Add depth and texture in Illustrator

Jeffrey Bowman explains how to use grids, gradients and textures to add depth to your illustrations.

  • Software: Illustrator CS5 or later
  • Project time: 2 hours
  • Skills: Add depth with the Grain effect; create halftone patterns; set up a grid in Illustrator

Adding extra depth to an image can be a quick process that utilises some simple tools offered by Illustrator.

Using the Grain effect you can add a retro texture, which, combined with some halftone patterns and simple brush strokes, can turn a flat-looking illustration into a rich texturised design. Over the following steps, I'll show you how.

01. Set up a grid

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 1

Setting up a grid is the first thing to do. Work out the width of your document and divide it by the amount of segments you want, then navigate to Preferences > Guides and Grids, and insert the figure into the Gridline Every field. It’s entirely up to you how many sub-divisions you want.

02. Rough out the illustration

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 2

Now that you have your grid, rough out your illustration, ensuring you select 'Snap to Document Grid' (View > Grids & Guides). I’ve created a mountain scene with the sun as the focal point. I turned my rulers on (Cmd/Ctrl+R) to find the centre of my canvas.

03. Choose the colour palette

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 3

Choose an appropriate colour palette - I've gone for something organic and have used tone to start adding depth. Illustrator has some really nice pre-determined colour palettes in the Swatch fly-out menu (select Open Swatch Library).

04. Add texture to shapes

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 4

Now let's add texture to the edges of our flat shapes to give them a slight hand-drawn feel. Open the Brushes panel, select the drop-down menu and go to Open Brush Library > Artistic > ChalkCharcoalPencil.

05. Make the shape whole

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 5

Select a shape and apply your chosen brushstroke. Once you're happy with the stroke, go to Object > Expand Appearance. Next, select Merge from the Pathfinder panel: this will make the shape whole, rather than retain the stroke. Repeat this for all of the elements you add the stroke to.

06. Create a gradient

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 6

Next, we want to add a nice gradient with a textured, grainy feel. This will add depth, but with a retro style. The first thing to do is copy a segment of your illustration.

07. Apply the gradient

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 7

Now apply your gradient, preferably ensuring it fades from dark to white. You can do this by clicking into the Gradient panel and then clicking the default black stopper - this should open up your swatches.

08. Texturize the gradient

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 8

Go to Effects > Texture > Grain. Set the intensity to 74, contrast to 50 and grain type to Sprinkles. You can experiment with all these settings until you are happy. Hit OK and, finally, in the Transparency panel drop-down menu, select Multiply. Now place your gradient back over the shape.

09. Experiment with the gradient

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 9

You can experiment with the direction and scale of your gradient by selecting the Gradient tool and dragging the cursor left to right or vice versa. Tweaking the sliders within the Gradient panel will also enable you to control the size of the gradient. Experiment with this process: long gradients lead you into a design; short, sharp gradients create a shadow effect.

10. Add halftone patterns

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 10

Next we want to add some halftone patterns. Utilising another pre-set panel in Illustrator, open the Swatches drop-down menu and go to Open Swatch Library > Patterns > Basic Dots. We want to customise the colour to suit our colour palette.

11. Colour up the dots

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 11

Grab and then drag the pattern swatch you want onto your desktop. Then, with your Direct Selection tool, carefully click the line of the dots and colour it up. Repeat this for all the rows of dots.

12. Apply the texture

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 12

With your black arrow, pick up the group of dots and drop it into your normal swatch panel. Next, copy a section that you want to apply it to, select the swatch and move the element back: you now have a halftone texture.

13. Play with colour

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 13

Playing around with the colour and intensity of the dots will help create a really interesting effect. However, all these steps will only be a success if the colours are adding to the sense of depth.

14. Finishing details

Add depth and texture in Illustrator 14

Lastly, start adding in the finishing details. I created snow on the tops of the mountains in my scene, and also a path that is just a single stroke. These extras help guide the viewer through the design.

Liked this? Read these!