Beginner’s Guide to the Mesh Tool for creating photo-realistic illustrations (Part 2 of 2)

Click here to go to part 1

Use the find function on your web browser (Usually Command or Ctrl + F) to return to a specific part.

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Table of Contents

3. Process
3b. -Breaking things down
3c. -Creating the shape
3d. -Adding more points
3e. -Adding colors
3f. -Expanding
3g. -Blending
3h. -Holes

4. Tips & Reminders
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3. Process
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I’ll be using this picture for this tutorial (It’s a part of my laptop charger if you’re wondering what it is). To follow along, click the thumbnail, save the image onto your computer, and open it in Illustrator.

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3a. Breaking things down

Here I’ve already fit the art board to the picture. Before we even begin however, we want to visually break down the image into parts. I want to look for rectilinear shapes within the image. Even if you don’t fully commit to what you’ve mentally noted, at least you have starting points to branch off from.

Remember to keep the layers clean and organized. The earlier you start, the less room there is for error. Name our picture layer something smart, like “Base Picture” or “Plug Picture” or whatever works for you.

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3b. Creating the shape

First area we’ll start off at is the left, cylindrical portion.

Create a new layer above our base picture and name it something appropriate that is helpful to you. I’ll start off creating a rectangle that covers a decent amount of that area. Fill color can be any color, however omit the stroke color.

Select the Mesh Tool from your toolbar (Default keyboard shortcut being ‘U’), and click the corner of our rectangle to convert it into a mesh. Because we’re only focusing on the shape, we don’t need to worry about creating mesh points within our object. You’ll find when you convert the object, a set of handlebars emerge from each mesh point.

Now we need to adjust the rectangle into the proper shape. The most effective way to do this is to toggle our current layer’s visibility into outline mode. Go to your layers panel and Ctrl-click (PC) or Command-click (Mac) the eyeball. You’ll see the eye turn hollow such as in the picture. This is not to be mistaken for Alt-clicking (PC) or Option-Clicking (Mac) the eyeball, which will either disable the visibility of all layers aside from the one you clicked.

Now that we have our shape in outline mode, with either the mesh tool or direct selection tool active, select the mesh points of our shape and drag it into the appropriate spots as I’ve done in my example.

We’re going to want to modify the curves to maintain the integrity of our shape. Select a handlebar from any point and drag it so it follows the shape of what we’re outlining. You can grab a handlebar with the Mesh tool, Direct Selection tool, or the Convert Anchor Point tool (Found as an alternate option for the Pen tool in the toolbar). Move around your mesh points if it isn’t fitting appropriately. As seen below, I’ve managed to create an accurate shape similar to our picture.

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3c. Adding more points

We’ve successfully created the base shape of our mesh object! Now we want to add more mesh points to more accurately color the mesh in.

With the mesh tool active, click again on the sides of our shape to further develop the grid. As you’ll see from my example, I’m creating points similar to how the picture is colored. You want to place mesh points whenever you hit a change of color in the picture. In this case, I place a point along the line of a shadow. Note how I don’t click in the middle, and instead click a side. Clicking in the middle adds more points that we may not need.

Below, I’ve added a bunch of new points.  Remember to keep the integrity of our shape. The points I’ve added on the right side have been moved to fit more snug with the actual picture. Use the handlebars to smooth out the rough edges and make it look more realistic.

Right now I’m skipping on creating the reflections of the object (Not to be mistaken for blatant reflections of light) because we’re just starting off. You should also notice I don’t go too crazy making hundreds of points. We’re going to be coloring in each mesh point, so having too many can be unnecessarily time consuming, as well as give us complications if we need to modify anything. Too few points mean you may not get enough rich depth in our picture.

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3d. Adding colors

Now that we have the shape and more points, we need to start filling in the picture with color. If you haven’t done so already, go ahead and change your eye dropper’s sample size, and make it your active tool.

We need to select each individual point and sample a color from our original picture. The most effective flow I’ve found is to go to the tool bar, choose the Direct Selection tool, and then select the Eye Dropper tool again. What this has done is while we’re in the Eye Dropper tool, if we hold Control (PC) or Command (Mac), we can alternate between the two different tools. This saves us the trip of going back and forth from the tool bar.

So go ahead and select a mesh point and use the eye dropper to sample a color within the area of that point. Yes, every mesh point needs to be colored, so rinse and repeat. If you have your transparency window active (If not, Window > Transparency), you can see how your object looks as you color in each point. You should see the object becoming more fleshed out.

After coloring things in, you should have something roughly similar, or even better than the example below.

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3f. Expanding

Now we’ve only just started so it’s alright if it seems that our current picture doesn’t look anything like the original just yet. We’ve only done a little stub of the picture, so there’s plenty more to do.

Right now, we have a few options. We can repeat the same process I’ve illustrated to fill in more of the picture and blend areas together, or we can use our existing shape to expand it out to cover more of the picture. We’ll end up doing both regardless, but for now I’ll be doing the latter option.

I’m going to create a set of points close to the edge of our current mesh.

Next, I select all the points on the very right side and essentially drag it over to cover more of the object. The mesh looks very odd, but similar to our first step of forming the shape, we’re going to move these points around.

After smoothing things out, I end up with something like this:

I added a few points, not too many, to flesh out the grid just a bit more. You’ll notice that I completely cove the hole. I’ll address this part further down in the tutorial, but for now, we’re covering it up to make it completely solid. Go ahead and color in any new mesh points you’ve added, as well as recoloring the mesh points you’ve moved (It’s not in the same spot, so in this case it’s not the same color!)

Viola, something a little more identifiable.

Go ahead and try doing the same thing to the other side. I worked on the long, rectilinear side and expanded towards the face side, similar to how we made the first mesh. There’s no wrong answer here, so just try it out. If your mesh ends up looking too complicated, there’s no harm in deleting and starting over. What’s important is getting a better feel for the mesh tool. Here’s a few screenshots showing how I got my mesh for the right side:

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3g. Blending

Unfortunately,  there’s no cookie cutter formula for how to blend parts in, and this part can be visually hard to follow. I’m going to step away from our picture for just a moment to explain how we blend parts in.

Above, we have two completely separate objects that we want to blend in together.

Ideally when we want to blend, we make all mesh points in that area the same color.

We need to go in and add mesh points in the appropriate areas that make sense with our image. Dividing the columns of colors is ideal here.

Even when we do this, we may still run into a problem like above.

Reduce the opacity of the mesh points where this problem is occurring. By reducing the opacity to zero, we’re picking up the areas of colors in the mesh in the back.

Ta-daa! It’s blended. Sure we can go in and find tune it, but this is the basically how we can blend different mesh’s together. Now, let’s take these concepts and bring it to our illustration.

Here we have a section of the rounded shape that was made separately. We want to blend this section with the other shape to form a whole.

Looking at both objects together, we see areas that overlap. We want these areas to be relatively the same color.

I modify the blue piece so any area that’s not shaded is the same color as the object we’re connecting it to. In addition, I make reduce the opacity of the edges to we don’t have noticeable lines and it transitions smoothly.

So when put together, we get this-

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3h. Holes

Although this may seem pretty straightforward, there are two kinds of gaps we deal with.

1. Gaps with color

2. Gaps that we can see through

In our illustration, the two round objects have what I call gaps with color.

In this, these gaps are black/grey. We can create these gaps by either incorporating it directly in with our mesh, or creating an entirely new mesh and blending it over. I advise to avoid the former, as you’ll end up screwing around with the grid which can cause a lot of problems in the colors.

Here, I did the same steps of creating a rectangle and forming the mesh of the hole. When this layer is placed above, I reduced the opacity of all the sides and edges to it blends in.

Something to note when doing this, holes don’t just blend in and out gracefully. They have abrupt changes in color. Having two to three mesh points contrast abruptly next to each other help give this effect.

For gaps with holes we can see through, such as the metal plugs, we need to make space.

In these series of steps, I’m altering a rectangle to wrap around the hole. Do the same for the other side.

For the right side, I went ahead and constructed the prong as a whole, and added mesh points to make an area where the hole is. I reduced to opacity of the points around the circle to zero to make it empty.

For the left side, I made two separate parts around the hole and blended it in.

Figure out your alternatives. There’s more than one solution around a problem, find the easiest and most effective one for you.

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If you keep working, you’ll end up with something looking like this in the end:

There’s still a lot of fine tuning that can be done, but this is the basic gist of how to create a photorealistic object using the mesh tool.

Click here to download the .ai file of the above image (File is a .zip)

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4. Tips and Reminders
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Here’s a few tips and reminders to help you work more efficient.

  • If you just want to move one handlebar without affecting the other, use the Convert Anchor Point tool. Occasionally when you move handlebars with the mesh or direct selection tool, both handlebars will move.
  • If you can’t find your handlebars on a mesh point, use the Convert Anchor Point tool to click and drag on a mesh point. The handlebars will ‘reset’ itself.
  • If I have two or more mesh points in extremely close proximity, I’ll treat the group of points as one and change all their colors to be the same when I’m coloring in my mesh.
  • You don’t need to sample colors where the mesh point is. If the lighting or shadows is making the picture look weird, go ahead and sample what the color should look like in a different spot. Otherwise you may end up with shades of maroon or green instead of grey.
  • Keep your layers organized and named well.
  • Know your keyboard shortcuts. Save yourself some time instead of going back and forth to the toolbar. Modify your keyboard shortcuts if you need to in Edit>Keyboard Shortcuts.
  • The bigger the picture, the easier the meshing will be. It’s easier to work with larger pictures instead of small 400×600 pixel images.
  • Expect to be investing a few hours into your project. If you’re expecting to have a full blown illustration in half an hour, you’re sadly mistaken. You’re going to need to be patient, so don’t make it a race for yourself.
  • Keep the integrity of your object. If your object is rounded, let the handlebars round itself out.

Feel free to leave any questions or comments.


~ by Christian Lim on February 23, 2011.

One Response to “Beginner’s Guide to the Mesh Tool for creating photo-realistic illustrations (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. […] Click here to move on to part 2 […]

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