Meshes Aren’t Just for 3D Anymore - Get Realistic Results with the Gradient Mesh Tool

For most, Illustrator fills a very specific role in the production pipeline. Depending on the project you're working on, it might be to create a logo or possibly some type of illustration. The decision for you to use Illustrator is based primarily on the look of the artwork after you're finished. Vector artwork has a distinct and crisp appearance to it that often times is unmistakable. What if this wasn't the case? What if you could create more realistic artwork, like the Mona Lisa, right inside of Illustrator? For a piece like that, most artists would reach for a pixel-based application like Photoshop. This is understandable since the brush engine and Brush Tool inside of Photoshop make it feel very similar to painting on a canvas with traditional paint. Don't be so quick to overlook Illustrator though. There is one tool that, with a little practice, will unlock some magic for your realistic pieces of art.

An Unexpected Style of Art from Illustrator

image1 The reputation for creating artwork that has a vector style to it is rooted in the way that Illustrator creates it's art. Illustrator is a shape-based program meaning that everything you make is made up of vector shapes that have a color assigned to either their fill or their stroke. Admittedly, someone with an enormous amount of patience could probably create enough little shapes that had either a solid or gradient fill color assigned to them to create something that looked realistic. This would be a painstakingly tedious process. The key to making realistic artwork right inside of Illustrator is tied to a special type of object called a gradient mesh. A gradient mesh allows you to dictate the color of the object according to the density and configuration of its mesh. A unique color can be assigned to the intersection of mesh lines and a gradient is used to transition it into nearby colors. A mesh object is very flexible in the amount of detail it can convey because it can be very simple or very complex.

Creating and Editing Mesh Objects

image2 Creating a mesh object is very simple inside of Illustrator. First you must start with a shape that you've drawn. With the object selected you can choose the Create Gradient Mesh option in the Edit menu or you can simply click on the object with the Mesh Tool (U). Using the Mesh Tool method creates mesh lines wherever you click on the object. If the shape is too complex you should consider simplifying it before converting it to a mesh object. After converting it to a mesh object, you can then manipulate it to be as complex as you need. When a complex object is converted into a mesh object, often times the mesh is so scrambled that it is difficult to repair. Editing the mesh for a mesh object may feel awkward at first but if you understand the components of the mesh, it's quite simple. The mesh consists of mesh lines, mesh patches, mesh points, and anchor points. Mesh lines are the lines of the mesh that separate it into columns and rows. Mesh patches are simply the space between mesh lines. If you have spent any time at all inside of Illustrator, you should already know what an anchor point is. They look like little tiny squares and have two control handles that control the angle of the path as it moves through the anchor point. Mesh points look like anchor points at first glance but if you look closely, they are actually small diamonds. These mesh points occur at places where mesh lines cross. For the most part, they also have four control handles each that dictate how the color behaves. To edit the density of the mesh you'll need to use the Mesh Tool. By simply clicking you can add mesh lines to the object. If you hold Alt while clicking on a mesh line, you'll remove it from the object. Holding Alt and clicking on a mesh point will remove both mesh lines that go through it from the object. Editing the position of the anchor points that make up the shape or the mesh points that make up the mesh simply involve selecting them with the Direct Selection Tool. Once selected, you can move the respective point around or manipulate the control handles that grow out of it.

Assigning Color to a Mesh

image3 When you begin to add colors to the mesh object you've created, you'll begin to see the potential of using gradient meshes. Adding color is also a very simple process. Simply select the desired mesh point and with it selected, choose a color as you normally would. Once you have added color to a mesh point, try manipulating the control handles using the Direct Selection Tool. You'll see that they control the behavior of the gradient as it transitions into the colors assigned to neighboring mesh points. Using gradient meshes in your vector artwork will be a bit challenging if you are new to it. It's best to start out small before attempting to create something like as complex as the Mona Lisa. We'd recommend that you try to recreate an object from a photograph. This'll allow you to simply trace the shapes you see. Keep in mind that more complex shapes will need to be broken down into smaller pieces with gradient meshes created for each. If you'd like to follow step by step through this process, make sure and check out Understanding Gradient Meshes in Illustrator.