Create Abstract Backgrounds

Abstract Thumbnail

I like illustrating characters, icons, and other highly representative illustrations. I do this kind of work the majority of time in Illustrator,  so it’s nice to break out and create abstract backgrounds. Abstract backgrounds are easy to create in Illustrator with a couple of simple techniques. Using Gradient Meshes, Steps Blends and Opacity Masks you can quickly create an abstract background.


This tutorial was created with Illustrator CS3.

Keyboard shortcuts are displayed in orange. ⌘ is displayed for the Command key (mac), with the Ctrl key being the Windows equivalent (not displayed).

Gradient Meshes

This is the technique that I find to produce the quickest results but has great potential for exploration.

First, draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (m). I start with a deep violet for the color, but use any color you like. Next, go Object > Create Gradient Mesh to bring up the Gradient Mesh dialog. In the dialog, change Rows to 10 and Columns to 1. Press Ok, and now the rectangle has ten rows separated by 11 Mesh Points on the left and right side of the rectangle.

Draw Rectangle and Create Gradient Mesh

With the Direct Selection Tool (a) you can grab and drag these Mesh Points. Start with the second Mesh Point from the top left. Hold shift, and drag the point up right below the first Mesh Point. When you moved the left Mesh Point, the connected right Mesh Point did not move, creating a curve. Next, do the same for all the other Mesh Points on the left side except the bottom one. Now,  You should have something similar the picture below

Adjust Mesh Points

With all these Mesh Points created, we can start added some different colors. With the Direct Selection Tool (a) select the third Mesh Point from the bottom on the right side of the rectangle. With the Mesh Point selected, change the color in the Color Panel. I like using a lighter version of the background color, but again, use whatever color you want. Next, I skip the next Mesh Point above and select the following one. Change the color, and repeat until you filled all the mesh points.

Change Mesh Point Colors

This is the most basic example of using Gradient Meshes. If you want to add more Mesh Points, use the Gradient Mesh Tool (u). With this tool you can add Mesh Points anywhere on the artwork or on any non-compound objects. In the example below, I used the Gradient Mesh Tool (u) and added points on the left side of the rectangle, changed the color, added a point in the middle of one of the lines, and changed that color.

Gradient Mesh Tools

You can easily get lost in moving Mesh Points and changing  colors in Gradient Meshes. Play around and see what you get!

Step Blends

Step Blends are another quick way to create an abstract background.  You might have used Gradient Blends previously  but maybe not Step Blends.

Again, start out with a rectangle, but this time make it a Linear Gradient (>). For the gradient I will use a dark and light green and adjust the gradient with the Gradient Tool (g), so the dark part of the gradient is at the bottom of the rectangle.

Rectangle With Linear Gradient

Next, use the Pen Tool (p) to draw a couple of lines. Draw the first line as a simple Bézier curve. Use the  Pen Tool (p) to draw the second line, but this time,vary the curves in the line.

Draw Lines

Select both lines and go Object > Blend > Make (⌘ alt/option b) to create a blend. Next go back to Object > Blend Options to bring up the Blend Options dialog. Pick Specified Steps under the Spacing drop-down menu. Depending on how your lines are spaced, pick a number that looks the best. It is a good idea to click Preview so you can see how it will look before you press Ok. You can always go back and change the number of steps if you don’t like how it looks. Just go back to Object > Blend Options to bring up the Blend Options dialog.

Make Step Blends

Combine more Step Blends to create different and more abstract results. This is a fun place to experiment with transparencies and different colors.

Add More Blends

Opacity Masks

In the previous tutorial Quick Reflections I talked about using Opacity Masks to create reflections. At the bottom of the tutorial I gave an example of experimenting with Opacity Masks. Next, I will talk about creating abstracts with Opacity Masks like in the experiment of the Quick Reflections tutorial.

First draw a shape with your tool of choice. I drew a shape quickly with the Pen Tool (p). Next, go Effect > Distort and Transform > Transform to bring up the Transform Effect dialog. Below are the settings I used, but feel free to tweak the setting depending on your shape and how it looks.

  • Scale
    • Horizontal = 75%
    • Vertical = 75%
  • Move
    • Horizontal =.25 in
    • Vertical = -0.5 in
  • Rotate
    • Angle = 45 degrees
  • Copies
    • 5 copies
  • 9-Point Proxy (the box with nine points above the Random checkbox)
    • Check the middle right checkbox on the 9-Point Proxy

The rest of the options can stay the same and press Ok.  You can always go back and edit the effect.  In the Appearance Panel, you will see Transform in the list when the transformed shape is selected.  If you double click Transform, it will bring up the Transform Effect dialog with the current settings, which you can edit. Once you have the effect the way you like, go Object > Expand Appearance. If you don’t expand the effect, the next time you try to rotate it, you might get some undesired results.

Create Shape and Transform

With the shape still selected, create a Radial Gradient from the Gradient Panel. Keep the swatches of the gradient the default Black and White and take off the stroke if there is one. Next, draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (m) that encompasses the transformed shapes. Take off the stroke, fill it with a color and send the rectangle to the back (⌘ shift ] ).

Radial Gradient and Rectangle

Next, select the rectangle and transformed shapes and select Make Opacity Mask from the pop-up menu of the Transparency Panel. Now you have some abstract art!

Make Opacity Mask

You can stop here if you like or you can take it further.  Copy (c) , Paste In Front (f), scale and rotate the artwork to get some different results. In the example below I created a background with a green color, changed the abstract to white, copied and scaled, and rotated a copies of the abstract. If you want to further edit the Opacity Mask refer to the Quick Reflection tutorial.

Copy, Paste, Rotate


Combine some of the techniques to get different results. Abstracts are the perfect place to experiment because it is abstract!

Combine Techniques For Different Effects

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143 thoughts on “Create Abstract Backgrounds

  1. Very nice article, i am just a beginner and developing my online bakery shop but i can learn a lot from this post, especially adding colors and backgrounds, thanks for sharing

  2. Thank you, its a great read. Just a quick question I have, is it possible to create such designs using adobe photoshop as well? or only illustrator is suitable for this job?

  3. Hey there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga
    group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Thanks

  4. I would like to thank you for these tutorials on the gradient mesh and the blend tool. Both have opened my eyes to create artistic and outstanding designs!

  5. I am no longer sure the place you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time studying much more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful information I used to be searching for this information for my mission.

  6. Wonderful, fast and effective tutorial. By far the best I have come across in terms of crispiness!! Thanks. Can we have more please??

  7. Hey Ryan, your tutes are so well put together! Very generous of you to share your knowledge. This tute is particularly awesome…THANKS!

  8. How is it that you get the pink lines (on the left side) to have an opacity… mine stick out really bad…

  9. Excellent tutorial. Quick, easy to follow, effective, and lots of room for experimentation. Helped me turn out a last-minute project in very short order. Keep up the good work!

  10. great tutorial. in response to one of the questions raised. if you want to apply color after adjusting the gradient mesh, only select point with direct selection, and make sure in your sidebar that the fill instead of the stroke box is on top. (do that by clicking on the fill icon.)

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  12. sorry no need for help’ i found what i missed and actually you should out it in the tut –
    the REALEASE of the mesh, which then makes it possible to change the color of the different mesh points.


  13. Rype thanks for the Tut,

    one thing i couldn’t do is color the mesh point after the change color phase.

    could you figure this out for me??

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  16. wow, this site is really great.
    this mesh tool tutorial was the first one i have ever made in illustrator.
    but i had a few problems concerning the tools usage.
    i can’t adjust the mesh points with the direct selection tool. i have to use the mesh tool. additionally i cannot hold the shift bar while moving the mesh point. then it automatically snaps to a point fixed in the grid. but i don’t know how to change it in the preferences. it’s not the option “snap to grid” etc.

    thank you so much for this tutorial.

  17. muchas gracias, Ive been trying to find out about lines and opacity mask y this is the best tut I found.

  18. Hi, i just want to know which typeface r u using in the buttons and labels of your page. I like it very much.

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  20. Zach,
    Make sure you are moving the Point with the Direct Selection tool. It sounds like you still have the Mesh Tool selected, that would create more points. Let me know if that worked.

  21. When i try to move the mesh while holding the shift key it does not move the mesh. It only creates more mesh points in the middle of the line

  22. realy nice./

    i just wanted to know how i could color in or do a gradient over my 20 blendes white lines like u did on the final image where the white lines are now a mix of *lightblue-white-with pink”

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  28. hey!!! its a gr8 tutorial.
    when i was trying to do i am kind a stuck in colors mesh wont let me add colors in it. can anybody please tell me how to sort this thng.

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    • Hi!
      I’ve being trying to do the color thing but I have the same problem!
      I’ve selected the mesh point and change the color of the line and the rectangle and do nothing.

  31. hey, im stuck, it wont let me add colour to the mesh. im sure its something simple but it just wont let me do it. please help. thanks

  32. Wow… nice tut! I do these types of backgrounds on a regular basis. You’ve raised some techniques that I have not tried. Bravo.

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