In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to create this Sunset Lake Scene in Adobe Illustrator using tools like gradients, mesh, the pen tool, and the warp tool. This is an intermediate tutorial, but beginners should be able to follow along and pick up some new techniques! You can find the full video version of the tutorial here:
Free Starter File with Sunset Palette 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:
Step 1: Creating the Sunset Sky Background with a Radial Gradient
We’ll start by building our sky layer with a single radial gradient. You can use the colors below or start with the premade gradient swatches in your starter file. Adjust the size and aspect ratio of the radial gradient until you have a large oval that leaves the darkest blue just around the outer corners of your artboard. (Skip to Video Chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtmje9OH9Y&t=39s)
Step 2: Create a Glowing Sun with Ellipses and Gradients
Next, we’ll create the glowing sun shape. Be sure to keep your file organized as you are working. If you are using the start file provided you can lock the Sky layer and move to the Sun layer. We’ll be creating two simple circle shapes with the ellipse tool and applying gradients as shown below. (Skip to Video Chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtmje9OH9Y&t=128s)
For the back sun shape that creates the glow effect, we’ll switch the blending mode to Overlay.
Step 3: Creating the Water Colors with Gradient Mesh
Once our sun is in place, we’ll move on to creating the base shape for our water. Once again, we’ll be starting with a simple rectangle shape and filling it with a radial gradient. The colors echo the palette we see in the sky, with hues shifting slightly cooler and more saturated. The initial rectangle should cover the lower third of your artboard and have plenty of extra room on the right and left sides. (Skip to Video Chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtmje9OH9Y&t=317s )
When your water rectangle looks similar to the result above, we’ll convert the shape to a gradient mesh. First, we’ll need to rasterize the shape by selecting it, going to the Object menu, and selecting Rasterize. Choose your resolution, set the background option to white, and make sure the color space is set to RGB. Now we can convert the raster shape to a mesh by selecting it, going back to the Object menu, and selecting the Create Gradient Mesh option.
The settings I’ve used here are six rows by ten columns, Flat for appearance, and the highlight is set at zero percent. You’ll see some lighter colors around the edges of the mesh, so I’ll go in with my Direct Select tool and make a few manual adjustments to the colors of the nodes. I want the colors to be slightly darker than the sky background so that there is some contrast right at the horizon line.
After you’ve adjusted the mesh colors, we’ll make the wavy look of the water reflection by selecting groups of points in each row and shifting them to the left or right, alternating between rows. Again, use your Direct Select tool and hold Shift while clicking the points you’d like to select. You can shift the point by dragging your selection or by using the arrow keys to have more control. Holding Shift while using your arrow keys will cause the points to move in large increments.
When finished your mesh should look similar to the example below:
Step 4: Drawing the Shoreline and Trees with the Pen Tool
Now we’ll move to our shoreline layer. To create the land and trees, we’ll be using the pen tool to draw a few simple triangles. For the base of the land, draw a shortened triangle from the edge of the artboard, the horizon point where the sun meets the waterline, and back to the edge of the artboard to complete the shape. (Skip to Video Chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtmje9OH9Y&t=616s)
Then add a few more triangles of varying sizes on top of the land shape to create the base for our trees. Once you have the tree shapes drawn, select them and add an effect to give them a more organic shape. I suggest using either the Roughen effect or the Zig Zag effect as seen below:
Once you have an effect you are happy with, select all of the trees and the land shape and group them, then duplicate in place using the Copy and Paste in Front commands. Bring up the Reflect tool by hitting O on your keyboard or choosing it from the toolbar, then drag the selection from left to right to mirror it horizontally. Now you can drag it into place on the right edge of the artboard.
Step 5: Creating the Reflections and Making Waves with the Warp Tool
Before we create the reflections, you’ll want to combine all of the trees and land on both sides into a single compound shape. Select them all, ungroup, and use the pathfinder Combine option to create a single shape. Now we’ll duplicate that shape, then using the reflection tool again, mirror the shape vertically. Adjust its position so that it sits perfectly at the horizon line. (Skip to Video Chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtmje9OH9Y&t=756s)
For the reflection layer we want the colors to blend into the water below, so in the transparency panel, set the blend mode to Color Burn, and adjust the opacity down to 48%.
Now we’ll add the wave effect to the reflection layer using the warp tool with the settings shown above. With only the reflection shape selected, use the warp tool to drag gently back and forth over the shape.
Step 6: Drawing the Mountains and Clouds
To add detail to the background, we’ll draw in a few mountains and some subtle atmospheric cloud shapes. You can use the pen tool for these and again we’ll be making very simple straight-sided shapes. Be sure to draw on the appropriate layers to keep the file organized and the elements in the correct order.
The mountains should go behind the shoreline and in front of the sun. Here I’ve used a warm mid purple from the swatches provided and dropped the opacity of the right mountain range to give it the appearance of being further in the distance. The mountain ranges frame the sun and bring attention to the center point of the image where the sun is setting on the horizon line. (Skip to Video Chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mtmje9OH9Y&t=845s)
The cloud shapes should be a collection of loose, stretched-out triangular lines that cross the entire artboard. For these layers I’ve switched the blend mode to color burn and dropped their opacity, experimenting with orange and purple fill colors that blend well with the sky and water backgrounds.
Final Results & Bonus Bird Silhouettes
If you’d like to finish off your image with a focal element you can experiment with adding something like a sailboat or a flock of birds. In the stater file provided, you’ll find a group of seagull silhouettes I’ve created. Feel free to use these in your designs.
Please let me know if you have any questions, I’d also love to see what you create using these techniques!