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How to create a retro birthday themed illustration

Intermediate level Adobe Illustrator Adobe Illustrator

Draw a sketch

Step 1

Create a new document. Set the width to 148.5 millimeters and the height to 105 millimeters. We are doing this in case you decide to print the illustration and send it as a card.

Step 2

Before we start sketching, let’s take a moment to go through the features of mid-century illustration. The shapes were often sharp, hand-drawn but aimed towards geometrical accuracy. The objects were stripped of details and if there were any details, they were usually simple and repetitive. So we can say this was the era of minimalism, were objects were reduced to simple shapes.

We’ll sketch a bundle of birthday related objects. So in the first row I've placed the party props – a birthday hat, a birthday gift, headphones, a camera and a vinyl record. In the second row we have a cake, some glasses and drinks bottles. The third row is reserved for the details — I sketched a star and a lemon wedge. Use a light grey color because it won’t interfere while you trace it.

Define a color palette

The color palette of this era was full of vibrant colors, which clearly favored the reds, orange-reds and pinks placed on a darker background. So we’ll make a simple color palette out of dark blue, beige, pink and orange.

Start tracing the sketch

To trace the sketch, we will use the Pen Tool (P). It is perfect for tracing all these loose, non-geometric shapes we have on our sketch.

Step 1 – Cake

Start tracing the cake. This style doesn’t demand a lot of accuracy so trace the sketch without any worries. Start with the bigger shapes (like the dough and the plate) and move to the smaller ones (the candle and the decoration). Don’t forget to delete the sketch once you are done tracing. When you are done tracing, color the dough in beige, the frosting and flame in orange and the plate and candle in pink.

Step 2 – Birthday hat

First trace the triangular shape and the circle top (2). Color them beige and orange (3). Then over the beige triangle, draw three diagonal pink rectangles. Merge them in one object by selecting them all and making a Compound path (Control + 8). Now copy the beige triangle and Paste it in front (Control + F) of the same one. Select the pasted triangle and the pink rectangles and then use the Intersect command from the Pathfinder panel (4). The result is perfectly aligned pink stripes to the birthday hat.

Step 3 – Camera

This object is the most complicated one that we have in this tutorial but it’s still easy to trace. First do the body of the camera and the flash. Then, use the circle you drew for the flash and multiply it three times to create the lens. And finally, trace the light bulb of the flash. Color the camera in the colors from our palette, using the dark blue on the inside objects.

Step 4 – Gift

The gift is quite easy to trace – start with the rectangle body. Then add the wrapped ribbons. Color the gift pink and the ribbons dark blue. Trace the bow and color it beige.

Step 5 – Glasses

Trace the first glass and its content – liquor and an olive. Color the glass in pink, the drink in beige and the olive in orange.

The second, champagne glass is next – trace it and color it pink and the content orange. Duplicate it and color the glass in beige but leave the content orange.

Step 6 – Small glasses

Similar to the other glasses we traced – trace the glass first and then it’s content. Once you are done, color and duplicate the glass. Color the same glass in inverse colors.

Step 7 – First bottle

After tracing, color the bottle in orange, the label and cap in beige and the details in dark blue.

Step 8 – Second bottle

Trace the second bottle and color it pink, with a beige cap and orange details.

Step 9 – Tall glass

This one is easy – trace the glass and then its content and straw. Color the glass in beige, the content in pink and the straw in orange.

Step 10 – Headphones

Next are the headphones. Start by tracing the ear pads and then move on to the headband. Color the ear pads in pink and the headband in beige.

Step 11 – Vinyl record

The vinyl record is the last object to be traced. Trace the main circle and then simply multiply and resize it towards the center. Trace the triangles which make the light reflection too. Color the record orange, the details beige and dark blue.

Step 12 – Details

Finally – the details. Trace the star by doing only one spike and then multiply it twice and rotate those parts. Color the star beige. Trace the lemon, color and multiply it. Use two different color combinations.

By doing the details, we are done with tracing in this tutorial. Let’s arrange the objects we created.

Arrange the traced images

The elements are traced and now we have to make a nice arrangement of our birthday illustration. We’ll try to keep the classy feel of the mid-century designs by keeping the composition tight and tidy.

Step 1

First we will need a boundary in which we will arrange the composition. So make a rectangle with a slightly smaller size of the art board. Select the Rectangle tool (M) and click on the art board. In the dialogue box, enter 124 mm as a width value and 80 mm as a height value.  Center the rectangle.

Step 2

First we will start by adding the smaller objects at the bottom of the art board. Add the cocktail glass and multiply it twice. Then add the small glasses, multiply them once and arrange them one over the other.

Step 3

Add the bottles of liquor and the gift. They are objects with a strong vertical direction which gives the composition a sort of stability.

Step 4

Over the glasses, add the cake and one pink champagne glass. While adding the objects, try to get close to the rectangle borders as much as you can. That way we’ll keep the composition tight and compact.

Step 5

Fill the right corner with the vinyl record and the tall glass.

Step 6

We can fill the gap in the middle by placing the birthday hat, the camera, the headphones and a champagne glass in between the headphones. You can see how the image is now quite busy and full.

Step 7

Now that we placed all of the objects we have, we can add the details – the stars and lemon wedges. Add them randomly wherever you see an empty spot. Feel free to resize them in different sizes so they can fit most of the gaps.

Step 8

Finally, as a final step delete the rectangle border and add a dark blue background over the whole art board.


Congrats! You did well! In this tutorial we covered the main aspects of Retro style illustration. With sharp edges and warm tones, we created a nice birthday illustration which you can print it out and add a personalized touch to any birthday present.

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One of the best things about being an illustrator is the fact you can always create a unique birthday gift, so with this tutorial we’ll learn how to create a birthday themed illustration which you can later send to whoever's special day it is. But to make things more interesting we’ll make it in the style of one of the most amazing eras in the history of design - the 1950’s, also known as “mid-century”.

Tut Details

Intermediate level 45m 2,906 views



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