Transparency-free reflection effect

This tutorial looks very very complicated at first glance, but it’s only repeating the same steps over and over. Once you get used to working without transparencies it becomes second nature; it just takes a little planning as you work to sort out how to ‘fake’ the look in a way that anyone can still edit the file.

For this illustration, I wanted a couple dancing while reflected on a highly polished marble floor… I just had no idea how to draw it without using transparencies. Luckily the trusty Pathfinder tools came to the rescue.

Drawing Your Characters

First off, draw in your ‘main’ characters using simple shapes (it helps to sketch the body positions out beforehand). Then add some silhouettes in the background to give some perspective. We also added some simple arches and columns along the back wall just so it’s not a flat color.


As you work, you’ll want to ensure you’re grouping each collection of shapes properly and organizing your file with layers. This makes things much, much easier to edit later on. This is particularly important if you’re planning on selling your vectors through microstock sites: Customers always prefer clean, well organized files. For this illustration we have 3 layers so far: The couple in the foreground, the silhouettes in the background, and the background itself.


(*Tip: Don’t give in to the temptation to merge all the silhouettes in the background: we’ll need each one editable later on down the line).

Drawing The Floor

Now for the floor. Draw a square, then put a random squiggly shape on top in a lighter color. Duplicate the square (Command-C on Mac or Control-C on PC to copy the shape, then Command-V on Mac or Control-V on PC to paste the shape directly in front of itself), select the squiggly, and use Pathfinder’s ‘Intersect Shape Areas’ to trim the squiggly neatly to the edge of the square.

(*Tip: Make sure you use Global Spot Colors and assign them easy to remember tints, such as 10%, 20%, etc. This way it’s easy to match a shade when drawing later down the line, rather than having to guess at whether you used 7% or 8%… Or wait, was it 9%?)

Transform PaletteRepeat these steps with one or two more squiggly shapes, group everything and you end up with a simple 3 or 4 colored ‘marble’ tile. Draw a couple more simple tiles then change them up by switching the colors and rotating them. To rotate, enter 90 degrees in the Transform palette.

Once you’ve got a few different looking tiles, align them so they’re spaced equally using ‘Horizontal Distribute Center’ button under the Align palette.

From here, keep duplicating and changing around the tiles’ colors until you get a whole floor (use ‘Vertical Distribute Center’ to align the tiles vertically).

Pathfinder: Add To Shape Area

To add a little more depth you can add a drop shadow effect under the tiles to make them look 3D. Select all the tiles, copy them and paste them onto a new layer. Select them all again and click ‘Add to Shape Area’: This will merge all the shapes into one solid object. Offset them slightly and move them under your original tiles.

Marble Tiles

Creating Perspective

Now to bring in some perspective. Select everything and use ‘Envelope Distort > Make With Warp’ on this entire tile layer and play with the vertical distortion until you get the roughly the perspective you want. Expanded to convert everything back into editable shapes.

Smoosh the floor down to get it into a good enough perspective. (*The perspective won’t be perfect but since most of the floor is hidden behind people, there’s no point in fiddling with it to make it completely accurate).

Tile Floor

You can clean up the bits of floor that are hanging off the artboard using Pathfinder’s ‘Subtract From Shape Area’. Draw a rectangle on the outside of the pasteboard along where you’d like to trim the shapes, copy it, then select the shape you’re trimming and click the ‘Subtract’ button.

The only caveat here is whatever shape you’ve trimmed will jump to the front of the group, so you’ll need to send it to the back (Command-[ on a Mac, Control-[ on PC; conversely, just switch the ‘[‘ with ‘]’ to bring shapes forward). Your other option is a clipping mask, though since we’ve still got a lot to do with these shapes it makes sense to just clean them up while we’re here.

Pathfinder: Subtract From Shape AreaTrim off any excess bits using the Pathfinder > Subtract From Shape area like we did on the tiles to keep things neat and clean. Here’s our file now:

Ballroom Couple

Adding Reflections

Time to start making the reflections. We’ll start with the background silhouettes.

Copy and paste the silhouettes onto a new layer and transform them vertically (under the Align palette’s drop down menu). Here’s why it was a good idea not to merge them earlier: you’ll need to line up their feet so they don’t look like they’re floating in space. The common mistake when flipping objects vertically is often the shapes don’t line up right, but people don’t take the time to fix it. But remember: It’s the little things like this that make an illustration look ‘right’.

Mirrored Silhouettes

Now let’s make this shadow reflective. Duplicate the floor layer, and cut and paste the reflection from the silhouettes over it. Change the opacity of the silhouettes until you’re pleased. Wait a minute, you say? Transparencies?! I thought this was about NOT using transparencies. Don’t worry: They won’t be transparent when we’re done:

Reflected Dancers

Select everything on this layer (tiles plus transparent reflection) and go to ‘Object > Flatten Transparency’, making sure the raster/vector balance slider is at 100%:

Flatten Transparency Palette

Voila. Transparencies gone. But we still have some cleanup to do: Flattening transparencies will cause shapes to open, plus we’d better ditch all the original tiles outside of our shadow (remember, we copied the tiles onto a new layer so there’s no point in leaving them here).

Use Select > Same Fill And Stroke on all bits of tile that weren’t covered by the shadow. Again, this is where limiting our color tints earlier really helps. Since we only used a few tints, we only need a few mouse clicks to delete them. Since the transparent shapes are darker than anything we used on the tiles they’ll remain behind.

File Cleanup

Pathfinder: MergeFrom there, you’ll need to clean up the open shapes in your reflection (boo, hiss!). Using the amazing Open Shapes Select plugin, find out what’s open (under Select > Object > Open Shapes). Click on each shape then select all shapes of that color (Select > Same > Fill and Stroke) then hit ‘Merge’ under your Pathfinder. Yet again, this will only need to be done a handful of times since you’re only working with a few color tints.


Couple Dancing

From here, duplicate these steps with the couple in front. We’ve chosen to make their reflection darker than the silhouettes in the background to draw the viewer’s attention. Also, to keep things simple, we didn’t try for any colors in the reflection: We wanted the red dress to pop. Having a lighter red in the reflection would have led the viewer’s eye out of the frame, plus would have taken way longer!

Here is the final illustration:

Couple Dancing

>> Purchase this file on

© 2009 Jennifer Borton


12 thoughts on “Transparency-free reflection effect

  1. Santhosh says:

    Great tutorial! There are hardly many tutorials this detailed.. Regarding colors, I just had few questions on preparing a vector for microstock.

    1. When creating a new file in illustrator, should the color scheme should be CMYK or RGB? Does it make a difference?
    2. Regarding color usage, I have read that spot color are to be used only when the whole vector consists a very few colors, else the printing costs will shoot up.. So I believe we should use process colors more if the vector art needs more colors to be used? In that case, should we use global process colors or regular process colors? How does this matter? And the color mode for varying the process color selected, should it be CMYK or RGB?

    Sorry, this is so confusing.. And only a expert like you can help!

  2. Anonymous says:

    what about if i have gradient transparency ???, can it work with flatten transparency ??

    • bortonia says:

      Gradients + transparencies are super tricky. Especially radial gradients, which can slice into thousands of teeny pieces like a pie. Linear gradients are more stable but it depends how complex they are.

      I’d actually recommend you stick to solid colored shapes when you flatten, then add in the gradients afterwards. There are some good basic tips in this article, . Hope this helps!

  3. Oko says:

    Hey there 🙂
    Just wanted to thank you for the great tips here, it´s really a pain downsaving from cs5 to ai8.
    So thanks, keep rocking!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hey there 🙂
    Just wanted to thank you for the great tips here, it´s really a pain downsaving from cs5 to ai8.
    So thanks, keep rocking!

  5. JP says:

    Thanks for the tutorial!
    When i flatten transparency on my illustration, some of the objects are made into . Good/bad?

    • bortonia says:

      You mean the shapes got split up? Well, it’s not great but it’s also not a terrible thing either, you just need to be careful not to accidentally move any of the shapes or it’ll leave a gap. You can use Object > Lock to lock shapes in place while working, just to be safe! I hope this helps 🙂

  6. Pierdelune says:

    thanks. I’ts great. I have so much difficulties to have any acceptance of my vectors. I think it will help.

  7. Justin says:

    Great tip! I am looking forward to using this to submit artwork to istock. I was very much confused about the specifications needed to submit, but this really clears things up. Thanks!

  8. superdrupermegapuper54321…

    Very usefull info. Thanks!…

  9. Ethan says:

    This is absolutely brilliant. I’m still a vector n00b, so tips like this – with your outstanding how-to illustrations – are so welcome.

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