How to create a cartoon-like elemental sword in adobe illustrator

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial I’m going to show you how to create your own cartoon-like Elemental Sword that might come in handy in future projects.

The tutorial will mostly rely on the use of the Pen Tool and some other easy functions that Adobe Illustrator has to offer. So let’s get started!

1. Setting Up Our Document

Open up Adobe Illustrator, and create a new document either by using the Control‑N shortcut or by going to File > New.

Once the pop-up window appears, set up your document as follows:

new document-settings
  • Number of Artboards: 1 (as we will only create one illustration)
  • Width: 640 px
  • Height: 1400 px
  • Units: pixels (as we will be creating for the digital medium)

And from the Advanced tab:

  • Color Mode: RGB (digital screens)
  • Raster Effects: Screen (72 ppi)
  • Align New Objects to Pixel Grid: checked (as we want everything to look pixel crisp)

Quick tip: raster effects control the way drop shadows, textures and other effects display on different media. If you start creating for digital but at the end of the project you decide you want to print the design on paper, you will need to make sure that the Raster Effects are set to a minimum 300 ppi value. The quickest way to do so is to go to Effect > Document Raster Effects Settings and from the Resolution section change it to 300.

2. Layering Our Document

As with any detail-oriented illustration, I really like to layer the parts that make it up, so that I can easily access and edit the sections I need.

Assuming you have some basic knowledge on how layers work, go ahead and create eight layers and name them as follows:

layer numbering and name addressing
  1. background
  2. sketch
  3. shadow
  4. sword handle
  5. blade
  6. hand guard
  7. gradient overlay
  8. texture

You might have noticed that some of the labeled layers seem to be inversed from a logical perspective (the blade and hand guard), but that’s only because we will need the blade to be positioned under the hand guard layer.

3. Sketching Out Some Rough Lines

Once we have our document set up and layered properly, it’s time to start drawing some rough lines that will help us build up the actual illustration. If you have a tablet or you’re really skilled with the mouse, you can start drawing straight into Illustrator using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B). On the other hand, if you prefer using the traditional pen and paper combination, you can easily scan and import the sketch into Illustrator afterwards. It’s all up to you.

In my case, I will go fully digital, and start laying the outline of the sword straight onto the sketch layer.

Before we begin, I would like to point out that your lines (both the sketched and the traced ones) don’t need to be perfect. As you can see, the illustration follows a more cartoony style, with lines that break the natural, realistic form factor, and by doing so create something that looks as if it came out of a children’s book.

rough sketch of the sword

4. Defining Our Basic Shapes

Step 1

Once we’re finished with the sketching part, it’s time to define the three base shapes that will compose our sword. We will do so starting with the handle, so go to the sword handle layer and start tracing with the Pen Tool (P), using the sketch as a guide.

handle basic shape tracing

Quick tip: Make sure the shapes overlap by securing the anchor points go just a few pixels towards the inner portion of the nearest shape, so that no unwanted white spaces might appear.

arranging handle sections

Use the Arrange function (right-click > Arrange) to position the shapes under or on top of one another, so that each form can be clearly viewed.

As you can see, we will color the main form using a dark brown tone (#633B3B), and the bottom segment using a slightly lighter one (#875050). For the gem stone, we will use #A6E0A6 for the outer section and #C6F4C6 for the inner one.

Now it’s a good time to check if our anchor points are properly snapped to the pixel grid so that our design will look pixel crisp. First we need to switch to Pixel Preview (View > Pixel Preview) and make sure that Snap to Pixel is on.

using Pixel Preview

Where you encounter anchors that did not snap to the grid, just grab the Direct Selection Tool (A) and force-snap them by simply clicking and dragging them. I recommend either repeating the process as you go along or leaving it for the end as a retouching stage.

Step 2

Once you’re done with the lower part of the illustration, move up to the hand guard and do the same simple tracing of the sketched outline as before. For colors, we will use the lighter brown (#875050) on the main shape, and the darker tone (#633B3B) for the middle portion holding the green stone.

Use #9BD19B for the stone’s background form and #E1FFE1 for the inner, lighter section.

hand guard basic shapes

Step 3

Finish up the basic sword by tracing the blade and coloring it #EFD5D5.

blade basic shape

Once you’ve finished working on the simple shapes, you can hide the sketch layer, as our illustration is slowly taking form.

5. Adding Small Details to the Sword's Handle

At this stage of our process we will work on each layer at a time and refine the look of our illustration using simple forms created with the Pen Tool.

Step 1

The first thing we need to do is add a grip to our handle. Grab the Pen Tool (P) and create five rectangles at different angles and sizes, and color them using #452929.

sword handle grip creation

Group them (Control-G) and then create a clipping mask by copying (Control-C) and pasting (Control-F) the handle section on top of them. With both the group and handle selected, right-click > Make Clipping Mask.

Next, select both the grip and the handle and send them back so that the delimiter can show through.

sword handle send the grip to back

Step 2

Using my image as a reference model, draw two shapes and color the underneath one using #633B3B and the one on top using #452929. As with the grip, copy and place the shape underneath and create a clipping mask so that the crack won’t go all the way out.

bottom handle delimiter wood crack

Step 3

Grab the Pen Tool (P), set the fill color to white (#FFFFFF), and then draw a shape that has the bottom margin almost parallel with the direction of the bottom handle delimiter. You can go as angular as you want to with the lines, but always make sure they go all the way outside the shape underneath. We want them to be that way so that the clipping mask can give them the shape of the object underneath, instead of trying to accomplish the same thing using the Pen Tool (P).

bottom handle delimiter highlight unmasked

As you can see, we now need to mask the newly created shape and make some little adjustments to its opacity and blending mode. First let’s mask it so that it will fit the segment underneath it. Simply copy (Control-C) and paste (Control-F) the brown delimiter on top of the white object and then, with both of them selected, right-click > Make Clipping Mask.

bottom handle delimiter highlight masking

Using the Direct Selection Tool (A), select the white object and then using the Transparency panel, set its Blending Mode to Overlay and its Opacity to 40%.

bottom handle delimiter masked

Draw another object, using the same color settings as before, and position it towards the top-left side of the handle delimiter.

bottom handle delimiter second highlight

Now it’s time to add a little shine to the gem stone. Use the same technique as above, but this time create a diagonal at a different angle, as shown below.

bottom gem stone highlight

Step 4

We’re almost done with the handle layer; all we need to add are the shadows. Grab the Pen Tool (P) and start drawing a new shape, coloring it black (#000000). Change its Blending Mode to Multiply and its Opacity to 40%.

sword hand guard bottom shadow unmasked

Copy the shadow (Control-C) and then double-click on one of the rectangles forming the grip to enter Isolation Mode. Once in isolation, simply paste (Control-F) the shadow on top of the rest of the objects. By doing so, you will eliminate the need for a secondary clipping mask.

sword hand guard bottom shadow masked

We will create similar shadows for the lower sections of the handle, so that in the end you will have something similar to this.

handle bottom delimiter shadow masked

I’ve selected the objects so that you’ll notice that they each use different clipping masks formed by the objects that are underneath them.

As with the highlights, we will add a secondary shadow segment that will add to the cartoon-like effect. Select the Pen Tool (P) and create a short segment, color it #5E3838, and position it towards the lower right side of the handle delimiter.

bottom handle delimiter secondary shadow

Since we’re done with this layer, we’ll move up to the next one and repeat many of the actions we applied above.

6. Adding Details to the Sword's Hand Guard

Step 1

The first thing we will be creating on this layer is the string that keeps the smaller gem in place. Starting from the outer region of the sword’s guard, draw two diagonal objects with different widths, and color them using a darker brown value of #4D2E2E.

sword hand guard string unmasked

As you can see, the objects need to be masked so that they don’t go outside of the guard’s surface. Simply copy the object underneath on top, and right-click > Make Clipping Mask.

sending the hand guard string to the back of the gem

Once the clipping is made, the string will be positioned on top of the gem. To correct this, simply select the gem, and then right-click > Arrange > Bring to Front.

Step 2

Draw a simple pair of triangles and color them using #804C4C as the base color, and #6E4242 for the triangle on top. With both of the objects selected, use Control‑G to group them, and then copy them into the clipping mask used on the string, so that the edges that protrude outside get masked.

adding small wood chip to the swords hand guard

Step 3

In order to add some pop to the guard, we will create a somewhat choppy highlight that will go across almost half of its surface. We will use the same Blending Mode (Overlay) and Opacity value (40%) as we did before. The only key difference will be in the fact that the wood chip and the string will need to be positioned on top of the highlight rectangle as follows.

sword hand guard highlights

We also need to add a highlight to the gem itself. Try to vary the lines by creating a diagonal that opposes the one created for the bottom gem. Set the Blending Mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity to about 60%.

small gem stone highlight unmasked

Make sure you mask the highlight by copying the darker piece of the gem on top and creating a small clipping mask.

small gem stone highlight masked

Step 4

To finish up this part of the illustration, we will add a short piece of shadow on the bottom-left side of the sword’s guard.

Using the Pen Tool (P), draw a long, pointy object, and color it using #5E3838.

sword hand guard shadow segment

7. Adding Details to the Sword's Blade

Step 1

To create the shoulder of the blade, we need to draw a rectangle that has a pointy top anchor, and color it in a lighter shade (#F7DFDF), as it would normally be closer to the eye, and any actual sun light.

sword blade shoulder basic shape

As you can see, due to the fact that the blade is positioned on a layer which sits underneath the guard’s layer, the bottom section of the shoulder will end up being hidden. Even so, we still need to create a clipping mask so that the shape won’t go outside of the blade.

Next, try to add a center section and a ring, color them using #C4A5A5, and make sure they are inside the same clipping mask we created for the shoulder.

sword blade guard details

Step 2

As with the gem stones, the blade’s highlights will be angled slightly more, each section overlaying and emphasising the one underneath.

The first highlight should start at just about the middle of the blade and go slightly outside it.

sword blade first highlight unmasked

Copy the newly created object into the same clipping mask as the shoulder, and make sure to change the Blending Mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity to 14%.

sword blade first highlight masked

Create a second highlight, this time at an even stronger angle. Set the same Blending Mode and Opacity, and then copy it on top of the first one.

sword blade secondary highlight masked

The last highlight we need to add is right towards the top of the blade. Try and draw an arched segment, then change its Blending Mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity to 30%. Make sure the new object is on top of everything else and then copy it next to the rest of the highlights.

sword blade top highlight segment

Step 3

The first shadow we’ll add will be about a quarter of the way up from the blade’s base. It will follow almost the same angle as the highlight above it, but we will need to color it using a darker tint than the one of the blade (#E8CFCF).

The second and last shadow will go above just about half of the shoulder segment, and will use black (#000000) as the color, with the Blending Mode set on Multiply and the Opacity lowered to 10%.

sword blade bottom shadow unmasked

At this point, the illustration is almost done, so all we need to do now is add a background, some texture, and a few other little things to make it shine.

sword illustration with complete details

8. Color Adjusting

You might wonder why the color scheme used until now is almost completely different from the one of the final image. Well that’s due to the gradient that I have overlayed on the final design as a way to enhance some of the colors.

Step 1

First, we need to copy the base forms of the sword (the ones we created at the beginning: the blade, the guard and the handle) and paste them onto the gradient overlay layer.

basic shape duplicating

With all of the objects selected (Control-A) use Pathfinder’s Unite function to create one single shape.

basic shape uniting using pathfinder

Step 2

Next, select the newly created shape and turn it into a Linear gradient with the following values:

  • Angle: -90
  • Left Gradient Slider color: #FCEE21 / Location: 0% / Opacity: 100%
  • Right Gradient Slider color: #F15A24 / Location: 100% / Opacity: 100%
sword gradient settings

Step 3

Now, all we need to do is change the Blending Mode to Color Burn and lower the Opacity to 22%, and we should have an interesting shift in colors.

sword gradient with Color Burn overlay

9. Adding Texture

To add more details to the illustration, copy the attached texture file (you can find the download link in the sidebar), paste it onto the texture layer, change its color to white (#FFFFFF) and then create a Clipping Mask (as we did with some details of the sword) so that it will only go over the sword itself and not outside of it. Also, make sure to vertically and horizontally central align it using the Align panel.

adding basic texture to the illustration

Quick tip: always check how the alignment is made by looking at the Align To dropdown. If, for example, you want to align elements to one another, use the Align to Selection option, and if you want to align to the actual artboard, well I think you get the idea.

10. Adding a Background

We will be drawing two different shapes for the background. I found that using a rectangle with similar angles and distortions to the sword would create a more interesting feeling to the illustration.

Step 1

So, using the Pen Tool (P), draw a shape that seems to open up more towards the top side. Color it using #3B2323 and make sure to place it on the background layer.

adding the distorted background

Step 2

Because leaving the rest of the surrounding space white might give it an unfinished look, we'll grab the Rectangle Tool (M) and create a full document width and height shape (640 x 1400px) color it using #452929, and then send it to the back of the Artboard (right-click > Arrange > Send to Back).

adding the full width and height background

11. Adding a Background Shadow

To finish up our illustration, we will create an inner shadow confined to the boundaries of the smaller background segment. To do so, simply duplicate the shape from the gradient overlay layer to the shadow layer and change its color to #2E1C1C. Move it a few pixels towards the lower right corner of the artboard and then, using the background shape as a mask, hide any parts that go outside of it.

creating a mask for the background shadow

That’s It!

You should now have a cool illustration that you can use however you like, and most importantly learned some useful stuff along the way.




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