Illustrator Gradient Mesh
The gradient mesh tool is often overlooked but it’s an extremely useful tool for creating realistic vector artwork. It works well in certain contexts, for example in creating the body of a character, but not so much for details like the eyes. The Gradient Mesh tool adds a certain three dimensional quality or plasticity to the object.
The first step in creating a new object or character is often to place a source image, like a photo or scanned sketch. We would then trace over the sampled image with either the Pen tool or the Pencil tool. The latter has been improved in the CS6 version of Illustrator Courses to allow for smoother lines for users not familiar with drawing by hand. We use the drawing tools to draw the various parts of the object, say a character’s head, body, arms and legs, often on separate layers, for later ease of editing. Or in the case of furniture, the main body of the piece with legs and fittings as separate objects. The original source image is now discarded or moved to new, invisible layer. We now have some objects to which we can apply the Gradient Mesh tool.
There are several ways to use the tool. For example we can use the Rectangle tool to create a rectangle around the object and then go to the Object drop-down menu to select Create Gradient Mesh. We then subdivide the rectangle and move the various points with the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow icon) to create a clean mesh. Or we can simply use the object shape itself to create the mesh. In this case we select the Gradient mesh tool and click several points diagonally across the object. It’s best to add just a few points initially since these can be added to later if necessary.
We can now add colour to both the points and planes of the mesh, which can also be controlled by moving the anchor points and Bezier handles with the Direct Selection tool. Rather than simply making up colours for our object, we can place a photograph of a similar object and sample the colours from the photo using the Eyedropper tool. We then apply these more realistic colours to the appropriate areas and points on the artwork. Variations on these sampled colours can be found in the Colour panel, the Colour Picker, the Colour Guide panel and Swatches.
We also add new points as needed for highlights and other details. For certain details, like dimples and shadows, for example, it’s best to simply create new shapes on top of the main body with feathered fill colours. We then change their settings for blending mode and transparency, thus making the added shape more subtle.
For some smaller details like eyes and finger nails the gradient mesh is too complex, so the simple linear or radial gradient may be better suited.
To give some details a more three dimensional look try 3D Extrude & Bevel from the Effects drop-down menu. This will open up a dialog box which allows us to rotate and extrude the part. We can also add Perspective and Lighting Effects to this area only.
In this way we can see that the Gradient Mesh, along with other tools, can add a sense of realism to an otherwise flat piece of artwork.