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Using Multiple Styles of Gradients in Vector Illustration and Vector Art

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In this article, I will show you a variety of illustrations made from vector that contain gradients. I'll explain why these elements work well and share with you some links to great tutorials. We'll also read what the artists say about the pieces, which tools they use, and what advice they give to those wishing to venture into vector art using gradients.

Introduction

When we talk about gradients in vector art, we're talking about the change in color or opacity between one or more colors. These can be created in a variety of ways including fill styles, blends and gradient meshes. When the colors fade into each other in the same direction, they are referred to as a linear gradient. In a circular fashion, it's referred to as a radial gradient.

Their application to vector art is as varied as any other tool. In this article I'll show you a variety of illustrations made using gradients, why the elements work well within the illustration, and share some valuable links to great tutorials on using gradients.

Many Visible Gradients in Vector Art

It takes a lot of skill and confidence to be able to pull off a piece of vector art made mainly of gradients. Consider the battle of linear versus radial, then which colors to use. To make one decision on this can be daunting for some, but imagine making a piece mainly of gradients?

The overall appearance of vector art using this style is often filled with clean, clear cut lines, as if to show off the skill required for the piece. Some use gradients to such an extent that you'd be left debating where one gradient starts and the other ends. Either way, they give us some fantastic eye candy.

adrianaLima by Marcus Vinicius, aka cd-marcus

What I love about this piece is that although we're looking at a person, rather than a cartoon illustration, the use of gradients gives a very stylized cartoony appearance to it. This is one of the many reasons why this piece works so well.

The shapes used for the gradients are bold, they aren't hidden. You can see this especially around the eyes. It's not just the use of gradients in the skin, but the attention to detail where gradients have been used; the shine on the lips, the highlight on the tip of the nose and those in the hair.

If you're now bowled over by the final product, why not check out the outline of the piece to truly appreciate the amount of gradients used to create this wonderful portrait.

Marcus tells us:

Gradients are an easy way of giving volume to the vector illustrations without the need of creating many layers or duplicates of a shape/object.

They also keep the size of your file relatively small if compared to the mesh tool, for instance. Particularly I like to use only linear gradients combined with transparencies, setting up different directions, sizes and colors for each shape and it's done.

That is my trick and what you see in all my illustrations, since the most complex ones to those not so detailed. But it's a matter of choice/preference. You can achieve excellent results only using simple gradients.

There is no secret and the only advice I could give is to pay attention to the colors you blend.

InSiGht by dismecha

Dismecha's work is very distinctive in the vector community. His use of bright colors and iridescent gradients give an almost child-like charm to his illustrations. He mixes the organic and mechanical to create delicate pieces and "InSiGht" is a great example of his style.

The gradients used are varied, some with hard edges showing the viewer clearly where a gradient starts and ends, and also more subtle gradients where you'd be confused to how many gradients are used. The hard edges are often used to illustrate highlights and shadow and the subtle gradients are used in the skin's rendering.

What I enjoy about Dismecha's work is that he's a big fan and user of Inkscape, an Open Source vector program. Proof that you don't need to spend a great deal of money to create mind blowing work.

Dismecha tells us:

My basic process is applying a four-color linear gradient to each created shape, which results in cool tones, and a one-color-to-transparent gradient for shadings and parts of it's outline.

I usually start off with the idea of a specific color scheme and settle for another altogether; experimenting with the tool is the way to go for unique results; if you're searching for originality, playing with it should reward you with pleasant surprises.

Gradients Used in a Subtle Manner

Gradients don't need to be so bold. There are plenty of pieces of vector art out there which use gradients, but in such a subtle fashion you wouldn't necessarily think they were used. They can be used to smooth out areas of an illustration or give that subtle change in color without the hard edges of a solid color shape.

In this sort of case, gradients are used to support the piece, not the main focal point.

blood lust by Chris Carey aka Ikue

Blood lust is a great example of how subtle gradients can be used to achieve a painted effect. Small shapes with simple gradients of mixed transparencies have been used to change the tone and colors of the piece.

It works well in this illustration as it not only gives a smooth effect but also adds texture to the rendering. Giving it a feel of a gloss surface with it's clever use of highlights and subtle shadows. To give you an idea of the complex shapes used to create this piece, check out the outline!

Chris tells us:

My aim for this piece was to create an almost water colour type of effect using vectors. Every path was filled with a gradient ranging from 2 to 4 colour blends to help achieve this effect. I also ended up using more paths than any other piece I've created because of the way I blended the colours incrementally starting off very light and building on top.

My favorite part of any piece is something that I recommend to anyone just starting in the art world is try never to use black to darken anything and just because something is light doesn't mean it's white. In this particular case I used various yellow gradients set to screen and the darker shading is used from various reds, purples and oranges set to multiply and layered on top of one another. It's a great technique for any medium so I'd recommend if you haven't already tried that you do so immediately.

Murder Scene by Sharon Milne aka ChewedKandi

I've included one of my own pieces into this article as I'm a fan and a frequent user of gradients. However I tend to use them in a subtle manner. Apart from the obvious gradient in the background, I've used a variety of radial and linear gradients in this piece.

I tend to use a lot of transparent gradients to help smooth over areas and edges which I feel are too strong or draw a lot of attention to an area I may not want the viewers eyes to lead to. I also use subtle gradients to add more shadow and highlights to an area where there is gradual light and there aren't any spotlights.

A great tip I'd give to people for using gradients in this manner is to play with radial transparent gradients and the Blending Mode "color" in Illustrator to give subtle hints of color change in skin color. Often around the eyes, nose and cheeks there are changes in tone and color and using a radial transparent gradient on a low transparency can help give that realistic change of color required.

Gradients Used in Cartoon/Comic Style Vectors

Cartoon style pieces are sometimes looked at as more simplified rendering of objects, people and places. They aren't built up with as much detail as say a realistic portrait. Gradients used in this style are often made up of only a couple of colors as they don't necessarily require as much depth, in fact a lot of the times the gradients are used to create the depth of the piece itself.

This being said, being able to include gradients in a less is more manner can be a challenge in itself, but as you can see from the next two examples, the results can be fabulous!

Pink Blossom by Helen Huang aka CQCat

Gradients are used well in this piece to give an impression of depth, be it in the shadow under the neck area or the subtle gradients in the hair. They are also used to accentuate elements like the rosy cheeks and the shoulders. This is a simple use of gradients which adds to the piece without it being overbearing.

What I find interesting about this piece is it's almost gradient composition... the focal point being the eyes which draw you straight in with the blue and then the detailing and muted colors fading out towards the edges. Very clever!

Helen tells us:

Gradient is one of my favorite tools. It gives depth to your work and can also be very subtle. For Pink Blossom, I used gradient on her blush, pupils, shades on skin. It looks very natural and blends in great with the rest of the colors. For the flowers and butterflies, I used layers of gradient at different opacity to create a watercolor look.

Why not check out a tutorial written by Helen on Vectortuts+ and learn to create a similar styled vector girl?

:p i n k f i s h: by Cathy Martin aka Flashparade

Limited color gradients are this time applied in a different way. Although you've got the gradients as depth in the piece, there is also a step in the color, created by adding shapes to create more shadow. The gradients are used for the majority of the pieces coloring and it's done so in such a beautiful manner.

It is also worth noting the repeat of subtle gradients used for skin tone change for the cheeks and hip area; Such delicate details against the stronger gradient lines.

Cathy tells us:

When I first started out I felt that gradients were kind of tacky and I refused to use them, but the more vectoring I did the more I got into using them. I've got no special technique or tricks when it comes to them, it's all about trial and error, and not overusing them. Just remember to use them to enhance your piece and not to let them become your piece.

Blends Used Instead of Gradients

The majority of gradients can be create with a basic gradient fill, but for more complex shapes you could use a blend. Vector blends are when one shape morphs/blends into another. Likewise with shapes, you can do this with color. This is an especially good technique as you can break out of the box from your radial and linear style gradients and have more square or irregular shaped gradients.

her majesty, vector work by Jimmy Balia aka phig, sketch created by tzarshame

Jimmy mixes gradients and blends into his work a lot and this is a great example of how blends and gradients can work hand in hand. Looking along the highlighted areas of the gorilla robot and his face you can see the "irregular" shapes that have a gradient appearance, which were created by blends.

These shaped blends work in this piece as it helps to create an almost spray can effect. It's as if there is a mist upon the piece, which works well with the chaos of the concept.

Jimmy tells us:

Blends are more than merging two objects to become one shape. We can use blends for tweaking an object, for example, to make it looks glossy. We can use an object with no color to blend it with object with color, so it will create a color flare, looks like a shining star, then put it in the surface of your main object, it'll look so shiny and glossy.

KILLER ROBOT RODENT IN PINK by Mike Austin aka HumanNature84

With Mike's work, he often uses brushes made out of blends to create a painted effect. With them layered upon each other, he renders some inspiring gradient textures on his creations. In this piece he has used his skill with blends to create gradients which wrap around the armor of the robot giving the rodent a 3D appearance. Considering his organic traditional art approach, the blends used in this way give an awesome mechanical look.

Mike is constantly developing his skill with this technique and I encourage vector enthusiasts to check out his gallery of work.

Mike tells us:

The real exercise in blend mastery lies in traditional painting and design. With the understanding of these concepts and techniques, any vector artist should be able to create any form within any vector environment with realistic acuity. I mostly use the bend tool and the pencil tool for all of my work. I rarely use the pen tool for anything, its pretty time consuming!

Conclusion

Although there is no wrong or right way to use gradients, there are many different ways to use them effectively and this article has only pointed out a handful of them. For the beginner they can be a difficult element to use, but with practice they can be a useful tool in an artists arsenal.

To find out more about gradients and blends and how to use them, please check out the below tutorials found on Vectortuts+ and deviantART:

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