Illustrator Tutorial: Give Your Flat Text Some Depth

It’s been quite awhile since I have put together a tutorial using Adobe Illustrator. I’ve been working with Illustrator a lot more recently and decided to share an easy tutorial that will give your text some depth and make it pop off the page/screen a little more. I’ve used a few of these techniques before in my tutorial “Feature Post Logo” that I wrote last Spring. In that tutorial the finishing touches showed how to use the pen tool to add some shading to the text. This tutorial shows you another technique to achieve a shadow on your text.

STEP ONE – Open Illustrator, Create a New Document and Set your Text

step1-smI started out by creating a new document. Most of the time I use graphics for the web; however, there are times when my clients require the artwork for business cards, letterhead or other print collateral. So, you might want to create the new document profile for “print”, so that you don’t have to recreate the artwork if the client needs it for print.

After you have setup your new document, grab your text tool and set your type. For this tutorial, I used one of the great script fonts from House Industries…Sign Painter (House Script). This font isn’t free, but if you look around free font sites like; you should find something that works for you. One thing to note, is that you can use any style of font…I just chose a script font for fun.

I set the font size to 100 point, so that I could shrink it down later on for use on the web. If you use a script font you may need to bring in your tracking a little bit so that the letters flow together a little better. If your layers palette isn’t open go to: Window > Layers and get it opened. Once it’s open click the arrow on the left of the layer name “Layer 1″ and make sure you see the text. You’ll need to see these items as we go along. Once you’re happy with the type…it’s time to move onto step number two.

STEP TWO – Create Outlines

step2-smThis step is very easy, and there are two ways to go about accomplishing the task. The first way and probably the easiest is to right-click on the text and choose “Create Outlines”. Simple right?

Well, if you wanto to know exactly where in the menu this command lives…I’ll show you that too. You go to the menu bar and select Type > Create Outlines. You can also choose to use the key command which is listed in the menu: CMD/CTRL+Shift+O.

STEP THREE – Give the Text a Bit of Tilt (Optional)

step3-smThis step is completely optional. I like to make script fonts look a little bit italic, because it gives it a feeling of motion. Since there isn’t an italic style for this font; I have to do it myself. To give the text a bit of a tilt in Illustrator it’s very different from Photoshop. You have to go to the menu bar under Object > Transform > Shear…

Once you select ‘Shear’, it will bring up the options window and here you can choose the options you want.

I use the following settings for this tutorial:

  • Shear Angle: 15° Degrees
  • Axis: Horizontal

By default ‘Preview’ is unselected. If you want to see what the text will look like before committing, you’ll need to select ‘Preview’ first. Once you’re happy with the transformation of the text…you’re all set to move onto step number four.

STEP FOUR – Change the Fill Color and Add a Stroke

step4-smIf you don’t have the ‘Control’ bar open, now is the time to get that bad boy opened up. Go under the menu bar: Window > Control and click it to get it opened. Grab the Selection Tool (black arrow) or hit (v) on your keyboard and select the type. You’ll see at the top left of the ‘Control’ bar there are two boxes and one should be black, the other will be white with a red slash. The black box is your text fill color, the other box is the stroke color.

For this tutorial I changed the fill color and stroke color to 30% gray and change the stroke weight to 4pt. That option can be changed to the right of the stroke color.

STEP FIVE – Copy Text and Nudge it Over

step5-smThis step of the tutorial is going to give the text a makeshift drop shadow. It’s very straightforward and easy to do. With the text selected we’re going to make a copy of it and paste it on the canvase, but it’s not going to be a normal paste of the object.

To copy the text you can use the key command or do it from the menu. The key command to copy is CMD/CTRL+C or to copy from the menu the command is under Edit > Copy.

After you have copied the text we need to paste it onto the canvas. As I mentioned though you don’t want to just paste it, because Illustrator has a habit of putting objects wherever it pleases. What we want to do is ‘paste in front’ of the copied object. To do that the key command is CMD/CTRL+F or via the menu bar it’s under Edit > Paste in Front.

After you have pasted the text nudge it with the arrow keys up and to the left twice (hit left twice, then up twice). You’ll see that your text now has a bit of a three dimensional look to it…this is what we want.

STEP SIX – Time to Add a Little Bit of Color

step6-smWith the top text layer still selected we’re going to copy and paste in front of the last layer.

After you have pasted the text in place, go ahead and change the color and the stroke. Change the stroke weight to 2pt…and you’re done with this step.

As we move along, these steps are going to seem repetitive but be sure you follow along so you don’t miss something.

STEP SEVEN – Add a Gradient Layer

step7-smOnce again we’re going to copy the active layer and paste it in front of the last one. After you have pasted your text, open the gradient tool window under the menu bar: Window > Gradient.

By default the gradient colors are set to make a gradient from black to white, and this is what we’re looking for. Unfortunately, Illustrator CS3 (which is what I’m using) doesn’t allow for transparent gradients, but Illustrator CS4 does. It’s not necessary for this tutorial, but if you’re looking for it you’ll need to upgrade.

Once you’ve selected the gradient you’ll want to leave it set at ‘Linear’ and change the angle to -90° degrees. This will give us a gradient that is black on the bottom and white on the top. Once your gradient is set open the transparency window: Window > Transparency. We’re going to change the Blend Mode to ‘Multiply’ and the opacity to 50%. If you used a script font, chances are that your gradient may not blend between letters properly…don’t worry, we’ll fix that next.

STEP EIGHT – The Magic of the Pathfinder

step8-smThe pathfinder tools are extremely cool and will allow you to do all sorts of interesting effects. Some of the options are a little touchy, but with some practice you should be able to figure out how to use them properly in no time at all. So, the first step here is to get the pathfinder window opened: Window > Pathfinder (CMD/CTRL+Shift+F9).

Once the pathfinder window is open you’re going to want your gradient layer selected, then you want to choose the top left icon. If you hover over it with your mouse it will say ‘add to shape area’. Click on this option and it will make all of the letters one element and the gradient will appear as it should.

Once you’ve done that, go up to the transparency window. Change your Blend Mode to ‘Multiply’ and the Opacity to 60%. Once you’re done, you should have a smooth transitional effect on the text like the image to the left. Leave that pathfinder window open…you’re going to need it again.

STEP NINE – Let’s Find Some Shade (Part One)

step9-smSorry for the cheesy title, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. With the gradient layer selected, copy and paste in front once again. Now you need to lock all of the other layers below (leaving the most recent layer), so you don’t edit them by accident. Then copy that top layer and paste in front again.

After you have pasted the layer, nudge it up once and left once. With your selection tool, drag and select both layers and change the fill color to Black.

After you’ve changed the fill color right click your mouse and choose ‘Ungroup’.

STEP TEN – Let’s Find Some Shade (Part Two)

step10-smThis step of the tutorial is tricky at times, so it’s best to take it one letter at a time. For instance, if you click the image to the left you’ll see that I have selected only the ‘G’. Since the ‘G’ is separate from the other letters if I were to select both layers and use the pathfinder’s ‘Subtract from Shape Area’ function all of the other letters would be deleted and we’d be left with just the difference on the ‘G’…this is not good.

In this tutorial, since I used a script font and all of the letters are one element except for the ‘G’; I can do this in two steps. If you’ve used a font where there’s separation between the letters then you’ll need to do one at a time as mentioned above. So, I start by dragging a selection over the first letter and make sure it has selected both layers. Then go to the Pathfinder and click on ‘Subtract from Shape Area’, after you’ve done this you should see just a small sliver of the letter where they didn’t overlap. If your letter looks like this, then you’ve done a good job grasshopper. Repeat through all of the letters in your text, and then once you’ve completed that go back up to the Transparency window. Select all of the slivers and group them (CMD/CTRL-g) and change the blend mode to ‘Multiply’ and the opacity to 50%.


final-smYou’re all finished! If you’ve followed along through the process; your image should look fairly similar to the image to the left. The techniques in this tutorial range from beginner to intermediate, so if you don’t get it right away don’t beat yourself up. Give it another go, and try to figure out what went wrong.

When all else fails, you can still send me an email and I can try to figure out where the issue is. As always, I appreciate your feedback and comments on the tutorial. Thank you for taking the time to go through the tutorial and visiting If you’re looking for any other tutorials, be sure to check out the Tutorials page.

~ GrandmasterB