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Working with Orthographic Projections and Basic Isometrics


A few times a each month we revisit some of our reader’s favorite posts from throughout the history of Vectortuts+. This tutorial by Cody Walker was first published on November 25th 2008.

This is the first part in a series of tutorials about Isometrics. Isometric projections are a system of drawing that allows an artist to quickly and accurately draw an object without using perspective. I will go into more depth about isometrics later in this tutorial. I'm going to begin by talking about a system that is commonly used with isometrics.


Orthographic projections are a way of describing what an object looks like from several different views. Orthographics are also called engineering drawings or plan views. Using a set of orthographics an Illustrator can easily draw the three-dimensional object from any angle and in perspective, isometric or any number of other drawing systems. 3D modelers often use orthographics to accurately create an object in a 3D application.

An orthographic is one way to describe a three dimensional object in two-dimensional space. Typically an orthographic will have the top, side and front views of an object drawn together with some kind of scale.


An orthographic can have more then three sides drawn if the object has unique sides that would not be described clearly by just three images.


Once you have a clear set of orthographics you can draw your object in whatever method and from whatever view is required for your project. If you are planning to draw a set of orthographics from a
physical object begin by measuring. Use a ruler and a set of calipers to measure all the surfaces of the object and make notes and a sketch. Once you are finished gathering data you can use your notes to create a set of orthographics in Illustrator. And that brings us to the world of isometrics.

Isometric projections are from the family of axonometric projection systems. Isometric comes from Greek for equal measure. This is because isometrics don't use a vanishing point system, instead lines fall onto a 30 degree grid.


Often the first impression of an isometric is that it looks off. This is more noticeable when an isometric cube is sitting next to a perspective cube. If you are going to be working in isometric there is a certain amount of distortion that comes with the territory. This is one of the factors that give isometrics their specific look. The huge upside to drawing in isometric especially using illustrator is that once you have created an object it will look exactly the same anywhere you place it.

There are no vanishing points and no horizon lines. An object will be the same anywhere on your page. This is very important because you only ever have to drawn an object once. For example you could have an assembly drawing with one hundred screws in it. But you would only have to draw one screw and then copy it as many times as needed. This is a very powerful tool for speeding up workflow.

There are many other systems that don't require vanishing points or horizon lines and give you similar benefits. But isometrics are the only one of these systems to make the jump from the technical
illustrators toolbox to a useful skill for all graphic artists. The use of isometrics in early videogames has spawned a whole subculture of isometric pixel artists. And as the info-graphics style becomes very popular in magazines and newspapers you see isometrics being used more and more by artist with no technical illustration background.

Drawing in Isometric

Ok, now we can get into how to actually draw in isometric. The best way to start working in isometric is to make an isometric grid in Adobe Illustrator.

Step 1

Start by opening your preferences (Command K) and adjusting your keyboard increments to 1in.


Step 2

Using your line tool option and click somewhere on your page. A dialogue box will pop up. Make a 30 inch line on a 30 degree angle.


Step 3

Move your line over to the left side of your page. Now while holding Alt. tap the Right Arrow key once. Because we set the increments to 1 inch the line was copied 1 inch to the left. Repeat until you have crossed the page.


Step 4

You could repeat Step 3 from right to left with a 150 degree line. Or you can select all the lines and double click on the Mirror tool and mirror a copy of the lines horizontally.


Step 5

Now you have an isometric grid. Select > All (Command A) and hit Command 5 or View > Guides > Make Guides to turn your grid lines into guides. Save this file as an iso grid template to use anytime you want to work in isometric.


Step 6

Now we can start building objects on the isometric grid - first off a cube. Start by making a small four cornered shape with your Pen tool.


Step 7

Using your Direct Selection Tool (white arrow) and line up your four corners with a square on the grid.


Step 8

Using your Pen tool and the same method as described above, create the left and right sides of the cube. Quickly block out a four-cornered shape then move the corners into place with the Direct Selection tool. When building shapes on an isometric grid it is a good idea to start thinking of your objects in planes: top, left side, right side. This will make more complicated objects easier to visualize.


Step 9

Select all three parts and group (Command G). You now have an isometric cube. You can start making copies of the cube and quickly begin building larger shapes. You can scale the cube up or down and
build with it.


Incorporating Orthographics

Now that you know the fundamentals of building a cube on an isometric grid we can incorporate the orthographics discussed earlier.

Step 1

Make a simple orthographic, with a scale that will work with your grid.


Step 2

Build the left side first. Using the Pen tool, rough out the shape by counting grid squares. Then line up the points with the Direct Selection tool.


Step 3

Build the front of the shape. Count out grid squares, rough out the shape with the Pen tool, and clean up with the Direct Selection tool.


Step 4

Complete the top. By this point I'm sure you've come across parts of the shape that don't just sit on their respective plane. This is where being able to actually read the orthographics and interpret them is essential. Or else you'll just end up with a set of orthographics distorted onto three different planes.



Using the same orthographics draw the object from several different angles and orientations. Get very comfortable building basic shapes on an orthographic grid, as it will come in very useful once you start working on more complex objects.

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