Drop Shadow: The Illustrator In-Depth Guide
Our Adobe Illustrator series is designed to help you learn how to create different effects in vector design software. We’re here to help simplify the design process for everyone, from beginner designers to veterans! Today we’re focusing on how to create drop shadows.
It's no secret that Adobe Illustrator takes some time to master. It's a feature-rich design program that can be challenging and somewhat complex. The Adobe support community does a good job at offering guidance and support for the Adobe users out there, and it can be a helpful place to troubleshoot and learn.
We like to stay engaged with our own design community by offering tips and tutorials, so we thought it might be helpful to give you a step-by-step walk-through on how to create a drop shadow in Illustrator.
In this article, we'll go into detail on how to create a vector drop shadow in Illustrator, as well as teach you how to apply this effect in Vectornator as well, just in case you might benefit from an alternative.
Many designers have criticized the drop shadow effect, as it can arguably ruin a design when it's overdone. But used in moderation, such as in a beautiful vector logo design, drop shadows can enhance the design and give it definition.
If you're still learning the ropes of your design tools, and experimenting with effects, bookmark this post so you can return to it anytime you need.
What is a Drop Shadow?
In graphic design, a drop shadow is an effect that gives an object the appearance of having a shadow. Drop shadows enhance an image and give it some dimension and depth.
Drop Shadow vs. Cast Shadow
In Illustrator, you can create drop shadows as well as cast shadows. So what's the difference?
Drop shadows are typically decorative and serve to enhance the look of images, whereas cast shadows really add depth and a realistic appearance because they appear as a shadow might fall (or be "cast") in real life.
Drop shadows make an object appear as if it is hovering, which is why the effect is most commonly used on text and buttons.
Cast shadows, on the other hand, are used for objects that might be standing—think of how a shadow is cast when a person stands on the ground.
When to Use a Drop Shadow
Like we said, drop shadows give the illusion of a hovering object and are best suited for buttons and text. If your asset is parallel to the background, you will use a drop shadow. This creates the illusion that the asset is floating in front of the background.
Drop shadows are excellent for differentiating text or an asset from a background. It essentially makes the asset stand out from the background. You can also use a drop shadow to give an object a glowing effect. If you go for a lighter color as opposed to a darker color palette, it will give the effect of a glow rather than a shadow.
How to Add a Drop Shadow in Illustrator
To begin, you will need to have your Illustrator document open and an asset that you wish to add a drop shadow to ready. This asset can be an image, text, or anything at all. You can include multiple assets and add drop shadows to all of these at once.
You might have an asset that is compiled of multiple objects. You can select all the objects together and apply the drop shadow effect to all objects at once if you like.
Once you've selected your assets, navigate to the "effects" menu and make the following selections: Effect -> Stylize -> Drop shadow.
Voila! Your drop shadow dialogue box will now appear on screen, along with a shadow that's been added to your asset. This box contains the following adjustable features, which we'll explain individually shortly:
- X offset
- Y offset
The drop shadow you're currently looking at will only be applied once you hit "ok." on the box. If you click "cancel," it will disappear. If you're happy with how the shadow looks, you can click "ok." Otherwise, you can adjust it further to your satisfaction using the properties detailed below.
Adjusting a Drop Shadow in Illustrator
There are many ways to adjust your drop shadow in illustrator. You can edit where it falls, how dark or light it is, the color and the blur to get the most out of your image and achieve the exact look you're going for.
This is where you make or break your design with a drop shadow. By adjusting the setting, you can attain just the right amount to define an asset, or if you're not careful, you could overdo it and create a mess. Make the settings work for you. Each of the headings below refers to a different preset in the drop shadow dialogue box.
This preset enables you to adjust the blending mode of a drop shadow.
"Blending modes let you vary the ways that the colors of objects blend with the colors of underlying objects."
– Adobe Support
The default blending mode is usually set to "multiply." You'll notice that there's a drop-down menu in this section that gives you all the blending mode options when clicked on. These include:
- Color burn
- Color Dodge
- Soft light
- Hard light
You can find detailed descriptions of each of these blend modes and what they do here.
This preset lets you adjust how opaque your shadow is, i.e., the transparency.
Increasing the opacity makes the shadow more defined and less transparent. Decreasing the opacity makes your shadow more transparent, less defined, and shows more of the background through it.
Higher opacity results in a darker, more defined shadow, and lower opacity results in a gentler shadow.
This determines where the shadow lies in context to the object. By adjusting the offset, you can change how close a shadow sits to the object. Smaller values will make the shadow closer to the object, and larger values will make it further away, causing the shadow to look bigger.
Large offset values can start to make the shadow look messy as it becomes bigger. Smaller offset values work well to give the object definition and dimension.
You have two options to adjust offset: X-axis and Y-axis.
X-axis offset shifts the arrow from left to right. The Y offset shifts it up or down. You can play around with the values until you decide on the right position and size of your shadow.
This setting adjusts the size and definition of the drop shadow.
Increasing the blur makes your drop shadow larger. If you decrease the blur, the drop shadow becomes smaller but more defined.
As you might assume, the color setting allows you to change the color of the drop shadow. If you select this, a color picker will open. There is also a button for "color swatches," so you can choose a saved color swatch if you like.
The default is set to create a black shadow, which is most commonly used. If you choose an alternative color, make sure that it will work with the background color.
If you choose a much lighter color such as white for your shadow against a dark background, you can create a glowing effect.
This setting allows you to adjust the shade of the shadow based on the color you have selected. You can add more or less of a percentage of black to the shadow with this setting.
You might want to edit your shadow again after the first round of edits. If the initial dialogue box has disappeared after applying the effect, simply navigate to: Window -> Appearance.
The appearance menu, or appearance panel, will now show up, and you will find the "drop shadow" effect here: Appearance -> Drop Shadow.
By selecting the effect in your appearance menu, the drop shadow dialogue box will show up once again.
If you wish to delete the shadow, you can select the object and again navigate to: Window -> Appearance.
Select the layer that contains the drop shadow and then hit the trashcan icon to delete.
Try an Illustrator Alternative
Maybe you're looking for an alternative to Adobe. In that case, you could try Vectornator. The interface is simple and very user-friendly, so you'll be designing like a pro in no time.
We've added a simple tutorial on how to create a drop shadow in Vectornator below.
How to Create a Drop Shadow in Vectornator
Start by selecting your asset. Similar to Illustrator, you can select multiple objects at once if you like.
Once you've selected the asset you wish to add a shadow to, open your Style Inspector. You can achieve this either by using shortcut ⌥⌘2 on Mac or if you're on an iPad, navigating to the Inspector bar, and selecting the "Style" tab as depicted by the paintbrush icon.
Towards the bottom of the Style Inspector, you will find the effect named "Shadow." Next to the word is an on-off toggle switch, which will be switched off by default. Hit the toggle to switch the shadow effect on.
A collapsible menu will now appear below, where you can adjust the settings of your shadow. Here, you'll find your opacity, blur, offset, and color settings. If you need a more detailed explanation of how to navigate the style inspector, check out the video here!
Color and Opacity
You'll notice your color picker at the top of the shadow menu. This is where you can adjust the color of the shadow, as well as the opacity. Inside the color picker dialogue box, you will find two slider bars.
The first bar (A) is a color slider, and the second bar (B) just underneath adjusts opacity.
Dragging the toggle around the color slider helps you easily navigate to the color you want.
Dragging the toggle left on the opacity slider makes the shadow more transparent, and dragging it right makes it less transparent.
Back in your Mac Style Inspector, you'll find a toggle bar for blur. Just like in Illustrator, increasing the blur will make your shadow bigger, whereas decreasing the blur will make it smaller. You can drag the toggle to adjust the shadow as you like, or you can enter digits on the right-hand side to adjust.
Underneath the blur is another slider bar for offset. Sliding to the right makes the offset go to the right; sliding it to the left will take your shadow to the left-hand side of the asset.
If you wish to delete the shadow, simply select the asset again and switch the "shadow" toggle off.
We've curated a few examples below so you can hopefully learn and get inspired by making a comparison of drop shadows to get an idea of how to use this effect.
You can create this feathered shadow look in Illustrator by adding a feathering effect to the drop shadow once it's created. The example below is a cast shadow. You can apply feathering to either drop shadow or cast shadows to soften the edges.
You can create this seductive long shadow look with the drop shadow feature in both Adobe or Vectornator by duplicating the shadow over and over in multiple layers until you've built it up to a length you are satisfied with. Find out how to do it in detail here.
Drop shadows are most commonly applied to add definition to text, as you can see working in the example below.
Are you feeling inspired to get your drop shadow game on? Hopefully, this article has helped you learn how to create a drop shadow and perhaps come up with some cool ideas for designs.
If you do play around with drop shadows in Vectornator, be sure to share your work with us if you’d like it to potentially be featured in our social media or blog. Sharing work and building community is such an important part of evolving the design industry, and we love to engage with our users in this way!