Create a realistic shadow effect in Illustrator using the blend tool

13 Oct 2014

Seems I have some unfinished business with my Re-turned birds illustration. There is one last thing I need to cover, and that's how I created the shadow effect on the bellies of the birds. Just in case you've missed the pervious article about the wood texture, or how to draw these birds, don't forget to check them out too. Today we'll add the finishing touch and use Illustrator's Blend tool. I'll also show you some useful tips on how you can use the Layer panel to duplicate an object in an easy way and make fast and easy selections. So let's get started…

Re-turned birds by Discipline (designed by Lars Beller Fjetland).

Add a new layer

add a new layer

First of all let's add a new layer on top of the other layers. Lock the 'illustration' layer so you're sure everything will stay untouched while we create the shadow effect. We'll create the shadow effect on the first bird, and move this object out of its separate layer into the correct place (stacking order) of the 1st bird's layer group. Then we will copy drag this blend object on each bird by dragging a duplicate of it into the layer group of each bird, and lastly we move the object into the correct position and resize it if needed.

Draw an ellipse

draw an ellips that follows the bottom contour of the bird

Select the Ellipse tool (hidden under the Rectangle tool) and draw an ellipse that follows the bottom contour of the bird. While dragging you can hold down the spacebar to move the object into the right position.

Black transparent fill

apply a black transparent fill

Give the ellipse a black transparent fill (and no/transparent stroke), by adding 0% opacity in the Transparency panel.

Move anchor point

move the top anchor point downwards

Select the Direction Selection tool (white arrow), and select the top anchor point of the ellips. Hold down the Shift key and start dragging the point about 70 px down. Make sure Smart Guides are enabled so you're able to see the coordination info while you drag (View > Smart Guides / Cmd/Ctrl + U).

Duplicate, resize & move

copy and paste in front, resize and move

Select the ellipse, copy it (Cmd/Ctrl + C), and paste the object in front by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + F. Resize the duplicated shape as shown in the image above and move it down a bit. To be sure the shape is perfectly centered, select both shapes, click a 2nd time on the big ellips to make this one the target shape (to align to) and select the Horizontal Align Center option from the Align panel, or from the Control bar at the top.

Dark brown color fill

apply a dark brown color fill at 100% opacity

Select the smaller, duplicated shape and give it a dark brown color. Now go to the Transparency panel and set the opacity to 100%. You can of course also use the Appearance panel to apply this color fill and transparency setting.


blend both shapes using the Blend tool

Now we have the 2 basic shapes in place to create a perfect shadow effect using the blend feature. All we need to do is blend both objects together. Illustrator will calculate a transition, going from 0% opacity black to a dark brown at full opacity. First select both shapes, then select the Blend tool from the Tools panel. Now we'll select 2 points where we want the blend to be calculated from. First click in the most left anchor point of the big shape, and then click in the most left anchor point of the smaller shape. Right after the 2nd click Illustrator should have created the blend.

Move object into place

move the blend object into its correct stacking order

Now that the shadow is created we'll first make sure to move it into the correct stacking position of our layers. The shadow belongs to the 1st bird, so we'll move it into the layer group of the 1st bird. Go to the Layers panel and click the triangle of the new layer we've created. You'll see the blend object as a nested object into the layer. Now click the triangle of the 'illustration' layer, or the layer that holds all the birds, and locate the bird you've created the blend on. Click on the triangle to see the different sublayers of the bird. Grab the blend object and move it down into the bird's layer group. In my case I drag the object into the group BIRD 1 on top of all other objects within this group. So it becomes the top object within this layer group.

Change opacity

change the opacity to 30% multiply mode

Target the layer appearances of the blend object, by clicking the little circle to the right of the sublayer in the Layers panel. Now go to the Transparency panel and apply 30% opacity. Set the blending mode to Multiply.

Now the other birds

Copy drag the blend object into the other bird layer groups

Now we're going to apply the shadow effect on the other birds. In the Layers panel point the triangles of each bird down by clicking them one by one so you can see their sublayers. First hold down the Alt/Option key, then click/drag the object/sublayer into another bird's layer group, at the top of the stack. Make sure when you click/drag you actually grab the sublayer/group. So grab the object somewhere in the middle more near the thumbnail image, away from the little circle on the right, because otherwise you would be copying the appearances of the object instead of the object itself. Pretty handy in other situations for sure, but it's not what we're after here.

Move into place

move the blend object into place

Now each bird has its shadow in place in the Layers panel, but in the illustration itself the shadows are all still in the same spot on our first bird. So we need to move them into place. To be sure we select the correct object for each bird, we'll use the Layers panel again. This time we'll click to the very right of the sublayer, to the left of the small circle where we see a small colored square after the click. Drag and move the selected object (on the canvas) to the corresponding bird. Do this one by one for each bird.

Resize if needed

resize the blend object if needed

Since the birds' bellies differ in size, you might need to scale the shadow a little bit. So if needed resize the shadow so it sits perfectly on the belly. The bottom of the bigger shape should more or less align with the bottom contour of the bird.

That's it! Hope you enjoyed creating these birds.


  1. 1 Sarah Bennet Mills 02 Nov 2014


    I was looking for some inspiring tutorial for my monthly round up of best illustrator tutorials and i suddenly came across your blog. Its simply awesome and am glad that i have found something useful for my readers. Am gonna feature you in my next series.