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By Adam Oliver

Vector Shape Building – Part two – Bringing 3D shapes to life.

Last Updated 21 Jun 2018

In this blog post, the second in our series of vector shape building guides, we will be going through the process of adding depth and perspective to your shapes. Still working with fairly basic shapes like cylinders and cubes, but hopefully this guide will get you on your way to creating more advanced illustrations and icons. The process might differ slightly from program to program.

I will be using Affinity Designer to demonstrate the process, whilst also explaining the differences in Adobe Illustrator.

I will however be using some buttons and processes from the first part of this vector shape building tutorial so if you haven’t been through that, the link is here – Vector Shape Building Part One.

Once you have been through that, we can begin making some basic 3D shapes!

Cylinders, cones and prisms.

First of all, we’ll start with the easiest aspect of making a shape appear 3D – giving the illusion that a shape occupies a 3 dimensional space, with multiple faces.

The easiest shapes to create are cubes, cuboids, cones, cylinders and triangular prisms (basically a Toblerone bar). We will start by creating a simple cylinder from a side view, without any foreshortening or perspective.

See the gif below, followed by a step by step of the process.

The simplest way to create a cylinder is draw a rectangle to the length you want your cylinder to be, you then need to add your circular face to the ‘front’ and ‘back’ of the shape. And give the illusion that the two sides are facing different directions.

To do this you should make the back circle the same colour as the rectangle (or merge the shapes using the Add or Unite button depending which program you’re using). You can then add the front facing shape and give this either a darker or lighter colour depending on which direction the light is coming from.


A similar technique applies for a cone…


And a prism (the tobelerone packaging shape)…

You can apply this basic technique to most 2d shapes if you want to give the illusion of 3 dimensions from a side, above or below view of a shape.

Different viewpoints and perspectives

Now you can make a simple 3d shape, it’s time to make things a bit more interesting. To give more of a sense of space and a more dynamic illustration, you can use shape building to give the illusion of perspective or different viewpoint with your 3d shapes.

We’ll start with some simple foreshortening of a cuboid…

1: Start with a square, copy it, move it in the direction you want the rear of your shape to be positioned. Then shrink it down to the required size to give the illusion that it is further back than the front square.


2: Put a top on the shape. The easiest way to do this is by simply copying the front shape, then using the white selection arrow (convert the shape to curves first in Affinity Designer) to drag the bottom two anchor points over to connect with the rear square. As demonstrated below..


3: Use the same technique as the top to create the side, finishing the shape off.

There you have it, a bit of basic foreshortening using purely shape building. This again is an easy starting point, once you have this basic technique down you can experiment much further and create more advanced shapes, angles and really bring a 3d vector illustration to life.

Utilising gradients

Gradients can be a very simple and effective way to give your shapes the illusion of three dimensions. Adding a light to dark gradient can make your shape look like light is hitting it from a certain direction.

This tranformation is most evident when adding a gradient to a boring old circle…

1. Pick a colour, then pick a lighter tone and darker tone of the same colour.

2. You can then create a gradient using these colours – from light to dark, adjusting the colour positioning in the gradient toolbar. You want the midtone to be slightly closer to the lighter tone so adjust this accordingly.

3. You also want to ensure that the gradient is set to radial and not linear. Then drag the gradient so that the light colour is in the position you want the light to be hitting, with the dark colour on the opposite edges of the circle.

4. You can then play around with the positioning of the gradient to give different light effects. Dragging the blend position between the colours with the different handles, you can alter the point where darker/lighter colours come in. And there you have it, a 3D sphere from a simple circle.

Using shadows and highlights

In this section I’ll be using shadows and highlights to enhance a shape that’s already 3d, a little bit of extra light or dark on a shape can give the illusion that light is hitting the object in a certain way.

If you look at metallic or shiny surfaces, you’ll notice that certain areas that protrude more will be almost white as they reflect more light. The same goes for areas that recede more than others. Thinking about these extra highlights and shadows can add another level of depth to your basic gradient lighting effects.

Here’s the technique in practice, let’s make the classic Super Mario pipe from a cylinder shape:

1. First we start with a cylinder, then we copy and paste the top circle. Then resize this circle to give the illusion of the the inside of the pipe. As seen below…


2. Next let’s add our first highlight to the rim of the top circle. I find the easiest way is to copy and paste the circle twice… then move the second pasted circle up slightly. Subtract it from the first pasted shape (as we did in Shape Building Tutorial p1) and this should leave a crescent shape that fits nicely along the edge of the rim. Now simply adjust the colour. There’s your first highlight.


3. Next it’s time to give the metallic look that the pipe needs. You can do this by using a gradient of 3 or 4 colours. I find that with a cylinder shape it’s best to go from dark, to light, to dark again. This makes it look like the shape is curved. I tend to add a fourth dramatically brighter tone in to show the lightest point, as with the highlight in the previous step.


4. It’s now time to apply the same effect to the inside of the pipe too, this time using darker colours to represent the lack of light.


5. Now, it’s time to create the longer cylinder for the pipe itself. I found in this case that the easiest way was to copy the top cylinder and place that underneath, making it narrower and longer. You can however if you wish, create a new cylinder and use the same gradient techniques as in the previous steps.


6. As with the highlight in step 2, the addition of shadows can really bring a vector drawing to life. To create this effect just use the same steps as the highlight, but instead of choosing a lighter colour, go darker. I created this effect below by again subtracting one shape from another and altering the colour of the remaining shape.

And there you go, a pipe that Super Mario himself would be proud to jump into.

Put it all together

Have a play around with combinations of gradients and shapes, it’s amazing how simple shape building can make more complex looking illustrations.

I created Tony Stark’s “Arc Reactor” from the Iron Man films/comics by combining metallic looking gradients and “glowing” gradients and shapes with minimal lines or pen tool drawing involved. Here’s a quick layer by later gif to show how the layering of simple shapes and gradients can create something that looks a little more advanced…