Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create a textured vector cityscape

Phil Ashcroft looks at contrasting hard lines with organic textures

This Masterclass shows how painter and graphic artist Phil Ashcroft created his urban cityscape newbuild (Creekside), which looks at new housing developments growing within areas that had previously fallen into decline. The piece is part of an irregular series of urban landscapes, and here Phil reveals how he approaches these works – approaches that can be applied to any vector project that contrasts hard lines against organic or decayed elements and textures.

Phil explains how he combined traditional compositional, colour and layout skills, utilising a background in painting to create a bold, clear yet atmospheric digital work. 

The work is created using vectors and points, with either lines or blocks of colour, and a combination of a build-up of layers within Illustrator. It is deliberately limited in its technique to achieve the hard edges of modern architecture, while dependent on a build-up of detail to add the rough textures of urban decay.

Time to complete

2 - 3 days




My first step was to decide upon a suitable subject. I often photograph urban sites of dereliction to build up a library of source material that might make a suitable new work. Compositional decisions are made in my initial framing and photographing of the landscape, and often the final work owes a great deal to my own original picture. Using my own photography means I don’t have to worry about its copyright, and compositional decisions have already been made.

I sometimes source images from the Internet from sites I’ve been unable to visit, but when referencing such imagery the resulting artwork is greatly edited.


It’s important to have a direction for your work from the outset, otherwise you can drift, waste a lot of time, and the end result can appear compromised. This particular piece belongs to a series of landscapes that I’ve been creating on and off for some years – exhibited either as lightboxes, prints or billboards. The focus is on the urban environment, usually seeing their resultant decay amid the ruins of the modernist dream.

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With this work I wanted to suggest some hope for the future, almost situating it within the real ‘sci-fi’ of modern architecture, so I chose to look at the current glut of new builds that are appearing nationwide. Printing out a photograph allows me to look at the composition away from the computer screen.


I use thumbnail pencil sketches, usually around 2-3cm in size, to help me think about the proportions of the piece, and where and how I want the building to sit within the frame. For this piece I wanted the horizon to be low, so the sky appears quite top-heavy.


Once I have my thumbnail sketch and the initial idea, I begin with the basics of the composition. Here I started by creating three or four layers of flat shapes for different elements (naming accordingly, such as horizon, ground, building, building details) and place simple rectangular blocks within each relevant layer – very much as if I’m creating a painting on a real-world canvas.

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I deliberately try to limit my overall palette to black, white, plus two or three other colours, using a CMYK palette so that they will print effectively. These colours, particularly those used to form the horizon, will dictate the mood of the piece. I will often have a couple of gradient colour palettes to the side of my composition, which I will test and change in the image to see what works best.


Next, I begin to put together the elements of the building, starting with the larger background and shaded areas, leading up to wall divisions, balconies, suggestions of windows. Thus is often just repeated linework or patterns that I cut and paste across for spread, however, each line has to be adjusted depending on their angle.


To maintain a balance of elements, I gradually build them up over the whole work – rather than completing one section before moving on to the next.

It’s sometimes difficult to know what to leave out and you can add too much detail. I prefer to have areas that are very plain, allowing your eyes to ‘breathe’ against other areas that have concentrated detail, such as the foreground derelict structures covered in old-school graffiti.

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The vector-based linework all follows the principles detailed in Step 8, although linework thickness and fill of colour will vary considerably. Some lines may just be quick ‘squiggles’, while others take a lot longer to complete.


Black and white silhouettes, such as this area of rough urban greenery, work better when the outline is based on a real hedgerow. This contrasts against the repeated grids and man-made pattern of the new build.


After completing these buildings, I created a new layer to place their reflection in the creek itself. Selecting the layer with the buildings, I hit Select All to highlight it, and copy and pasted it into the ‘new’ layer. I then flipped it vertically and position it below the original.

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Selecting opacity, I reduced this to as little as 12% to create a significant blur within the reflection.


This process was repeated for other elements that needed to be reflected, such as the foreground buildings. I used some fine linework to suggest the movement of the water.


Stars, suggestions of shooting stars, plane vapour trails and the edge of the moon’s silhouette were the final touches to the sky. These were minor touches, but as necessary as any other for the completeness of the work.

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Phil Ashcroft is a painter and graphic artist based in London. Combining influences from abstract expressionism, British landscape painting, Japanese woodcuts, and graphic street art, he integrates varied visual styles to generate a crossover between space, object and environment.

His work has appeared at Tate Modern, London (with The Scrawl Collective), and been exhibited in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Osaka.

Commissions have included projects for Amnesty International (UK), the British Film Institute, Levis, Nike Town, Royal Mail, Sony PSP and Yahoo (UK).