How to Draw a Sunset Scene in Adobe Illustrator

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to create this Sunset Lake design in Adobe Illustrator using tools like gradients, mesh, the pen tool and the warp tool. This is an intermediate tutorial that moves quickly but beginners should be able to follow along and pick up some new techniques.

Free Starter File Download Link

To access the Neon Sunset palette including the pre-built gradients, illustration layer structure, and bonus seagull silhouettes, download the Free Starter File here:

Video Tutorial Chapters & Time Stamps

00:00 – Intro
00:39 – Creating the Sunset Sky Gradient
02:08 – Creating the Glowing Sun
05:17 – Creating the Water with Gradient Mesh
10:16 – Drawing the Shoreline and Trees
12:36 – Creating the Reflections
14:05 – Drawing in the Mountains
15:25 – Adding Clouds for Texture
17:15 – Final Adjustments & Bonus Birds

Video Tutorial Transcript

Today, we’ll be creating this glowing neon sunset design in Adobe illustrator. This is an intermediate tutorial, but beginners should be able to follow along and learn some new techniques. I’ll be providing a link to the free starter file in the description down below. If you’d like access to the full neon sunset palette, I’ll be using today as well as a layer structure to help you follow along.

I’m here in the starter file where our art board is 1920 by 1080 pixels, and if you open up your layers palette, you’ll see that I have the structure of the illustration already laid out. We’ll be starting on the sky layer, which just contains one rectangle that’s the same size as our art board with a white fill.
If we open up our swatches palette, you’ll see that I have the gradients pre-built that we’ll be using today, but I also have the swatches and I’ll just quickly run through how I made these. The very first thing we’ll do is the sky gradient with this background shape. So I’m going to open up my gradient panel here and click this middle option to apply a radial gradient.

I’ll also press G to bring up my gradient annotation tool on my shape. And we’re going to add four gradient stops so that we end up with a total of six, which you can do by clicking under the bar here or in your gradient panel. I’ll be adjusting the locations after we apply the colors. I’m going to double click on the first gradient stop here and start applying my sunset colors.

The top color group that you’ll find in the palette I provided is all of the colors for this gradient. I’ll be starting with this very light orange. The next stop will be this yellow orange. Our third stop will be this darker orange, right in the middle here we are going to apply this neon pink color and we’ll apply this bright purple and on the outer edges, we will do our very dark blue so that we get a vignette effect.
Before I adjust the color stops, I’m going to zoom out for a moment. Bring my gradient annotation tool back up, and we’re just going to squeeze this down and manipulate the gradient size and end point until we get it to a more oval configuration that fills the entire canvas. And then I will click and drag the bar and move this down just a bit so that it’s slightly below our midpoint.

Once I’ve done that I can start adjusting my color stops. Remember that you don’t need to worry about exact locations here. I can always go back and change this afterwards. What I want is just to center the glow around where we’ll build our sun and leave the darkest colors just on the outer corners.
You can also continue to adjust the end points and the aspect ratio until you have something that you’re happy with. We want our initial gradient to look something like this. Next we’ll create our sun shape. I’m going to select a white color here just to get our initial ellipse down and using your ellipse tool, which you can get by pressing L on your keyboard.

I’m just going to draw out an ellipse, I’ll lock that aspect ratio and make this about 450 pixels. I want to make sure that it’s centered to our canvas. And then I’m going to go ahead and manually drag it down about 90 pixels. So that it’s slightly closer to the bottom of the artboard. For the sun shape here, I’ll be applying a linear gradient.
So we’ll click that first option. The sun gradient will have three color stops. So I’ll bring up my gradient annotation tool by pressing G again, and click once to add a color stop. We’re going to rotate this gradient by 90 degrees. I want my top color stop here to be white, my mid color stop to be this very light yellow sun color.
And the very bottom of the sun gradient will be this deep orange color, I’m going to click and drag to adjust my end point and click and drag to adjust color stops until I’m happy with how the colors are blending. There’ll be mountains in front of the sun. So we wanna make sure that the orange color does come up over the horizon.
And we want our brightest white right around the edge of the circle so that we get that nice glowing effect at the top. I just want to note that if you’re following along with the starter file, I have set up color groups for each of these gradients and they are named appropriately. So you’ll see sun gradient with the set that we’ve just used to create the sun.

I’m going to open my layers panel and just drag the sun to the sun layer and lock the sky so that we make sure we’re keeping our file organized. Now to create the glow behind the sun, I’m going to select my sun and press control C or command C on a Mac and control F or command F to paste that back in place.
Now, I’ve got two identical copies of my sun shape, and I’m going to click in my layers palette to make sure I’m selecting the shape that’s behind the front sun. I’m going to scale that up using shift and alt or shift and option on a Mac until it’s around 640 pixels. And then opening my gradient panel here.
We’re going to convert this to a radial gradient by clicking this option. And we’ll be using almost the same combination of colors. So I’ll just start here. I know that the white is what I want around the edges. I know that the bright yellow should be right next to it. And instead of this deep orange, I’m going to use this lighter yellow orange in the sun glow color group.

Back in my layers palette, I’m just going to hide the front sun for a moment so we can see what we’re doing with this bottom gradient. And the one change I want to make so that this blends nicely with the sky background is to select my white color stop here at the very edge, go to the opacity dropdown and set that to 0%. And I’m also going to set the blending mode on this shape to overlay.

You can see that helps give it a more intense, glowing effect. And if we go back to our layers palette and turn the front sun back on, that will help us now adjust the glow. So going back into my gradient here, just going to bring up the annotation tool and zoom in a bit. What I want to see is this bright yellow ring, just hitting the edge of my initial sun shape.

So I’ll bring that in. We’ll bring the glow down just a bit so that it’s all inside the edge of the circle. And of course we can go back and adjust this once we’re further along in our image. Now that we have the base for our sun and sky, we’ll get started on our water. I’m going to grab my rectangle tool, going back into my layers palette here.
I’m just going to collapse the sun layer and make sure that’s locked and click on the lake layer to start drawing the rectangle for our mesh base. I’ll be using this dark blue purple to get started, and I’m just going to draw a rectangle that covers the bottom third of our art board. And I want to make sure that this extends to both sides.
Your rectangle should be around 3000 pixels by 360 pixels high. The base of our watercolors will also be a radial gradient instead of rebuilding this, I’m going to apply the prebuilt gradient that I have here. But if you’d like to manually build out the gradient, you can use this second color set called water gradient.

We’ll hit apply for this, and you can see that it closely mimics our sky colors. And I’m going to make a few adjustments to the end point. What I want to see is the pink purple colors hitting just about at the edges of the art board. Quickly, I want to make sure that this shape is actually vertically centered to the art board.
So I’ll use my shortcut here and readjusting this that looks like what we need to get started. I’ll also zoom out for a moment and adjust the aspect ratio down just a bit and clicking and dragging the bar. I’m going to move it up toward the horizon line, so that the strongest reflections are just under the sun.

To create the nice soft, wavy look of water, we’re going to turn this into a gradient mesh. First we’ll need to rasterize the shape by going to the object menu and clicking rasterize. You can set yours at any DPI you like for this, I’m going with 300 and just make sure that it’s still RGB color mode. Now that we have a raster shape, we’ll go back to the object menu and click create gradient mesh.

You’ll want to set this around six rows and 10 columns. You can leave the appearance at flat and the highlight at zero and click okay. Now we have a gradient mesh, which is essentially a collection of points within the same shape that we’ll be able to drag around and manipulate. And it’s almost like smearing paint.

One thing to note, when you use this technique after rasterizing a shape and converting it, you will get some white colors around the edges that we’ll need to go in and fix before we get started. I want tomake sure the edges are dark. So using my direct select tool, I’m going to drag a selection around the leftmost row of nodes here, and holding shift, I will click and drag around the right most nodes on the other end. Opening up my color palette here, I’m going to choose this darkest blue purple on the last row of our color set. We’ll also apply that to these two nodes at the top. And for this next row in where it’s pink, I’m going to apply a darker pink here.

What we want to see is an effect around the edges, where the colors are just slightly darkened so that we have some separation between our foreground and our background. I think that looks good for the top and we’ll make some manual color adjustments Once we start moving these nodes around. Gradient mesh can be super powerful for making all kinds of effects.

I know it can be a little intimidating for beginners, so this is a good introduction to something fun you can do with it. What I want to do here is start creating a selection of nodes that I’m going to be moving. I’m using my direct select tool and just holding down shift and clicking the nodes. I want to select.

I’m going to grab these seven nodes in the middle that fall within the range of our art board and holding down shift. I’m just going to drag these slightly to the right, so that you can start to see this blurred effect with our sunset. And I’m going to do the same thing with alternating rows going in different directions.

So again, just using my direct select tool, holding down shift, I’ll be selecting these nodes. And you can either drag or you can use your arrow keys to shift these points. I’m holding down shift again and hitting my left arrow to move this in 10 pixel increments towards the edge of the art board. And we’ll just alternate rows.
As I go toward the bottom. I’m going to shift the nodes slightly less and we’ll make some manual adjustments once we’re done. We just want a nice, smooth, watery, wavy look. I haven’t shifted anything at the top or the bottom, just the center. And you’ll already see that gives us a beautiful sunset effect with a nice glow on the water.

Now I’ll be going in and making some manual changes. I’m going to make sure that everything is locked except for my lake layer with mesh currently active. And that makes it easy for me just to select individual points. And either move them or pull their handles to affect how these colors are blending. If you press control H on your keyboard, you can hide the nodes temporarily to give you a little bit of a better preview of what your mesh is looking like.

When you select an individual point, you can change its color as well. I’m going to select this point here. And if I open up my palette, I can choose a white color just to brighten that highlight up a bit. What I want to do is really emphasize the highlight of the sun in the center row. So I’m using my lighter colors to bring that out.
And we want to make sure that the darker colors from the edge streak towards the center. So I’m going to grab just a couple of these edge points and bring them in. So we get that effect of those beautiful purples mixing with the oranges down in the bottom and get that really nice neon color palette throughout your image.
I’ll speed this part up a bit as I make some adjustments and I’m happy with the way that looks. So we’ll move on to the next step. I’ll open my layers pallet again and lock our lake layer. We’ll be working on the shore next. So I’ll select that layer. I’m going to grab this darkest blue purple and my pen tool, and clicking at the edge of the art board, I’m going to go down toward the sun, right about where it meets the horizon line back over to the edge of my art board and up to close that shape. I’m going to adjust that so it’s slightly thinner and we’ll draw a few more triangles for our trees. I’m using the same color for the trees as well. These can be really simple triangles.
I’m just going to duplicate my original a few times by holding alt and clicking and dragging with my mouse and then using my select tool, we will just go ahead and scale these a bit and move them around to give them a bit of variety. And I’ll add a few smaller trees towards the edge of the land and scale them down so that they look more like they’re in the distance.

I’m going to click and drag to select my land and my trees. I will copy them using control or command C and paste them back in place using control or command F, then I’ll hit O on my keyboard to bring up my reflection tool and clicking and dragging to the right that will mirror my selection horizontally.
And now I’ll just drag this over to the other edge so that we have a shoreline on both sides. I’m going to use the same technique that I used to mirror the land, to just flip a few of these trees around and manually make some adjustments so that the trees don’t look identical from one side to another.

Now, instead of leaving these trees as straight triangles, we want to give it a little bit of texture. So I’m going to select those and go up to my effect menu. And I’ll choose distort and transform and roughen. You can play with the settings here to get an effect that you like. I think about 3% for size and 6% for detail seems good.
Now, if you zoom out, you can see that those look a bit more organic, like regular trees. We’ll do the same on the other side, going back to our effect menu and hitting apply roughen. Now that I’m happy with my trees, I’m going to select both sides of the shoreline by holding shift and dragging out selections.

I’ll go up to my object menu and hit expand appearance. If I open up my layers here, I just want to make sure that nothing is grouped. It looks like nothing is. So I’m going to combine all of these shapes using my Pathfinder shortcut here in the properties panel and hitting combine. And now I will copy this shape using control or command C, go into my layers panel and lock the shoreline layer.

I’ll select my reflections layer and hit control or command F to duplicate that. Now I’ll hit O to bring up my reflection tool. And I’m going to click and drag from the top of the canvas. Holding shift and I’ll move this down to the water line. And for the reflection, what we want to do is go into our transparency panel and we’re going to switch this to color burn, and we’ll turn the opacity down to 48%.

You can see that applying the color burn over the water mesh makes a really cool effect that already gives us that wavy look, but we’re going to help that along just a bit using the warp tool. So I wanna go into my layers palette again, make sure the shore is locked. Everything except the reflection should be locked at this point.
And we’re gonna grab our warp tool here. I’ll set my brush at 60 by 60 pixels. I want the intensity to be about 30%. I’ve turned my detail all the way down to one. And my simplify all the way to 100, because I don’t want to be creating a lot of extra points as we do this warping effect. So we’ll click okay.

And I’m just going to work over the trees dragging in one direction, and then the other somewhat mimicking where we’ve pulled our mesh points. You can go back over if you want to warp things a bit more in one direction, and this should be fairly subtle and organic looking when we’re done. I’ll speed the rest of this up for you.
And once we’re done the tree reflections, have a really nice watery look to them. Now I’ll open my layers back up, lock the reflection layer, and switch to the mountain layer. For the mountains I’ll be using this red purple color and my pen tool. And I’m just going to make these very simple so that they’re not pulling detail from the foreground layers.

We wanna make sure that the mountains do go over the sun to cover up that horizon line. I’m just drawing some organic looking triangles. You can experiment with this until you have something you like and I’ll draw another range on the other side here. Again, making sure that I cross over the sun and end at the horizon line.
I’m going to turn the opacity of this shape down to about 80%, just to give it some variation and have it fade off as if it’s farther in the background than the left mountain range that we drew.

Maybe I’ll turn that back down to 70, and I like the look of that. I want to make sure that the sun is almost touching the water in the center there. So I’m just going to scale the mountain ranges to the sides, a bit to give the sun more breathing room. As you can see, this is a bit of a trial and error process.

just getting a nice organic mountain range shape that you’re happy with. We’re getting close to the last steps of our landscape scene here. Next we’ll be adding a cloud layer over the sky in the water, just to give a bit more texture. I’ll make sure that my mountains are locked and select our cloud layer.

Grabbing my pen tool, I’ll start off with the same color that I use to draw in the mountains. And I’m going to start off of the art board. I’m just single clicking so that I have sharp, straight lines. I’ll be drawing some long stretched out triangles that crisscross the whole sky. You don’t have to worry about blocking out elements because we will be adjusting the blend modes and the opacity of these cloud shapes.

I want to have about three groups of these spiky long clouds. Just make sure that there’s a couple of stripes going over the sun to help us fade it into that horizon line. So I’m happy with this configuration for now. I’m going to select all three of my cloud shapes and switch the blending mode to color burn.

Now I’ll knock the opacity all the way down to 18% and I’m going to adjust the colors here. The one that’s crossing the sun. I want that to be more of an orange or a pink color. So I’ll just experiment with colors from my palette until I find one that I like. I’ll adjust the opacity individually for different layers of the clouds, depending on how I want these to interact with the background color.

And once I’m happy with that, I will select all three shapes again, hit control or command C, control or command F, and once again, hitting O to bring up our rotation tool, I’ll click and drag vertically and switching to my move tool. We’ll just slide this down into the water and then scale it so that it fits our water shape.

And for these I’m going to change the color to more of a mid orange. And if I switch to trim view for a moment, you can see our image coming together. The cloud shapes really just adds some texture in the water and sky, and I’ll continue making a few adjustments here until I’m happy with the way that looks. Now one thing I want to go back and do in our water layer, I’ll lock the clouds for now and unlock the lake layer, and here where the colors are really bright and hot, I want to pick some slightly darker colors so that the color burn effect gives us a more realistic water reflection look. With color burn, you can get some really cool effects, but if your colors get too hot or bright, you’ll want to choose colors that have slightly less saturation when you get towards the shadows.

All right. I think that’s looking great. You could leave your image like this if you’d like, or you could add some details like a sailboat or some birds. In an upcoming tutorial, I’ll be using these seagull silhouettes as a demonstration for tracing images. These actually come from some photos that I took at the beach several years ago.

And I’ve included the seagull silhouettes in the starter file. If you’d like to use them for your own image, feel free. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. I know it was a bit of a longer, more involved one, but I’m really happy with the result, and I hope that we covered some new techniques that you can use in your own designs.

With images like this, there’s a lot of manual tweaking and back and forth. I probably spent an extra half an hour of tweaking colors and moving mesh points to get the final image that you see in the preview. But here I’ve covered all the basic techniques that I use to create this illustration. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments down below.

I’m always happy to help. If this was helpful, don’t forget to leave a like. I’ve got lots more tutorials coming. So I’d love it. If you subscribed and check those out, happy, illustrating, and have a great day.

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