I don’t know about you, but in my part of the world (Canada), it’s really cold right now. As a result, we also have quite a bit of snow to inspire my creativity. So, in this tutorial, we will look at a super easy technique for creating a vector snowflake design in Illustrator. Here’s a preview of the final image.
More importantly, though, we will be looking at techniques for using Illustrator’s cropping and rotation tools in order to create, repeat and rotate an element in a very mathematical and intentional manner, all to create a cool looking vector snowflake. We will also create our own guides to help simplify the process.
First, I would recommend looking for some inspiration. Go out on the internet and look for some snowflakes. There is a really great article over at WebDesigner Depot, entitled Incredible Examples of Snowflake Photography, which you might want to have a look at. I’ve also gathered a few different examples below. Take the time to study some sources and get to know some of the naturally occurring structures of snowflakes.
Notice how all of the snowflakes seem to follow the same basic construction pattern, featuring six equally spaced branches or spokes? We’re going to set up our document based on that some configuration.
You might also want to study the way the different branches are constructed, possibly even by sketching a flake or two by hand. This should help when we get around to actually creating the snowflake shape itself.
With inspiration fresh in your mind, create a new file in Illustrator. For this kind of project, we’ll want to use a square document. I will be working with a single art board measuring 800px squared, but you can really work with whatever size you want. The reason that we want to use a square document is that we will be rotating a repeated design element around the centre point, essentially creating a circle-based design.
Next, we want to create a series of angled guides lines, which will help keep our snowflake design nice and symmetrical. Start with a single vertical line, drawn well outside the boundaries of the of the art box. Make sure that the reference point for your line is set to the centre and use the align tools to properly centre your line in the art box.
Duplicate the line in the Layers palette, then select the duplicate and rotate it 30°. Repeat this process four more times, rotating them to 60°, 90°, 120° and 150°, respectively. Altogether, the lines should divide the art board into 12 quadrants, like this:
The idea behind these guides is basically to allow us to work within a single quadrant and then repeat the created shape in order to create our finished snowflake. To help keep our initial shape inside of the particular quadrant, however, we are going to use our guides to create a crop shape. This means that the shape we design can actually extend out beyond the edges of our quadrant. We’ll just crop away the excess.
To start, create a new rectangle shape with the exact proportions of art board. Drag this object beneath the guide lines and select them all. Now, activate the Live Paint Bucket tool and choose a fill colour. I’m going to work with bold red. Proceed to fill in all of quadrants except for one, as show here:
Once this is done, expand the Live Paint object and separate the lines from the shapes (they should already be in two separate groups). Finally, select all the shapes and merge them together using the Unite tool under the Pathfinder palette.
Notice the one quadrant that we didn’t fill? That is the part of the art board that we are going to want to work in when creating our basic shape, which we will do next. Go ahead and hide the crop shape for now, too. We’re not going to need it until Step 5.
Did you ever create one of those paper snowflakes in school? You know, the ones where you fold the page and cut out parts, then unfold it to reveal your creation? That’s similar to what we are going to be doing here. Basically we are going to create a unique shape within one triangular quadrant, then “unfold” that shape by duplicating, flipping and rotating it several times, in order to complete the snowflake.
Start by creating a new layer, and drag it beneath the guides layer. Now, go ahead and be creative with your shape, drawing inspiration from the snowflakes we looked at earlier. Or, if you want to be really creative, you can just disregard everything you saw and try to create a completely unique design. Here is the shape that I came up with.
As you can clearly see, I started with a basic hexagon, which I aligned to the center, then built up the rest of the shape from there. Ultimately, there is really no right or wrong way to do this, but here are a few basic suggestions.
- Remember that your shape only consists of what exists within the triangular quadrant. We are going to be cropping away anything that falls outside the lines, such as the bulk of my hexagon.
- By the same token, also remember that we are creating a unified shape here, so do be sure that your shape will connect at the edges.
- Also, since we will be rotating from the inner tip of the triangle (located at the centre of the art board), be sure to have that tip filled, in order to ensure that the shapes will rotate properly. We can always cut away the centre later.
Other than that, just be creative. You can create a traditional looking flake, or something really bizarre and funky. Just have fun!
Duplicate our crop shape on our guides layer and drag the new copy onto the shape layer so that it is directly above our flake shape. You will also have to make the crop shape visible again.
Now, select both the crop shape and the flake shape and press the Minus Front button in the Pathfinder palette, effectively cutting away any parts of the flake shape that extend beyond the edges of the specific working quadrant.
Our flake shape is now ready to be duplicated, flipped and rotated into a finished snowflake design.
Start by duplicating the shape in the Layers palette. Next, select the newly duplicated shape and choose Object » Transform » Reflect from the menu. Apply a vertical reflection, then drag the reflected object into the adjacent quadrant, like this:
Select the two shapes and fuse them together using the Unite tool in the Pathfinder palette. We now have the first of the six branches of our snowflake!
This part is pretty simple. Duplicate the flake-branch shape. Set the reference point to bottom centre and open up the Transform palette (or the drop-down panel from the options bar). Rotate the object by 60°. You should now have something like this:
Repeat the process four more times, duplicating the original (upright) branch and rotating at 120°, 180°, 240° and 300°. This will give you all six of your branches, which should look something like this:
We’re almost there – just a bit of fine tuning to do. If you look closely, you may notice some seams between the branches of the snowflake. We can fix this by selecting each branch individually and nudging it just a little, using the arrow keys.
Use the following “nudge” diagram, outlining what to do with each branch:
Once there are no more seams (in other words, the edges of the branches are overlapping each other), select all the branches and combine them using the Unite command again. This creates one complete snowflake.
Step 9 (optional)
I mentioned earlier that we could cut out the centre of the snowflake, so feel free to do this, just for a bit of added effect. In my example, I create a simple six sided star shape, with with a Radius A of 15px and a Radius B of 30px. Making sure that the star was directly above the snowflake, I then centre both shapes using the Align palette. The snowflake should already be pretty much in the center, but I realign it just to be sure. I then select both shapes and use the Minus Front again, to punch a star shaped hole in the middle of my snowflake design.
Well I do hope you enjoyed this tutorial. The combinations of different shapes for different types of snowflakes is literally endless, so go ahead and make yourself a nice collection of wintery shapes, which you can then use in any number of ways. Perhaps import them into Photoshop for a bit of extra texturing, or use them to create a seamless vector pattern.
The important take away from this tutorial is not the snowflake itself though. Rather, it’s the process of methodically transforming and combining shapes in order to create a beautifully balanced and symmetrical design. You could use this same sort of technique for all kinds of different designs, other than snowflakes.
Sitting here in mid January Canada, though, snow just happened to be on my mind.
Download the AI File
You can also download the AI file for this one. It’s not a huge file, but it might help you better understand what’s going on. Also, I did not unite the shapes in this file. I simply grouped them together. This should facilitate your own examination of the various elements.