Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop tutorial: Use gradients to make character designs pop

How to combines vector, 3D and scanned elements in order to create a mixed-media character illustration.


Psychedelic artworks are built by harmoniously composing contrasting elements. For illustrator Igor Šcekic, they rely on the contrast between digital and hand-crafted elements; mixing graphics and representational elements, and applying traditional compositional techniques to abstract elements.

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Here, Igor reveals his creative process from a sketch to final artwork – how he combines vector, 3D and scanned elements in order to create a mixed media character illustration.

Igor concentrates on his use of gradients to add both vibrancy and to pull elements together into a cohesive whole. You’ll learn how to use the Mesh tool with gradients to manipulate how they flow – for example, to wrap them around the contours of a face for a 3D look. You’ll also learn many other techniques to make a montage of unusual elements look right together.

Igor has kindly provided many of the elements of this composition in this tutorial’s project files, as well as his initial sketch. These should only be used to follow along with his process, and shouldn’t be used in any of your other creative projects. 

Time to complete

8-12 hours


Illustrator CS6, Photoshop CS6, Cinema 4D (optional)


Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here

Step 1


While planning a character-based illustration, it’s useful to first make a sketch on paper. It doesn’t need to be fully detailed and precise – it’s more about getting the general look and feel down, and bringing out the personality. It will also provide a reference for tracing in Illustrator, as this is a better way for working, so your artwork doesn’t feel too digital.

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My initial idea was to create a simplistic creature that wears winged glasses. On its head is a propeller hat, and some kind of liquid should be dripping from his mouth onto a sphere in bottom part of the illustration. 

You can create your own sketch based on this concept, or use mine from the project files (sketch.jpg).

Step 2


For this piece’s background, I’ve used a texture I painted with crayons on paper. If you want, you can create your own. When you’ve finished, scan it into your computer.

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Open Photoshop and create a 300dpi A4 portrait document. Set the background colour to #d3c8a4. Place the texture above the background and blur it a little by selecting Filter > Blur > Motion Blur with the Angle set at 30° and a Distance of 35px. Erase the top left and bottom right of the texture with a soft brush to allow the background to show through.

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Step 3


Now it’s time to trace our creature. Open a new document in Illustrator and import your sketch (or sketch.jpg from the project files). Next, trace all the shapes using thin black lines with the Pen tool, then thicken them up later.

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We need a lined petal shape, which will be used multiple times on the outer edges of the glasses. Use two lines to create the outer shape of a petal, go to Object > Blend > Blend Options and ensure Spacing is set to Specified Steps (8). Next, select Object > Blend > Make to create the interior lines. Duplicate this and arrange as shown.

Step 4


Now choose your colour palette. I want a slightly crazy mix, so I’ve gone for a 70s-influenced mix of purple, jade blue, brownish orange and green. Fill elements such as the wings, mouth (and drip) and rotor blades with flat colours. Create radial gradients with the Gradient tool (G) for the eyes and hat. I’ve used a green and yellow gradient for the eyes, and purple and orange for the hat.

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Step 5


The shading on the face is achieved with the Mesh tool (U). Every point in the mesh can have it’s own colour, so it’s great for creating complex gradients in Illustrator. 

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Create a mesh that maps out the contours of the nose and cheekbones, then apply a series of gradients from light grey on the bridge of the nose and highest points of the cheekbones to dark grey in the creases.

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Step 6


The wings on the glasses look flat because they are filled with big areas of a single colour. To make them more interesting, let’s fill them with a pattern with a coloured gradient.

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In Illustrator CS6, create a single pattern element, then hit Object > Pattern > Make. Set the Pattern options to arrange them in a neat simple grid. If you’re using an older version of Illustrator, you’ll need to create more of the pattern elements, then hit Edit > Define Pattern

Apply each pattern in turn from your Swatches panel, then add orange and blue, and orange and purple gradients to the top and bottom wings respectively.

Step 7


The best way to create the sphere is to render it in a 3D tool such as Cinema 4D. Create a basic sphere, then apply a molten metal texture to it. Render this out at 2,000 x 2,000 pixels as a TGA file with an alpha channel. If you don’t have a 3D tool, my sphere is in the project files (sphere.tga).

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Step 8


Return to Illustrator, select all, and then copy and paste your creature into Photoshop as a Smart Object. Use Free Transform (Cmd/Ctrl + T) to fit it to your background.

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To make the paint drip appear more three-dimensional, create a layer above the creature, right-click on it in the Layers panel and select Create Clipping Mask. Use soft black and white brushes set to Overlay blending mode to paint highlights and shadows onto the drip.

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Step 9


Now it’s time to put the sphere under the creature. Open your (or my) sphere.tga file and extract it from background by Cmd/Ctrl + Alpha channel in the Channels panel. Copy and paste it into your main composition. Bring the colour of the sphere in line with the rest of the composition by apply a Color Balance adjustment layer, creating a clipping mask for this layer.

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Step 10


For an additional touch, let’s make a few fractal shapes in Illustrator. First, create an orange square with a blue stroke, then select Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform. Play with the Scale, Move, Rotate and Copies options until you find a whirling effect you like.

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Make a few of these. Copy and paste them into Photoshop as Smart Objects, then scale and position them surrounding the main figure.

Step 11


I keep a library of leftover odd shapes from older projects for use in future ones – it’s good practice as it means less of your work goes to waste in the long run. 

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I’ve put one in the project files, so open Background shapes.png and put it behind the character. Use the Eraser tool and a soft brush to soften the edges of the shape to make it blend with the background better.

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Step 12


If you have the Scriptographer Triangular plugin for Illustrator, use it to create some geometric chaos like that in Triangular shapes.png. Background elements like this help make the piece more cohesive and feel less like a digital creature in an organic landscape.

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Copy your shapes – or those from Triangular shapes.png – and paste them behind the character. Again, use the Eraser to soften the edges (and get rid of any bits you don’t want).

Step 13


The bridge of the glasses is flat compared to the other parts, so I’ve added more shapes. Create some organic textures (or use Shapes on glasses.png), copy and paste them onto the glasses and give the layer a blending mode of Lighten. Erase any parts that extend over the edge of the glasses.

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Step 14


To connect everything together, use a soft brush to paint some wispy clouds that extend from the background over the character and shapes. The colours of the clouds should be sampled from background crayons texture, so that everything blends nicely.

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Step 15


To finish the composition, we could do with a sky. First, create a new layer at the top of the layer stack with a Normal blending mode. Apply a series of gradients from transparent to a bluish purple (I used #301e8c) to the top-left and top-right corners to create the effect shown.

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Now that all of our elements are composed, we need to adjust the overall colour and shading. Create a new layer at the top of the layer stack with an Overlay blending mode. Using the same gradient as before, drag diagonally across the bottom to make it seem warmer.

Next, apply a transparent to black radial gradient across the whole image on another new layer – with a blending mode of Normal – to create a vignette effect. 

Step 16


At the end of process, you should balance the colours with a Color Balance adjustment layer and increase contrast to make the image ‘pop’ a bit more with Levels. I find the best way to use Color Balance is to give the layer an opacity of 70% to keep the effect subtle.

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