Create a Light Painting, Bokeh Effect in Illustrator

  • Author: Anne Elster
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  • In this tutorial you will learn how to create an effect similar to Light Painting. Light Paintings are created in Photography, by using a dark scene (at night or in a dark room), a camera with long exposure and a light source, like a flashlight. You are basically painting something with a lamp in the dark.

    The effect is very interesting and unique. Here you will learn how to create an effect that is inspired by those light paintings. It is not intended to be realistic, but to have a visual impact on the viewer. The key to this effect are Vector Brushes and Blend Modes.

    Tutorial Details

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    Step 1

    We will start by creating a new document 10 x 6 inches, RGB.

    Step 2

    We will use two kinds of brushes to create the light painting: Art Brushes and Scatter Brushes. The Art Brushes will follow the movement of the light source and the Scatter Brushes will create a Bokeh effect around the light source.

    Let's start with the Art Brushes. The first brush will fade out at the beginning and the end of the path. Make a black Ellipse of any size, it doesn't have to be perfectly round. With the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) hover over the right and left corner, then convert the smooth corners into corners. You will have a sort of almond shape now. Reduce the height of the shape.

    Note: when you create the Brush, the height of the shape will define the stroke width. The height of the shape will be 1pt in stroke width.

    So because we want a small brush, which makes it easier to adjust the Stroke Width later on, we reduce until it looks good. You don't have to be precise.

    Step 3

    Duplicate this shape and make the new shape smaller - both in height and length, but it doesn't have to be proportional. Select the bigger shape and reduce its Opacity to 0%. With both shapes selected go to Object > Blend > Make Blend. Depending on your settings you get a different result now. Go to Object > Blend > Blend Options and choose Specified Steps, then enter 16.

    Step 4

    With the Blend selected, create a new Art Brush. The only setting you'll have to change is to change the Method to Tints. This will allow us to apply colors to the Brush later.

    Step 5

    The second Brush will be the main light, so it will be of the same width at all ends. For this create a Rectangle that is 6 x 0.2 inches. Go to Effect > Stylize > Round Corners and set the Radius to 0.1 inch.

    Go to Object > Expand Appearance and ungroup the object. Duplicate the shape and make the new shape smaller. Again, it does not have to be proportional, if it's a little uneven it will look nicer later on. Like with the first Brush, lower the bigger shape's Opacity to 0%, select both shapes and make a Blend.

    Step 6

    Select the Blend and create another Art Brush, with the same settings as the first Brush.

    Step 7

    The third Bbrush we create will be more random than the first two. Create another stretched almond like shape, as you did for the first Brush. Change its Opacity to 50%. Duplicate the shape and move it around a bit, while still overlapping the first shape. You can change its length. Do this another two times so you have some randomly placed shapes.

    Step 8

    Group those shapes and create yet another Art Brush.

    Step 9

    Below are the three Art Brushes we created.

    Step 10

    Let's continue with creating the Scatter Brushes. Create a circle of about 0,25 x 0,25 with 100% Opacity. Duplicate this shape and make it a bit smaller. Reduce its Opacity to 75%. Select both shapes and create another Blend. The center will appear brighter now.

    Step 11

    Now we'll select the blend and create a Scatter Brush.

    We want the Brush to be fairly small, so the Size will be below 100%. Spacing can be pretty varied, so let's just drag them to both sides. This brush will be close to our path later, so the scatter will be a small amount. Rotation does not matter, because we have even and circular shapes, so we will leave it at default. Set Mode to Tints again.

    Step 12

    I will try the Brush first. If I don't like how it looks, I will double-click the brush icon, enable Preview and change the brush settings until satisfied.

    I changed the setting and my Brush looks different now. There are more objects and they are closer together.

    After clicking OK, you get a warning message. Click Apply To Brushes to activate the changes on your Brush in use.

    Step 13

    Duplicate the Blend object. Open the Layers Panel and expand the Blend. Now select the smaller shape of the two. It should be the one on top. Set the Opacity back to 100%. Select the bigger shape and reduce its Opacity to 75%. This Blend is the inverted version of the first Blend.

    Step 14

    With the Blend selected, create a new Brush and use the settings as shown.

    Step 15

    I am going to adjust the settings of this Brush as well. It is important to always test your Brushes, especially the Scatter Brushes. There are so many variables in them that it is hard to get it right immediately.

    Step 16

    Select the two Brushes you just created and duplicate them by clicking in the panel's top right corner, then choose Duplicate Brushes. Apply the first one to the example path you drew. These brushes shall have a bigger bokeh. Because we change the Size, we will have to change the Spacing as well. Just use the settings as shown.

    Step 17

    Now apply the second Brush you copied to your example path. We also want this one to be bigger. Change settings as shown.

    Step 18

    And we are done with our Brush preparations! Here's an overview of the Brushes we just created.

    Step 19

    The colors of the light will be mostly orange, so in order to achieve a better atmosphere and contrast we will use a dark purple background instead of black or dark gray.

    Duplicate that shape and apply a Radial Gradient to it. Using the Gradient Tool, go from the middle of the shape slightly out of the horizontal edge of the canvas. Set the shape's Blend Mode to Soft Light and Opacity to 50%. This gives a nice subtle vignette effect.

    Step 20

    I made a loose sketch of the text. Remember we want to create a Light Painting. That means it was written by someone with a lamp, making huge movements using only one stroke, and mirrored. So, there is no need to be too precise.

    If you are not confident in sketching, you can use a Script font and loosely trace its stroke using the Pen, Pencil or Brush Tool. If you have a mouse or a tablet pen, it does not really matter.

    I will place the sketch on a new layer and turn it into a template layer. Create another new layer and name it "Type." Enable the check box Template. This will lower the layer's Opacity to 50%. Keep the bitmap file visible if you are working in pathview.

    Step 21

    I will use the Pen Tool to trace my sketch. You can see that I've done it rather roughly. I also created one path for each word, because I am not happy with the layout and want to arrange the letters in a better way.

    Step 22

    The "Light" letters shall be the most prominent part, so I will make it bigger than the "Be my".

    The letters still look a bit off. With consideration for all the people who do these light paintings for real, I will edit the letters. Therefore, I draw some horizontal lines. With the lines selected, go to View > Guides > Make Guides and turn them into Guides, and activate Smart Guides.

    With the Direct Select Tool, I will now move the path's anchor points onto the newly created guides. Smart Guides will help you with placing the points exactly on the guides. Some points are below or above their line, this is to slightly break the unity.

    Step 23

    Now we can start creating the final effect. Turn on the background layer again. And give the type a yellow-orange color.

    Step 24

    We will now turn our letters into one shape. The end of the "my" and the beginning of "Light" will be connected, so we will need more space between the two lines of text. Select "Be my" and move it up a bit.

    With the Direct Select Tool, select the last point of "my" and the first point of "Light" and press Command + J. The two paths will now join into one path.

    With the Pen Tool and Alt pressed, turn those two points into Smooth Corners. I have also added an anchor point in the middle of the path, which gives more control over the curve.

    Step 25

    Do the same with the last points of "Be" and the first point of "my".

    Step 26

    Now you have one ongoing path. Except for the titling over the "i" and the cross stroke of the "t" text. But we can neglect those for now.

    Step 27

    Select all three paths and open the Appearance Panel. Now apply one of our Art Brushes. I will use the second Art Brush we created. Open the Appearance and Transparency Panels and select the Brush Stroke. Change the Blend Mode to Screen. The "i" and "t" don't look good yet, so we will change the Stroke Width to 0.5 pt. This will give us nicer end points.

    Step 28

    This is how the lettering looks, now that we applied the first Art Brush.

    Step 29

    Duplicate the stroke in the Appearance Panel and apply a second Brush.

    With the paths and Brush in the Appearance Panel still selected, go to Effects > Distort & Transform > Transform and change the paths Horizontal and Vertical Scale to 97%. This will give the second Brush a different position.

    Step 30

    Duplicate this stroke and apply the last of our Art Brushes. Double-click on the Transform Effect in that Appearance Panel and change the settings as shown. This will add another location for our path.

    Step 31

    The light in the middle of the path is very intense now. This is because all strokes are the widest in the middle.

    Step 32

    In order to correct the intense light, we will adjust the stroke widths of each brush we applied.

    Step 33

    This looks a lot more pleasing now. But it will still need some adjustment.

    Step 34

    We will also do so by breaking up our path again. In order to keep the appearance of it being one stroke, we will separate it in places where many paths are overlapping each other. Use the Scissor Tool and cut the path into pieces.

    Step 35

    Now open the Graphic Styles window. Make sure you have none of the Brush Strokes selected in the Appearance Panel and create a new Graphic Style.

    Step 36

    We can add some more "glow" to our letters by creating smaller paths, that go roughly along our letters. Select the new paths, group them and apply the Graphic Style to them (the one we just created).

    Step 37

    You will notice some brighter spots where paths overlap each other. We can increase this effect by adding blends to it. Create a Circle filled with white and an Opacity of 0%. Duplicate that shape, reduce its size, and change the Opacity too 100%. Create a blend with the settings for spacing with Specified Steps set to 32.

    Step 38

    Turn on the layer with the type again and change the Blend Mode to Screen and 80% Opacity. Make the object smaller and place it where paths overlap each other. Do this multiple times.

    Step 39

    We can make this effect even more obvious by adding star-shaped bling to the letters. Create a white circle. Go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Pucker & Bloat.

    You will have a four tips star shape. If you would like more tips, you can manually add anchor points or go to Object > Path > Add Anchor Points. This will create one anchor point between every 2 anchor points of your shape. This means you will have a star with 8 tips, instead of 4 now.

    Step 40

    By using Pucker & Bloat every anchor point will create one tip. Below you can see how the tips are created by manually adding anchor points using the Pen Tool on a circle.

    Step 41

    I created two different star types. Change their blend mode to Overlay and the Opacity to 50%.

    Step 42

    Now place your stars over the Blends you created and placed earlier.

    Step 43

    Turn on the type again.

    Step 44

    Now we are going to add the Bokeh effect. Select one of the first two Scatter Brushes we created earlier and use the Brush Tool to draw along the letters. Use the same Stroke Color, as you did for the letters. I will change the width to 0.5 pt and the Blend Mode to Screen.

    Step 45

    Select the second small Scatter Brush and draw along the letters, this time using white. Now change the Stroke to 0.75 pt and the Blend Mode to Overlay.

    Step 46

    Now we will add some bigger bokeh Scatter Brushes. Select the third Scatter Brush and draw randomly. Again use the same color like you did for the letters. Set the stroke width to 2 pt, and in the Transparency Panel the Blend Mode to Color Dodge, and the Opacity to 50%.

    Step 47

    Do the same with a second path you create using the last bokeh Scatter Brush. Set the Stroke Width to 4 pt, and in the Transparency Panel the Blend Mode to Color Dodge, and the Opacity to 20%.

    Step 48

    In case you are not happy with the colors, you can easily edit them (if you have Illustrator CS3 or newer) by selecting all the objects and going to Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork.

    You can select every color used in the artwork and change it to a new color. By clicking Recolor Art you can see the change applied. It is rather easy to do, because we only used 1 color (other than white) for the light effect.

    Step 49

    As a final touch, we will add a simple glow behind the letters. Create a new layer underneath the type and above the background.

    Draw two rough shapes using the Pencil or Pen Tool: one big shape that goes over the edges of the artboard and one smaller shape that roughly follows the lettering.

    Step 50

    Change their Fill from Stroke to Solid. The bigger shape will have an Opacity of 0%.

    Step 51

    Select both shapes and create a Blend with Specified Steps, set to 256. Set the whole blend to Screen and 20% Opacity.

    Final Image

    The great thing about creating this effect with vector is, that you can always edit the look of your result afterwards. In the appearance panel you can edit every stroke separately and easily adjust the look of your work. I suggest you play around with the settings and see how you like it the most.

    If you want to be safe, you can always save the current look in the Graphic Styles panel and swap between styles by the click of a button. You can add and delete brushes or create new brushes and try out different settings.