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Mastering Adobe Illustrator’s Gradient Mesh

With my students now working on their Technical Drawing assignment, I decided to put together this quick overview tutorial that will go over a few tips and techniques to begin colouring a vector illustration. In this assignment, students may use Illustrator’s Gradient Mesh to add depth and realism to their technical renderings. Student’s may also use any other tools, effects and techniques to create a realistic vector illustration.

Take a look at some of my student’s gradient mesh projects below:


Using the “Box” method.

The gradient mesh tool can be one of the most difficult tools to manage within Illustrator. When adding mesh lines to an object, those lines will conform to the contour of the object. This can make it very frustrating to manipulate and edit during your rendering, especially if the object you have drawn is very complex. Try not to add mesh lines to complex shapes. Instead, break up your illustration into smaller, more manageable shapes and use the “box method”. The box method is simply drawing a rectangular shape, with the same height and width of your underlying shape and converting it into a mesh object. This technique allows for a more fluid process of editing a shape to form your object. This will also allow the mesh lines that you create to be added and edited more intuitively.

First, in this example, I have placed a photograph of a soda can in my illustrator document. On a new layer, I will draw a rectangle over-top of the body of the soda can. Then, I will go to the OBJECT > Create Gradient Mesh menu.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.48.14 PM

Create a flat 1 row by 1 column mesh and click OK.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.48.24 PM

Next, to conform the shape, I will first view this shape in outline mode so that I can see the original image behind my mesh object. To do this, hold down the CMD key and click on the visibility icon in the layer panel beside the mesh object you created. You will see the pupil of the visibility icon disappear and your mesh object will only display the outlines of the shape/path.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.48.57 PM

Now, I will select the rectangular shape and use the direct selection tool (A) and the convert anchor point tool (SHIFT+C), which is nested within the pen tool, to edit the anchor points and control handles. You can also add and delete anchor points where necessary.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.53.53 PM

Once I finish modifying the rectangle to the body of the soda can, I will draw another rectangular shape for the top and bottom of the can’s aluminum lid and base. I’ve repeated the steps for creating a gradient mesh object and edited those shapes as they appear in the original image.

Colouring the illustration.

Now that the shapes of my object are ready, I will begin to add mesh lines and mesh points to my illustration so that I can begin colouring it in. First, I will select the body of the soda can and select my gradient mesh tool in the tool box (U). With the shape selected, hover your cursor over-top of the mesh object and add a mesh line once you see a (+) sign appear under your cursor.

You will now notice that the mesh lines take on the contour of the shape much better than if you were to create a complex shape with the pen tool and then add mesh lines to it.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.55.45 PM

*Remember to add your mesh lines and mesh patches where your colour gradates more frequently. When colouring in a mesh object, colour gradates from the center of the mesh patch outwards in four directions. (top-left, top-right, bottom-left, bottom-right)

Once the mesh lines are added, you can now begin to colour in the object. This is the most tedious part of the process. To help speed up this process, I will get a couple of tools ready for colouring in the soda can. First, I will select the direct selection tool (A). Then I will select the Eye Dropper tool (I). Now, if I hold down the CMD key, the last selection tool I selected will be active, ie: The Direct Selection tool.

*The CMD key acts as a toggle between your currently active tool and the last selection tool you had active.

Before we start colouring in the object, we will begin by having the eye dropper tool active. Then, hold down the CMD key and you will see the direct selection tool appear. Now click on a mesh point with the direct selection tool, then release the CMD key and sample a colour from the original image behind the mesh object with the eye dropper tool. If you don’t see the original image behind your mesh object, remember to hold down the CMD key and click on the visibility icon in your layer panel beside the mesh object. This will allow you to view that particular path/layer in outline mode.

*When you start to sample colour and apply it to your mesh object, you will need to view your object in preview mode to see the colour that you have applied. You can simply hold the CMD key and click back on the visibility icon for the mesh object’s path/layer in your layer panel to toggle the view mode between outline mode and preview mode.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.57.27 PM

Depending on how detailed your illustration is, the colouring process may take a while… or hours… weeks?

*Remember to save your outlined version and coloured version on separate art boards or separate documents.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.58.10 PM

After the colouring of the soda can is complete. I have traced over the soda can’s logo and added the brand name of the soda can to the illustration.

The last part of this assignment is to create an alternative use for your technical vector illustration. For this example, I have created a billboard ad with a series of soda cans and a tagline.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 12.58.45 PM

You may choose to create an ad for your vector rendering or a poster, brochure, instruction manual, etc…


Student Examples


  • James Marchment

    January 3, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Hey Mark, is there a PDF of the design brief for the Tech Drawing project on your website? I’m searching around, and maybe it’s right in front of my eyes, but I can’t find it.

  • Mark-Anthony

    January 6, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    Hi James, it should be under IMAG 309. “Tech Drawing Project”

  • Will

    July 27, 2017 at 6:38 am

    Great tutorial! How long did the process take? Are the water vector art or you create that also?

  • Mark-Anthony

    July 27, 2017 at 7:57 am

    Hi Will! I’m glad you liked the tutorial. 🙂 This example took around two hours to complete. The water is actually a photograph that we took and then applied an image trace to it. That gave us a rough outline of the water so that we colour convert it into a vector graphic.

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