The final starry night image.

AI Workshop: How To Create A Starry Night in Illustrator

Illustrator workshop header


Adobe Illustrator logoIf you’re a regular visitor to, you know I write an awful lot on a little vector package called Inkscape. But before Inkscape, I had spent well over a decade learning and using Adobe Illustrator professionally. I continue to use Illustrator for professional jobs (especially ones going to print).  This tutorial will be the first of many that will share my knowledge of the gold-standard in vector drawing.

(This tutorial uses Adobe Illustrator CC 2014.)


Spray Your Way to a Starry Night

The final starry night image.

Here’s the concept I want to create in Adobe Illustrator, a night sky with lots of stars. Now for a lot of Illustrator newbies, this can seem like a daunting task. And I’ll admit there are many possible ways of conveying stars within Illustrator. This is a method that I honestly stumbled upon while working on an ebook cover. I did it using symbols.

What Are Symbols?

If you’ve had any experience using Macromedia/Adobe Flash, then you’ll know all about symbols. In a nutshell, a symbol is an object that contains vectors or objects which can be replicated or cloned as an instance numerous time without creating duplicate vectors and objects, which could bog down your computer. The reason for this is that each instance is a link to the symbol within your Symbols Palette/Library, which is the Palette that contains your symbols and other symbol libraries.

How to Create A Symbol

Vector Star graphic and the Symbol pallet

Symbols are pretty easy to create. First, create a vector object to use as your symbol. In this example, I’m using a star from another project. Open up your Symbols Palette by going to your menu bar and selecting Window >> Symbols. (You can also use the keystroke Control/Command – Shift – F11.) There are two ways to create a symbol from your vector object. Either drag and drop your vector object into the Symbols Palette. Or you can select your vector object, and click on the New Symbol button, located around the bottom right-hand side of the Palette. Then you’ll see this window appear:

A screen shot of the Symbols options window

To be perfectly honest, unless you plan to use your symbol in Flash to be animated or whatever, all of these options are inconsequential. Maybe you’ll want to name it so you can reuse it later for another project. Otherwise, click the OK button.

Illustrator's Symbol's pallet with a new symbol created
Here’s my new symbol!

Much like the clones in Inkscape, symbols can be universally modified by either double-clicking on the original instance (your original vector object) or double-clicking on the symbol within the Symbols Palette. Make your changes. Then you can exit Symbol Editing Mode by pressing either the Escape key on your keyboard or clicking on the arrow in the screenshot below. (It’s located in the upper-left hand corner of your document’s window.):

Screen shot of the Exit Symbol Editing Mode arrow button
Circled in orange, the Exit Symbol Editing Mode.

Spray Away Your Instances

Now we’re going to take the knowledge we’ve just gained on symbols and put it to use. What I plan to do is to create a “star” symbol, create multiple instances, and manipulate those instances to create a starry night sky.

Step 1: The Setup

Step 1: a basic gradation from dark to light

First we’ll create our basic scene. It can honestly be anything. I’m not too concerned. In this tutorial, I’ll use a basic gradient. I’ll make it dark at the top, and lighter towards the bottom, like you’d see outside in a city.

[amazon text=&template=carousel&chan=amazon default&asin=0321929497,B00CS75N2I, 1118639715, B00EWHQKWO, 032184176X, 0133905659]

Step 2: Make A Star!

Now we need to create a star and turn it into a symbol. Consider what a star looks like up in the sky. They’re like small lights. Sometimes they have a slight glow, and sometimes they just look like small specks. So when we imagine our final star symbol, it needs to be a circle that has a slight glow surrounding it. If you wish, you can create a star symbol that’s basically a circle. Either way, they need to be kept simple.

Step A:

A screenshot of ellipse tool creating a new circle

Using the Ellipse Tool (keystroke L), draw a small white circle, while holding the Shift key to constrain the proportions. (The Ellipse Tool can be found in Illustrator’s Tools Palette.) This will be your base. If your circle is a bit too big or small, you can always adjust it via the Selection Tool (Keystroke V), which can also be found in Illustrator’s Tools Palette.

Step B:

Screen shot of Gaussian blur filter in action.
Check the Preview box to see how it’ll look before you commit.

Give your star a slight blur using the Gaussian Blur filter. To do this, select within the Menu BarEffect >> Blur >> Gaussian Blur… This will bring up another dialog. Enter either .5 or 1 for the Radius. (I’m assuming your star is pretty tiny right now. If not, you can adjust the Radius setting after shrinking it.) Yes, this is a raster-based effect, but the nice thing about this filter is that Illustrator will use transparent pixels around your object instead of flattening the surrounding area with opaque pixels.

Step C:

To turn your star into a symbol by simply dragging and dropping that object into the Symbols Palette. (You can bring up the Symbols Palette via the keystroke Command/Control-ShiftF11) When you see the Palette Options window, just click OK.

Now we have our star symbol!


Step 3: Spray It Like You Mean It!

Adobe Illustrator's Symbol Sprayer ToolThis is the step where the magic starts to happen. Go to the Tools Palette and select the Symbol Sprayer Tool (keystroke ShiftS). The Symbol Sprayer Tool will allow us to layout our star instances. I do recommend using a [amazon text=Wacom&chan=amazon default&asin=B00EN27SHY] or comparable graphics tablet. I feel using a graphics tablet will provide you with more control over the Symbol Sprayer Tool than with a mouse or track pad.

Before you use the Symbol Sprayer Tool, you’ll notice a circle surrounding your spray can cursor. That circle represents the radius of your Symbol Sprayer Tool. Yes, it does act much like any brush tool, but the diameter size doesn’t equate the possible amount of symbols that will be sprayed using the Symbol Sprayer Tool. (To adjust the diameter for the Symbol Sprayer Tool, use the bracket keys, [ to shrink or ] to enlarge) 

Screen shot of Symbolism Tool Options

To control the Density of your spayed instances, double-click on the Symbol Sprayer Tool icon in the Tools Palette. This will bring up the Symbolism Tool Options. When you tweak the Symbol Set Density, this number will modify how close the instances will be to each other. The Intensity setting within the Symbol Tools Options will control the amount (and I use the word “amount” loosely) of instances that will be sprayed at once.

Spray your stars using the Symbol Sprayer Tool in bunches.

Take the Symbol Sprayer Tool and try to spay your star instances in bunches. If you wish to have a more sparse starry sky, you can spray them randomly. You can remove stars with the Symbol Sprayer Tool by holding down the Alt/Option key.


Step 4: Shift Them Around

A screenshot of star symbols being modified by Symbol Shifter tool.
Click to enlarge.

Symbol Shifter ToolAt this point, you may not be happy with the way the Symbol Sprayer Tool had laid out your symbols, use the Symbol Shifter Tool (located in the Tools Palette. Click the Symbol Sprayer Tool icon to bring it up) to move or adjust the positions of your stars. If you notice there’s a lot of resistance when moving instances (while using a mouse), double-click on the Symbol Shifter Tool icon in the Tools Palette to bring up the Symbolism Tool Options. Inside that window, select Fixed with in drop-down menu next to the Intensity setting.


Step 5: Shrink And Enlarge

Star symbols with randomly adjusted sizes using the  symbol sizer tool

symbol sizer toolIn this step, we’ll attempt to randomly adjust the sizes of the stars. This can be done with the Symbol Sizer Tool. This tool works in two ways. When running the Symbol Sizer Tool across instances, it’ll enlarge them. When holding down the alt/option key, they’ll shrink instances. What works for me when making the stars visually look as if they’re random sizes is to stroke randomly across the instances. You can stroke a few times while holding the alt/option key, and stroke a few areas to slightly enlarge a few stars.


Step 6: Screen Those Instances Back

Star symbols adjusted using Symbol Screener tool

Symbol Screener ToolUsing the Symbol Screener Tool, I was able to adjust the transparency of the stars, making those instances look as if they have various intensities. In other words, some of the stars look dimmer than others. On its own, the Symbol Screener Tool makes the symbols it touches transparent. Holding down the alt/option key will bring back the opacity to instances. I tried using random strokes. But I had to brighten up a few stars by focusing the tool directly on them to help boost the contrast.


*Step 7: Tweak When Scrunching

star symbols modified using the Symbol Scruncher tool

Symbol Scruncher ToolThis is an optional step. Stars tend to exist in clusters. You may or may not have that at this point. To bring groups of stars closer together, you can use the Symbol Scruncher Tool. Just like you’d imagine, stroking over a group of symbols brings them closer together. Holding down the alt/option key will force symbols to push away from each other. I used it to cluster stars closer together.


Now Be Awe!

The final starry night image.

That’s it! You’ve not just learned how to create a starry night in Illustrator, but you leaned how to take advantage of most of Illustrator’s Symbol tools. Tell your parents. Tell your friends. Tell your co-workers. And share with your so-called “friends” and followers online!