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How to Create Retro Gradients in Illustrator

Diana Hlevnjak June 15, 2021 · 9 min read
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If you’re anything like me, you love color. And if that is so, you already know that color has special powers. What do I mean by special powers, you might ask? There are many studies that explain how color impacts our minds and behavior.

I will keep it simple here and just say that certain colors evoke certain emotions. Maybe that is the reason why gradients are trending in the design world today.

What are Gradients?

A gradient is nothing more or less than a smooth transition from one shade of color to another. So what makes them so intriguing is the color choice represented in the artwork. It is as simple as it gets: color speaks to us subconsciously and evokes certain emotions.

Cool colors make us feel nostalgic, calm, maybe even sad, while warm colors may spark enthusiasm, energy, and happiness. This is a very much simplified view of color psychology, but you get my point.

Gradients in Web Design

Another reason why gradients found their way into our lives is that they are abstract in form. Because they consist of only colors, gradients can be implemented very easily. They can stay in their simple, abstract form, or they can become figurative and elaborate. Because they are so versatile, we can include them in websites and applications to introduce the “wow factor” without much trouble or effort. The fastest way to engage an audience is through color.

If you’re a web designer and don’t have the skill or time to create gradients from scratch, you can always get premade Landing Page Gradients that will save you time to focus on what you do best.

Gradients in Branding and Packaging

Gradients have found their way into branding and packaging as well. And very successfully so. Their colorful abstraction is perfect for brands to send their message without actually having to say much. A picture is worth a thousand words, even more so when empowered with thoughtfully matched colors and shapes.

Gradient blurs

Gradient Logos

You might not expect to find gradients on logo marks. After all, you’re breaking all the rules if you go “nuts” with colors on a logo. The rules state that you should create the black and white version of the logo mark first and then introduce the color version. Colors need to be “clean” and simple; no more than 3 color hues should be represented in a logo mark.

Or is it so? Yes, there are rules, and they were made a long time ago when the most common version was black and white. The color was used for an occasional print in color, which was pricey and each additional color hue cost more to be produced in print media. This is why the colors were not welcomed in logos. These days, however, we live in a digital world where most logos never leave their home (website, social media) and the cost of printing in color has significantly dropped. So it is safe to say that rules can be broken now and logos can finally have the colors they deserve.

Gradient Logos

Gradients in Illustration

Vibrant shapes in abstract forms are fascinating, but for me, the magic of gradients is in their easy transformation! They are perfectly adaptable. The elusive shape of color can become a story of its own if you have the imagination to see it. I often use gradients as a backdrop for my illustrations and I am certainly not the only one. Plenty of talented illustrators had realized the strength of color and how it can emphasize their work. Nature is the most common subject because of the gradients in the sky that naturally descend on sunsets, but they can be applied to any subject, including still life and people.

Gradients In Illustration
Space Voyage vector typography and illustrations

Tips on Creating the Coolest Gradients

Smooth color transition or “gradient” in all its simplicity and complexity is the ultimate tool for designers to enhance their projects. They can choose from vibrant/bold colors to pastel/holographic hues. They can choose from cold to warm tones and shades or mix them all. There are no rules when it comes to colors.

While I do believe that, in this particular case, rules are meant to be broken, I still think that a few simple tips can help make gradients look extra vibrant or “alive.”  Just like in these trendy gradients.

TIP 1: Avoid using browns in your gradients. This will occur if you match a warm color like red with a cold one like green. The space in the middle where the smooth transition connects the two colors will turn in a brownish hue that will take away the colors’ clean, crisp look.

It is really important what happens in the middle area where two colors meet. If you see these unattractive grays and browns, it means that these two color shades just don’t match that well together. Instead, try to match two cold or two warm color hues. You will notice that the middle area displays clean, vibrant colors that make for a much better impression.

Tips on gradients

TIP 2: Be careful when mixing two different color saturations. If you use a high vibrancy color, match it with another equally vibrant color. Don’t mix vibrant and pastel color hues unless you really know how to match them well. It can look good if done right, but it can also look a bit “washed out.” If that’s your plan all along, then it’s a good match; but if you were trying to go in another direction, it is safer to go with matching vibrancy color shades.

Tips on gradients

TIP 3: If choosing colors isn’t your strongest point, don’t be discouraged! There are plenty of resources out there that will help you choose the best color combinations. That way, you will have one less thing to worry about.

Create Your Own Gradient in Adobe Illustrator

If you’re in for some DIY experiments, I will show you how to create a very simple but effective circular gradient. I went with a retro theme, so I decided on a bright yellow and pink color combination. That seems to speak “retro” to me, but you can choose any colors you wish.

STEP 1: Create three circles with the Ellipse Tool. The first circle is the largest and it should be transparent. Use a Transparency panel and bring the opacity to 0%. The second circle will be placed on top of the first one, making it a bit smaller, like 70% or so. Color this circle in a shade of your choice. On top of that second circle comes a third one. This one will be even smaller and, again, of a different color. Now that you have all three circles, you can shift them a little so that they aren’t centered but a little more dynamic.

how to create a gradient step by step

STEP 2: Use the Blend Tool to merge them. You will find the Blend Tool by navigating to Object then moving to Blend – Blend Options. This will open a Pop-Up with further directions; what you want to choose is Specified Steps. I entered the number 50, but you can play around with these steps and choose less. Steps are simply the number of times these circles will multiply so that we can get the effect of smooth color transitions. If you choose fewer steps, you will see less smooth color transition, which can look interesting. If you want the seamless transition of colors, your best choice is a higher number of steps.

how to gradient step two
how to gradient step three

STEP 3: After the blend tool has made its magic, you will get a good-looking circular gradient with a nice smooth color transition. You can call it a day and be happy with what you’ve designed, or you can experiment a bit more. I love to add something extra to the design, just to make it more interesting and dynamic.

Duplicate this gradient shape, make it somewhat smaller, and place it on top of the previous gradient. You can move it around a bit, just to make it more interesting. Go back to your Transparency panel. Select the duplicated gradient and choose the Overlay effect. It might not look great, depending on the colors you have chosen. In my case, given the colors I used, I was very happy with the results. If you don’t see the wow factor with the Overlay effect, try choosing any other effect from the Transparency panel, and you will most definitely find the right match.

how to gradient step four
how to gradient step five

NOTE: If you’re using Adobe Illustrator CC, you will most likely come across these stretched lines all over the gradient from the Blend Tool. You can ignore those. The lines will not be visible in the final file export. They are only visible on your working .ai file. It will make your life more difficult because it’s harder to see how the final result looks without exporting it in png. or Jpeg. file format. If you own older versions of Illustrator, you will not have this occurrence.

Congratulations! You have made your first gradient! As I said before, rules can be broken, and you can have fun with shapes, colors, and transparency effects to achieve your best designs.

Retro Gradient Completed

With this, you have completed your retro gradient design. Once you try it a couple of times, you will soon get a feel for what works and what should be avoided. To sum it all up, keep an eye on the colors you choose, match them well, use a blend tool for smooth color transitions and introduce Transparency that will give your design that much-needed spark of vibrancy.

You have now learned the theory, and now it’s your turn to make this into practice. It’s all about rinse and repeat, so don’t be discouraged if you are not satisfied with your first attempt. After all, repetition is the mother of all learning.


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Diana Hlevnjak

Illustrator and designer. Editable vector graphics and templates with PNG raster images suitable for Canva

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