How To An Illustrator: Distant Mountains

Another answer to a technique question from Reddit: Here's a fast way to make a bunch of mountains fading into clouds in Illustrator. There are others; this is the way I'd do it.


1. Make two swatches: pink, blue. Check the “global” box in the swatch options for each of them. Draw a big pink rectangle on one layer, make a new one to draw mountains on.

2. Draw a vague inverted-u shape with whatever tool is quickest. I like the pencil tool, double-click on the pencil tool; turn on 'fill new pencil strokes' and 'edit selected', turn off 'keep selected', it's defaults are terrible for fast drawing.

3. Open the Appearance palette. Visit its menu, uncheck “new art has basic appearance”.

4. Fill your shape with a pink-blue gradient made from those two global swatches. Set it to 90°.

5. Add the roughen and tweak effects to this fill. Roughen at 0% size, detail to taste, corner points; tweak 0% horizontal, vertical to taste, play with the modify checkboxes.

6. Add a new fill using the button at the bottom of the appearance palette. Make it solid pink and on top of the first fill. This will be the clouds.

7. Add the ellipse effect to this fill. Relative, 0pt of extra width/height.

8. More effects: transform, 50% vertical, centered on the bottom center of the object; roughen, 4%. 5/in, smooth; Gaussian blur, 13px.

9. Graphic Styles palette: make a new style.

10. Using this style, draw more mountainous shapes. Use object>arrange to put the lower ones nearer, if you didn't draw them in that order.

Stuff in the Appearance palette should be arranged like this.

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Tonight’s Illustrator how-to: drawing symmetrically.

  1. Draw a big rectangle, centered where you want the center of rotation to be. Far bigger than you anticipate ever drawing in. Like ‘3x as wide as the entire canvas’ big. Give it no stroke and no fill; it’ll become invisible when it’s not selected.
  2. Layers panel: click on the dot to the right of the name of the layer.
  3. effect>distort and transform>transform
  4. in the angle box, type 360/x; in the copies box, type x-1 (where ‘x’ is however many copies of the stuff you draw you want to see – for instance if you wanted to see 15 total copies of your stuff it’d be 360/15 and 14. Illustrator can do simple math in all its numeric input boxes!)
  5. effect>distort and transform>transform – yes, a second one, this time check ‘reflect X’, make one copy, and leave everything else alone.
  6. maybe open up the layer and lock the invisible rectangle so you don’t select it by accident while moving stuff around.
  7. hit up the appearance palette’s dropdown menu, ‘clear appearance’
  8. start drawing shapes
  9. if you want to edit the symmetry, then click on the dot you clicked in step 2, then go to the appearance palette and click on the ‘transform’ entry.

It sounds complicated but it took me like a minute to set up at most, then I doodled this in like another minute or two by drawing a few black and white shapes with the pencil tool.


And here’s a screengrab of the outline view that shows you just how little stuff I actually drew. That little dot near the middle of everything is the center of the big invisible rectangle I drew in step 1.

If at some point you want to tweak individual instances of your symmetric stuff, then click on the dot next to the layer’s name and do object>expand appearance. If ‘expand appearance’ is ghosted then go unlock the invisible rectangle you drew in step 1.

You could also go pay money for Astute Graphics’ MirrorMe plugin, but that tends to not play well with wanting to have symmetry happening across multiple layers, plus I can never remember how to use the damn thing because they only provide documentation in the form of frickin’ youtube videos. This way is covered by what’s already part of AI, and you can do stuff like have, oh, 14 copies of what you draw on one layer, and 11 on another, and expect that to stay consistent across closing and re-opening the file.


And here’s a thing I did elaborating on the insectoid mandala I drew for this post.

Fuzzy shading.


A quick (~15min) doodle of Baron K from Parallax, mostly done to test out a shading method someone asked about on Reddit. The uniform is probably off-model, I didn’t bother pulling up the pitch bible.

I’m not sure about the Baron’s eyes here. I need to do some exploration of how to show expressions and keep his eyes looking like cute little beady mouse eyes. Does he look like he’s looking in a particular direction to you?


This is what I ended up with for the shading effect. Choose color, opacity amount, and blur/mezzotint settings to taste; if you make a Graphic Style and draw all your shading using that, you can tweak the appearance then do ‘redefine graphic style’ to apply it to the whole drawing.


And this is what it looks like if I turn off the blur and mezzotints. Just a bunch of shapes drawn with the pencil tool and occasional use of ‘draw inside’.

Vectober 5: Pencil

Still listening to Kobra and the Lotus’ “High Priestess” on repeat. Because it seems to be that kind of day.

This is a straight up photo trace because I didn’t wanna have to think about anything but the materials experiment. I am not entirely happy with the likeness (especially the nose, geeze)  but I spent a half hour on it and that’s enough, especially given that this particular tool was drawing a little bit offset from where I expected it to.

This “pencil” is actually a bristle brush, with some effects added:

Continue reading

some pointillism

Saránta Eptá

Fooling around with making Illustrator do stippling for me via the magic of a few scatter brushes. Because holy shit all those dots would be a ton of work. Especially when I decided to retroactively make them tiny little skulls  once it turned into my Bloodborne character.


Illustrator, about ~30min to draw, plus another half hour fooling around with turning the dots into different things.


edit: here, have some brush settings. They’re all called “leaf” because I started with one of my standard toolkit brushes, a jaunty little rectangle scatter brush I use for abstracted leaves. I ended up replacing them with a skull made up of five paths (overall shape, each eye, nosehole, highlight) joined into a compound path. I made the others by just duplicating the first brush and changing the settings, mostly by either widening the scatter range to create a broader stroke, or by raising the spacing to make it lighter. You could easily make a few more if you wanted to take a stippled piece further than I did here. Things may start to get a little sluggish though. Use multiple layers, hide them and maybe make simple gradient proxies, consider writing up a feature request for something like Expression’s “freeze layer” function again. (Expression was a wonderful natural-media vector package that Illustrator is still trying to catch up to; one thing it could do was “freeze” a layer. Which was like locking it except it also rendered a moderately high-res bitmap, and used that for building the preview instead of rendering everything from scratch. It made working with complex drawings a lot faster.)

How To An Illustrator: abusing image trace

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 7.42.54 AMFucking around with image trace because someone asked how to do this kind of stuff on Reddit.


  1. import image
  2. object->image trace->make
  3. window->image trace, set it to black and white with a threshold of about, oh, 30 or so. Maybe open up the ‘advanced’ triangle and check ‘ignore white’; I’ll talk about why you might want to do this later.
  4. in the layers palette, drag the layer this image is on to the ‘create new layer’ button at the bottom of the palette.
  5. you are now editing a new copy of the image, in this new layer. Set the trace threshold a little higher.
  6. repeat steps 4/5 until you feel like you have Enough layers to work with. You might want to set these layers to about 20-50% at some point so you can see what’s going on.

Now, you have at least two options here. First I’ll talk about how I did the B&W image with pattern fills.

  1. I’d checked ‘ignore white’ in step 3 above. This gave me a set of paths that were just the black parts, as opposed to solid black and white.
  2. make a new layer at the top of the stack, call it ‘construction’. Probably lock all the other layers so you don’t interact with them by accident.
  3. somewhere above the image, draw a horizontal unfilled, stroked line that’s around half again as long as the diagonal of the image.
  4. effect->distort and transform->zig zag. If you want wavy lines like this then choose ‘smooth’ in the ‘points’ section.
  5. alt-drag the line to well below the bottom of your image.
  6. select both lines, object->blend->make. Then object->blend->blend options and fiddle with the settings until you like the spacing between your lines.
  7. select that whole blend and drag it into the swatch palette to make a pattern fill. You could also do object->pattern->make but that will immediately throw you into the pattern editor mode, and we don’t need to do that here.
  8. Hide the ‘construction’ layer. Show everything else. Select all the image traces and do object->image trace->expand. Sadly you can’t expand multiple image traces at once; you have to select them one by one. I feel the most efficient flow for this is to unlock one layer, select all, expand the trace, lock the layer, then go on to the next one, but whatever works for you. You might want to record an action or add a keyboard shortcut to the image trace expand as it’s pretty deeply buried in the menus.
  9. Lock all your layers; unlock one and do edit->select all. Then pick the wavy lines pattern swatch you made.
  10. Lock off that layer, unlock another one. Select all and pick the wavy lines pattern swatch.
  11. Choose the rotation tool and start to rotate the image. Before you let go, press the ~ key. This is a switch that says “only transform the pattern fill”; you’ll see your outlines replaced by bounding boxes of all the paths. Maybe hold down shift to constrain it to 45º angles.
  12. Repeat steps 10/11 until you’ve dealt with all your layers.
  13. Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could use whatever fill pattern you like for this.

(As a side note, the ~ trick to move a pattern fill around in a shape works with the scale, reflect, and arrow tools, as well. It does not work with the free transform tool.)

And here is another way to do it: opacity masks.

  1. do those six steps at the top of the post, but turn off  ‘ignore white’ in the image trace options.
  2. lock everything except one image trace layer. Select all; cut. Yes, cut.
  3. In the layers palette, click on the circle to the right of the now-empty layer’s name.
  4. In the transparency palette, press the ‘make mask’ button. Check ‘clip’ and ‘invert mask’.
  5. Click on the big black square that appeared in the transparency palette, and paste. Now you have an opacity mask. You can see its outline if you do view->show edges, and you can see it in the transparency thumbnail’s palette, but nothing shows up on the screen. That’s because the opacity mask is a greyscale image that affects the transparency of what it’s attached to, and right now it’s attached to an empty layer.
  6. Click on the empty square in the transparency palette to go back to editing the layer, and draw something in it. Maybe a big black rectangle. Maybe a colored one. Maybe a pattern fill. Maybe draw two circles and blend them, that’s what I did here. And then duplicated and slightly offset them to create a cool morié pattern in the image.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6. If you want to move some of the stuff you drew in step 6 without moving the opacity mask, then click the chain link between the two thumbnails in the transparency palette. Otherwise you’ll move the opacity mask as well.
  8. Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could also try unchecking ‘invert mask’ on one layer and using it to overlay art in the lighter areas of the image, rather than the darker.

There are other ways to do this – you could expand the image trace (with ‘ignore white’ on), turn it into a compound path, and use it as a layer clipping mask for the layer full of whatever imagery you want to draw; you could probably do something involving destructive operations with the Pathfinder palette, too. Which is a major sin in my book as I like to do non-destructive edits whenever possible.

If I was to rank these methods from most to least editable down the line, it’d be opacity mask > pattern fills > layer clipping mask > pathfinder stuff. For instance, I wanted to add a little extra shadow under the chin to help distinguish it from the face. With the opacity mask method I could just go into a layer mask and draw some black shapes over the image trace. Adding more shapes the pattern fill way can be a little finicky with keeping the fill patterns in alignment; adding more shapes to a complex layer mask is even more fiddly, and destructive pathfinder operations have to be done completely from scratch.

You can also do a similar trick with Astute Graphics’ WidthScribe palette, if you feel like spending some money for a plugin that only has a bunch of YouTube tutorials and no manual.

Some Thoughts On Lettering

A friend was trying to do some comics and having some trouble with getting the lettering to work, so I did a couple quick pages of Things I Think About When Lettering My Stuff.

some-thoughts-on-word-balloons some-thoughts-on-word-balloons-2

I do not claim that any of these tips are The One True Way To Letter. Just that they are things that tend to make my own comics more legible. (I say this because I see a lot of lettering tips about How To Superhero Letters that take a super dogmatic tone.)

There’s a lot of stuff I left out: I did not go into using differently colored balloons, the use of different types of edges for thought balloons or for shouting/electronically transmitted stuff (or for hints about tone of voice), or why I sometimes choose centered text, sometimes left or right justified, and sometimes do paragraphs with indents. I also didn’t go into translucent word balloons – I feel that solid white balloons look super clashy over modern softly-colored art. I also left out the rant about how I feel the ALL CAPS SUPERHERO LETTERING is something best left in the past, where it was a good idea due to the terrible reproduction those things got then. Which also means I left out the digression about the weird little rule that you should never write a superhero comic about someone named Clint Flicker because of how it looks if you type it in all caps and aren’t super careful with the kerning or start having the ink bleed…

Anyway. Hope this helps someone a bit.

How To An Illustrator: Messy Brushes

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.39.46 PM

Here’s a thing I’ve been kind of wanting for a while, and finally nailed: that dotty, super-spitty-airbrush look.

  1. Draw a black circle.
  2. effect->brush stroke->spatter, play with the parameters until it looks good
  3. object->expand appearance
  4. object->image trace->make
  5. window->image trace, play with the parameters until it looks good
  6. object->image trace->expand
  7. drag into brush palette, make a scatter brush

All the brushstrokes in that screenshot are done with the same green with varying opacity settings: 50% for all of them, normal/screen/multiply mode.

You probably shouldn’t try to fill in a whole image with this as things would get pretty slow to render; use it to create accents.

You could try different starting shapes and different effects – maybe a triangle that’s been put through the ocean ripple effect is just what you want. Kinda looks like a lot of messy angular brushstrokes, huh?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.52.44 PM

Or how about if I add a ‘roughen’ effect to the paths I drew, on top of using the scatter brush?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.54.19 PM

Wow, it sure looks like I made a lot of twitchy little brush dabs there, doesn’t it. Thanks for doing the work for me, Illustrator!

stipply brushes

Edit, some time later: Or how about that oh-so-coveted spitty airbrush look? Seriously, I see people asking for that one all the time.

Caveats: You don’t want to try and draw an entire picture with these kinds of brushes. Illustrator will slow way the hell down. Lay in flat shapes with simple filled paths, then come back in and paint highlights/shadows with your Messy Brushes.

schooling: clouds

Over on the Illustrator subreddit, someone posted a link to this image, asking “is it possible to make something like this in Illustrator”:


“What Only Exists In The Mind”, by Jeffrey Smith

And it got the usual “not really, use photoshop/uh I guess you could use gradient meshes but use photoshop/you could but it’d take years, use photoshop” answers from people whose knowledge of Illustrator kinda stops at the pen tool.

Me? I looked at it and was like, yeah, pretty easily. Lots of organic pencil tool shapes, do some blurred shapes for the smooth hills, stack up some transparency in one of the ‘light’ blend modes for the tonal shift in the sky, make some art brushes for most of the tree you’re good. I tossed off a quick reply to that effect and went to bed.

I woke up to a reply saying “I call bullshit”.

And I was like, oh, kid, it’s on now.

So I got out of bed and got to work. Forty minutes later, I had this.


Which obviously is not as intricately done as the original image, and doesn’t have the knowledge of How To Clouds that the original artist seems to have been building for about a decade or so (seriously this guy can clouds wicked good, like half his gallery is is full of meticulously-rendered cloudscapes). But I was like, yeah, if I was willing to spend a whole day drawing clouds at about 4x the size of the jpeg under discussion, I could get a sky like that image. “Doing the rolling hills and mountain is left as an exercise for the reader.”

I replied with my quickie rough and those caveats, and got a ‘holy shit!’-toned reply back. Yeah, I’m just that good. *preen*


And then I spent about fifty minutes on a picture of myself blowing a cloud off my stylus like a gunslinger after a trick shot, with some of my own usual tricks for clouds added to the mix – various amounts of gaussian blur, a bit more roughen/tweak effect here and there, and of course a mezzotinted overlay for texture. I’m still not as good at clouds as Mr. Smith is and probably never will be, given that his handle is “Ascending Storm”, but I’m pretty happy with how this one came out.

If you want to see how it’s done, a CS6 source file is here: (I use CC2016; CS6 is the oldest version it’d save it as without crunching the blurs into an uneditable bitmap.) Or you can read about the tricks I used to draw this in a fraction of the time you think it took if all you know is the pen tool.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.45.19 PM

The basic appearance of the cloud shapes is this:Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.20.49 AM

Roughen in this case was set to 4pt, absolute size, 15/in, and tweak was set to 3% horizontal and vertical, only modify in/out control points. This results in a simple ovoid squiggle becoming something kinds complicated and cloudy:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.23.03 AM

Draw a big white bubbly cartoon cloud, add this effect, and suddenly you’ve got all these fiddly vaporous bits. Change the fill color to black and start drawing some shapes at 50-70% opacity, maybe switch back to white and a high opacity and add in a few inner highlights, and pretty soon you’ll have some nice stormclouds with very little work. (Protip: go into the ‘tools’ section of Illustrator’s keyboard shortcuts and assign the number keys to 10-100% opacity, then you can switch opacity on the fly.)

You can further complicate this; Smith’s work has fairly discrete colors and really solid, heavy clouds, but I prefer more vaporous clouds on sunnier days. So for the self-portrait clouds I added a little bit of gaussian blur. Not much, just like 2-5 pixels worth on different shapes as I went out towards the left edge of the cloud. (Process: select a handful of shapes, press the hotkey I’ve made for gaussian blur, frob the slider, hit okay. Select more shapes further down, repeat.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.30.21 AM

That still looked a little chunky, so I targeted the layer and added a bit more roughening, tweaking, and blurring to the entire cloud at once:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.36.52 AM


You can target a layer for effects by clicking the circle on its right in the layers palette; the dark circle on the ‘clound‘ layer indicates that there’s an effect applied. These are some pretty subtle effects – roughen is 1pt absolute, 47/in; tweak is 2pt, modifying anchor points and ‘out’ control points; the gaussian blur is 1.7 px. All of these numbers are ones I arrived at by the time-honored method of yanking the slider to a random point that felt about right and tweaking it until it looked good; I’ve been using these effects long enough that I have a general sense of how it’s gonna look.

You can, of course, compact more of the shapes in the cloud into one path. I did a lot of the shading on the figure with this appearance stack:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.43.09 AM

Two quick paths become like six super-ragged, fiddly, translucent shapes, for some nice smooth and textured shading done in seconds. There’s a few interesting tricks going on with this appearance stack, so I’ll dissect it a bit more.

The ‘add’ at the top seems to do nothing if it’s the only effect on a path. Go on, try it – draw a quick shape with the pencil tool, give it a fill color, and add the ‘add’ effect. Nothing seems to change. But if you switch to a stoked path, you’ll see the difference: the ‘add’ effect forces Illustrator to close your sloppily-drawn open path for you This is important down below in the top two fills, because it completely changes how ‘offset path’ functions…

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.50.44 AM

See? Turn it off, and the two fills with an ‘offset path’ effect turn into what looks like a simple, boring stroke. (I’ve also turned off the roughens and tweaks to show this better.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.49.23 AM

I mean, it’s not like there isn’t a cool watercolor edge effect kind of thing going on here, but it’s just not much good for multiplying your effort by drawing one path and having Illustrator lay down two or three more similar-but-different ones, right? But doing the ‘add’ effect (it’s under the Pathfinder effects, btw) closes the path, and suddenly ‘offset path’ starts outputting a slightly larger or smaller copy of the whole shape.

Each added fill is offset a different amount from the base shape; they’re also tweaked up at a large scale (5pt, out control points only), then roughened (4pt absolute, 15/in), then tweaked again (3%, in/out control points) to jank them up nicely.

As to the figure? Since I was being quick and lazy, I googled ‘blow smoke from gun’ to get a general idea of the pose, dropped the first one with a good silhouette into Illustrator (the second one on the results page), and quickly sketched the outlines of the major shapes with the pencil tool.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.51.08 PM

I then deleted the image, drew solid shapes that looked like what I see in the mirror, drew some loose shading with that cloud appearance, and added some more shading with the appearance stack outlined above. Mix in a photo of my Wacom stylus to get its proportions dead on, and a few minutes looking at how I hold it when I lift it up nearly vertically, and I was pretty much done.

(That probably sounds pretty cavalier; honestly after drawing for twenty years it really is that simple to me. As always, the big major tips for this are “learn to draw for real”, and “double-click the pencil tool, turn on ‘fill new paths’ and ‘edit selected’ and turn off ‘keep selected’, then you can very rapidly swish out solid shapes with your Wacom tablet and throw your RSI-inducing mouse in the trash where it belongs.)

And for the finishing touch, I added one of my trademark cheats to make an image look a lot more detailed than it really is: make a new layer, draw a big rectangle that covers the whole image, add the mezzotint effect, then target the layer and set it to about 12-25% hard or soft light. I do the transparency on the layer rather than the mezzotinted rectangle because that way Illustrator doesn’t try to re-render the mezzotint effect every time I tweak the transparency.