How to Create a Chinese Dragon Using Gradient Mesh
If you have ever drawn a dragon, you probably know the pain of drawing all the scales, one by one. This is where Adobe Illustrator comes in handy. It has even more tools that work like a professional time savers. Don't believe me? Just try this tutorial!
Like in any other picture, start with a sketch. It should be simple and clear, just defining the shape. You can use mine for the training purpose. It should be just a template, so select the layer with it and choose "Template" from Layer menu.
Now it's the moment when you should determine what parts your picture's made of, and what to do first. In my sketch you can start with the yin-yang ball, it's not a part of the dragon, but it's important element of the picture. Draw a circle first using the Ellipse Tool (L).
Fill the circle with white, then draw the black part without caring about the edges. When it's done, copy the circle without moving it using a common method - double click Rotate Tool, don't change anything and just click copy.
Select the copy of the circle and the black half, then choose Intersect from Pathfinder panel. This will cut the edges tidily. Now you can add the smaller circles, both white and black.
You've got the basic shape of the yin-yang symbol, but it doesn't look too interesting, it's flat and dull. You can use Mesh Tool (U) to fix this. Copy the white circle, change its color to light grey and move it above the layers, then select Mesh Tool (U) and pick a point inside the circle.
Select the point you created with Direct Selection Tool (A) and color it with white. Then select whole circle and choose Multiply option from Transparency menu. That will make the layers below visible too.
Now, when you know how Mesh Tool works, use it to set off the surface of black part (the small circle too). There are multiple ways you could do it, the picture below just shows one example.
Let's go to the dragon itself. First focus on horns, claws and teeth, as they're similar enough to use the same technique for them. You used Mesh Tool (U) before, but only for not complicated objects. When you try to do some more complex shape, it's wise to start with a simple one and convert it to mesh by putting a single point on it (copy this shape, as it's going to be useful soon too; from now I'll going to call it a template block). Then, when you align the outer paths to the shape you want to reach, align the inner line too, so that it defines the position of any future mesh lines. Look what I'm talking about (first part - simple shape, adding one point):
Part two: adjusting the lines to the desired shape. It's not that complicated, mesh points don't really differ from path points. Use Direct Selection Tool (A) to select and move them, check how handles work too. To make it easier, go into Outlines Mode (Ctrl + Y).
Go out of Outlines Mode and adjust the mesh to your needs.
Copy the horn simply by holding Alt and dragging it to its place.
The lower horns look pretty the same, but they need some adjustments. Resize the copy and use additional mesh points to add some shadow (use Lasso Tool (Q) to select an area of points).
This is when you use the template block from Step 8. Copy it before you do anything, you're still going to need it! Then use it to create the nose horn.
There's one thing you may stumble upon while doing these steps - entangling handles. There's an easy way to fix it:
Use the template block again to create claws. Prepare one version, then copy-resize/reflect (Object > Transform > Reflect) when it's needed to fit their equivalents from the sketch.
The teeth look just like straighter claws, so copy one claw and adjust it a bit. Then use the technique from Step 16 to create them all.
Let's go to the tongue now. Start with a grey template block, then adjust it to the shape from the sketch (you may also need to move the layers with teeth so that some of them cover the tongue, and the rest is covered with it). Then you can add some more light, as the tongue should look wet.
The tongue shouldn't be completely smooth. There's a technique that lets you add some roughness to any surface - open Symbols menu, choose Open Symbol Library > Artistic Textures. A new window with textures should appear. Choose the one that you like, drag it out of the window, and click a link symbol from Symbols window.
Take the texture and adjust it shape a little, so that the tongue is inside its borders. A mesh isn't treated as normal shape, so you can't just use Pathfinder now to cut off the edges. First create a shape of the mesh by choosing Path > Offset Path from Object menu when it's selected.
The texture isn't a shape either, so choose Object > Expand to convert it to shape. Then move the layer with the shape of the mesh above the layer with the texture, select them both and click Crop in Pathfinder menu.
Sometimes after this operation some additional points may stay. Clean it by choosing Object > Path > Clean Up.
Now it's time for the hair. Realistic hair is one of the hardest thing in art, but I'll show you how to easily get a decent effect. First create a new brush that will simulate a single hair. Draw it with a Pen Tool (P) (no stroke, just black fill).
Select the object you've drawn and choose New from the brushes menu. Choose "New Art Brush" in the window that showed up, then don't forget to change Colorization Method to Tints.
The brush you've just created should appear on the brushes list (you can save it for later). Draw a general shape of the mane with it.
Use this method to trace the mane all over the body. Don't use any stroke, just black fill.
Now draw another layer of the hair, using some lighter shade. Don't bother about the edge, focus on overall shape.
Now cut off the edge using Intersect from the Pathfinder panel. That should be simple for you now.
Look carefully at the mane and check if both shades look good. You may need to darken the lighter one a bit, so that it looks more naturally.
Now use your brush to draw single, lighter hair all over the mane. Experiment with brush size, check which one gives the best effect.
This is how I did it:
If you feel so, you can add even more lighter hair that give more shine to the mane. It's all a matter of opinion.
Look at the edges of the general shape of the mane, and, if needed, add more black hair to fix it. It should have natural, flowing look.
Draw the shape of the gums, then convert it to mesh with a single point. Yes, I know, it's going to make a lot of mess, but this part won't really be that visible, and simple messy mesh will do it.
Draw the inside of the jaw. It's going to be a simple shape, so you don't need to be afraid of the mesh - it will be easily controlled.
Now, the eye. It's the part that you could spend a lot of time on, because "eyes are the mirror of the soul" and so on... But before you waste your precious minutes on it, remember - it's a detail, and details of a detail won't be visible from distance.
Draw a simple nose hole (no mesh here - look above for the reason).
Prepare another template block for the jaw muscle (this part of dragon head gives it an epic look, don't forget about it when you draw roaring beast!).
As before, go into Outlines Mode (Ctrl + Y) and adjust the block to the shape.
Go out of Outlines Mode and add more Mesh points to show how stretched the muscle is. Place light and dark lines next to each other, it will give you nice effect. Then drag outer points out of the general shape, to make it coming from the head.
It's time for the coolest thing in this tutorial - scales. They're extremely easy and take triple less time than drawing them, for example, in Photoshop. Use another template block in any color you wish, then form it to a scale. The scale basically should have two sides (one dark and one light), strong line between them, and darker end (this is the part that's always shaded by the scale above it).
Copy the scale and... start covering your dragon with his armor.
You can distort the scales, lengthen them, change shades - whatever you want to.
Whole head won't be covered with scales, so draw a general shape of this and convert it to a "messy mesh" (look: Step 34). You can build a normal mesh for it (template block, then adjust to the shape and so on), but sometimes this will do.
And another part of the head (still messy mesh). Yes, it's lazy - and sometimes it's faster to do it in professional way, but it's all your choice. You need to guess how long time it's going to take you, and choose the technique that will do.
And again (this time it's a simple shape, so it's hard to talk about any mess now).
This is how my dragon's head looks. Not too impressive? You'd rather add some scales? Well, you can, but believe me - sometimes the less, the better. In the end, the head is just a part of whole body. Artists tend to touch up every tiny detail, but people usually see just a whole.
Prepare another template block, this time with softer colors than you used for scales (and copy it, you may use it later too). Adjust the shape to one of the fingers.
Then copy it and - attention! - adjust the shape of the copy to every finger. Copy + paste only would look artificial.
That's how it should look. Copy your template-finger, reflect it if needed (Object > Transform > Reflect) and adjust slightly the shape.
Now the hardest part - and the easiest the same. It will surely be monotonous, but it's easy and it will give you satisfying results in no time. Prepare another scale, bigger one (they're called plates), not so simple, with distorted edges.
Now copy it and, rotate, resize if needed, and copy again (copying holding Alt works the best in this technique). Remember about the order - every plate should shut off the darker part of its neighbor.
Important thing - the ball is your light source, and the same it creates shades. Darken some points in the shaded area then.
This is the effect you should get now.
Prepare another plate. This one will be narrow and sharp.
Repeat according to direction showed on the picture below.
The second row is done!
Another one (drink some coffee maybe?), small and rather flat.
The third row:
Again, new plate (don't worry, we're almost there!). It will cover the legs...
Now very little scales, for second row on the legs and to cover fingers a bit.
Exactly like this:
OK, let's take a break from all these scales and plates. Take a template block or build it again, if you lost it somewhere.
Use the template block to build legs. Copy the block before every adjusting. Here's front leg (or arm), part 1.
Front leg/arm part 2 (just look at this biceps!).
Front leg/arm part 3.
Front leg/arm no2 - fortunately you'll need only one, simple part.
Now working on the hind legs with the same process. Hind leg part 1.
Hind leg part 2.
Hind leg part 3.
Now create another template block - it'll make black plates for the abdomen. Make a simple scale of it.
Put this simple scale under the last row, this time in opposite direction. Imagine a line between red and black rows - it should work as symmetry axis.
Copy the black scale and make a bigger, more complicated plate of this. It should look just like the red plate from Step 51. Copy it again, and modify it a little bit. You should get two versions of the plate: one fully visible, and other with only one side visible.
Create another row using these plates. You need to spot the areas where it should be fully visible, and where you can see just part of it. Refer to the picture below for help.
The last black row will be made of the scales. Remember about direction - now the middle of the big black plates is symmetry axis for this row.
Come back to the head for a moment. As you remember, I used messy mesh here, and now I'd like to change something. Terrible idea, isn't it? Well, no, if you cooperate with these crazy lines and points. Pick lighter color on some of them to achieve better contrast. You can as well try to accent the lower lip, if your mesh is cooperative enough.
Put lighter colors on the legs too, to emboss the muscles.
It's still not the end! Grab a Pen Tool (P) and draw black shape covering part of dragon's body. The layer with it should be positioned under the legs, head and hair, to save time on cutting.
Select it and lower the Opacity. What you did there was showing this part was deeper in the background.
Use the same technique to draw a shadow behind the mane, then grab Eraser Tool (it may hide under the icon with scissors, hold it for a second and find the tool) and draw some simple lines. They should pretend the transparent areas of the mane (the shadow must be selected to use Eraser on it).
Use different sizes of Eraser to reach the effect you'll be glad of.
Draw some shades again wherever you need it. They will make the dragon more 3D-ish.
Draw some scaly-shapes on the part below; they will make a blending between light and shadow.
Select the shapes and click Ctrl + 8 to merge them. Then select them and the shadow, and use Pathfinder to cut them off.
When it's done, you can use Eraser to fix any mistakes.
As the ball is made of glass, it should reflect some of the dragon's body. Unlock all the layers for a moment (I hope you do lock the ones you don't need!) and use Lasso Tool (Q) to select the part showed below. Copy it.
Go to Object > Transform > Reflect and reflect the copy.
Select the copy and go to Effect > Warp > Arc (the reflection should be distorted).
Experiment with options to achieve the effect we're after.
Go to Object > Expand Appearance to convert the arch to a common shape, then rotate and resize it to fit the ball.
Select the reflection and choose Blending Mode Screen.
Now it looks like a reflection, doesn't it?
The ball is full of light (you just don't see it yet, but I'll show you), so it should enlighten some parts of the dragon. Draw some sparkles of light with simple white brush.
Now lower the Opacity of them, so that they're more natural.
Let's show the light of the magic ball now. Select the first circle you drew (good old times, huh?) and go to Effect > Stylize > Outer Glow.
Choose some options you like...
...and repeat them if needed.
Now I realize the sparkles on the scales are too visible, so I lower the Opacity on them even more. Maybe you're smarter than me and didn't have to do it.
Since the mane is smooth and sleek, it should reflect some light too. Select the lightest strands and use the Outer Glow Effect.
And that's all! I hope you're still alive. So, now you know how to draw a dragon in Illustrator, anytime, any shape. I think it was worth it :)