Tutorial – Create realistic clouds in Adobe Illustrator

This tutorial will teach you a method to create realistic clouds using Adobe Illustrator (CS4 or higher). Since these clouds are created using vector graphics, they can be scaled to any size without a decrease in image quality. This tutorials is intended for intermediate to advanced Adobe Illustrator users. If you get lost on using some of the palettes or tools in this tutorial, you might want to try one of my Beginner tutorials. Also, due to the fact that the technique used in this tutorials takes advantage of variable opacity gradients, this method will only work in Illustrator version CS4 or later (if you are using an older version, a work-around would be to use opacity masks).

realistic clouds created in illustrator
Realistic clouds created in Adobe Illustrator

The following Adobe Illustrator tools will be used in this tutorial:

  • Rectangle Tool
  • Layers Palette
  • Ellipse Tool
  • Symbol Sprayer Tool
  • Symbol Screener Tool
  • Gradient Tool/Palette
  • Symbol Palette

Let’s get started by opening a new document in Illustrator. For this tutorial, I’ll be using a 600px X 600px CMYK document. (This technique will work just fine with RGB on any size document.)

Step 1. Create the sky background

On your first layer, draw a square or rectangle that spanning the artboard, and fill it with your desired sky color. For this example, I used a linear gradient fill using Pantone 2727 U (converted to CMYK process color) as the starting color and Pantone 281 U (converted to CMYK process color) as the end color. If you’re using the same color scheme that I’m using, you should end up with a result similar to the image below. Again, the color and style of your sky background is entirely up to you.

sky gradient fill image
Gradient fill used to create sky background

After you have your sky background created, use the Layers Palette (Windows>Layers or F7) to give the active layer a name, such as “Sky Background” and then lock the layer.

Step 2: Create Cloud Symbol

Our next step is going to be to create the key component of our clouds. We will be creating a symbol that we’ll add to the Symbols Palette. Our symbol will be comprised of 3 ellipses with radial gradient fills. Create a new layer in the Layers Palette and name it “Cloud Symbol Elements.”

Next, activate the Ellipse Tool, and we’ll get started with our first ellipse. Create a circle with the ellipse tool by holding Shift while dragging, or click and release the mouse to manually enter dimensions for the ellipse/circle. My first ellipse, in this example is about 130px X 130px. (The exact dimensions and placement of this and subsequent ellipses are up to you, but I’ll give you the dimensions and placement that I used for this example.) Once your first ellipse/circle is drawn, we’re going to use the Gradient Palette (Windows>Gradient or Ctrl/Cmd-F9) to create a radial gradient fill (set type = “radial”) with both the beginning and ending color stops being pure white. If you’re wondering why we would bother using a gradient when only one color is involved, you’ll see after the next step. On the gradient palette, select the color stop on the right and set its opacity to 0% (see image below).

ellipse gradient fill
Set the opacity of the color stop on the right to 0%.

With our radial gradient fill applied, our ellipse should now fade from white to transparent. On the same layer, duplicate the existing ellipse either in the layers palette or by copying (ctrl/cmd-C) and pasting in front (ctrl/cmd-F). With the Selection tool, move the newly created duplicate ellipse over to offset it from our original ellipse. In our example, I shifted the new ellipse over to the right about 50px and down about 20px. How you offset the second ellipse is, again, arbitrary, but you don’t want it set too far off from the original that there is no overlap of the gradients. (In this example, the “centers” of the ellipses/circles should not be offset further than 50px either up/down or left/right.)

duplicate ellipse image
Duplicate the original ellipse and offset the duplicate from the original.

Since we will be using these shapes as the basis for our clouds, we don’t want our symbol to be completely symmetric, so let’s modify our duplicate ellipse a bit. I have reduced the height of my duplicate ellipse to about 80px and rotated it -23°, using the Selection Tool.

modify duplicate ellipse image
Ellipse with height reduced to 80px and rotated -23°

Next, we are going to repeat the process that we just went through with another duplicate ellipse. Copy and paste to front another duplicate of our original ellipse. This time I offset the ellipse 40px to the right and 7px down from our original ellipse. I then reduced the height to 110px, increased the width to 170px, and then rotated the ellipse 67°.

modify third ellipse
The third ellipse is modified and offset to create an even more asymmetric shape.

The last thing I want to do before we create our cloud symbol, is to slightly modify our original ellipse, so that I don’t have a completely “circular” edge. With the original ellipse/circle selected, I want to decrease the height slightly down to about 110px.

modify original ellipse image
Decrease the height of the original ellipse to 110px.

Now, we are ready to create our cloud symbol. (As has been the case throughout this tutorial, the dimensions and angles of my ellipses are somewhat arbitrary, so feel free to try your own combinations and of ellipses.)

With the Symbols Palette open (Widows>Symbols Palette or Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-F11), use the Selection Tool to select all three ellipses simultaneously and drag them over to the Symbols Palette.

drag object to symbols palette image
Select all three ellipses and drag them to the Symbols Palette.

After you drag the ellipses over the Symbols Palette and release the mouse button, the Symbol Options dialog box will come up. Give your symbol a name (like “Cloud Symbol”) and set the Type: to “Graphic.” You can set the registration point of the symbol to where ever you prefer, in this case I have selected the center point, but it really won’t make a huge difference in this particular application of how we will be using the symbol.

symbol options image
Name the symbol and set its type to "Graphic." You can also specify the registration point for the symbol.

After you have entered the name, set the symbol type, and selected a registration point, click “OK,” and your new symbol should now be visible in the Symbol Palette. Since our symbol is comprised of white and transparent fills, the thumbnail for our symbol will appear “blank” in the Symbols Palette, since the default thumbnail background is white. Fear not, though, our symbol is there safe and sound.

cloud symbol image
The thumbnail for our cloud symbol might appear to be blank, but it is still there.

Step 3: Build Cloud Foundation

Now that our symbol has been created, we can lock and hide the “Cloud Symbol” layer using the Layers Palette.

Next, we are ready to start building our clouds, using the Symbol Sprayer Tool (keyboard shortcut Shift-S). First, let’s access the Symbolism Tool Options by double-clicking the Symbol Sprayer Tool icon in the main toolbar. For this example, we’re going to set Diameter to 110px. The Diameter will determine the size of each instance of our symbol. We want to set the Intensity (which is the number of instances of the symbol that is added per click) to 1 (leave the control method as “Fixed”). Since we will be building each of our clouds from a number of instances of our “Cloud Symbol,” we’ll set the Symbol Set Density to the highest value of 10 to limit the spacing in between each instance of the symbol. The rest of the settings can remain at their default values for this example.

symbol tools options image
Set Diameter to 110px, Intensity to 1, and Symbol Set Density to 10 in the Symbolism Tool Options.

Once you have adjusted the Symbolism Tool Options, click “OK.” We want to add a new layer to draw our first cloud on, so create a new layer in the Layers Palette and name it something like “Cloud 01.” We can now start using the Symbol Sprayer to build our first cloud. Using mouse-clicks (or a tablet/stylus), begin adding instances of the symbol to create the foundation for your first cloud (see below).

create clouds with symbol  image 01
Use the Symbol Sprayer Tool to add an instance of the "Cloud Symbol."
create clouds with symbol image 02
Add more instances to build the foundation of your cloud.
create cloud with symbol image 03
Continuing adding symbol instances until you achieve your desired cloud shape.

Next, we are going to use the Symbol Screener Tool to adjust the opacity of some of the instances of our cloud symbol. We can access this tool by clicking and holding the mouse button over on the Symbol Sprayer Tool icon in the main toolbar to bring up the Symbol Tools.

symbol screener tool image
The Symbol Screener Tool

With the Symbol Screen Tool activated, click and release on instances of the Cloud Symbol whose opacity you wish to decrease (holding down the Alt key while using the Symbol Screener Tool will increase the opacity of a symbol instance).

decrease opactiry symbol screener tool image
Adjust the opacity of symbol instances by clicking on them with the Symbol Screener Tool.

Feel free to experiment with this tool to achieve your desired results. I like to decrease the opacity on the symbols toward the outside of the main cloud shape. Then, I’ll pick a few spots elsewhere to decrease the opacity. I mainly use a trial-and-error approach. Remember, you can add opacity back to an instance, by holding the Alt key.

Step 4: Creating a Shadow Symbol

We’ve got a decent foundation for a cloud, but clouds much like anything we see are affected by light and shadows, so to give our clouds the illusion of depth, we want to create some shadowing effects. There are several ways to go about doing this (I hope to do a tutorial on another technique using transparency/opacity masks in conjunction with the cloud symbol, in the near future), but in this example we are going to create an alternate cloud symbol for shading purposes. To do this, we’ll start by creating a duplicate of our cloud symbol in the Symbols Palette by dragging our original Cloud Symbol icon to the New Symbol icon at the bottom of the Symbols Palette (see below).

create duplicate symbol image
Drag the Cloud Symbol to the New Symbol icon to duplicate it.

This will create a duplicate symbol named “Cloud_Symbol 1.” We want to rename this symbol to “Cloud_Shadow_Symbol.” To do this we click on the menu button on the Symbols Palette and select Symbol Options.

select symbol options image
Click the menu button and select Symbol Options.
symbol options image
Rename the duplicate symbol to Cloud_Shadow_Symbol.

Now, that we have our duplicate symbol renamed, we want to edit it, so that we can create some shadow effects with it. To edit a symbol, simply double-click on the symbol in the Symbols Palette. The symbol will open up on its own isolated artboard where we can edit it. In the case of our cloud symbol, since it is white and isolated on a white background, we won’t be able to see any of the objects that comprise the symbol until we select them with the Selection Tool. Create a selection marquee over the symbol artboard, by clicking and dragging with the Selection Tool to select our three ellipses.

select symbol objects
Use the Selection Tool to select and highlight the "invisible" ellipses.

Now, that we have all three ellipses that comprise our symbol selected, we are going to use the Gradient Palette to change our gradient from white to a 30% gray (C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=30). To do this click on each color stop, and set the color value to C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=30 (if you have a swatch for this particular color you can also drag it from the Swatch Palette to the color stop on the Gradient Palette).

change gradient image
Set each color stop to 30% gray (C=0, M=0, Y=0, K=30)

Once you have set the gradient color stops to the new color value, you can exit out of the Edit Symbol mode, by double clicking outside the artboard with the Selection Tool. You should now be able to see a gray colored icon for the Cloud_Shadow_Symbol in the Symbols Palette. Important: make sure that you set BOTH color stops to the same color for this step.

new symbol palette
The Cloud_Shadow_Symbol should now have a visibly gray icon in the Symbols Palette.

Using the Layers Palette, within your Cloud 01 layer, double-click the Symbol Set and rename it “Cloud 01 Foundation” and the lock it (not the entire layer, just the Cloud 01 Foundation). This will prevent any unwanted editing of our finished cloud foundation, for now.

lock cloud formation image
Rename the symbol set to "Cloud 01 Foundation" and lock it.

Now, we can start adding shadows to our foundation with our newly created Cloud Shadow Symbol. We can add the shadows on the Cloud 01 layer, with no worries, since we locked our cloud foundation for the time being. Let’s start by selecting the Symbol Sprayer tool, and double-clicking it on the main toolbar to bring up the Symbolism Tool Options. We want to decrease out diameter a bit for our shadow symbol. In this example, I’m going to decrease the diameter down to 80px.

cloud shadow diameter image
Decrease Diameter to 80px in the Symbolism Tools Options.

Now, we will start adding some instances of our “shadow” symbol on top of the cloud foundation. Generally, with clouds, we add shadowing around the bottom portions of the clouds, and the bottoms of any “protusions” in the cloud body. Where you add shadowing is up to your artistic discretion.

Add instances of the Cloud Shadow Symbol to your cloud foundation.
Add instances of the Cloud Shadow Symbol to your cloud foundation.

As we did with the cloud foundation, we can use the Symbol Screener to adjust the opacity/transparency of each symbol instance to increase the realism of the cloud appearance.

symbol screener shadows image
Use the Symbol Screener Tool to adjust the shadow opacity/transparency.

Once you’ve achieved your desired shadowing, go ahead and double-click the Symbol Set in the Layers Palette and name it “Cloud 01 Shadows.” At this point you can unlock “Cloud 01 Foundation” and select and group it with “Cloud 01 Shadows” (Object>Group or Ctrl/Cmd-G).

group shadow and cloud image
Group the the cloud shadows and cloud foundation together.

With both symbol sets grouped, you can move your shadowed cloud around and place it wherever you wish on your artboard, resize it, rotate it, etc. Simply follow this same technique to create more clouds on their own layers to create an image like this.

realistic clouds adobe illustrator image
Realistic clouds created entirely in Adobe Illustrator

Once you’re comfortable using this technique, try using some of the other Symbol Tools (such as the Symbol Sizer Tool and the Symbol Spinner Tool) to modify your symbol instances for even more realistic results.


Avatar of annev
Posted by annevJun 10, 2012 at 3:27 pm

hello when i save this file all of the dimension of the clouds flatten. Could you recommend how to preserve the image?


Avatar of George Probst
Posted by George ProbstJun 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Hi Anne,

What version number of Illustrator are you using? Are you saving it as an .AI file or some other format?

Avatar of James R. Mitchener
Posted by James R. MitchenerNov 07, 2012 at 9:51 am

Cheers mate. This was a massive help. They really do look shockingly good once you’ve perfected balancing out the shading. Much appreciated once again.

Avatar of Bhavna Bhen
Posted by Bhavna BhenJul 15, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Very nice tutorial. Thank you very much. Your instructions were very good. My clouds look fabulous. smile

Avatar of Nicole
Posted by NicoleAug 11, 2013 at 3:38 pm

This is a lovely tutorial.  Most realistic cloud tutorial I’ve seen.  Thank you for taking the time to show us.

Avatar of Alex W
Posted by Alex WNov 16, 2013 at 4:25 am

Wicked tutorial! Really easy to follow for a beginner like me haha, and good results.
Cheers smile

Avatar of NM
Posted by NMJan 27, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Anyone know how to keep the file size down on this? Mine was a few hundred MB.

Avatar of George Probst
Posted by George ProbstJan 27, 2014 at 5:08 pm


How detailed are your clouds? The file that I used in this example was only 1.1MB, but if you are creating a lot of complex clouds, the file size could increase significantly.

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