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Shading with the Adobe Illustrator CS5 Mesh Object

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Simple lines can convey straightforward ideas, but subtlety often requires shading. Brian Wood, contributor to Adobe Illustrator CS5 Classroom in a Book, demonstrates using mesh objects to add gradients to curves. Brian shares his best tips for saving steps and preventing headaches as you work with mesh objects.
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In its simplest form, a gradient is a blend from one color to another. Most of us who start out in Illustrator fall in love with gradients. But then we want more. Painting a curved object with a gradient, we wonder, "How can I get the gradient to follow the shape of the curve?" The answer: By using a mesh object (also known as a gradient mesh).

When I first read the words mesh object in Illustrator Help, I didn't know what that expression meant. All I wanted to do was apply that cool mesh of color to some object. As with other things in Illustrator, when you apply a mesh to an object, it becomes a "mesh object." That means that it's locked in certain ways. For instance, when you apply a gradient mesh to an object and it becomes a mesh object, you can no longer apply a regular ol' gradient fill to it. (You'll learn later how to remove a mesh from an object.)

A mesh object is basically a gradient on steroids. Gradients are either radial or linear. Illustrator CS4 added new gradient functionality, but it still wasn't enough for certain work. A mesh object takes the gradient further by allowing you to break up the gradient into a patchwork of mesh lines and mesh points. Each of these points and lines creates a smaller grid that can have a unique gradient for blending (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 An example of gradient mesh used in the face and hands. (That's me!)

Before you begin applying a gradient mesh to an object, it's important to note that there are several ways to create a mesh object. You can save time when creating the mesh by using the most efficient method. Here's a list of the most common ways to create a mesh object:

  • Create the mesh object from scratch: Click where you want to position the first mesh point. The object is converted to a mesh object with the minimum number of mesh lines.
  • Create a mesh object from a gradient-filled object: Select the object and choose Object > Expand.
  • Select Gradient Mesh and click OK.
  • Create a mesh object using a regular pattern of mesh points.

In this article, we'll focus on creating a mesh by using the regular pattern of mesh points, and you'll see how to edit that mesh.

Creating a Mesh Object from a Regular Pattern of Mesh Points

The easiest way to get started creating a mesh object (in my opinion) is to create a mesh object from a regular pattern of mesh points. This is probably one of the more widely used methods for a consistent mesh. Here's how it works:

  1. Select the object that you're going to turn into a mesh object.
  2. Apply a color fill to the object that will be used in the mesh. For instance, if you chose an ellipse that will become an orange, apply an orange color to it so that the mesh uses mostly orange. (You'll see what I mean in the next few steps.)
  3. Choose Object > Create Gradient Mesh.
  4. In the Gradient Mesh dialog box, you can change the number of rows and columns, which determines how many mesh patches are created. The greater the number of rows and columns, the greater the number of mesh patches. The more mesh patches, the more complex the gradient mesh. For this example, keep the number of rows and columns set at 4.
  5. In the Appearance menu, choose To Center. You can choose the direction of the highlight (To Center or To Edge), or you can remove the highlight (choose Flat). Try choosing each option and selecting Preview to see the effect on the object.
  6. Change the Highlight value to 80% (see Figure 2). Choosing 100% applies a solid white highlight, and choosing 0% removes the highlight.
  7. Click OK to create the gradient mesh.
  8. Figure 2 Creating a gradient mesh by using a regular pattern of mesh points.

As I mentioned previously, the gradient mesh is made of mesh points with interconnecting mesh lines. When you first create a mesh object, the only colors applied are the original color and white, with shades in between. Each of the mesh points can have a different color or transparency applied. Not only can you add or subtract mesh points or move them to suit your needs, but you can also change the color of each mesh point. We'll try that next.

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