arm. You now have an armless figure on one layer and an arm on the other, allowing you to add separate gradients to individual parts and easily manipulate them. You may want to repeat this for the other arm and the legs; the importance of all this will become clear in the next step.

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Clean up the shape of the figure with the Pen and Smooth tools as shown.

Think about the haircut or individual flourishes you might want to add. To add emphasis to the pose, exaggerate the figure’s features – you might, for instance, lengthen the arms or legs.

Also add gradients to the main part of the figure and the arms, alternating vertical and horizontal gradients to distinguish and mark out the elements.


It’s time to accessorise: I gave the figure a shoe (slipping off her right foot), a bracelet and a champagne flute. Small pockets of detail provide a good contrast against a basic silhouette.


As an extra compositional element, I added giant hibiscus flowers to the figure’s left. This masks the fact that there is no actual seat for the figure and gives some extra depth.

Select the flowers and go to Object > Flatten Transparency. Tick Convert All Strokes to Outlines and set Raster/Vectors to 100% by moving the slider to the far right. I do this because I prefer having elements as filled outlines rather than lines – with outlines, the line widths change proportionally when you resize the elements in Illustrator.

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Copy the circle of palm leaves and paste it in at a larger size to create an outer whorl. Fill the black areas with a blue gradient like that shown.


Decorate the letter with the motif you just made, and bring in the trees you made in Step 4. I also enhanced the letter’s edges by repeating a flamingo shape, contrasting gold on blue and blue on gold. Finally, I added simple circular ‘rivets’ for extra interest.


At this point I added a headdress to the figure, taking inspiration from carnival headgear and feathered fascinators. As before, I drew the shapes by hand, scanned them in and used Live Trace, manipulating and creating the composition in Illustrator.

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Create a symmetrical motif in the top right of the C by selecting all elements of the figure, copying and pasting them, then Alt + clicking on Unite in the Pathfinder panel to combine them. Make the shape gold and duplicate it. Double-click on the Reflect tool and set the Axis to Vertical to flip one shape horizontally. Position the two back to back and align the bottom edges. Select both shapes, then combine them using the Pathfinder panel as before.


Add more elements to enhance the piece, though don’t overdo it. I repeated the palm leaves on the blue area of the letter and added a red bird to complement the figure. I also changed the angle of a few gradients. Finally, introduce a background colour – I like to use an off-white hue for a bit more warmth.


Adam Pointer has nearly a decade of experience working for a range of clients in the music, design, editorial and publishing industries including The Times, Diesel, Nokia and Red Bull. He was one of the artists who worked on the award-winning Honda ‘Grrr’ TV ad – chosen by Adweek as the greatest commercial of the last decade. His work has been featured in numerous books on illustration including the highly rated Romantik, published in 2003.


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