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How to Make Realistic Skate Wheels in Illustrator

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Using Illustrator's 3D Revolve tool, we will create a set of realistic skateboard wheels and map our own artwork on the wheel. We will cover advanced techniques, such as using the revolve tool, preparing the artwork, mapping it to the 3D surfaces, and some cool tricks for adding the finishing touches.

Final Image Preview

Below is the final design we will be working towards. 


Step 1

Before we start, I should remind you that Adobe Illustrator was not built to be used as a 3D rendering engine like Maya, Cinema 4D, 3DS, or any of those other 3D programs. That's why the first step of this tutorial is to free up some RAM on your machine. So close those unnecessary apps and programs that are running to help Illustrator concentrate on rendering appearances rather than fighting for memory. And as always, save often.

Step 2

Let's begin by opening Illustrator and creating a new document; set the units to 400 pixels wide by 600 pixels high (I suggest keeping this a small document to conserve memory). Under the Advanced button, set the color mode to RGB, and set the Raster Effects to 300 pixels per inch. Using this high of resolution is part of what takes up a lot of memory, but I like to see the effects in the best detail. You could set it lower if you don't have a powerful computer, but keep in mind that gradients and other graphics might look a little chunky. Click OK to get rolling.

Step 3

I like to get all my panels set up before I start so that I don't have to keep going into the Window menu and manually opening them. Here is a screenshot of the most commonly used panels for this tutorial. Go ahead and place those in a convenient spot.

We're going to use a grid to draw the wheel: perfect symmetry is very important when using 3D revolve and mapping to the surface. Go to Edit > Preferences > Guides and Grid, and choose the settings as shown (I changed the grid color as well to something lighter). Click OK, and if you can't see the grid, use Command + " to turn it on. We also want to turn on Snap to Grid for this, so hit Command + Shift + ". You can also access the grid and snapping under the View menu. This is what you will use for the first layer (I named it "Shapes and Rendering").

Step 4

To create the wheel we are going to use the lathe method, kinda like carving a baseball bat from spinning a block of wood. The wheel's outline is like the carving instructions and the 3D Revolve tool will act as the lathe to spin it around.

So turn on your rulers (Command + R) and drag a guide from the side to one of the grid lines on your artboard. Select the Pen Tool (P) and start plotting your points as shown (Go to Edit > Preferences > Selection & Anchor Display and use the settings shown to help you see the anchor points). Because these will turn into 3D surfaces, the less points you use the better.

When you create the top half of the path, copy and paste it (or Alt+drag the path and you'll see a double arrow icon to let you know it's copying), flip it along the horizontal axis, and line it up with the other path. Bump it up a bit (two Shift + Up Arrows) so they overlap, then select the two mid-points on the right side with the Direct Select tool (A) and hit Command + J to join the two paths together. Once they're joined, you can turn off Snap To Grid, and then grab those two points again, select the Delete Anchor Point tool (-), and remove them.

Then you can use the Convert Anchor Point tool (Shift + C) to add some curvature to the right edge of our wheel and anywhere else. Refer to the screenshot for proper anchor point position when creating the wheel path. Remember symmetry is key! When you're done creating the path, you can turn off the grid (Command + "),guides (Command + ;), and snapping (Command + Shift + ").

Step 5

See the screenshot for how the path you just created will turn out in 3D Revolve. I tested a lot of paths and found this one to be the best to map to. You can see that the curves around the top and bottom edges give it a more realistic lighting effect, rather than the flat-top wheels. One notable difference is that the flat top wheels have one large front surface to map to. On the wheels we create, the front surface is broken up into two rings giving us an inner and outer core.

Step 6

It's time to turn that path into a wheel. Select your wheel path, change the stroke color to a light grey (or whatever color you want the wheel to be), Alt-drag it to copy it, and go to Effects > 3D > Revolve. Make sure you preserve your original path in case you want to go back and redraw it.

We're going to create a wheel sitting on top of another wheel. To start, create the top wheel and apply the settings as shown in the screenshot (afterwards, I scaled the top wheel down to 57.5px wide in the transform panel). Then with a copy of the original path, create the bottom wheel with the settings shown (scale that down to 60px wide).

I used the default shading/lighting for the wheels. The default plastic shading works well to imitate urethane without any tweaking, but feel free to play with the light source as well. Just remember to keep the lighting consistent for all of the wheels.

Step 7

Now that you have the two main wheels, it's time to lay out the graphics that will be mapped to the wheels. To keep it organized, we'll set it up on a different layer (label the layer "mapping structure"). Copy and paste the two wheels into that layer.

Select the bottom wheel and Alt-drag it to the right side, send it to the back, and scale it down a tiny bit (say 58px wide). Then, Alt-drag that wheel to the left side, send it to the back, scale it down a tiny bit more (about 56px wide), and push it up a bit. The goal is to create the illusion of depth. Position the wheels on your page where you want them because we won't be moving them after this.

Note: I've noticed that when you scale 3D objects in Illustrator, it will sometimes drop and add surfaces depending on the object's size. If that happens, just tweak the size a little bit and check the surfaces again.

Step 8A

When we created the path for the wheel, we made sure there were as few anchor points as possible. This will be crucial when trying to map art. If your path is too complex, Illustrator will break down the surfaces into tiny parts making it difficult to work with.

With our wheels in place, it's time to put some sweet graphics on them. Using 3D Revolve, we end up with a 3D object that has multiple surfaces. Those surfaces are what we will map art to. You can create whatever you want in Illustrator; as long as you convert it to a symbol, you can map it to a surface. The aim is to get it as close to the surface area as possible, then adjust later in the symbol editor.

Let's check out the surfaces created by the 3D Revolve. Select a wheel and make sure you have a nice view of it because you will have two dialogue boxes popping up. To view our surfaces, go to the Appearance Panel, double click the 3D Revolve effect to enter the 3D Revolve dialogue box (move it out of the way every time), then click Map Art to bring up the Map Art dialogue box.

If you have the exact path as I do, you will have 11 surfaces. Once in the Map Art dialogue box, you can cycle through the surfaces using the arrow; the active surface will highlight in red. We'll be looking at surface two for the inner core, and surface 11 for the outer core. You can also expand the Map Art dialogue box by dragging the corner, which will expand your view of the surface.

Step 8B

We need to make our wheel graphic as close to the actual surface area as possible so it doesn't get distorted when we use the Stretch to Fit method. Since the actual 3D surface is a circle and the circumference is what we're mapping to, the formula for finding the circumference of a circle is a good start, 2(Pi)r. I found that using three instead of Pi is easier and you can use the width of your wheel's path as the radius, in this case, 57.5px wide.

So, select the top wheel, check your info panel for the W, and plug it into the formula: 2x3x57.5=345. To find the height, I used the Ruler tool, under the Eyedropper tool, to get the height of the wheel from the inside edge to the outside edge and came up with 32px (it shows up in the info panel). Since our wheel surface is split into two parts, each one will have a height of 16px (since 32/2 is 16).

To create the outer graphic, use the Rectangle tool (M) with a bright color fill and create a rectangle that's 345px wide by 16px high. The inner loop's width is about 75% of the outer loop, so make that rectangle a different bright fill color and about 260px wide by 16px high. Align them to the center for good measure.

You can single click the artboard with the Rectangle tool to input values directly, or use the Scale panel to change existing rectangles. I use the rectangle as a place holder for the graphic, as some extra paint on the wheel. You can remove it and whatever is inside the rectangle will be mapped directly on the wheel's surface.

Step 8C

Let's test it out. Open your Symbols panel and drag the outer loop graphic into it. You're presented with a Symbol Options dialogue where you will name it "testOuter." Select Graphic as the type and choose the middle registration point. Do the same thing for the inner loop graphic but name it "testInner" instead. They are now symbol instances on the stage. To edit them, you can double-click to enter symbol editing mode (the dialogue that comes up tells you that). Its pretty much the same as isolated mode. You can change any aspect of your symbol and it will update on your 3D object when you go to re-map it, move it, or undo (anything to make it render again).

To map your symbols, select your top wheel, get a good view of it and go to the Map Art dialogue box from step 8A. In that dialogue, find the outer surface (11) and under the symbol drop down, pick your "outerTest" symbol. It will place that symbol on your surface, and it should fit nicely. To make it fit perfectly, click the Scale to Fit button at the bottom left, and it does just what it says. This will help when you have to align it to multiple 3D objects by keeping it consistent. If you want to move part of the graphic, do it in Symbol Editing mode. You can toggle the preview checkbox to see it on the wheel.

Do the same thing for the inner loop (surface two), but before you close the dialogue box, uncheck Preview and check Shade Artwork, then click OK to exit and view your art. That magic Shade Artwork button gives your art the same shading properties as your 3D Revolve object and makes a realistic looking wheel graphic. Note: having Preview and Shade Artwork on at the same time will really use up a lot of ram. So try to avoid that.

Step 8D

So the test worked, now its time to make some more complex art and apply it to all the wheels. I decided to go with a rasta earthtone theme for mine. With this screenshot, you can see how the wheel position and text position match up with the wheel graphic I created.

It essentially takes our rectangle like a strip of paper and folds it up towards the top of the wheel where the two ends meet. When we map art using Stretch to Fit, it works by taking the symbol's boundary and stretching it across the surface. For it to work properly, you can't have text or objects sticking out of that boundary, so make sure the rectangle holds everything within its parameter.

Once you have your art where you like it, convert them into symbols (unless they already are), and go into the Map Art dialogue box to update your surface maps. If something doesn't fit right, double-click your symbol on the stage to enter symbol editing mode and adjust as needed. Apply your surface maps to all the remaining wheels.

Step 9

There are still some essential details to attend to after you have fine-tuned your wheel graphics. First, let's mask the top wheel so it looks like part of it is sitting inside the bottom wheel. To make the mask, draw an Ellipse (L) with a black fill at 50% Opacity (you may have to move the top up so you can see what you're doing), and try to match the curve of the bottom wheels inner core.

Select the circle you just made, and use the Direct Select tool (A) to stretch your mask shape to cover the entire top wheel. What we cover with the mask is going to show, so make sure a little of the wheel is not covered at the bottom.

When your mask is in place, change the color to white and Opacity to 100%, select the mask shape, and cut it (Command + X). Then select the wheel shape and go to the Transparency panel. Double-click the empty thumbnail space on the right side (next to the wheel thumbnail) to mask the wheel, then hit Command + F to paste the white mask shape in place. The wheel should be visible now. Make sure you click on the wheel thumbnail to exit the mask mode, and you're done with that part.

Step 10

Next, we simulate a hole in the middle of the wheel instead of actually putting one there, which would require us to expand the object. A fake wheel hole allows us to still map graphics to the wheel. So trace the wheel's inner circle with the Pen tool (black fill, 50% Opacity) and adjust points as needed with the Convert Anchor Point tool (Shift + C).

Once the circle is done, move it to the side, Alt-drag it out a little to copy the shape, and set it up as in the screenshot. Select both shapes, go to the Pathfinder panel, Alt-click the Divide icon (first one on the bottom-left) to separate them.

Ungroup it and pull out the two shapes you need (as shown), and color the outer shape with a gradient of your wheel color, dark on the left and lighter on the right. The bigger circle section is the hole part; for now it should be white (we will change it to match the background later). Group (Command + G) those two shapes and put them in place on the wheel. Then group them to the wheel shape to keep them together.

Step 11

We'll need to add shadows under the whole wheel set, under the top wheel, and to the left and right of the front wheel. Start by making four black ellipses, putting them in place in your artwork, and then using Gaussian Blur (Effect > Blur > Gaussian) to make the shadow.

The amount of blur depends on the size of the ellipse, so the bigger one will be about 60px blur and the smaller shapes will be about 35px. Feel free to adjust to get the right look. With those in place, change the transparency to Multiply. I set the Opacity to 60% for the smaller shapes and 55% for the big bottom shape.

To finish it off, use the Direct Select tool (A) to tweak your shadows into the appropriate shapes. I tweaked out the side shadows a little to fit on the side of the wheels and not the ground or top of the wheels. I tweaked the bottom shadow to extend more towards the back-left than the front.

Step 12

Now that you have the completed look for the wheel set, it is time to set up the final ad layout. Grab all of the wheels and shadows and group them together. Copy that group and create a new layer (label it "Final Ad Layout"), then hit Command + F to paste them in place on your new layer. This is where we will add the environment to stage our wheels.

Going along with the earth-tone theme, I thought I would stage them in an outback type setting. The first thing is to create the background. Get out your Rectangle tool (M) and click on the artboard once. Make the dimensions the same size as your artboard (400px wide by 600px high). Use the Align panel to align it to the center of the artboard.

Fill it with a gradient with no stroke. This is just a big linear gradient at a 90 degree angle. In the gradient panel, from left to right, is dark brown to lighter brown then light blue to a darker blue this creates a horizon with dirt and blue sky.

Send it to the back and with it still selected you can move the gradient sliders around to position your horizon line. When that's done, lock it in the Layers panel. I also created a little mountain on the horizon with the Pen tool, and blurred it 5px with Gaussian Blur. Don't worry about the wheel hole just yet.

Step 13

Let's add some rocks to the dirt: draw some rock shapes with the Pen tool, color them a few different shades of rocky brownish grey, group them together, and Alt-drag them around the dirt to create multiple copies.

Scale them to match the depth they're at, smaller in the back, bigger in the front. Then wrangle those up with your Selection tool and group them together. Add a tiny drop shadow (Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow). Put them in the correct layer position and lock the layer. Now we can add the grass.

Step 14

Making grass is pretty quick because it's just a brush. Similar to brushes in Photoshop, you can create scatter brushes in Illustrator that do the work for you. First, use the Pen tool with a green fill and no stroke to create some blades of grass. Then color them with varying shades of green (the blades of grass should be darker in the back and lighter in the front). Once you have a little grass, group the blades together and open the Brushes panel. Drag the grass into the Brushes panel where you will be presented with a New Brush dialogue. Choose the type New Scatter Brush, name it, insert the values shown below, and click OK.

Now, use the Pen tool to draw a path with no fill on your artboard and then select your grass brush from the Brushes panel - instant fields of grass. You can also try this with the rocks: make a few rocks and drag them into the Brushes panel to create a scatter brush for your rocks. Also, if you want a live preview of your brush, create the brush and apply it to a stroke, then double-click your brush in the Brushes panel and adjust the settings with Preview checked.

So here I drew a curved path with a 2px stroke, applied the grass brush by clicking the brush name in the Brushes panel and expanded it (Object > Expand Appearance). Its easier to rotate and flip when it's expanded, plus it takes up less RAM. So duplicate the expanded grass object and reflect it along the vertical axis (Object > Transform > Reflect), select them both and group them, apply a 4px Gaussian Blur, and move them to the front (Command + Shift + Right Bracket).

To mask the grass, I created a rectangle the size of the artboard, centered it on the artboard, and with the rectangle selected, Shift-clicked the grass to add it to the selection. Then right-clicked and choose Make Clipping Path. After that, lock your layer and move on.

Step 15

To finish it off, I added a sunburst and a little glow behind the wheels, a little vignette effect, and some text. For the sunburst, draw a tall thin rectangle (about 35px wide by 600px high), in a color you can see for now. Use the Direct Select tool to bring in the two bottom anchor points with your arrow keys to create a keystone shape.

With it selected, go to Effects > Distort and Transform > Transform, and use the numbers shown below, then click OK to transform it. I scaled mine down a bit afterwards. Set the fill color to white, no stroke, set Opacity to 25%, and Blend Mode to Screen. I placed it right behind the wheels layer.

Then, in the same way we masked the grass, mask the sunburst to display over the sky part of the background. After masking the sunburst, set the Opacity to 50%, and lock it. The glow is just a white ellipse with a 50px Gaussian Blur effect and Transparency set to 80% on Screen Mode. Place it behind the wheels but in front of the starburst (use Command + Left Bracket key and Command + Right Bracket key to move the object in between layers).

To get the wheel hole to match the background, Direct Select (A) the hole, and using the Eyedroper tool, click the mountain to sample the same brown. Then with the wheel hole still selected, copy and paste it in place, change the color to white, and add a little Gaussian Blur (around 15px). Change the Blend mode to Screen and lower the opacity little by little until it blends in, mine ended up on 80%. It should already be included in the "wheels and shadows" layer, so lock it when you're done with that step.

Step 16

For the vignette, draw a rectangle the size of the artboard, center it with the Align panel, and fill it with a radial gradient from white to a medium gray (I used K=30 from the swatches panel). Then, set the Blend mode to Multiply in the Transparency panel and move its layer position right above the sunburst, then lock it. Now just put in some text, pick your favorite font, and use Effects > Warp > Arc to get it to bend a little.


It should look pretty sweet by now, so go out there and see what else you can get the 3D Rotate tool to do. The final image is below.

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