photo of dan scott introducing blending modes in adobe illustrator

Blending Modes in Adobe Illustrator

Daniel Scott

@dan

Hi, everyone!

In this post we are going to learn about Blending Modes in Illustrator, what they do, how to apply them to images, and how they can add extra depth and style to our vector designs.

We’ll practice Blending Modes with this easy-to-follow guide, taking it one step at a time, so you can learn at your own pace. Or you can fire up your laptop and follow along!

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What are blending modes and how do they work?

Blending modes set how color interacts on overlapping objects or layers, making them lighter or darker or increasing or reducing color contrast. 

There’s a great deal of color theory and mathematics working in the background, but for this post we’ll focus on what is essential for you to start working with blending modes.

To begin, keep the following in mind: 

When you approach blending modes, think about stacked objects or layers, how they are organized in your design, and what type of effect you are looking for.

  • The top object or layer sets the Blend Color.

  • The underlying object or layer sets the Base Color.

  • When we apply a blending mode, we get the Resulting Color.

There are 16 blending modes in Illustrator that you can assign to your artwork. Even though they are complex in theory, you can apply and change them with just a few mouse clicks. The more you practice, the sooner you will have full control over the magic they do!

Blending modes love color, you will get limited results on white or black objects and backgrounds.

Have a look at an example, displaying blue and red overlapping objects over diverse backgrounds:

three groups of five blue and red shapes featuring different blending modes in adobe illustrator

Observe how colors interact with these examples and try your own combinations.

Can you see how the colors interact on both the objects and the backgrounds at the same time? We can get brilliant effects with this feature! Blending modes in Illustrator can also be applied to images, as you can see below:

three groups of shape and images featuring different blending modes in adobe illustrator

You can apply Blending Modes to images in Illustrator.

Impressive, right? Let’s look at a use case that adds another layer of complexity and learn how to apply blending modes on images masked inside editable text. Sounds difficult? Not at all!

1. Creating a text object and setting a background color.

Let’s start with a simple “G” character and use a clipping mask to fill it with an image. All we need to do is place the text object over the image, select both layers and use the shortcut Command + 7 on a Mac or Control + 7 on a PC. Next, we draw an orange filled rectangle below them and we’re ready to blend!

a large letter g filled with the image of a vintage bicycle in adobe illustrator

Fill a text character with an image using the Clipping Mask and then try Blending Modes to further edit it.

2.  Choosing the first blending mode.

Now let’s see how we can blend our image’s colors with the background. It takes only three clicks to do this: First one, we select the text object, the Blend Color layer. Second, click on Opacity in the Appearance Panel on the right of your workspace.

magnified detail of a mouse cursor over the opacity setting in adobe illustrator

To add a Blending Mode to an object, click on the Opacity setting in the Appearance panel.

Third click, let’s pick Darken from the drop-down menu.

magnified detail of a mouse cursor over the darken blending mode in adobe illustrator

You have a set of available modes to choose from. Try them all!

Quick and easy! Darken mode compares colors and displays the darker ones. There is no actual color blend, but a replacement of the lighter colors for the darker ones. Darken is great for shading and depth without losing any original darker tones.

large letter g with darken blending mode over orange background in adobe illustrator

We have the Darken mode blending both layers together.

Timeout #1

When you’re finished with this post, check out this article on the importance of vector graphics in modern design and why perfecting these skills will make you a true designer. 

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Text: Explore Illustrator at BYOL

URL: https://bringyourownlaptop.com/join/illustrator


3.  Trying different blending modes.

 Lighten

When working with blending modes, it’s perfectly fine to try different options until you find the best one for your vision.

For this example, let’s try changing modes to Lighten. Once again, with the top layer selected, go to Opacity in the Appearance panel, and pick Lighten from the drop-down menu.

large letter g with lighten blending mode over orange background in adobe illustrator

Lighten focuses on the lightest details of our image.

Lighten is the opposite of Darken. Lighten compares blend and base colors and shows only the lighter ones. This mode is great for brightening images and editing parts of an image focusing only on the lighter details.

Let 's try another!

 

Multiply

Repeat the steps: move to the Appearance panel, click on Opacity, and choose Multiply. Once again, with the top layer selected, go to Opacity in the Appearance panel, and pick Multiply from the drop-down.

large letter g with multiply blending mode over orange background in adobe illustrator

Can you see how Multiply blends tones and shadows to make the image inside the character look deeper?

Nice! I like using this one as an example. It’s easy to demonstrate how mathematics works behind blending modes.

Multiply literally multiplies a base color with a blend color. For these calculations, know that white’s value is 1 and black’s value is 0. So, if Illustrator multiplies any color with white, there will be no color change. If we multiply with black, we will get black as the final color. In short, Multiply is great for enriching tones, adding shadow, and darkening images while keeping the black tones untouched.

Still with me? Let’s push on with another mode!

 

Screen

Once again, click Opacity in the Appearance panel and pick Screen mode from the menu.

large letter g with screen blending mode over orange background in adobe illustrator

Screen mode deals with the lightest parts of the image and lights up everything!

On screen mode, the light parts of the blend color lighten the base color, while keeping the darker parts with less impact. This mode is great for casting light effects, like glows or flares, or brightening an image without notable change to darker tones.

 

Overlay

You’ve got it by now. Let’s pick Overlay mode from the menu.

large letter g with overlay blending mode over orange background in adobe illustrator

Overlay is a great choice to work with both shadow and light.

This is a powerful one! Overlay combines Multiply and Screen modes, affects both darker and lighter base colors, and that’s why it fits many design choices.

On darker base colors, the blend color will darken the image, creating strong shadows. On lighter base colors, the blend color will brighten the image, creating highlights. Overlay is awesome with textures and for adding special effects.

 

4. Working with multiple Blending Modes

Another cool thing about Blending Modes: we can combine different modes by adding another blend layer to our composition. Let’s have a look at how this is done.

Let’s duplicate our letter “G,” place it on Front, and assign it a new mode.

large g letter duplicate showing original colors outside artboard  in adobe illustrator

Non-destructive editing is a designer’s true best friend!

Can you see that this is a non-destructive technique? If we drag our duplicate layer to a point outside the artboard its original colors are still there! Without a base color layer to interact with, they remain unchanged.

For this new layer, let’s choose Multiply.

large g letters showing combined blending modes in adobe illustrator

Combined Blending Modes can really take your designs to a higher level of greatness!

We now have three layers interacting with different blending modes. This is brilliant for creating unique designs and bringing extra impact to any image!

Timeout #2

Excited by all the new skills you’re learning? Get inspired with this article about Vector Art and start working on your own stunning creations.


5. Using transparency for smoother layer transitions

Another thing we can do to fine tune our designs is adjust the transparency value for the blending mode or the blend color layer itself. 

overlapping large g letters with combined blending modes in adobe illustrator

We can use transparency to soften the Blending Mode effect

This allows us to control how intensive the color blends or effects that will show on our design are. Remember, on most occasions it is important to keep things balanced and looking natural.

6.  Blending Modes an editable text.

One last detail: we can apply blending modes to editable text objects. This means that after all the changes we’ve made to our “G” letter, we can change it without losing any of the blending modes set up.

We simply double-click the object to dive into the text level itself, delete the “G” and type the new character, in this case, “D.”

text character with blending mode edited in adobe illustrator

Blending modes can affect live text, editable anytime!

We may need to make sure that the image is still properly framed. If not, we can move the letter or the image until we’re happy with the result.

 

And there we have it!

Blending modes are no longer an Illustrator mystery! We’ve learned the basics of how they interact and how to apply them to our designs. We can also combine modes across multiple layers and transform editable text objects into works of art!

Make sure you practice with blending modes until you master them, they truly are game changing!

 

What 's Next?

To go deeper with Illustrator, join BYOL and you will gain access to my Illustrator Essentials and Advanced courses as well as my 30+ additional courses on Figma, PhotoshopLightroom, Premiere Pro, Webflow, and more. As a BYOL member you will also enjoy personalized support, earn certificates, and tackle exciting community challenges. Get started here. 

See you in class! – Dan

Ready for more? Become a BYOL member!

Explore 30+ Essentials and Advanced courses in Figma, Photoshop, Illustrator, Lightroom, Premiere Pro, Webflow, and more. Enjoy personalized support, earn certificates, connect with other creators and tackle exciting community challenges.

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Certificates of achievement!

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