How to Build Artwork in 3D Relief

By John McWade
Before & After Magazine

Dateline: April 12, 2004
Volume 1, Number 7

We used Macromedia FreeHand to create this article, but similar results can be achieved with Adobe Illustrator, CorelDRAW or another vector-based illustration application.

Highlights are lighter than the color of the object. The highlight has 20% less black.

Shades are darker than the color of the object. The shade has 30% more black.

This disk was made by mixing process yellow (Y) and black (K).

10%Y, 10%K

10%Y, 30%K

10%Y, 60%K

How Light Adds Dimension

The effect of 3D relief is created by adding edges to a flat object. The edges are then colored light or dark to depict reflected light. An object will appear raised or depressed depending on the position of the highlight and shade relative to the light source.
Raised: Highlight towards light source Depressed: Shade towards light source

Light from a 45° angle above results in a natural place to divide an object into light and dark — at diagonals. The width of an edge determines how raised or how depressed an image appears.

Shallow: 2 pts. wide

Medium: 4 pts. wide

Deep: 6 pts. wide

There Are Two Techniques to Use Filled Shapes

Light and dark edges meet in corners which, to be accurate, should be sharply angled. To create real angles, objects must first be drawn, then cut, joined, filled and abutted (right), procedures which demand forethought and concentration. The results are terrific.

Lines with round ends
This way is easier. Up close, lines with round ends (caps) have only the hint of an angle, but step back and no one will notice. This technique is ideal for rendering small images and details — and it is the only practical way to outline odd shapes.

Why round ends? You’ll see: They align perfectly when cut, with no adjustment.

How to Draw Angled Edges Using Filled Shapes

This procedure is easier if you first select a grid size in the Document setup dialog (here it’s 3 points), then turn on Snap to grid and Snap to guides. Before drawing, set both Fill and Line menus to None.

1. Crisscross two ruler guides.
Deactivate Preview mode. Press the option key to draw a rectangle from the center out. Ungroup.
2. Draw a second rectangle
From the same center, draw a second rectangle 3 points larger on each side. Ungroup.
3. Split at corner points
Split rectangles at diagonal corners. Move lower lines horizontally 0p3 (use the Move dialog).
4. Connect one end of each set
1) Click to activate endpoint A.
2) With the pen tool, click on endpoint B.
3) Marquee at B and Join. Repeat this procedure with the second set of lines.
5. Close the shapes and fill.
Select one shape at a time; use the Element info dialog to close each. Fill 15% and 70% black. Move lower shape back. Preview.
6. Draw the top rectangle
Draw a rectangle directly atop the orginal. Fill 50% black.

How to Draw Edges Using Lines

1. Draw a box. Fill with 50% black.

2. Clone the box. Set the Fill to None. Under the Line menu, select a line Weight (here, 3 points) and round ends (Cap).

3. Split at corners. Split the rectangle at its diagonal corners. Color the lines 15% black and 70% black as shown.

Two-tone Circles

Transform plain circles into buttons or knobs by adding an edge of light and dark.

1. Draw 2 circles
Crisscross two ruler guides. Press the option + shift keys to draw two circles from the center out. Fill the inner circle with 40% black.

1. Draw 2 circles
Crisscross two ruler guides. Press the option + shift keys to draw two circles from the center out. Fill the inner circle with 40% black.

3. Close each half and fill
Use the Element info dialog to close each half. Fill top half with 15% black and bottom half with 70% black.

Irregular Curves

Use round-end lines to add the illusion of 3D relief to objects made of irregular curves. Note, however, that it’s usually impossible to divide an irregular curve into discrete areas of light and dark — two shades just aren’t enough! The solution? Fake it; adjust carefully — and consistently. Below, the right and bottom edges are predominantly dark, the left and top edges mostly light.

1. Draw and fill
Draw or trace a shape and Fill with, oh, green.

2. Clone the shape
Set the Fill to None. Select a line Weight (here, 1 point) and round ends (Cap); color a lighter shade.

3. Cut each line where you want to separate light from dark (use the knife tool). Darken the segments that fall in the shade.

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This article is excerpted from Before & After, How to design cool stuff, Issue 6. Copyright ©2004, Before & After magazine, all rights reserved. Design more cool stuff! Visit Before & After magazine online at to buy the current issue, subscribe, or order back issues, including the one containing this article. Get a free bonus issue when you subscribe in the Member Area.