Step 1

Start with a photograph, preferably one that you took or one you have permission to use. It should be medium to high resolution. Place the photo in your Illustrator document (File > Place). It doesn't matter if it's linked or embedded. Make a copy of the photo and place it off to the side or above the original. We'll use this later for reference.

Step 2

With the first photo selected, go to Object > Create Gradient Mesh, which will transform this photo into a vector mesh. In the dialog box that appears, enter a fairly high number of both Rows and Columns. Try to make it proportionate to the aspect ratio of your photo. This is the grid that we'll be using to build our clouds, and it's going to take a lot of detail to achieve a realistic final image. Choose Flat as the appearance and keep the Highlight at 100%.

Step 3

Now you should have the rough mesh, plus a copy of the photograph for reference. If you haven't done so already, change the layer color to something that's easier to see. I've chosen red, because my photo is predominately blue. Illustrator's light blue default color would just get lost.

Step 4

Using the original photo (the one you copied earlier) as a reference, start adjusting points with the Direct Selection tool, twisting the handles around the edges of the cloud to get rid of any obviously square shapes. If the initial mesh looks too pixelated or boxy, undo and start over, adding more rows and columns this time. Work your way around the cloud shape, refining it as you go. It's almost a sculptural process, where you go from general masses to finer details.

Step 5

Each anchor point has a color assigned to it. The closer the handles are to any given point, the closer that color stays to that point. Think of the point as the center of an amorphous, radial gradient. If you pull the handles closer to the point, there is a more abrupt color transition between the points next to it.

You can control the look of the edges by using two adjacent points in conjunction with one another. Moving two points close together will result in a harder edge. Dragging the points' handles closer or father away will fine-tune the edge where the two colors meet.

Step 6

Once you have the cloud shape roughed out, it's time for the detail work. Here's a great tip. Open the Navigator panel (Window > Navigator), and drag it out as large as it will go. Since the Navigator always floats on top of the artboard, you can zoom way in on your mesh, and observe the changes you make in the Navigator. This saves you from having to zoom in and out just to see what you've done.

Step 7

Now the tedious work begins. Seriously, this can take hours or even days. There's really no other way around it if you want a high degree of realism with Gradient Mesh. Clouds are a forgiving subject matter though. You can improvise quite a bit with the edges, contrasting more defined edges with wispy shapes, and it will still look like a cloud. Using the Navigator panel method, keep adjusting the mesh points.

In areas where you need greater detail, add points using the Mesh Tool (U). Add Point is a misnomer. When you add a point, you're actually adding a whole new line to the mesh, whose multiple points can be adjusted independently. When you click a horizontal mesh line, a new vertical line will result, and vice-versa. These mesh lines (or any others) can be removed by holding down the Alt key while clicking with the Mesh Tool.

Step 8

Be careful not to add so many mesh points that they get in your way. If the lines overlap, or if the curves are too sharp, the edges will be clunky and abrupt.

Conclusion

This is not a drawing course, and only those with some formal training and experience will be able to achieve truly realistic results. One must bring trained powers of observation and artistic judgement to bear on such a complex subject. But it is hoped, through this tutorial, you have a better understanding of Gradient Mesh, and will keep practicing! The final image is below or you can view a larger version of the final image here.

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