Create an Illuminated Digital Paper Cut-Out Scene in Adobe Illustrator

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
In this tutorial you'll learn how to use gradients, effects like drop shadows and outer glows, and custom brushes in order to render a Halloween-inspired scene that looks as if it's made of dimensional, illuminated paper cut-outs. While nothing beats carefully cutting and layering shapes in various types of paper, this tutorial will let you try out the style and design ideas without investing in the tools and techniques needed for paper cutting.
Create a New Document in Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 (note that this tutorial is still applicable to earlier versions of the program—this is just what I used to create the design). Make it about 8 inches by 10 inches.
First, let's set up our color palettes outside of the artboard. Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw two small squares. One should be black while the other should be a bright color like yellow, blue, or orange (imagine that this color will be the lightest and brightest light you'd use to illuminate your design). Use the Blend Tool (W) to create a blend of 10 steps between the two shapes. Instantly, you've created an easy reference for your color palette. Select colors from your chosen blend with the Eyedropper Tool (I).
Make a Blend to create your color palette
Draw a large black rectangle overlapping your entire artboard. Use the Ellipse Tool to draw an ellipse that takes up most of the artboard, but leaves a slight border between the ellipse and the edge of the artboard. The rectangle will serve as the background and the circle will serve as the frame for our composition. Lock both shapes in the Layers panel for now.
Set up your artboard
Use the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) to draw tree branches or antler-like shapes on the left side of the ellipse drawn in the previous section. Extend the design past the boundary of the ellipse and continue drawing additional doodle shapes such as half circles, teardrops, and triangles.
Draw tree-like designs to create a lacy frame
  1. When satisfied with your tree branch design, Select all of its components and Unite them in the Pathfinder panel (your Blob Brush Tool settings may have already merged them while drawing, which is fantastic and saved you a small bit of time).
  2. Close any open sections of the design with a couple of curving lines following the contour of the blue ellipse and drawn with the Blob Brush Tool.
  3. Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select and delete the interior shapes within your design.
  4. Continue across the entire tree branch design.
  5. If you find you have large portions of your shape that are filled in, draw new shapes over them and Unite these newly drawn shapes in the Pathfinder panel.
  6. Hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel to delete these new shapes from the main design.
Fill in and cut out portions of the frame
Copy (Control-C) and Paste (Control-V) the left side of the frame and Reflect it over a Vertical axis. Align the two shapes and Unite in Pathfinder.
Reflect the frame over a vertical axis
Set the frame's fill color to a Radial Gradient with the Gradient Tool (G) that goes from black to the first or second step (from the left) in the blend you created in Section 1, Step 1.
Unlock the ellipse in the Layers panel and apply a Linear Gradient that goes from the middle step to the lightest in the blend created in Section 1, Step 1. You'll be referring to that blend quite a bit throughout this tutorial.
Set up your composition
Use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a curved branch across your composition.
Creating new shapes within the design
Set the fill color of the branch to the same Radial Gradient used in Section 2, Step 4.
Apply a radial gradient
In the Appearance panel, apply a Drop Shadow  (Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow) with the following attributes:
  • Mode: Multiply
  • Opacity: 75%
  • X Offset: 0.03 in
  • Y Offset: 0.03 in
  • Blur: 0.1 in
  • Color: Black
Create a New Fill above the first in the Appearance panel and apply an Outer Glow (Effect > Stylize > Outer Glow) with the following attributes:
  • Mode: Overlay
  • Color: Light Yellow (the brightest color from your blend created in Section 1, Step 1)
  • Opacity: 100%
  • Blur: 0.2 in
The attributes and process for adding them in the Appearance panel will be used repeatedly throughout this tutorial. You can also add them to the lacy frame created in Section 2.
Using Drop Shadows and Outer Glows to create dimension
Draw two smaller ellipses with the Ellipse Tool that match the background ellipse and have the same Drop Shadow and Outer Glow as that applied in the previous step. Place them beneath the frame and branch objects, but above the ellipse background shape in the Layers panel.
Use the drawing tool of your choice (I used the Pencil Tool (N)) to create bush-like shapes in the bottom left corner of the design. Apply the same gradient to this shape from Step 2 of this section. Copy and Paste the shape a few times, layering them in the lower left corner. Apply an Outer Glow to the bush-like shape furthest to the back within your design.
Layer circles and shapes to create a small landscape
For an additional pop of light, draw a large shape (it could look as strange as the one I've drawn below, or could be a large ellipse or rectangle) with the drawing tool of your choice. Apply a Radial Gradient that goes from the brightest yellow of the blend created in Section 1, Step 1 at 100% to 0% Opacity with the opaque color in the center of the gradient.
Adjust the shape of the gradient with the Gradient Tool so that it's oblong and fits entirely inside the boundaries of the shape you drew. Set the Blend Mode to either Overlay or Screen in the Transparency panel and adjust the Opacity of the glowing shape as you desire. Place it behind the bush shapes drawn in the previous step in the Layers panel.
Adding radial gradients to create a quick glowing effect
Use the drawing tool of your choice (in this case, I used the Pen Tool) to draw a wolf, deer, swan, or unicorn-like creature, starting with the head and neck. As I prefer the most fanciful creatures, mine is a combination of three of those for this delightful composition. Draw the creature in profile, adding shapes that denote its body and limbs. When you're satisfied with your design, Unite all components in the Pathfinder panel.
Drawing fanciful creatures
Use the Rectangle Tool to draw small squares and the Direct Selection Tool to manipulate the anchor points so the shapes look more like diamonds. Select all of them and hit Unite in the Pathfinder panel. Select the body of your creature and hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel. Repeat the process with small circles and simply-drawn facial features on the creature.
Cutting out shapes within a design
Place the creature object within your composition. I nestled mine in the lower right corner and applied the gradient from Section 3, Step 2.
Placing fanciful creatures within your composition
Let's create a quick and easy bat for our custom brush.
  1. Draw a small circle with the Ellipse Tool and create a bat wing with the Pen Tool. You could also create the shape by cutting ellipses out of a trapezoid (I find it easier to draw it manually). 
  2. Copy and Paste the left wing and Reflect it over a Vertical Axis to create the right side.
  3. Draw two triangles for bat ears.
  4. Manipulate the angle and shape of the wings by either rotating them or editing the curve of each shape's anchor points with the Direct Selection ToolUnite your shapes in the Pathfinder panel.
Quickly drawing a bat
Select the bat and in the Brushes panel's options hit Create a New Brush. Choose Scatter Brush from the brush type list. Adjust the Scatter Brush's options (size, rotation, orientation, etc.) as you see fit. You can check out the settings I chose below. Whatever you choose, know that you can always adjust the brush even after it's been created and saved.
Create a custom scatter brush
Select the newly-made brush in the Brushes panel and draw a curving, swooping stroke over your composition. Adjust the brush as needed to get the amount and flight pattern of bats you'd like to have within your design.
In the Appearance panel, set the Blend Mode of the stroke to Lighten and apply an Outer Glow similar to the one created in Section 3, Step 3.
Use the bat brush within the composition
Draw additional bush-like shapes as we did in Section 3, Step 4. Add an additional glowing Radial Gradient shape by drawing an ellipse and using the same gradient from Section 3, Step 5 (it's a good step). Place it behind one or a couple of bush-like shapes and set the Blend Mode to either Overlay or Screen (and adjust the Opacity as wanted).
Use bright gradients as a glowing light
This is the third group of bush-like shapes. Much rounder than the other two groups, this one was also created with the Pencil Tool and serves to add depth in our spooky/weird forest scene.
Draw more groups of bushes
I nestled a circle, drawn with the Ellipse Tool, beneath the top frame piece (drawn during Section 2). Apply a Linear Gradient with midtones from the blend created in Section 1, Step 1. Optionally, add dimension yet again to this shape with a Drop Shadow.
Add a glowing moon
I added sparkly little stars strewn around my strange forest's sky. In order to see how they fill the composition easily, I drew a bright yellow ellipse (this is entirely optional, as it will not be carried over to the final design in any way).
Draw many, many little circles. Select all of them and go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Pucker & Bloat. Enter -17% so the circles Pucker a bit and become little sparkles. Expand them under Object.
Create sparkles from circles
Set the fill color to bright yellow, reduce its opacity a bit, and apply a subtle Outer Glow to your sparkle stars. I found it easiest to Group (Control-G) them together before doing this. Place the sparkle stars within your composition behind everything except for the gradient ellipse that's serving as the background.
Place stars in your sky
In the foreground, draw some swirly ghost shapes. Cut out their faces using the same method from Section 4. Apply both an Outer Glow and Drop Shadow to your ghost group.
Draw little ghost friends
Make those ghosts pop with another Radial Gradient circle placed behind darker elements within your composition. Use the same gradient and layer attributes from Section 3, Step 5.
Another glowing ball of light
Draw a large circle over the entire composition with a Radial Gradient set at a very light yellow or even white at 100% Opacity to yellow at 0% Opacity. In the Transparency panel, set the Blend Mode to Soft Light and Opacity to 50% or less. Doing so will centralize the imaginary light shining through your digital paper cut.
Lighten up the entire composition
You've probably noticed that throughout this tutorial elements are sometimes overlapping all over the artboard and other times they're neatly tucked away into the boundaries of the ellipse.
When you're done creating your composition, Group all of your components together. Draw an ellipse over your design (or Copy and Paste the background ellipse drawn in Section 1, Step 2). Select both the ellipse and your artwork group and Create a Clipping Mask (Control-7). Now your work has been non-destructively clipped to the boundaries of the ellipse.
Create a simple clipping mask
I hope you found this tutorial to be enlightening. By pairing gradients with Drop Shadows and Outer Glows, we've created a spooky forest design reminiscent of carefully cut paper shapes lit up by backing lights in a shadow box (just like grandma used to make!). Show off your illuminated designs in the comment section below.
The final piece


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