Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create 3D effects in Illustrator

Use Illustrators Gradient tool, Inner and Outer Glow effects and these nifty techniques to create vibrant 3D vector artworks.


Karan Singh shows you a clever and ridiculously quick way of giving your flat illustrations a faux 3D finish – without leaving the confines of Illustrator.

Karan finds Photoshop’s 3D lighting tools to be cumbersome, and says that Illustrator is more than capable of creating depth and dimension, using such effects as the inner and outer glows and the Gaussian blur.

Here, he focuses on one element of the artwork, but the techniques were used throughout.

Time to complete

45 minutes


Adobe Illustrator CS5 or later

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

Step 1


First off, grab the greyscale droid (TUTDROID.AI) I’ve created from the project files, and open it up in Illustrator. You’re more than welcome to create your own object and use this tutorial as a guide to colouring and lighting. The beauty of this technique is that it’s applicable to almost any shape.

Step 2


We’re going to use a set of gradient swatches to colour the shape. For this tutorial, I’ve already created a set of rich blue swatches, which you will find on the ‘Palette’ layer of TUT-DROID.AI.

If blue isn’t your thing – or you’re using your own image for this tutorial – create dark, mid and light versions of your chosen hue.

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Step 3


What I’ve found crucial in helping define how to colour a shape is the creation of a light source. Setting this up is as simple as drawing a circle on the canvas to distinguish where the light is coming from.

A guide like this comes in handy when your illustration becomes more complex and confusing as you lose count of the shapes and gradients used.

Create this object on a separate layer and lock it.

Step 4


Let’s go back to the shape. Using the light source as a reference, begin colouring the droid. Start with the base as this helps define how the others are coloured.

Using the Gradient tool (G) with the Shape option selected, click and drag on the shape to define the gradation of the gradient. I’ve used the lightest gradient for the base and set it to ‘Radial’ in the Gradient palette (Window > Gradient).

Ensure that the lighter shade of the gradient corresponds to the position of the light source. In this case, the lighter colour in the gradient begins at the top as the light source is above the droid.

Step 5


The second step to adding depth to the shape is giving the base of the droid an inner glow. An inner glow is useful as, regardless of the angles of the gradient, it creates a shadow that follows the edge of the shape, giving it a bevelled appearance.

With the base shape of the droid selected, chose Effects > Stylize > Inner Glow. Select the ‘Edge’ option, a shadow colour and a blur amount. If you’re using my droid and colour scheme, select #123860 as the colour with a Blur of 8mm.

Choose Multiply for the blending mode. Set the opacity to 70% for a rich, dark shadow. As shapes vary, so does the level of blur applied; the smaller the shape, the less the amount of blur.

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Step 6


Applying an outer glow is achieved using a similar process to the previous stage, except it obviously occurs outside of the shape, using Outer Glow.

Personally, I like to use this tool sparingly as it allows you to accentuate certain features of an object, without looking like everything’s glowing. For example, here I want to give the impression that the pink elements in the droid are glowing.

To do this, select the shape, then choose Effects > Stylize > Outer Glow. As with the Inner Glow options, adjust the blending mode, blur and opacity. Leave the blending mode as Screen, as this is ideal for objects on darker backgrounds, with 100% opacity for maximum glow and a 2mm Blur. I used a light pink for the glow colour (#FF92BC).

Step 7


The next few steps are pivotal in creating the final effects. We’re going to create a custom brush that tapers, widens and then tapers again. This brush is going to be used for highlights and shadows.

Create a new layer. Select the Arc tool, which is on the Toolbar under the Line Segment tool. When selected, hold Shift while you drag the tool across to create an equally proportional arc.

Step 8


Select your newly created arc and rotate it 45° clockwise (Object > Transform > Rotate -45°), until it’s horizontal with the ends facing down. You should now be seeing half of your tapered brush stroke.

We need to mirror this line, in order to make a shape out of it. To do this, first right-click and select Transform > Reset Bounding Box.

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Step 9


Select the line and hold Alt, whilst dragging it to create a duplicate. With the duplicate selected, choose Object > Transform > Rotate and set the value to 180°. Click OK, and your result should be a mirrored version of the arc.

Step 10


For the next step, switch on Smart Guides (Cmd/Ctrl + U), and move the duplicated arc to match up with the ends of the original arc. The best way to do this in Selection tool mode (V) is by dragging the arc by either of its end anchor points, and lining it up to the corresponding end of the other arc.

After lining up the anchor points correctly, your cursor will change from black to white.

Select both the arcs, right-click and choose Join. This joins the anchor points. The two arcs are now a shape.

Step 11


Select your new shape and fill it with black. Open the brush palette, if necessary (Window > Brushes or F5), and select New Brush (the button to the left of the trashcan). From the types that follow, choose Art Brush.

In the Art Brush Options dialog that opens, set the brush width to 25% and the Colourisation value to Tints. Hit OK.

We’ve finished making our highlights and shadows brush, so you can delete the merged arc shape from the canvas.

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Step 12


Create a new layer above the droid and call it ‘Effects’. Use your newly created brush to create a 3-pixel highlight stroke in white (#FFFFFF) in the top left edge of the shape, then a 3-pixel shadow stroke in dark blue (#022E44) in the bottom-right edge of the shape.

The locations of the highlights and shadows are defined by the direction of your light source.

Step 13


Blur the highlight and shadow strokes by selecting one stroke. From the top menu, choose Effects > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

As with the inner and outer glows, the blur radius is usually relative to the site of the object. In this case, I chose a 20-pixel radius. The larger the radius, the softer the colour. Repeat the same process for the shadow stroke.

Step 14


You’ll notice that the blur is bleeding past the surface area of the droid. Our next step is to create a clipping mask to rectify this. Group the highlight and shadow strokes by selecting both of them, and then Cmd/Ctrl + G.

From the droid layer, select the base of the shape, copy it (Cmd/Ctrl +C) and paste it in place (Cmd/Ctrl + F) in the ‘Effects’ layer.

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Step 15


Now the droid’s base should be on top of the blurred strokes. Select both the base of the droid you’ve just pasted and the grouped strokes, then Object > Clipping Mask > Make (or Cmd/Ctrl + 7). Strokes bleeding outside of the shape are now contained within the droid’s outline.

Step 16


Out of personal preference, I added some additional blurred shapes to the droid’s pink eye. These were created in the same way as the strokes, but with filled-in shapes.