Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Create a realistic 3D character without 3D software

Use Illustrator and Photoshop to get a faux 3D effect.

Character design is a craft that has been around for decades, even centuries, though in recent years has exploded into the design and illustration scene. Often in vinyl toys and animated movie or computer games, these characters are taking on a 3D form.

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3D software is great for creating dynamic, pose-able character models– but what if you just want to create an awesome character that appears to be 3D without actually moving into the 3D dimension? 2D rendering can side-step long 3D rendering waiting times and skip the need to learn complex software.

Here Tim Smith offers his experience with using Illustrator and Photoshop to create semi-realistic, 3D looking characters. 

Having worked through this tutorial, you will have understood the basic tricks to faking 3D, using traditional effects and techniques such as lighting, depth of field and texture – and learn a thing or two about creating great character designs along the way.

Software needed

Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop CS2 and above

Time to complete

12+ hours


Any good character should have a story. Ask yourself what his or her background is, and who they are.

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It's worth setting up this profile before you start. For my project, I was tasked to create an 'undead helmsman' as part of a playing card set for an exhibition.  The first thing I had to decide was how he died.


I've always found it important to do some hand sketching before embarking on the digital stuff. It's a very quick and efficient way of recording your ideas and is the foundation on which to build from.

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Do a few and take the best bits from each.

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Before rushing into Photoshop, I prefer to create the elements that will create the character using Illustrator.

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Scan in your perfect sketch – or use your phone's camera if you don't have access to a scanner – and place it onto the canvas in Illustrator.

Locking that layer and starting a new layer above will ensure the sketch won't move out of place.


I prefer to use the Pen tool (P) and shape tools (M) in Illustrator to trace rather than in Photoshop, as it gives a much greater level of control and hence will be quicker and more accurate.

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When tracing, use a stoke of 0.25 and the colour set to magenta. The fine line enables greater accuracy and the magenta colour makes it easier to see over the sketch.


Once you've created the bulk of the character's forms, we'll need to add some textures, effects and gradients to get a great 3D look – which I find display with greater quality when created in Photoshop.

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Copy each elements of your character individually and paste them into Photoshop, correctly aligning as you go. This gives greater control over layers, which will become important later.

Paste your elements into Photoshop as a Shape Layers to preserves the editability of the shape. 

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Now that all the character's forms are individually and correctly placed and layered in Photoshop, it's time to start adding colour. When colouring your character, it's important to consider its level of complexity. With an image as detailed as mine, keep colours complimentary, with enough contrast in overlapping objects so that they stand out. A consistent tonal range also helps the image look clean and fresh, should that be what you're aiming for.

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Adding textures is a really great way to add that realistic look and adds real interest to the piece.

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You can find almost any texture you like online so go hunting for those royalty-free images. I use a cheap stock image library such as Shutterstock and free texture library CG Textures.


There are two ways I use to add these textures. For flat objects, I would define and apply a Pattern overlay.

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To do this, first open your texture in Photoshop file in a separate document, then select Edit > Define Pattern.

Name it and click 'OK'. 

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Return to your character document. Select the layer you want to add the texture to, click the Layer Style button at the bottom of the Layers panel and then select 'Pattern overlay…'. Here you can select your new Pattern overlay from the palette – as well as adjust scale and opacity options. Click OK to apply.

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For objects with much more depth, such as the body of the pirate, it's best to ensure the texture also has the appearance of the same depth, as if it is following the contours of the (faux) 3D form.

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Placing the flat texture into your character's file, use the Warp tool (Edit > Transform > Warp) and drag the points to wrap it around the form, as if you were putting up wallpaper.

Crop out any rough edges using the Lasso (L) or Pen (P) tools – and cut it out or mask it.


I like to use contrasting textures and materials when creating 3D looking characters. Here you can see a metallic buckle over a leather belt and the metallic rivets in the ship's wheel.

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The polished sheen of the chrome look against the dull old wood is quite a striking juxtaposition. This helps the image to look sharp, add depth and richness and look even more realistic. 

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The metallic 3D appearance of the belt buckle was created using a combination of Photoshop's own Layer Style effects: such as glows, shadows and gradients.

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You can save these combinations into a 'Styles' palette to be reused again and again. You can even download Styles that other creatives have made from the Internet.

To save a Style select the layer with the desired Layer Style effects applied, open the Styles palette (Window > Styles) then click the New Style button at the bottom of the palette. Give it an appropriate name and click OK.


The most important thing to give your character a realistic 3D look is lighting. 3D software takes care of this for you, but Photoshop also has some features that can help out.

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Use Layer Styles such as inner shadow, drop shadows and bevel and emboss to give the forms body, but ensure they all have 'Use Global Light' selected.

Once your effects are configured to use the Global Light, you can universally change where that light comes from by choosing Layer > Layer Style > Global Light, and changing the Angle and Altitude of the Global Light. This will ensure all your effects are defined by the same light source position, ensuring lighting is consistently proportionate.


Depth of field is not always applied in 3D modelling, but it can add a strong sense of depth and realism. Here you can see I've slightly blurred the edges of the pirate's body as this area would be the further away from the 'camera'.

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The same applies to the rear two legs. These would be even further from the camera, so are blurred even more. This blurring gives an out-of-focus effect.

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Attention to detail is key; small features that really bring it to life – little incidental details that may not even be spotted directly by anyone. Imperfections and details are what make things real.

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There are no rules to this, so be creative. In my pirate character I've added small fractures in the bones and the shimmer of light reflecting off water onto the pirates stumps.


A narrative is important to any illustration, so I often like to add some detail to the story that rewards the viewer for their exploration into the piece

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Here, the parrot's legs remain on the pirate's shoulder, and I've hinted at an eye-patch with a crack around the left eye socket.

There are a few other examples, but I'll let you discover those for yourself.


Last but not least, take a break.

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I find if I leave an illustration alone once it's finished, then return to it a day later, it's quite easy to see any imperfections or areas to improve upon, especially with complex isometrics

Make these tweaks and improvements and you'll give your illustration that extra polish.

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