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Design

Using Meshes to Create a Detailed Skull With Adobe Illustrator

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Halloween and Day of the Dead Vector Design.
How to Create a Dripping Blood Text Effect in Adobe Illustrator
How to Create an Enchanting Broom in Adobe Illustrator

Can you imagine Halloween without skulls? Me neither. In this tutorial I'm going to show you how to create a skull in Adobe Illustrator, using gradient meshes. And once you are done, Miss Chat*Z will show you how to transform the scary skull into decorative Day of the Dead icon in a later tutorial. So get your Mesh Tool at the ready, let's get creating!


1. Gradient Mesh Exercise

Step 1

I'd like to show you some basic gradient mesh theory, to make the whole process easier and faster. If you already know the basics, you can skip this exercise.

Draw a rectangle with the Rectangle Tool (M). The dimensions and colors don't matter with this exercise.

skull_1-1_mesh_warmup

Step 2

Use the Mesh Tool (U) on the rectangle by clicking in the center.

skull_1-2_mesh_warmup

Step 3

Your rectangle is now a mesh. It's created several mesh points. Every mesh point has its own color, position and opacity, and they all influence each other.

skull_1-3_mesh_warmup

Step 4

Select a single mesh point with the Direct Selection Tool (A). You can now change its color and see what happens.

skull_1-4_mesh_warmup

Step 5

You can select more than one point holding Shift and clicking them, or by using the Lasso Tool (Q).

skull_1-5_mesh_warmup

Step 6

You can also add more mesh points anytime you need them with the Mesh Tool (U). The closer the points are to each other, the sharper the difference between any new colors you introduce to your mesh.

skull_1-6_mesh_warmup

Step 7

You can also change a points' Opacity to blend part of mesh into another object or to simply fade out it's borders.

skull_1-7_mesh_warmup

Step 8

Mesh points have handles, just like a path's anchors points. You can move them with the Direct Selection Tool (A) to bend the lines that connect the points with each other. Hold Shift while clicking the point with the Mesh Tool (U) will move it without deforming the lines.

skull_1-8_mesh_warmup

Step 9

Mesh paths between points sometimes get distorted. You can straighten the lines by shortening the handles to iron out any kinks.

skull_1-9_mesh_warmup

2. Prepare for Working From a Reference

Step 1

Create a New document and paste your reference (I used this picture by TwiggXstock). Use the Artboard Tool (Shift-O) to adjust the document to the reference's size. Then duplicate the "reference" layer. One of them will be a template, visible in Outlines Mode (select Template from Layer Menu), while the other will be just a standard reference. Lock them both.

skull_2-1_workspace

Step 2

Now Create New Layer. It's a good idea to create a new layer for every element and name them all. This makes it easier for you to locate shapes you may need to modify later on.

skull_2-2_workspace

3. Create the Eye sockets and Nose

Step 1

We'll draw the eye sockets in the skull first, since they're on top. Start with an Ellipse (L) where the right eye should be. Try to match the size of the circle with the eye-socket.

skull_3-1_eyes

Step 2

Use the Mesh Tool (U) to convert the ellipse to a mesh.

skull_3-2_eyes

Step 3

Now adjust the ellipse's shape to the eye-socket with the Direct Selection Tool (A). Work in Outline Mode (Control-Y) to see only the template in the background.

skull_3-3_eyes

Step 4

Create the second eye-socket the same way.

skull_3-4-eyes

Step 5

Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to select a color for the eye-socket from the nose.

skull_3-5-eyes

Step 6

Create a shape for the nose, using the same process as before.

skull_3-6_nose

Step 7

The holes are done! Lock the layer and create a new one.

skull_3-7_eyes_and_nose_done

4. Draw the Eye bones

Step 1

First you need to drag the new layer under the "holes" layer. This way the holes will stay on top as they're supposed to.

skull_4-1_layers

Step 2

The best shape for the eye bones will be a circular mesh. Unfortunately, Illustrator won't lat you create one directly. But don't worry, there's an easy way to do it! Just take a look at this tutorial on how to create a radial mesh..

skull_4-2_circular_mesh

Step 3

Circular mesh isn't really circular, it just looks like this. It's sewed in one place to look "full". It means there are two mesh points in one spot. You need to grab them both at the same time (use the Lasso Tool (Q)), if you don't want to rip the mesh.

skull_4-3_shape

Step 4

Add more mesh points with the Mesh Tool (U). We're going to need them for different colors.

skull_4-4_more_mesh_points

Step 5

Now you can move the reference aside to see the eye what you're drawing. Keep it locked! Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to add colors to the mesh points. Move them with the Direct Selection Tool (A) to get a right shape of the bones. The mesh points that are the closest to the hole should have similar, dark color to blend into it.

skull_4-5_mesh_coloring

Step 6

Select all the outer points and lower their Opacity to 0%. This way it will blend into the background.

skull_4-6_mesh_opacity

Step 7

Repeat the process for the other eye.

skull_4-7_bothe_eyes_done

5. Build the Nose

Step 1

Start with an ellipse again. Use a general color of the bone (picked from the reference) for it.

skull_5-1_nose

Step 2

Again, adjust the shape to the nose.

skull_5-2_nose

Step 3

Add more mesh points to simulate the contours of the nose. Can you see how I try to surround the hole?

skull_5-3_nose

Step 4

Pick colors and lower the Opacity of the points that will blend into the rest of skull.

skull_5-4_nose

6. Form the Cheekbones

Step 1

This time we'll use a rectangle as the base shape. Pick a general bone color for it, just like you did with the nose.

skull_6-1_cheek

Step 2

Adjust the shape to the area around the eyes, the cheekbone and come close to the nose. Add more mesh points whenever the base mesh points (the one of the rectangle) aren't enough to get a precise shape.

skull_6-2_cheek

Step 3

Again, add the colors.

skull_6-3_cheek

Step 4

Lower the Opacity of the points that touch the jaw and the forehead. The rest should stay fully visible.

skull_6-4_cheek

Step 5

Create a shape for the other side too.

skull_6-5_cheek

Step 6

Blend only the part that touches the forehead.

skull_6-6_cheek

Step 7

You may need to come back to the eye bone layer and change the mesh to blend it better into the part you've just created. You can change the outer mesh points' color (although they seem invisible, their color is important), or lower the Opacity of another row of the points.

skull_6-7_cheek

7. The Upper Jaw

Step 1

As you can see, the upper jaw is a bit "waved" at the edge. There are also a lot of dark and light areas entwined with each other. If we created this with a single mesh, it could take a lot of time and effort. It will be easier to create a little mesh for it.

skull_7-1_upper_jaw

Step 2

Bend the mesh to the following shape.

skull_7-2_upper_jaw

Step 3

This mesh should blend into each other. Make it light inside and dark on the edges, then lower the Opacity of outer points.

skull_7-3_upper_jaw

Step 4

Now duplicate the mesh all over the upper jaw. Sometimes you'll need to change its shape. The ones pasted on the left should have the lowest general Opacity.

skull_7-4_upper_jaw

Step 5

Now we need to create the whole upper jaw. Create a rectangle for its mesh.

skull_7-5_upper_jaw

Step 6

Adjust its shape to the upper jaw. For now don't worry about all the "waving" on the edge of the shape.

skull_7-6_upper_jaw

Step 7

Now you need to add a lot of new mesh points and manipulate their handles to create the waving. Fit the colors.

skull_7-7_upper_jaw

8. Create the Lower Jaw

Step 1

The lower jaw is going to be built of two elements. Start with the one that joins the skull.

skull_8-1_lower_jaw

Step 2

Adjust its shape.

skull_8-2_lower_jaw

Step 3

Match the colors. The part that will be connected to the other element should be invisible (0% Opacity).

skull_8-3_lower_jaw

Step 4

Now, build the chin area.

skull_8-4_lower_jaw

Step 5

Here we need to do the same as before, to create slight waving.

skull_8-5_lower_jaw

Step 6

Fit the colors to blend nicely into the first part of the lower jaw.

skull_8-6_lower_jaw

9. Create the Teeth

Step 1

Create a mesh for one single tooth. It's going to be a base for the others.

skull_9-1_tooth

Step 2

Add proper colors for it. The middle and the bottom mesh points should be light, while others - dark. This time there's no need to change the Opacity.

skull_9-2_tooth

Step 3

Now, copy and paste the tooth to create the whole upper row. Resize them according to the reference.

skull_9-3_teeth

Step 4

Select one tooth and go to Object > Transform > Reflect. Select Horizontal and click Copy. Now use this reflected tooth to create the lower row.

skull_9-4_teeth

Step 5

A part of the lower row should be a bit darker, so select them with Lasso Tool (Q) (this way you're selecting points, not whole objects) and go to Edit > Edit Colors > Adjust Color Balance. Change all the values to -20%.

skull_9-5_teeth

Step 6

We'll need to create the inside part of the teeth too. First create a simple rectangular mesh for it.

skull_9-6_teeth

Step 7

The mesh should have two rows - one for dark points and the other for light points.

skull_9-7_teeth

Step 8

Once it's done, we just need a hole for the jaw. It couldn't be simpler!

skull_9-8_teeth

10. Create the Brain Case

Step 1

Although the brain case resembles a big ball, it has its irregularities. First, we need to create this little nub next to the jaw point.

skull_10-1_braincase

Step 2

Part of it needs to be blended.

skull_10-2_braincase

Step 3

Now time for the actual brain case. The base for it is going to be quite simple, use a modified circle!

skull_10-3_braincase

Step 4

When adding the colors, remember the temporal bone should be darker. You may also need to come back to that part you've drawn before you correct the blending.

skull_10-4_braincase

11. Add Textures to Create a Rough Surface

Step 1

The problem with mesh surfaces is they look very smooth. There are a few ways to resolve this, with textures being the easiest one.

Before we add textures, we need to prepare a clipping mask. Select everything you've created (make sure that no layer is locked) and go to Object > Path > Offset Path. Type 0 as Offset and click OK.

skull_11-1_offset_path

Step 2

Don't touch anything now! That's a tricky part. What you have selected is outlines of every element. Cut it and Paste on a new layer.

skull_11-2_offset_path

Step 3

Select black as the fill color for your shape.

skull_11-3_offset_path

Step 4

With all the shape still selected, select Unite from the Pathfinder panel. Hide the layer.

skull_11-4_unite

Step 5

Now we can start adding textures. Go to the Symbols panel and select Artistic Textures from its menu. Choose the ones you like and drag them out of the window. Don't forget to click Break Link to Symbol icon after it.

skull_11-5_textures

Step 6

Some of the bigger textures may look better if you warp them around the brain case. Go to Effect > Warp > Arc to create this effect.

skull_11-6_textures_warp

Step 7

Now go crazy! Copy the textures you've already placed, rotate and resize them, draw some messy lines. Then select them all and go to Object > Expand.

skull_11-7_textures

Step 8

Select some random textures and change their color to white for greater variety.

skull_11-8_textures

Step 9

Select all the textures, change their Blending Mode to Soft Light and Opacity to 25%.

skull_11-9_textures_blending_mode

Step 10

To cut all the mess out of the skull area we need to use the mask we created at the beginning of the step. Just make the black skull visible again, make sure its layer is on the top, select totally everything and go to Object > Clipping Mask > Make.

skull_11-10_clipping_mask

Now You Know the Bare Bones of Meshing!

I hope you had some fun playing with gradient mesh. Building up an object bit by bit and blending the pieces together can make light work of any gradient mesh project. Until next time, happy vectoring!

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