Illustrator Tutorial: Basic Backgrounds

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Program: Illustrator CS4
Skill Level: Beginner

Learn how to make these!

Backgrounds are important: they set the stage for your app. Without a good background, the rest of your app cannot shine.

The tricky thing about backgrounds, however, is that they need to be subtle but not boring, which is not as easy as it sounds.

An example of a nice background

Take a look at some apps you think are really attractive (or check out this list). Pay close attention the the backgrounds – they don’t distract from the content, but they are not a plain color.”But those are made by professionals”, you say. How am I supposed to make something like that for my app?

You can. You might not be the Michelangelo of the digital world, but by the end of this tutorial, you will definitely be able to put together a functional, attractive background.

I’ve had to make a lot of backgrounds for our own apps as well as Ray’s tutorial projects. Through trial and error and some panicked scouring of the internet for clues, I have learned the key ingredients to solid, attractive backgrounds (maybe if I’d gone to art school they would have taught me!).

The key ingredients of a good background are:

Base Color + Gradient Overlay + Texture

It’s as simple as that.

We are going to make the background that you see here, in the title screen for Mole Whack. This tutorial doesn’t cover title text or cute mole character – just the background.

Green title page for Mole Whack!
Every page must have a good background to build upon.

1. Create your artboard

Open a new document and choose your artboard size. For iPad, this is 1024×768 pixels. iPhone retina is 640×960. I made this one for the iPad, so I used 1024×768.

open new document dialog
Open a new document with an artboard sized for your background.

Note the landscape and portrait orientation icons on the right. That’s just an easy way to switch the width and height without having to retype them.

2. Make a rectangle with a color fill.

Press M And Drag

a rectangle is drawn in Illustrator
Draw a rectangle slightly bigger than your artboard.

Press M to choose the Rectangle tool (or select it from the toolbar).  Click and drag to create a rectangle.Make the rectangle bigger than your artboard.

This is because when Illustrator saves the artboard as a PNG or JPEG, it sometimes is off by a half a pixel (they fixed this in CS5).

If you make the rectangle the same size as your artboard, you will get a transparent edge on one or two sides.  I get around this by simply making the rectangle bigger than my artboard.


Select The Fill

Select the fill in the Appearance panel

Give the rectangle a green fill by selecting the fill in the Appearance panel…


Select A Color

Swatch panel
Choose a color from the Swatches panel

…and then clicking one of the green swatches in the Swatches panel.


Check It Out!

A green rectangle
Your background so far.

This is your background so far.

It’s boring right now– but don’t worry, we’re about to jazz it up!


3. Add a gradient fade fill

There are several ways to create gradients, but I like to choose a base color and add a gradient fade (a gradient that goes from a color with 100% opacity to the same color with 0% opacity) on top.

This way, I add shading while keeping my options open for future changes.

And there are always changes!

For example, on this background if I decide to change the gradient to shades of red, all I have to do is change the base color fill rather than painstakingly change each gradient color stop. You’ll see this in action later.

Add A New Fill

Add new fill button
Add a fill to the rectangle.

Click “Add new fill” at the bottom of the Appearance panel.


Open The Swatch Libraries

The Swatch Libraries icon
Click the Swatch Libraries icon in the Swatches panel.

Open the Swatch Libraries dropdown menu…


Open The Gradient Fades Swatch Library

Swatch Libraries
Choose Gradients > Fades.

…and choose Gradients>Fades.


Choose A Fade

Gradient Fades
Choose the first fade, “Fade to Black 1”

Select a Fade To Black.


Edit The Gradient Type

Gradient Panel
Change the type of gradient and click the Reverse Gradient icon.

Change the gradient Type to Radial, and click the Reverse Gradient icon.

This gives you a ring where the outer edge is dark and the center of the circle is transparent.


Edit The Gradient Stops And Shape

Gradient Annotator
Edit the gradient directly using the Gradient Annotator

Type “G” to bring up the Gradient Annotator on your rectangle.

Drag the black diamond to increase the size of the gradient; drag the black circle (at the top of the dotted perimeter oval) to make the ellipse thinner or fatter.

Drag the innermost gradient stop over to the right so that the oval has a larger area of transparency in the middle.


4. Add a texture fill

Adding a texture or pattern creates visual interest that makes the background read as “real” to our eyes rather than flat and boring. Illustrator has a built-in set of texture patterns that, being vectors, can scale up or down infinitely without losing crispness. We will be using one of these texture patterns.


Add A Fill

Adding another fill
Add yet another fill!

In the appearance panel, add another fill.


Open The Pattern Swatch Library

Pattern library pulldown
Select the Texture patterns

Go to the Swatch Libraries icon again, and choose Patterns > Basic Graphics > Basic Graphics_Textures.


Enlarge The Thumbnails

Texture pattern swatches
Too small? Make the thumbnails larger!

I don’t know about you, but those thumbnails are way too small for me to make out any detail.

Go to the dropdown arrow in the upper right and choose Large Thumbnail View.


Test Them All!

Texture pattern swatches
Try out all the different patterns.

That’s as large as they get. I usually just start clicking them to try them out. For this background, I chose “USGS 21 Intricate Surface”.


Lower Opacity

Transparency tab
Lower the transparency of the pattern fill

Now lower the opacity. Make sure the pattern fill is still selected in the Appearance palette, then go up to the Transparency tab and lower the opacity to 14%.

The key to texture patterns is subtlety. You want them to contribute to a nice background, not be a visual distraction to the main event.

Here’s the background so far:

Green background
Green background with fade and texture

Almost done!

Enlarge The Texture

Right click and go to Transform > Scale

For this background, I decided that the texture needed to be bigger. You can scale patterns themselves (rather than the object along with the pattern), which is very useful.Right click on the rectangle. Select Transform > Scale.

Uncheck Boxes and Enter Scale Amount

Transform dialog
Transform just the pattern!

Uncheck every box except “Patterns”.Enter a percentage you want the pattern enlarged. I wanted to double it so I input 200%.

If you want to shrink it, enter a percentage less than 100.

Click Preview to see the effect before committing. If you like it, click OK.

You are done! Check out the result below:

The finished background, ready for title text and cute characters!

If you want another color, change the bottom fill: Select the solid color fill in the Appearance palette, and then click a new swatch from the Swatches panel. Alternatively, you can click the dropdown arrow next to the solid color fill’s thumbnail in the Appearance palette, and either select a swatch or use the color mixer in the window that opens.If you want another texture, change the texture fill. I created the dirt background image for Mole Whack by changing the base color to brown and the texture to Mezzotint Dot (result shown below left).

All of the following options were created in seconds:

Four combinations of color and texture
Mix and match colors and patterns to get the background you want!

Tips and Alternatives:

  • Try some premade gradients.
    Illustrator's gradient fills
    Try out (and tweak) some premade gradients

    If you don’t like the look that the gradient fade fills give you, try some of Illustrator’s gradient swatches.Find them by clicking the Swatch Library icon and go to Gradients > Brights.

    Cycle through them by clicking the right and left arrows.

    This is an easy and fast way to get a gradient that you can then tweak to fit your needs.

    The example to the left has the purple gradient shown, with the Mezzotint Dot pattern on top at 11% opacity.

  • Try a Linear Gradient Fade
    Three different fades over a teal solid fill and a pattern fill.
    Left: radial Fade to Black – Center: linear Fade to Black – Right: linear Fade to Center Black

    Make your gradient fade linear (go to the Gradient tab and change the Type from Radial to Linear).Try different fades, like Fade to Center Black. Type G to bring up the gradient annotator so that you can tweak the gradient directly.

  • Try different blending modes
    Find the Blending Modes in the Transparency tab.

    Try out different blending modes for your gradient fade fill and your pattern fill. Make sure to select the specific fill in the Appearance palette before changing its Blending Mode in the Transparency tab.

    Here are a couple of examples of how blending modes can affect fills. In the first, we have an orange base, a radial fade, and a gradient fade with a blending mode of Color Burn.
    In the next example, we have a purple base, a pattern fill with a blending mode of Color Dodge, and a linear gradient fade with a blending mode of Color Burn.

So what are you waiting for? Go make yourself some backgrounds!

If you have another tip for easy, nice background effects, share them in the comments!

15 thoughts on “Illustrator Tutorial: Basic Backgrounds

  1. Shawn Grimes says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. I’m slowly building my illustrator skillset by reading your tutorials. I don’t have much yet but I am getting a better understanding of how the tools work together to produce powerful results. I can’t wait for more of these!

  2. Alexandre Cruz says:

    Awesome Tutorial, your family is a blessing for all of us. I’ve learned so much from your husband, now you teach me too! Thanks for the effort and dedication!

  3. Joe C says:

    I second Jake’s comment. As a developer, it’s hard to visualize the design side of a complete, visually attractive application. You make it almost look easy and painless, two things I know it’s not, especially when I’ve spent weeks looking for this exact information.

    Thank you

  4. vwenderlich says:

    I’m glad the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way has helped you! It’s certainly not easy and painless, you’ve got that right, but it’s also not beyond anyone’s ability to design an app – so if these tutorials help, I’m very happy :]

  5. janett says:

    Thank you so much this tutorial, very easy to follow and really really helpful. Thank you again Vicki Wenderlich. Please email me on any new tutorial.

  6. Spencer says:

    I can’t believe how easy this is! I instantly replicated the Mole Whack background without any problems and I’m going to try my hand at some other backgrounds.

  7. Umair Ahmad says:

    Really Awesome Tuts by Wenderlich family.
    Hats off …
    I learned game development from Ray and now learning designing from Vicki because they are really good.

  8. Segal says:

    Thank You! You’ve helped me so much with your tutorials, I can’t thank you enough. Wishing you and your family the best!!!!

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