Using the Gradient Mesh Tool in Adobe Illustrator

By Justin Beegel, MBA, The Infographic World Team

You can work in Adobe Illustrator for ages without touching the gradient mesh tool. But once you do, it’s hard to fight the temptation to use it on everything.

What the gradient mesh tool does

The gradient mesh tool breaks any vector shape into a grid, and every point in the grid can be assigned a color. The effect is a sophisticated and smooth blend between as many colors as you want the shape to have. This allows you to make anything from realistic rippled metal surfaces to natural-looking portraits. The result looks much more like a Photoshop or airbrush painting than the traditionally crisp edges of Illustrator vector work.

How the gradient mesh tool works

Any vector shape can be made into a mesh. Select your shape, then use the gradient mesh tool (Keyboard shortcut “U”) to touch the shape. A line will appear that bisects your object. The line will take on the curves and cues of your shape. Touch the lines of your drawing a few more times to add more subdivisions.

Now, wherever two lines cross, the program creates a “control point.” Using the Direct Selection tool, select a control point. Make it any color you like. Select a different point then add a different color.

When a control point is selected, you will see handles. Those handles act the same way as the point handles do when you are drawing an object, but with an extra feature. The length of the handle determines how far the color for that point extends. If the point is white, perhaps for use as a highlight, short handles would make the white area small. Dragging the handles out would create a bigger, softer highlight.

Some designers prefer to start with a rectangle and then adjust the points and handles of the rectangle to create the final shape. To do that, draw a rectangle over the image you want to trace. Then, with the rectangle selected, choose Object→Create Gradient Mesh. The resulting drawing has fewer points, and the grid of the mesh is a little easier to control.

How to recreate a photo

When recreating an image from a photo, the photo disappears as soon as an action occurs in the workspace. To keep the photo being traced visible, a new layer needs to be created.

  1. Open the layers window by selecting Windows/Layer along the top of the workspace.

  2. Create the new layer by selecting the icon at the upper right of the Layers window and then selecting Create New Layer from the drop down menu.

    A dialog box appears with all the necessary setting options.

    1. Give the layer a name, such as Tracing Image.

    2. Select a color that will be easy to see against the colors of your image.

    3. Select the Template checkbox.

    4. Deselect the Dim Layers to 50% checkbox.

  3. Place the image into the layer (choose Fill→Place and then select the photo) and lock that layer so the image won’t accidentally move.

  4. Turn on Preview mode by choosing View→Preview (or by pressing Command+Y on a Mac or Ctrl+Y on a PC).

    The photo is now visible. In Preview mode, the lines and control points appear, but not the fill colors. The more control points you create, the more detailed the drawing will be.

  5. Select and color each control point using the Eyedropper tool to pick up a color from the photo.

    If you want to see the color as it is being applied, use the Navigator panel (choose Window→Navigator), which provides a full-color, scalable view.

Using layers is good practice no matter what tools are used because layers keep things organized.