Many works that look complicated are really made from simple elements. In this tutorial, Russian artist Alexandra Zutto shows how to build up complex, beautiful images by patiently layering and building up small, straightforward segments, always varying them to prevent monotony.
For this piece, which Zutto created for the Blood Sweat Vector exhibition in Berlin, she says: “I tried to reproduce the tundra’s atmosphere, with its pale sun and soft lighting. It required looking closely at a lot of references to understand how I can achieve these kinds of effects.”
In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to build up many elements to create a vector image with real depth and richness. Zutto explains: “I spend most of the time picking out colours that match each other to form harmonic colour composition. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth the effort.”
Time to complete
Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop
I recommend making sketches first to help you get the composition right: it’s easier to draw nice shapes on paper than make them in software. Scan in your picture. You can adjust brightness and contrast in Photoshop and outline it with a thin, hard brush to make lines crisp if they aren’t. Import it to Illustrator in an empty layer and lock it (Cmd/Ctrl + 2). I usually set the sketch to 30% transparency.
Let’s start with the owl, as it’s the main figure that defines the composition. Create a new layer and start drawing an eye. With the Ellipse tool (L) create a circle, making sure there’s no stroke. Create a radial gradient using several shades. Adjust the colours and position of the sliders using the Gradient tool (G) and Gradient toolbar. Refer to close-up photos of animals to understand how lighting goes through the eye.
Using the Ellipse tool or Pen tool (P), draw the pupil of the eye. Then add some reflections with 10-20% transparency. To add depth, I made a glossy reflection using a radial gradient of opacity (create a two-colour gradient with the same colours and make the outer colour transparent). Select all eye shapes and group them (Cmd/Ctrl + G).
To make the beak, first draw a round shape and fill it with a base colour. Using the Mesh tool (U), add some columns and rows. Move mesh points with the Direct Selection tool (A) to get the shape of the beak, then fill the outer points with darker colours to add volume. Then add some details (such as reflections and nostrils) with the Pen tool.
Now let’s do the feathers. In a new layer, draw an oval and drag its bottom anchor point with the Direct Selection tool. Fill it with a gradient from top to bottom. Place the feather layer under the eye layer.
Hold down Alt and drag to make copies of the feathers. Then, using the Selection tool (V), distribute copies of the feathers around the eye. Adjust the scale and rotation for each feather to make them a little chaotic – this gives the picture a more realistic look. Continue adding feathers, placing them around the eye area.
When you’ve finished placing the feathers, adjust some of the gradient colours to add a little variety and contrast. To do this, I selected some of the shapes and made the gradient colours darker. Select the eye and all the surrounding feathers and make a copy (Cmd/Ctrl + C), then reflect them (right-click > Transform > Reflect > Vertical). In the same way, continue filling the owl’s head and body with feathers. Spend a lot of time playing with colours, making some parts of the owl brighter or darker to create the effect of volume.
When the owl’s body is done, draw a tree under it. Fill it with a bright gradient to make it contrast with the eyes. Then, using the Pen tool and gradients, add long feathers on the owl’s head and draw the claws. To add shadows under the claws, copy all the shapes that make up the claws into a separate layer, and unite them with the Pathfinder toolbar. Send this shape behind the claw’s group.
Now we need to make an atmospheric background. I want to make a tundra landscape with a sense of real depth, and soft lighting. Draw a rectangle the full size of your canvas, and place it on a new layer behind all the other layers. Fill this background shape with a gradient with the brighter colour at the top.
Draw hills using the Pen tool and fill them with gradients, making the nearer hills darker than the distant ones to add depth. Draw fog using the Pen tool, fill it with a light colour and make it transparent, placing it in front of the tree shape.
To make furry creatures first we need to create a custom brush. Draw the shape of the brush with the Pen tool and drag it into the Brush panel (F5), choosing Art Brush. In Options, choose the direction and don’t forget to tick Proportional to get each brush strand a unique size.
Make the body of the creature and, using our custom brush, draw strands around it. When all the fur is ready, select all the strands and expand them (Object > Expand Appearance). Then, using the Pathfinder tool, unite all the fur with the body shape. Apply a gradient and add details like eyes, ears, nose, and so on. Make several different characters with the same technique and arrange them in your composition.
To create the environment, begin making little elements such as grass, plants and stones. Draw several grass shapes and fill them with different gradients, using transparency to make them look as though they’re shrouded in fog. Copy groups of grass to save time. Fill in the background with similar elements, making distant layers lighter.
The next step is adding a light source. In tundra, the light is pale and scattered. So make a simple circle and fill it with Light Radial gradient. Make the outer colour of the gradient fully transparent. Adjust the gradient sliders to give softness to the sun’s shape. Use this technique to make small particles and distribute them over the picture.
If you want to add some other creatures such as deer in the background, find some pictures of them, and outline their shape and place them in the background.
To give a sense of magic, I’ve added some rainbows. Make some round shapes and fill them with a gradient that consists of some bright colours in the centre and is transparent inside and outside. Vary the transparency of them between 10-50%.
Now we need to add some finishing touches to the picture. Create some shapes in the same way as you made the sun, but in different colours. Make them nearly transparent and place them on the picture where you want to add some additional soft light.