Illustrator Experiment: Making a Hummingbird

By Maria Grønlund

I always enjoy exploring new features in Adobe Illustrator CC and seeing what I can create with them! In one of my latest experiments, I used Illustrator’s Dynamic Symbols feature to create shimmering, colorful feathers, which I used in an image of a hummingbird—this tutorial will show you how I did it.

Using Dynamic Symbols, you can create a master symbol and then create multiple instances that retain a link to the master symbol, so changes to the master symbol are automatically applied to all the instances. It works great for feathers.

I’ve outlined each step of this experiment, and although there are many steps, each one is easy to follow for anyone who has a basic familiarity with Illustrator. Try it out, and then enjoy exploring on your own.

I used this photograph of a hummingbird as a guide for the shape of the body, wings, eye, and beak, and I used Illustrator’s Dynamic Symbols feature to create its “feathers.”



First, make the basic shape of the feather: Create a 1.5-weight stroke as shown (1.1), move the stroke by selecting Object > Transform > Move (1.2), repeat that action (by pressing Command-D) until you have 18 strokes (1.3), and then group the strokes by pressing Command-G.


Next, apply a Warp Bulge Effect (Effect > Warp > Bulge). Set the Vertical Distortion to –22% (1.4). Then apply a Warp Arc Lower Effect (Effect > Warp > Arc Lower). Set the Vertical Distortion to 100%.


Turn your group of strokes into a Graphic Style by selecting Window > Graphic Styles (to make sure Graphic Styles are visible) and then click to create a new Graphic Style. Name the group Feather.


Add a Linear Gradient (with the angle set to zero) to the group (2.1). The three color values I chose were #00c4ca, #00ffd4, and #00ffd4. Next, draw a rectangle (width: 25.5 pixels; height: 26 pixels). Add your Feather Graphic Style (add fill: #000000). Send it to back (Object > Arrange > Send to Back).

Align the two parts by selecting Horizontal Align Center and Vertical Align Center (2.2), select Object > Expand Appearance, and group the objects (Command-G); then rotate the group –25 degrees.


Now make six copies of the feather. Choose Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform, move it 70 pixels horizontally, and enter 6 in the copies field. The feathers must then be expanded: Obejct > Expand.


Ungroup the feathers (Shift-Command-G). Apply new gradient colors to the three feathers to the left and the three to the right of the master feather. I chose values in a similar palette, as shown.

I blended the feathers to allow for gradual transitions in the plumage colors.

Choose Object > Blend > Make. Press Backspace-Return-W to adjust the number of blending steps, and set the number of steps to 1. Expand the Blend (Object > Blend > Expand). Ungroup the feathers (Shift-Command-G).

Add each of the feathers to the Symbols Panel (Window > Symbols).

In the Symbol Options window, make sure to choose Dynamic Symbol as the Symbol Type. This allows you to modify an instance of a symbol without modifying the master symbol.

The plus signs on the feathers indicate that they are now converted to symbols.


The hummingbird’s body parts are fairly simple to craft. First, draw a simple wing shape (use the Pen tool or any tool you prefer). I added a Linear Gradient, with the angle set to zero, with the color #726572’s opacity set to 25%, and with the color #000000’s opacity set to 100% (as shown).

Apply the Transform Effect: Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform. Insert the values shown here in the Transform Effect contextual dialog box. Voilà! You have a wing.

Expand the wing (Object > Expand Appearance), and then select Effect > Stylize > Feather to apply the feather effect to some of the feathers, in order to create a distance blur effect.

Make a copy for the second wing. (You can adjust proportions and effects on this later when it’s applied to the bird.)


The eye is made of two oval shapes. I used a Linear Gradient fill for both ovals. The first oval was #000000 and #00a6ca, with the angle set to –62.3 degrees. I added a 1-point stroke (color: #61828b), and then I added a second 1-point dashed stroke (color: #2c4055) to the eye from the Appearance palette. I offset the second stroke by 1 point (Effect > Path > Offset Path).

The second oval’s Linear Gradient colors were #48617e, #c7c7d8, and #ffffff.

You can use the reference picture as guide when you draw the beak (4.1). Convert the shape to a Gradient Mesh (Object: Create Gradient Mesh) with these settings: Rows: 3; Columns: 3; Appearance: Flat. Apply light gray hues to the second row in the Gradient Mesh, except for the last mesh point on the right. (The gray hues I used were #8c9ca5, #e3e3e3, and #9394a4.)

The foot (4.4) is simply made of two ovals. Use the Shaper Tool to exclude the small overlapping circle by scrubbing over the area. This will create a hole in the middle of the first oval.


Now to the interesting part: the feathers! To make things easy on myself, I started with the reference picture, scaled up to 172%.

Open the Symbols Panel with the feather symbols you made earlier, and simply start to drag and drop feather symbols to the hummingbird picture. It’s important to start from the bottom by the bird’s tail and work your way up, to ensure that the feathers are layered in the same order.

Scale, rotate, and transform the feathers individually as you go so they look more natural. Make sure the feathers are overlapping so there are no gaps.


Squeeze the feathers on the edges of the body so they become narrower, to give the bird’s body a three-dimensional look. Let the feathers cover the edges. (When all the feathers are placed, you’ll create a mask to smooth out the bird’s silhouette.)


Select all the feathers and add a drop shadow to them (Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow).

Because the feathers are Dynamic Symbols, individual symbol instances can be modified without modifying the master symbol.

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select strokes here and there and alter the colors to lighter tints, to emulate some shine and highlight.

Lock the reference picture (Command-2), select the feathers, and group them. Hide the feather layer so the whole reference picture is visible.


Draw a black shape that follows the outline of the bird in the photo, minus the beak, the wings, the tail, and the foot. The shape should cover the colored feathers. Cut the shape out (Command-X) and send it to back (Command-B). Lock the shape (Command-2).

Since the shape is still on the clipboard, you can paste the shape in front now, to get a copy of the shape for the mask (Command-F). Unhide the feather layer.


Change the color of the shape in front to white, since all areas that are white inside the mask will be visible. We want the feathers to be visible and everything outside the shape to be hidden. I didn’t want the feathers on the lower part of the wing and on the lower part of the tail to be cropped, so I adjusted the shape of the mask.

Add an Inner Glow effect: choose Effect > Stylize > Inner Glow. Use the following settings: Mode: Multiply; Color: #000000; Opacity: 22%; Blur: 22%.

Select the feather group and the shape for the mask and make an opacity mask. This can be done from the Transparency Panel—select Make Opacity Mask (make sure Clip is selected).


Now that you’ve finished the plumage, you can start to collect the parts.

Place the wing and foot in back (Object > Arrange > Send To Back).

Make a copy of the wing and adjust its proportions, for the rear wing. You may also want to slightly increase the blur effect on the feathers of the rear wing.

Place the eye and beak, and use a feather from the wing for the tail: make a couple of copies of that feather and scale, rotate, and arrange them.


I repeated this technique to create two more hummingbirds (below), for a colorful trio.

(For more inspiration, check out my Behance page, where I frequently post my Adobe Illustrator experiments.)

March 11, 2016

All illustrations: Maria Grønlund

Hummingbird reference photo: Miles Hecker

Editor: Charles Purdy