Learning to Illustrate in Adobe Illustrator: From 2D to 3D

Learning to Illustrate in Adobe Illustrator: From 2D to 3D
Zachary Fruhling February 26, 2019

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Throughout my career as an instructional designer, author, and developer of online course materials, I have been privileged to collaborate with top-notch graphic designers and illustrators who have helped me bring my creative vision for how to teach topics and concepts to life visually through illustrations and animations.

I recently took it upon myself to begin developing and improving my own illustration skills in Adobe Illustrator, in the interest of being more self-sufficient in my role as an instructional designer, with the intention of being able to produce illustrations myself for the online course materials that I am responsible for developing.

Aesthetic Inspiration from Don Birrell

Although I have a sharp eye for visual composition, I am not a formally trained artist in any sense. So learning to illustrate in Adobe Illustrator was largely a matter of starting from scratch. I am aesthetically drawn toward illustrations with a clean, minimalist, and abstracted style, largely due to the influence of Don Birrell, former director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California and longtime design director for the Nut Tree, a famous restaurant and roadside stop in my hometown of Vacaville, California, the city seal of which was also designed by Don Birrell. (Select this link to see a sample of the minimalist style of Don Birrell’s artwork for the Nut Tree.)

Two-Dimensional Shape Drawing

Because I am drawn toward this minimalist, abstracted aesthetic, I decided to begin with simple two-dimensional shape drawings. I found it surprisingly easy to decompose complex objects into two-dimensional illustrations created with basic shapes (circles, ellipses, polygons, and so on). Here is a sample of some of my earliest attempts at creating two-dimensional shape drawings in Adobe Illustrator:

Shape drawing: hill, tree, crescent moon, cloud, and raindrops

Computer Monitor

Nut Tree Railroad Locomotive

Two-Dimensional Kawaii Characters

I also experimented with other two-dimensional drawing styles, such as Japanese Kawaii (cute) character drawings:

Kawaii Character

Two-Point Perspective

After experimenting with these and other approaches to two-dimensional illustrations, I decided to start branching out into three-dimensional drawings. Thinking back to my junior-high art class (Hi, Mr. Gideon, if you’re reading this!), and having discovered that Adobe Illustrator has a Perspective Grid tool, I decided to attempt some simple two-point perspective illustrations, such as the following:

Two-Point Perspective Building

Three-Dimensional Isometric Illustrations

In addition to two-point perspective, I was also aware of another three-dimensional drawing technique known as “isometric illustration” or “isometric projection,” in which a three-dimensional object is illustrated without vanishing-point perspective. (The word “Isometric” is derived from Greek for “equal measure.”) The isometric technique is commonly used in engineering diagrams, pixel art, and video game graphics. For example, the currently popular games Monument Valley and Crossy Road make use of the isometric illustration technique.

So I decided to attempt some simple isometric illustrations, starting with simple three-dimensional shapes, which I learned could be created with a hexagon grid (or “hex grid”) as shown in the following video tutorial by Matt Borchert: How to Draw 3D Isometric Shapes Using a Hex Grid in Adobe Illustrator Tutorial. Here are some examples of some three-dimensional isometric shapes that I illustrated using this technique:

Isometric Shapes on Hex Grid

Isometric Hollow Block

Isometric Hollow Cube

Isometric 3D Cross

After mastering the hex-grid technique for creating isometric illustrations, I learned that Adobe Illustrator itself has the ability to convert a two-dimensional shape into a three-dimensional isometric shape automatically, which is explained very well in the following video tutorial by YouTube user “drdefend”: How to Make Isometric City (Crossy Road ) | Illustrator Tutorial. Here are two examples of isometric illustrations I created using the Extrude & Bevel tool in Adobe Illustrator to create the three-dimensional building blocks from two-dimensional shapes:

Isometric Scene

3d Nut Tree Railroad

The trick to mastering isometric illustration of complex objects is that the individual components (such as the wheels of the locomotive shown above) must be converted from two-dimensional shapes into three-dimensional isometric objects individually, and positioned as needed to construct the overall three-dimensional object (almost like playing with digital LEGOs).


In my role an instructional designer with budding graphic design and illustration skills, it is creatively empowering to develop skills in a variety of illustration techniques. The goal of this effort is to become as self-sufficient as possible as an instructional designer, to be able to illustrate whatever pedagogically-valuable illustrations or graphics are helpful in teaching a particular concept with visuals that are pedagogically helpful, without relying on other graphic designers or illustrators.

If you have an inkling to begin learning basic two-dimensional or three-dimensional illustration techniques, do not be intimidated! In a matter of days I went from knowing practically nothing about illustration techniques to being able to create complex three-dimensional illustrations. While I still have a long way to go, learning the basic techniques of shape drawing, perspective drawing, and isometric illustration provides a solid foundation for creating even more complex and more professional-looking illustrations as I improve my technique, develop my own visual style, and continue to experiment with what is possible with each new illustration technique that I add to my toolbox and skillset as an instructional designer.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.

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