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Gradient Meshes Introduction

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Mastery of Illustrator's gradient mesh functionality is the holy grail of vector graphic design.  Although difficult to learn and time consuming to set up, gradient meshes can give your vector images an illusion of photorealism and detail that will bring your artwork to new levels of excellence. This introduction will take you through the basics of gradient mesh design and give you pointers on more advanced aspects to explore.  


The Basics
The Gradient Mesh tool is not an easy tool to master. Getting the results that you want may require more than just a little practice. However, the tool can help you get amazing results. Before beginning this tutorial, please make certain you are familiar with all basic operations in Illustrator, particularly the Pen Tool, Color Swatches, and understand the idea of shading and highlights - it will help you greatly later on.

It's important to recognize the various parts of the gradient mesh. As shown in the image following, the different parts of the gradient mesh are:

  • Mesh Lines: These are straight (or curved) lines which can be used to change the shape of the object or the direction of the color. Mesh lines are added in a few different ways which we will learn about later. They are moved using their control points just like moving other lines in Illustrator.
  • Mesh Points: Mesh points are the basis of the mesh. They control where color is placed, what direction it goes in, and the overall shape of the mesh. Mesh points are also the place where the mesh lines intersect. At these points you can add color that will radiate out from the point to the surrounding parts of the mesh. You can select, move and delete these mesh points which will move the color around throughout the mesh or alter the shape of the mesh.
  • Mesh Patch: This is the section within the four mesh points. You can add color to the mesh patch that will radiate out from within to the surrounding areas.
  • Control Lines: These are the lines which control the curve of the mesh lines, and the amount of color applied to both a patch and a mesh point. These lines are selected and moved like all other curves and lines in Illustrator.

How color is added to the mesh, and moving the control points and lines is covered later in the tutorial. For the time being, however, we will detail more basic aspects of mesh creation...

Creating the Shape for the Mesh
Open Illustrator and create a new document selecting the standard letter size document (8.5 x 11 inches) in portrait mode, with RGB Color. For me, turning off the tiling and art board keep me from becoming distracted, and that is usually one of the very first things that I do (But you do not need to do it to complete this tutorial if you prefer it to be visible). Delete any unused swatches in your color palette because we will be building a palette of color swatches. There should be no color swatches left except for black and white.

Be sure your color picker palette is visible, along with your layers and swatches palettes. Chose a base color for your shape, which will be the basis for the colors in your image. For the balloon we are making, I selected a baby pink. Add it to your swatches palette since we will be using it often once we start adding the mesh. With your newly created color selected as the foreground color, begin drawing the basic shape of the balloon as shown in the image to the right.

You can create the balloon using whatever tool and method works well for you. However, if a shape is going to be turned into a gradient mesh, I found that the Pen Tool works best because of the smooth lines and simple points it creates. Go ahead and zoom in on your page whenever necessary.  The balloon and the string should actually be separate shapes. They are outlined with a 1 point stroke of black so you can see it easier, but you should not use a stroke on the image you are creating.

When working with detailed, complex images, it is better to use separate shapes that you can layer than try to fit everything into one big mesh. Smaller shapes result in a more controlled environment. How many shapes you use in your image depends on exactly how complex you want the shape and color of your final image. Right now we are not concerned with the finer details of the image, various shades of colors or the exact shape - Let’s just get the basic shape, layout and idea of the image down.

This step is one of the most important steps in working with gradient meshes. Select your entire image (using the Select all option from the menu), and make a duplicate of it. Place it on a separate layer, hide, and lock the layer. Name the layer according to whatever method you use. This is your backup should you need to revert to it. You could save it to a new file, but having it in the same file makes it really handy if you need it later.

REMEMBER once you create the gradient mesh, you will not be able to go back to the “unmeshed” version of your image. Sometimes you may find that you need to abandon the mesh and start over with your basic shape. If your shape is a difficult one to make, or an odd shape, this could be very discouraging. Creating a backup of your original shapes and image before starting to add the mesh will save you many hours of work and frustration.

Adding the Gradient Mesh to your Shape
There are three rules to keep in mind when working with gradient meshes:
  1. It’s easier to ADD than delete. This is important when making your mesh; too many mesh points can be a confusing, jumbled mess.
  2. Don’t be in a rush! Stop and look at your image after each mesh point is added. Sometimes you will find that the last point you added was perfect in color and placement and nothing more needs to be done. You don’t want to overdo it, or miss the perfect point and end up with a muddled mess of color and mesh.
  3. Edit > Undo is your friend. When meshing, have one hand on the mouse, and the other on the undo key. You could drop in a mesh point, or set a color that is all wrong and have to undo it. You might drop in multiple mesh lines, only to find that they’re all wrong, and all you need to do is just undo back.

With these points in mind, there is more than one way to create mesh objects:

Select your object and go to “Object --> Create gradient mesh”. Then adjust the settings in the dialog box (as shown to the left).


Press the "U" Key on your keyboard to bring up the gradient mesh tool, or click the gradient mesh tool in the toolbox as shown on the right and click the shape one by one to add mesh points.

Using the create gradient mesh option often places mesh points where they aren’t wanted. It then becomes difficult to manipulate and move them later. If you add the mesh points manually you have more control over exactly where the points go, and the colors of each point. Adding mesh points one by one allows you to start small with only the minimum lines you need to get the coloring and shading accurate, and then add more points and lines when needed.

- Tutorial written by bedlam123

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Last 5 User Comments

User:  satria (#47035)
Date: Fri Dec 28, 2007. 20:36:48

Post #3 of 3

Quote from vikkib;30529:
This definitely helped me to understand gradient mesh in Illustrator! Thanks for the time you spent in writing this tutorial.

thanks, great tutorial!!!

Reply to this post

User:  Kathryn69 (#46686)
Date: Wed Dec 12, 2007. 06:55:12

Post #2 of 3

I am always looking for easier ways to do this. Thanks for the tutorial.

Reply to this post

User:  vikkib (#30529)
Date: Mon Jul 31, 2006. 09:17:17

Post #1 of 3

This definitely helped me to understand gradient mesh in Illustrator! Thanks for the time you spent in writing this tutorial.

Reply to this post

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