AI Gradient Mesh Tutorial – A Beautiful Apple!
Out of all the tools available in Adobe Illustrator, one of the most useful – and often the most intimidating for new program users – is the gradient mesh capability. Clicking on the tool by accident might have been your first foray into an exploration of its full capability; perhaps you were commandeered to research by a college tutor or maybe you simply stumbled upon some incredible art created in Illustrator and wanted to be able to create those images yourself.
Whatever the case might be, we’re about to give you a crash course in the wonderful gradient mesh tool, breaking it down into logical steps and showing you exactly what to do to achieve a realistic effect. For the purposes of this class, we’ll be using an image of an apple we took – which ironically then went on to become the fuel for the creation of this little tutorial. Are you sitting comfortably? Then, let’s begin.
Here’s our apple image, simply placed into a new Illustrator document. (Choose File>Place and then select the picture.)
It’s best when recreating any image to lock the layer on which it is placed to avoid any accidental moving around of the picture.
Create a new layer on top of your locked layer: now we’re ready to begin tracing over our object with the pen tool.
Using the pen tool in your new layer, trace the outline of the apple. We’ve chosen a lighter blue as a good contrast to the red of the apple – however if you find the fill distracting, you can of course change the color or work with a pen stroke only. Remember, when using the pen on a simpler shape like this, creating fewer anchor points and manipulating them will yield better results than creating a multitude. You’re looking to generate a smooth shape, after all.
Here’s our apple, completely masked by the results of the pen.
Now, hide your apple layer; we’re going to create a layer for the stalk. As with other Illustrator projects, creating separate layers for different elements is a good idea, as they can then be edited individually.
Once again, use the pen tool to create a colored mask for your stalk in the new layer.
Drag your blue apple mask out with the Selection Tool (the black pointer at the top of the left toolbar) so that it sits next to the original apple photograph.
Now it’s time to create a few apple hues to start coloring our vector apple. The easiest way to do this is by dragging the color palette out to the middle of the screen and creating a new color group. We’ve names our color group “Apple Colors” and highlighted the “Selected Swatches” radio button.
Using the eyedropper tool (and making sure you have your color group selected on the color palette), take a sample from your apple photograph. Then, select “New Swatch” from the color palette and if you want to, name your swatch before clicking “Ok” and saving the color to your new group.
Continuing on, sample as many colors as you see fit. Once you’re done, you’ll see your color group looking a little like the following picture.
At this point, we’re ready to bring in the gradient mesh. About half way down the toolbar on the left, you’ll see the Gradient Mesh tool (which looks like a collection of wiggly lines) – select it and then click on your apple shape. You’ll see a couple of bisecting lines appear; that’s the beginning: it’s time to use the tool to make a mesh you can utilize to color the apple in.
As you create your mesh, don’t fall into the trap of going overboard – fewer lines are better to start off with. Too many intersecting lines and you’ll end up with a very complex shape which will be hard to shade. If you find you need another section here or there as you begin to colorize, you can create it at that point. Clicking along an existing line with the Gradient Mesh tool will cause one other line to appear, as the picture below suggests. Clicking on a clear are will cause two bisecting lines to appear. If you make a mistake or want to remove any of your lines, simply hold the Alt key down and select the line you wish to erase.
Here we have a fairly simple mesh created over the apple shape. It doesn’t look like much at the moment: we’re about to hone it so that it behaves in the way we want!
So that we can manipulate the mesh to match the apple, drag the apple shape back over the photograph and set the layer transparency (found in the transparency palette on the right of the Illustrator window) to Multiply. Suddenly, we can see through the shape and on to the apple photograph below.
Now, we can see where we need to manipulate the mesh so that it jives a little more with the shape of the apple. To move a mesh point, select it with the Direct Selection Tool and then drag using your mouse or pen. Here, we’ve pulled a mesh point down to create a dip in the fruit where the stalk will go. We’ve also manipulated a couple of other mesh points to approximate other apple features. Try to avoid adding mesh points at this stage – remember, this is simply an approximation to assist with shading.
After this, adding a few more points might be beneficial to help with the color distribution. Once again, we don’t want to go overboard – we simply want to ensure that the 3D shape we create is somewhat similar to the apple we’re trying to make.
If we drag our shape away from the apple now, using the selection tool, we can get ready to start shading and colorizing our shape.
There are two main ways to colorize a gradient mesh. The first is to color a point, and the second is to color a plane. You can either select a point or click in the middle of four points to select a plane using the Direct Selection Tool. To choose additional points or planes, hold down the shift key as you select. This is the time to experiment: using subtle shifts in hue, drag your chosen colors to planes or points to shade your apple. The wonderful thing about gradient mesh is that if you happen to go wrong, you can simply drag another color over the plane or point to correct your mistake.
As you can see here, the more you colorize, the more the apple comes to life.
As you progress, you might find yourself needing to sample subtle differences in shade from the apple itself. This is simple to do. Just select the point or the plain you wish to color using the Direct Selection Tool, then click on the Eyedropper Tool to choose the apple shade you want to match, from the appropriate location. We’ve used this method to colorize the top of the apple in particular.
To view your progress mesh-free at any stage, just click onto a different location in your Illustrator window. It can be very useful to sit back and view your apple to determine if the color gradient changes are too subtle or too bold.
Here, we’ve used the Alt and the + key to zoom in to deal with the area around the stalk. By using the Eyedropper Tool, we can really get a good match to the apple itself.
If we click away at this stage, we can see that while the apple looks good overall, some adjustments need to be made to the highlights and the shadows so that they don’t end up looking “square.”
By dragging the points and the planes out, you can change the shapes and contours of the highlights so that they look more natural. You will also find the bezier handles make a difference as you figure out the best way to recreate the look of the apple photograph.
Once you are satisfied with your apple, it’s time to complete the same process with the stalk. Un-hide the layer and drag the stalk over to your apple if it’s not already in the correct place. Then, either sample colors using the Eyedropper Tool or drag swatches for your color palette until you are happy with the result.
At this stage, the initial shape we drew is starting to look a lot like an apple. However, there are still elements missing…
Here, we’ve added additional anchor points using the Gradient Mesh Tool so that we can add the highlights. By once again manipulating points and planes, we’ve placed the highlights in suitable locations on the vector apple.
After adding the highlights, we are ready to start recreating details from the apple, to give the fruit its final look – the spots, imperfections and other “appley” markings. Create a layer and place it above all the other layers in the project.
Then, go to the Transparency menu for that layer and set the blend mode to “Overlay” with an opacity of 40%. That will mean all the strokes we make in that particular layer will be set to that blend mode and should settle subtly in over the rest of the illustration.
For the purposes of drawing the highlights on the apple, we will choose the Filbert brush from the brush menu and choose a light gold stroke color and a width of 1pt.
As you can see here, while you are drawing in the details, the brush retains its chosen color. However, once you release the mouse or the pen selection and stop drawing, the brush stroke fulfills the properties of the layer blend mode.
Once you’re done with the initial highlights, it’s time for the smaller details like spots. For this purpose, we’ve chosen a 3pt round brush and set the diameter to vary by 3pt with the menu set to Pressure (since we’re using a pen).
Choosing appropriate colors from the palette, we’re now going to create the small details that make our apple unique. Some of the spots on darker areas will involve the use of a darker palette color: subtlety is the key.
Right now, our apple is almost complete. For that reason you can hide the lower apple photograph layer and the top “details” layer: we need to set the blend mode of the main part of our apple back to “Normal.” So, highlighting the apple and stalk, go into the Transparency menu and set the blend mode to “Normal.”
We are now ready to create a shadow to make the apple a little more realistic. If we’d left the apple in “Multiply” mode, this shadow would have been visible through the apple itself: not very convincing! Create a layer underneath your main apple and stalk layers – this will be your vector shadow layer.
Go to the “Gradient” menu and create a gradient going from black on the left to white on the right. Select the white swatch and make sure the opacity slider is set to 0% – this will ensure the graphic looks good on a multitude of colored backgrounds. Draw an ellipse – then, use the Selection Tool to modify the ellipse into a flatter oval shadow.
Voila – you have created a vector apple! Congratulations: you’ve reached the end of this introduction to Gradient Mesh – now go forth and have fun trying out more complex projects. There’s really no limit to the type and magnitude of applications for the Gradient Mesh tool; hopefully this is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship with yet another of Adobe Illustrator’s fantastic perks.
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