How I add grayscale details in Illustrator

Shivam Thapliyal
6 min readJan 14, 2018

Illustrations are fun and challenging thing to do at the same time. The level of complexity and details is what makes it nice to look at. 3 years back when I started illustration, I was pretty much dazzled by highly intricate work in illustrator posted by a lot of good artists on net. These had gradients, shadows, highlight and what not? I also managed to understand how make intricate work for some time and how one could make an intricate illustration in illustrator along with style of different material in monochromatic colour. Personally, Grayscale helps me understand the lighting, shadows and midtones well, making it easy to understand the stacking well. I would try explaining the breakdown and the flow involved in making the detailed illustration of Nikon D330 (Sorry canon). How one can add shadows, highlights and materials such as steel, plastic, matte and glass only using illustrator.


This is certainly the most important part of any other creative process. Observe. Arrghh, sounds boring, But here’s where the essence of detailing lies. The things which are overlooked or considered basic will help your illustration accentuate. Look at the shiny steel pins and soft matte texture. That is what needs to be observed. I generally see what all materials is my subject made of. Steel, plastic, and rubber were the basic ones in this case.

Colour palette:

It took a complete failure to understand the importance of colour proofing the colour palette which I took for granted at first. I noticed this when the complete illustration viewed on a phone didn’t have distinct colour separation in fills. So make sure you proof your colours either in screen or prints. I chose 4 shades of black which were clear enough to in screens. A major thing to remember is that you should never include pure white and pure black in palette. They are to be used at last for rim light/shine or shadows with opacity turned low. These colours are sampled from the image or you can even adjust some colours from other illustrations. It’s just eyeballing around.

Blocking out:

Blocking out is the most Brainstorming part of any work. It simply means to break you illustrations in subpart which will joined together work as a solution of bigger part. In my case, I was clear to merge many rectangles to make the lens barrel. I set up by making the shapes and adjusting the shapes only. If the element has more elements, break those down too into simpler elements and use a single solid coloured shape.

Here the concern is just to have the shapes right and now how they look. They are just flat and that’s ok. Just basic colours from palette needs to used to give a sense of depth. For steel, use the lightest colour like 20% black. Do this for every element. Take the object, break it down into simpler shapes, again, take the object, break it down.


Here the things gets a bit more interesting and nice. It’s time to add shadows and highlights. It’s important to consider the source of light in order to add depth. My source of light happened to be the left part. Therefore, the highlights are on the left while the dark shadows fall on the right.

Use block square of colour of different shade and tint to add depth. If you think you’re falling short of colours, you can use the brightest of the palette and darkest of the palette with various opacities. I personally like 3 levels of any colour opacity (25, 50, 75) to add highlights and shadows. This gives me 6 levels of detail! That’s so many, isn’t it?

Any part could be made using these kind of elements, shading, and shadows. The thing to notice is that plastic generally have sharp shapes, be it shadows or highlights while plastic or matte would have soft gradients to let them look rubber style or soft.

Gradients and Textures:

Fun part is here. How to make plastic look plastic and steel look steel? Well the secret is in how you make the gradients. The image below a broad classification of materials you might illustrate.

In matte, all ou details need to be in gradient form and very subtle in opacity. It should not be too harsh or give the object that edginess that plastic or steel does. If in some case you can’t add gradient, you can also use mesh tool or even simpler, use a blurred tone inside a clipping mask.

In plastic, use a lot of low opacity shapes which we will make it look shiny and that rim shine which we’ll cover in the later part.

Steel is my favourite and most fun part. The base here is medium gray and for shadows and highlights, use too white or too dark gray/black. Also, random blocks of high contrast shapes add that extra sense of sharpness

Cast Shadows:

Not that we have our elements textured and in place, it’s time to add shadows to make them work together. Essentially, we want to give a feel that one element is at top of the other or is casting shadow over the surface below it. Here, Use the darkest of gray or even the black we had reserved at various opacity to do so. Same concept is applied with highlights. Keeping in might the light source on left or top left actually. Look at the example below. I am using a dark colour at 30% opacity to maintain the sense of hierarchy. Element at top will cast a shadow on the one at the bottom of it. Using that, you can make sure your elements are in correct order or cast shadow which is a natural phenomenon .

Shine/rim light:

Now that our illustration has shadows, colours, textures, we are finished, so to speak, but not yet as the last part or the cherry on the cake remains. There’s nothing more satisfying about an illustration than those shiny edges it has and that’s probably the last step you’d need to follow that give you subject that super shiny effect to add surrealism.

Here are some example of shine I made using only stroke and a solid block.

The only way or the best way to add shine is by using a white stroke with taper profile. You’ll easily find it in stroke property. To even add more realism you can change from flat style stroke to gradient and mess around until you find that sweet spot.

The application of this is unlimited ranging from a shine to steel wires or glass edges. Try adding these for realism and that’ll be extra great.

Last part:

The only last part that remains, it to take the entire image in photoshop and add details and adjustments. You can add some gritty texture to the image and it’ll look very natural. You can experiment with curves, contrast or even add colour effects to give it a better or a sci-fi look. If you have any tips, tricks or feedback to give, do feel free to share down in the comments.


I just want to put a disclaimer that it’s just my personal thoughts and techniques I have practised and developed over last 1–2 years so take it with just a grain of salt.



Shivam Thapliyal

Writes about product illustrations and tech art. Product Illustrator at Swiggy. Ex-Flipkart.