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Create a cityscape in Adobe Illustrator

02 Jun 2015

Like I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, this is the largest tutorial I've ever written. Today I'll share you how I created a colorful cityscape in Adobe Illustrator. You'll start from an Illustrator template file, where I prepared the document for you including the colors I've used. We go step by step through the process, creating the sky, the grass, houses, trees, bushes, clouds… I show you several different, yet very simple techniques. Hope you are ready for this very extended tutorial. I promise it'll be fun...

Cityscape illustration created in Adobe Illustrator

General setup

Below is an image that shows the general set up of the illustration. As you can see from the Layers panel, I've divided things up in stacking order, with the sky & ground as the bottom layer, and the bushes in front as the top layer. When creating a scenery like this, it's a good thing to try to divide your layers up in such stacking order. In this case it's easy to organize things per category (trees, houses, bushes…), and then also separate items in front from items that go in the back e.g. I have bushes in front and I also have bushes (green) in the back.

Layer panel of the cityscape illustration in Adobe Illustrator

To get started download the Illustrator template file, or if you prefer to start from your own document, you can also just grab the Color Swatches from the ZIP file if you like, and load them into your document via the options menu of your Swatches panel.

Global Swatches

I've used Global Swatches for all the colors. To turn a regular swatch into a Global Swatch you simply check the Global checkbox in the Swatch Options window that appears when you double click a swatch. You can recognize a Global Swatch from a regular one in the Swatches panel by the white triangle in the bottom right corner of the swatch icon. The advantage of using Global Swatches is that when you modify the color of such swatch, all objects using that swatch are also updated. It can save you a tremendous amount of time. Also it's easy to experiment with color. After you've double clicked the swatch to edit the color, you move the color sliders and see it live changing everywhere the color is applied (when checking the preview option). So here is my tip to you : use it whenever you can, it's pretty handy!

Make it snap!

Also important to mention before starting, is to make sure you have Smart Guides turned on. Almost everything in this illustration is drawn with Smart Guides turned on, because this way you can align things very easily since Illustrator will give you visual clues when it is aligned centered or exactly next to an object…, and your object will automatically snap into place where needed.

Sky & ground

Create the ground and the sky by drawing a rectangle for each, but first create a new layer by clicking the Create New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Name it sky/ground.

Draw a green rectangle

You can start with the ground which is a flat horizontal rectangle from left to right of your document. There is a guide in place that is the horizon. Your rectangle should snap when you are close towards the border of your document or near the guide. Apply a light green for the ground.

Draw another rectangle above, and apply a light blue gradient fill

Fill the rest of the document up with the rectangle for the sky. Apply the light blue gradient. With the rectangle still selected, go to Object > Arrange > Send to Back.

The houses

Now we'll be creating the houses. First, lock the sky/ground layer in the Layer panel (clicking the lock icon on the left). Create a new layer like you did before. Make sure it sits above the sky/ground layer. If not, you can drag it into place in the Layers panel (grab the layer and drop it above the sky/ground). Name the new layer houses.

Create the walls

Draw a vertical yellow rectangle

Create a vertical rectangle as shown in the image above, and apply the yellow swatch.

Copy move the rectangle to the left

Copy the rectangle shape, and hit Cmd/Ctrl + f (Edit > Paste in Front). Start dragging the pasted rectangle to the left, and while dragging hold down the Shift key so you move it perfectly horizontal. Move it until it aligns perfectly with the original rectangle. It should snap on the side (when you see 'intersect' in green you're there, see image above). Give the rectangle an 80% yellow fill (drag slider to 80% in the Color panel).

Add the roof

Add anchor point

Select the Pen tool and hover with your cursor over the middle of the top border of the copied rectangle (as shown in the image above). You should get a visual clue (vertical green line and the word 'intersect') when you reach the middle. You should also get to see a plus sign in your pen cursor. Now click once to add the anchor point.

Move the anchor point upwards

Select the Direct Selection tool (white arrow), and click the newly created anchor point. Start dragging upwards, and while dragging hold down the Shift key so you move it perfectly vertically up. Stop dragging and release, when you think you reached a perfect 90° corner.

Draw an orange rectangle

Select the Rectangle tool again and draw a rectangle for the roof as show in the image above. Start from the bottom right corner and drag diagonal upwards to the top left. You should get visual clues again from the Smart Guides to know exactly where to start and stop dragging (see image above). Apply the darker orange as fill for the roof.

Drag the top border to the left

First deselect the rectangle by clicking on an empty space on your document. Now select the Direct Selection tool (white arrow) and click (and start dragging) somewhere in the middle of the top border line of the rectangle. Drag the line to the left while holding down the Shift key. Always do this in this order: first click, hold down the mouse, start dragging, and then hold down the key(s). Then at the end, when you stop moving your mouse always make sure to first release the key(s), and then the mouse.

Add the window

Draw a brown circle, apply 20% opacity

Draw a circle for the window. Apply the brown grey as fill and give it 20% opacity (via the Transparency panel).

Add the door

Draw a green vertical rectangle

Draw a vertical rectangle for the door. Start from the bottom right and drag upwards to the top left as shown in the image above. Apply the dark green as fill.

Make the top corners fully round

First deselect the object, and then select only the 2 top anchor points using the Direct Selection tool (white arrow): click in the first point, hold down shift, and then click in the second point. You should see 2 tiny circle markings appear near the 2 corners. Click and drag inwards down as shown in the image above until the top border line is fully round. I totally love this Illustrator feature BTW. In case you decide later you want to go back to straight corners again, you can at all times, and you just drag those anchor points outwards again.


Horizontal Align Center

Select the door, the window and the front of the house. Click again on the front shape, but this time without holding down the shift key. This will make this shape the target to align to. So only the other objects can move into place. Now select the Horizontally Align Center option from the Control bar at the top.

Add a few more windows

Create the windows by duplicating the door

Copy & paste the door, and move the object to the left side of the house. Now select the bottom line of the shape (using the white arrow, make sure to deselect the object first). Select the line and move it vertically up holding down the Shift key. You can always temporarily lock the path of the wall of the house in the Layers panel. Click the triangle of the houses layer to reveal the paths, and click in the lock area (next to the eye) of the wall's path layer.

Apply brown grey, 20% opacity and duplicate the shape

Apply the brown grey fill to the new window, and add a 20% opacity to it. Now duplicate the window twice. Hold down the Alt/Option + Shift keys while dragging. Do this twice, first for the second, and then for the third window. Select all 3 windows and select the Vertical Distribute Center option from the Control bar at the top. Now also select the wall (unlock its path layer first by clicking the lock icon again), make sure to click the wall again to make it the target shape, and select the Horizontal Align Center option from the Control bar.

Create more houses

Our first house is created. Now we'll use this house as a starting point for some of the other houses by duplicating it. But first things first. We need to make sure everything stays well organized. So the first thing we'll do is grouping the different paths of this house. Select all objects: walls, door, windows etc. and hit Cmd/Ctrl + g (or go to Object > Group).

Duplicate the house and make it smaller

Now grab the Group layer in the Layers panel, and drag it over the Create New Layer icon at the bottom of the panel to duplicate it. Now lock the original house/Group layer (btw you can double click the layer and rename it to 'house' if you prefer extra tidiness in your layers). Now hold down the Shift key and move the duplicate to the left. Then make it slightly smaller (hold down Shift key to keep things in proportion).

Apply different colors and remove the windows

Double click the house to go into Isolation mode. It makes the rest of your illustration slightly transparent and now you can select and modify each shape of the house without having to ungroup it first. So your grouped object stays perfectly in tact. Apply different colors to the walls, door and window. Remove the windows on the side wall. To leave Isolation mode you can hit the Escape key, or the arrow at the top right of your canvas.

Remove the rounded corners on the door

Remove the rounded corners on the door by selecting the 2 top anchor points first and by dragging them outwards until the end and the corners are straight again.

Make selection using the Lasso tool

Make the side wall wider by selecting only the most right anchor points using the Lasso tool. Then drag the anchor points to the right, holding down the Shift key, or by simply using the right arrow key.

Create the windows

Draw 2 square windows on the side wall. Use the brown grey as fill, and apply 20% opacity, using multiply and transparency mode. Use the same aligning technique as before to perfectly align them in the center of the side wall. The 2nd house is done. Now the 3rd house.

Duplicate Reflect the house

Duplicate the house again like you did before via the Layer panel, but make sure you are out of Isolation mode first. Now move the new house to the right of the original house by holding down the Shift key. You can also just duplicate the group on your canvas if you prefer holding down the Alt/Option + Shift key to move the duplicated object to the right of our first house. Now select the Reflect tool. Hold down the Alt/Option key and click somewhere in the center of the house. In the window that appears choose Verical Axis and hit OK. Remove the door and windows using the Direct Selection tool (white arrow).

Make the house smaller

First deselect the house. Now drag a rectangle selection over the top part of the house using the Direct Selection tool (white arrow) as shown in the image above.

Move the selection down to make the house smaller

Drag the selected anchor points vertically down holding down the Shift key.

make the house bigger and less wide

Make the house bigger by selecting it and dragging the top right corner outwards (holding down Shift key to keep its proportions). Then make the side wall of the house less wide, again by selecting the anchor points (white arrow) and dragging them holding down the Shift key.

Recolor the house and add 4 windows

Apply new colors to the new house, and add 4 vertical windows on the side wall. Use the technique like before to duplicate an object: select and drag by holding down the Option/Alt + Shift key. First you draw the two windows at the top, then you select both and copy drag them below holding down the Option/Alt + Shift key again. To Horizontal Center Align the windows with the wall, you first group the windows together (Cmd/Ctrl + g). Also, just like before, make sure the wall is the target object.

Move the house into place

Now go out of Isolation mode and move the house into place. With Smart Guides enabled showing visual clues, this should be easy (see image above).

Create the roof, move the anchor point to the left

Double click the house to go back into Isolation mode. Create the side/garage part of the house by drawing 2 rectangles. Use the visual clues of the Smart Guides so the rectangles are perfectly aligned to the right and bottom of the house. For the roof, select only the top right anchor point, and move it to the left by holding down the Shift key (or use the left arrow key). Last but not least add the garage door by drawing another rectangle on top. Give it the same dark color of the roof, but apply 20% opacity.

Draw more houses using the same technique

Based on what you've learned so far, draw the other houses using the same technique of copying, reflecting, aligning, recoloring, etc. You can look at the image above as a reference of how things can look. Feel free to do your own thing.

Add small details to the houses

Attention to details is everything, so to finalize our houses, we add a few special details to some of them. This way they will stand out a little more, and it'll add this little extra finesse to the illustration. To add these details always make sure to double click the (grouped) house first to go into Isolation Mode. This way the detail you'll add to the house will also be part of the group.

Add details using the Transform effect

On the yellow house I added a little square (4 x 4 px) on the right and used the Transform effect (Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform...) to duplicate this square horizontally leaving some space in between each.

Add details using the Transform effect

On this house I added an ornamental line. First I drew a horizontal rectangle, and then on top to the left I drew a small (almost square) rectangle, half overlapping the big horizontal rectangle. I selected the top anchor points of this small rectangle using the Direct Selection tool and made the corners fully round. Then I selected this shape and went to Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform... to duplicate this shape 9 times horizontally, leaving 7px of space in between.

Remove shapes using the Shape Builder tool

Afterwards I expanded this effect via Object > Expand Appearance. I selected both the big rectangle and all the smaller shapes, and I used the Shape Builder tool to remove the unnecessary shapes by holding down the Alt/Option key and clicking the shapes one by one.

Add details using the Transform effect

Here I drew 2 small horizontal rectangles, I selected both and duplicated them vertically (13x) via Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform... as shown in the image above.

Pine trees

Now that the houses are finished, let's draw some trees and bushes around the houses. Let's start with the pine trees. First lock the 'houses' layer, and create a new layer on top. We'll be drawing the pine trees in front of the houses. You can name this new layer 'trees' or 'pine trees' if you like.

Create a tree - remove anchor point

Start by drawing a dark green vertical rectangle as shown in the image above. Then select the Pen tool and hover with your cursor over the top left anchor point of the rectangle. A minus sign should appear at the bottom right of your cursor. Click the anchor point to remove it.

Copy Reflect

Select the Reflect tool, hold down Option/Alt, and click on the vertical line of your triangular shape. In the window that appears, select Vertical as Axis and hit the Copy button to duplicate the shape.

Draw the trunk and move into place

Give the other side of the tree a lighter green color. Draw another small (almost square) rectangle below the 2 shapes and give it a brown fill. Move this shape right below the 2 triangles of the tree, and make sure it's nicely centered. Normally you should get visual clues to do this without using the aligning tools (see image above). Group all the shapes together by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + g, and move the tree onto the horizon guide.

Create symbol

Since we'll be adding more than one of these trees in our illustration, it's a smart thing to create a Symbol of the tree. To do this, simply drag the object into the Symbols panel. In the window that appears, enter a name e.g. Pine tree and leave the other settings as they are.

Now you can add pine trees into your landscape by dragging the symbol out of the panel onto the canvas. You can scale the tree, or reflect it if you like. You can have a look at the main image of the illustration at the beginning of my article.

Deciduous trees

Next we'll create the deciduous trees. Lock the other layers first, and create a new layer ('trees'), this time make sure this layer sits below the layer 'houses'. These trees will be bigger than the pine trees, as we'll be placing them behind the houses to achieve an interesting landscape composition.

Rotate branch

Start by drawing a vertical brown rectangle for the trunk of the tree. Then add another smaller and thinner vertical rectangle to create a branch on the left of the trunk. Rotate and position the branch a bit similar of how I show in the image above. Select the Rotate tool, then click into the right bottom anchor point of the rectangle and start rotating the rectangle to the right (by dragging).

Copy Reflect

Select the branch and reflect it to the other side of the tree, by selecting the Reflect tool, holding down the Alt/Option key and click in the center of the trunk. Choose Vertical as Axis and hit the Copy button.

Draw green circles

Now draw a bunch of light green overlapping circles to finalize the tree. You can decide to Unite all the circles into one single path via the Pathfinder panel if you are happy with the result, or use the Shape Builder tool to do the same (holding down the Shift key). If you want to maintain the flexibility to edit these circles, you could still unite the shapes together by holding down the Alt/Option key when you click the Unite option in the Pathfinder.

Apply green linear gradient

I've decided to unite the shapes into 1 path, and I've also applied a linear gradient fill as well (see image above). Again, group the shapes together and drag the object into the Symbols panel to create a symbol so we can use it multiple times in our landscape.

Place trees into your illustration

Place the trees in different ways (smaller, bigger, mirrored…), and on different places on your illustration.


Next up we'll draw some simple bushes to fill up some of the areas. Just like before, lock the other layers first to be safe, and create a new layer 'bushes' on top of all other layers (below 'guides'). I named mine 'green' as you see in the image below, thinking I would probably add more than bushes alone in this layer at that time. Of course it doesn't matter what you name it, as long as you keep oversight of things.

Draw green circles

Start by drawing a couple of slightly overlapping circles in different sizes in a horizontal sequence, with the first and last one lower than the ones in between, and having the bottom of the first and last circle aligned with the horizon guide (as shown in the image above). Select the most left and most right circle in the row and Horizontal Bottom Align them both.

Draw shape to fill the bush object

Now select the Pen tool and draw a shape that fills up the area between the circles, starting at the intersection of the horizon guide with the bottom anchor point of the most right circle, then hold down the Shift key and click in the intersection point of the horizon guide with the bottom anchor point of the most left circle, and add more points where needed to fill the gap in a clockwise direction until you end at your starting point to close the shape. You get to see a circle sign at the bottom right of your pen cursor to indicate you'll be closing your path (see image above).

Unite shape

Select all the shapes and Unite them together via the Pathfinder panel. Again it's up to you whether you want to keep the flexibility to be able to change this shape later on. If you do, then hold down the Alt/Option when you click the Unite option. You can also use the Shape Builder tool to unite the shapes together (holding down the Shift key).

Place bushes into your illustration

Then just like before, drag your object into the Symbols panel, then drag the symbol out on different places of your landscape. I have also placed some of them in an overlapping composition together to create an extra long bush.

Create another bush

I also created another bush shape in a different green that I turned into a symbol. I then used this bush in a bigger size on another layer behind the houses and the trees.

Places bushes in the back and play with opacity

I also played with the opacity value. Some of the bushes use 60% opacity.

The skyline

Now we'll be creating a soft skyline in the distance behind the houses, and trees. To get started lock all other layers except the layer 'houses', and create a new layer right above the sky and ground. You can name it skyline.

Duplicate the content of a layer to a new layer

Next, click the small colored square to the right of the 'houses' layer to target and select all objects in this layer (see image above). Hold down the Option/Alt key and drag the little square downwards to the new layer you've created. This will duplicate all the objects into the new layer. You can use this technique also to move objects from one layer to another. Holding down Alt/Option will also duplicate what you're moving.

Unite the shapes

Now also lock the 'houses' layer, and to make it easier to work, hide all the layers except the 'skyline' one. With the duplicated houses still selected, go to the Pathfinder panel and click the Unite option.

Make the skyline taller

Now select the Direct Selection tool and drag a rectangle selection over the roofs of the houses. Use the Up Arrow key (or the Direct Selection tool) to move the selected anchor points up to make the skyline taller than the houses. You can make the 'houses' visible again to see how high you should make the skyline.

Tweak the shapes of the skyline and apply a color fill

Next, you could clean up the objects and remove the unnecessary anchor points by selecting the Delete Anchor Point tool (located behind the Pen tool) if you like. This is not needed, but if you're like me and you prefer clean paths you do the small effort. You can also use the regular Pen tool and hover over an anchor point. This will also give you the minus sign to your cursor to remove an anchor point. To complete the skyline duplicate some of the shapes to fill up the empty gaps. Create some diversity by tweaking the roofs here and there. You can also mirror an object. Finally, apply the subtle green blue fill.

The clouds

The last item left to create are the clouds. As you can see, the clouds have a similar shape as the bushes, except that they exist of less circles. So to create them you use the exact same technique as for the bushes: draw a couple of slightly overlapping circles in different sizes in a horizontal sequence with a big one in the middle or to the side. Make sure the first and last one is a bit lower than the ones in between. Select the most left and most right circle in the row and Horizontal Bottom Align them both. Then fill the bottom space by drawing a path using the Pen tool. Make sure the bottom line is perfectly horizontal (use Shift) and that the beginning and end point of this line is at the same position of the bottom points of the (first and last) circle.

Create and add clouds

Give the object a white fill, and unite the shape. Then drag the object into the symbols panel so you can apply the symbol a couple of times in different ways in the sky. To create a bit of diversity, create at least 2 different clouds and apply them in different sizes and different opacity values as shown in the image above.

Add a Clipping Mask

You are almost there! To finish things off we'll apply a Clipping Mask to our entire illustration so the bushes or the other objects that fall off our canvas are masked away.

Create a Clipping Mask layer

Create a new layer on top of all other layers (ignore the 'guides' layer, its position in the panel doesn't matter), and name it 'cityscape'. Draw a rectangle in this layer that has the size of your canvas. Apply no fill and no stroke (the swatch with a red diagonal line). With the rectangle still selected, click the Make Clipping Mask icon button at the bottom of the Layers panel.

Drag the layers below the Clipping Mask path layer

Click the triangle icon of the 'cityscape' layer to reveal the path layers. Now select all the layers of your illustration (click in the middle of each layer and use the Shift key to select the 2nd, 3rd, 4th… layer), and drag them right below the rectangle path layer (see image above). You should get a thick horizontal line to indicate you'll be dropping the selected layers right below the mask path. The result should be that your illustration is now perfectly framed into your document.

BRAVO if you've followed this one to the end! I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, had much fun and learned a thing or two along the way. Don't forget to share it with your friends.


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  1. 1 Bjarni Wark 05 Jun 2015

    Hi Veerle, having a go a creating just the house aspect for now and have not done the rounded corner thing before as in your “Add the door” part.

    Im having a moment as I cant get the effect to happen using CS6. I select the top two corner points using the white arrow / direct selection tool then hold shift and rag inwards but no such effect kick in.

    Any tips or does one need CC for this trick?

  2. 2 Jan 05 Jun 2015

    Super gewoon.


  3. 3 Veerle Pieters 05 Jun 2015

    @Bjarni Wark

    Any tips or does one need CC for this trick?

    Yes this is a new feature of the latest Illustrator, one of my favourites btw. In CS6 you’ll have resort to using a circle as starting point and work from there. I have no CS6 anymore to see what’s in there and try some things out.