Use Illustrator’s Pathfinder to create symmetrical birds

30 Jun 2014

Today I was thinking of writing an Illustrator tutorial on how you can create simple symmetrical objects, using mostly ellipses, straight lines and rectangles in combination with the Pathfinder options. When looking at this, I thought these "Re-turned"-birds would be ideal for this exercise. So let's get this tutorial started…

Re-turned birds by Lars Beller Fjetland

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

Prepare layers, guides & swatches

Setting up your document

First things first. Before we start drawing, we have to do some small preparations to make sure our document is set up properly. When you create a new document (File > New), you can choose to work in RGB mode, and to use pixels as unit. As for dimension you can choose anything that fits for you. I've just used a dimension that works well for the layout of my blog. Under the Advanced options make sure to uncheck Align New Objects to Pixel Grid. This is handy for the creation of icons or other GUI design elements that need to end up pixel sharp, but leaving it checked can cause imperfections in our illustration. So to avoid any annoyances it's very important that this option is unchecked before getting started.

Setting up your layers

Via Google search I found this image and placed it in my document via File > Place. Once placed, I doubled clicked the layer in the Layers panel and checked the Template option. This option will lock the layer and make it transparent. Then I created a new layer, named it 'guides' where I placed all necessary guides that I think I'll need once I started drawing. I've placed a vertical guide along the center of the bird we're going to draw, and also 2 horizontal ones, one at the bottom and one at the height of the eyes. I find it handy to place the guides in a separate layer so they're all located in 1 place. I can (also) use the layer's eye to turn them on and off, and I also don't have to go through different layers to find them in case I need to unlock them if I want to move objects and I want the guides to move with them. Then I create another layer for my illustration. I've named it 'illustration'.

Creating some global color swatches

Creating your swatches upfront is definitely not necessary to get started. In fact in most cases I add these once I'm starting to give my illustration color and in a lot of cases I experiment with different tones, shades, and compare different combinations until I have something I'm happy with. In this case however, we're drawing something from an existing example, so I used the Eyedropper tool to pick some colors from the image. To do this double click the layer icon to (temporarily) uncheck the template option. After you're done make sure to check it again. To add a swatch in the Swatch panel grab and drag the color from the Color panel into the Swatches panel. If you see a green plus sign once you hold it in the Swatch panel you're good to release your mouse. I've only created 4 swatches in total and I've all made them Global colors, which means when you decide to modify this color in a later stage that the change will be applied on all objects this color is applied to. It also means you can apply percentages of such color. Using global colors is something I use in almost every creation as it can save so much time.

Draw basic shapes

Start from simple shapes like 2 ellipses to draw 1/2 of the object. Use the spacebar while dragging so you can move it into place.

When looking at the shape of the bird you clearly see 2 ellipses in place: one at the top and one at the bottom. So we're going to start drawing these. Before we get started to draw we change the view mode of the layer we're working in into Outline mode. To do this go to the Layers panel and click the eye icon of the layer while holding down the Cmd/Ctrl key. This way only this layer's view mode is changed and not the view mode of the other ones. I find this pretty handy when I trace an image as I see the underlaying image at all times and I can draw things more accurately. Now select the Ellipse toolfrom the toolbox. You can choose to start drawing an ellipse from the center out (somewhere on the vertical guide) holding down the Option/Alt key, or you can start from the outside and drag inwards. While dragging hold down the spacebar to move the ellipse in its proper place.

Remove segments

Draw 1/2 of the object by removing unnecessary parts.

We're going to draw just the left contours of the bird, and then reflect a copy of this shape to the other side along the vertical axis so we end up with a perfect symmetrical bird. So first we remove 3/4 of the 2 ellipses. The head of the bird is a little bit flat, so it's no problem to move an anchor point if needed so it follows nicely the contours of the bird.

Draw a curve to connect both segments

Use the Pen tool to join both segments

Now we need to use the Pen tool to join both segments. Select the Pen tool and click drag in the bottom anchor point of the path around the bird's head while holding down the Shift key (to keep this point perfectly vertical). Much handy in the new Illustrator CC2014 version is that you see a preview of the curve/line before you actually click to place your next anchor point. The next point to click and drag (without holding down any key) is somewhere along the bird's neck (see image above). Next click drag in the top anchor point of the bottom segment while holding down the Shift key again to keep this anchor point perfectly vertical. Now you can also control the length of the bezier curve handle while drawing by holding down the Cmd/Ctrl key. The 2nd handle can now be shorter or longer while drawing. It makes drawing much faster as you don't have to interrupt to make a correction, you can adjust this already while drawing.

Copy reflect along vertical axis

Reflect and copy the left part of the bird to create the right side of the bird.

Make sure the path is completely selected, and select the Reflect tool from the toolbox. Alt/Option click somewhere on the vertical guide. In the window that appears choose Vertical axis and hit the Copy button to copy the shape to the right side.

Join segments

Now select both the left and right segment of the bird and hit Cmd/Ctrl + j twice (Object > Path > Join) to connect the top and secondly to connect the bottom.

Draw another ellipse

Connect the left and right contour paths of the bird, then complete the other segments.

Select the Ellipse tool and draw an ellipse as shown in the image above. While dragging hold down your spacebar to try to match the curved line on the chest of the bird.

Draw a rectangle

Either a rectangle or 2 vertical lines are needed for this next step…

Now select the Rectangle tool and draw a vertical rectangle as shown in the image above. Use the spacebar again to place the object as accurate as possible. Here you can also choose to draw two vertical lines instead of a rectangle as we're going to divide the inside of the bird and this works also with two vertical lines. I chose a rectangle instead so I can easily vertical center the objects. If you go for two lines instead, you'll have to group them first to achieve the correct aligning in the next step.

Horizontal align center all objects

Properly align all objects to make sure everything is perfectly symmetrical.

To keep things perfectly symmetrical we're going to align things perfectly. Select all objects using the Selection tool, when all 3 objects are selected click again on the object with contours of the body bird to make this the key object, which means that everything will be aligned to this object. The path should be turned in to a thick selected line as shown in the image above. Now go to the Align panel and choose the option Horizontal Align Center.

Pathfinder > Divide

Divide into different the segments

Now that all objects are perfectly symmetrical we're going to divide everything into selectable objects. Select all objects, go to the Pathfinder panel and choose Divide.

Remove unnecessary segments

Clean things up by removing all unnecessary segments.

Select the Direct Selection tool (white arrow) and select the segments at the outside of the bird and remove them by hitting the delete key twice. You can select multiple segments at once if you're dragging a selection around multiple lines (see image above). You can also choose to ungroup the object first, and use the black arrow instead, then you only need to hit the delete key once. Another way is to double click the object and delete the segments in Isolation Mode. You'll also read a little bit more about this mode later in this article.

Unite objects

Unite the left and right parts together to form 1 shape.

On the left and right of the bird (see image above) there is a division of 2 shapes that should be 1 shape so we need to join these two together. Select both, go to the Pathfinder panel and select the Unite option. Do this for both sides of the bird. You might find it easier to ungroup the object first to select both of the segments more easily. Again, you could also choose to double click the object to go into Isolation Mode and select the two segments from there, but I'll talk about this feature a bit more later on when we give the bird its color…

Copy reflect along vertical axis

Draw the eyes and beak of the bird using circles.

Last but not least we draw the eyes and beak of the bird using circles. First draw the beak and use the Option/Alt key to start from the center out . While dragging hold down the Shift key. Always make sure to release mouse first and then the keys. Then draw the left eye and copy reflect it (just like you've done before) to the right side.

Add color

Give the bird its proper colors.

Now is the fun part! Give the bird its proper color. First hit Cmd/Ctr + y to switch to Preview mode. If you only want to switch the Preview mode of a layer, you click its eye while holding down the Cmd/Ctrl key. Now select each path and apply the proper fill color of each one using the swatches you've created before.

Tips on how to draw the other birds

Draw 1/2 & copy reflect along the vertical axis

Start from ellipses and rectangles and draw just one half of the object. Then reflect a copy to the other side and join all segments together.

When drawing the other birds just keep the same technique in mind of drawing one side, copy reflect this part along the vertical axis to the other side, and then join all segments together. Make sure you first have your vertical guide in place before starting. Start from ellipses, lines and rectangles and see how far you can get using these basic shapes, move anchor points and tweak curves where you need to and then grab the Pen tool to finalise things like joining segments as we did in the first steps. If you're a master with the Pen tool you can of course always choose to draw all the lines instead of tweaking an ellipse.

Draw vertical lines, then use Pathfinder > Divide

Dividing segments using lines on top of an object.

Sometimes it's easy to draw lines on top of and object to divide the objects into different selectable segments as seen in the image above. In this case make sure both lines are perfectly center aligned. First group them (Cmd/Ctrl + g) and align them with the body of the bird as key object just like I explained before.

Draw horizontal line, and use Pathfinder > Divide

Select body and line and divide both.

Draw a horizontal line, then select both the body of the bird and this line and go to Pathfinder > Divide.

Use Isolation Mode to add color

Double click a grouped object to go into Isolation Mode

When double clicking a grouped object you go into Isolation Mode. Now you're able to easily select each path of the group individually. Even though you were drawing things in Outline mode before, you get to see your object in here Preview mode. This is easy to apply color to each segment.

Start from an ellipse and modify anchor points

Select the left and right anchor points and drag them both down holding down shift.

Some birds like the belly of the owl have these transformed ellipse shapes. You can easily achieve this shape starting from an ellipse and move some of the anchor points up or down a bit. Here you can either choose to remove one half and copy reflect it to the other side or just keep the entire shape and horizontal center align it with the bird's body.

Move the top anchor point up using the up arrow key

Adding a drop shadow

Start from a circle

Add a radial gradient to the circle going from 100% opacity black on the inside to 0% opacity black to the outside.

To add some depth we can give each bird a drop shadow. To create this draw a circle (hold down the Shift key) and give it a black radial gradient fill, going from 100% opacity black on the inside to 0% opacity black to the outside. Move the gradient slider to the right until around 80% so the actual gradients is located towards the outside of the circle.

Transform the circle into flat ellipse

Resize the circle into a flat ellipse.

Resize the circle into a flat ellipse, by dragging the bottom arrow of the bounding box upwards. You could of course also just draw an ellipse and then modify the radial gradient instead. It's up to you, but I just find this way a bit faster and easier. In the Appearance panel, I also changed the transparency mode of the fill from Normal to Multiply, and changed the opacity value to 30%.

Organise your layers

Group each bird & name your layers

Organize your layers by grouping all objects of the same bird and then give each grouped layer a name.

I can't stress this enough, making sure things are kept well organised will save you tremendous time in the end. So in this situation I find it most practical to group all objects of the same bird into 1 group and then give each grouped layer a name (as shown in the image above). When I added the drop shadow for each bird, I copy pasted it (in back) into each group by double clicking the group first and hitting Cmd/ctrl + b. Then I moved it into place, and resized it if needed.

Add depth

Pathfinder > Intersect

Add drop shadows in between birds to add some more depth.

You can decide to add some more drop shadows in between birds to add some more depth into the composition. You need to copy the body shape of the bird the drop shadow will fall on, together with the body of the bird that *causes* the shadow. Then move the shape a little bit into place, select both and go to Pathfinder > Intersect. You could decide to hold down the Option/Alt key while clicking so it's applied in a non destructive manner so all flexibility is maintained. This way, if you decide to move some of the birds a bit from position in a later stage, you'll be able to adjust this shadow accordingly.

Add radial gradient

Modify a radial gradient to match the shape you've applied it to.

You could go for a hard shadow, but in this situation I think a radial gradient just like our drop shadows looks more real and natural. After you've selected the shape you can select the Eyedropper tool to grab the same radial fill from the drop shadow you already have in place, and have it applied to this shape. Then when you select the Gradient tool you can modify it, by changing it into a vertical ellipse, rotate it a little etc.

Hope you've enjoyed this exercise and the tips towards the end. In a follow up article, I'll give the birds their wooden texture, and write about how you can create a wood structure in Illustrator. In the meantime you can find out how you could create a wood structure in Photoshop. Furthermore, I also explain how the shadow on their belly is created in Illustrator, using the Blend tool. That's it for now! Keep on creating! Keep on experimenting.

If you love these little cuties after drawing them they are produced by Discipline and you can buy them at their site.


  1. 1 Mike 25 Jul 2014

    Nice tutorial! Do you think this can be done in PS? I am still learning AI and kinda lost in following you.