The popularity of isometric shapes in digital art can be explained in many ways. This blocky style is retro, it’s shiny and there’s a lot of play involved when creating.
There are plenty of great examples online to get inspired by – www.polygonheroes.com and the works of our artist Ryan Barber (www.behance.net/rbarber), for example.
In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to work from a model photo, combining both Photoshop and Illustrator to create exciting shape styles.
We’ll begin by using Illustrator’s Pen tool, and show you how to trace a grid of carefully mapped triangles on top of a photo.
A more interesting isometric illustration will have a map of triangles that’s not evenly distributed. Therefore, we will be adding and subtracting anchor points, and using the Direct Selection tool to adjust triangle corners, in order to distribute our shapes.
We’ll be using the Eyedropper tool, gradients and swatches too, showing how these are all used to fill and affect colour. After the initial vector drawing is complete, we’ll then take our design into Photoshop.
Here we’ll explore how to make overall colour changes to our rendered design, using Gradient Overlay, Levels and other colour adjustments to achieve a fantastic final image.
The first phase involves tracing a series of triangles on top of a photograph in Adobe Illustrator. Create a new file at 6.66 inches x 10 inches.
Hit File>Place and find a start image. In this case, we have used a Dreamstime model (#18986388). Once the file has been placed into Illustrator, lock the image.
You can lock the image in one of two ways: either lock the layer in the Layers palette, or highlight the image and then press Cmd/Ctrl+2.
All your work will be laid directly on top of this image.Once you are done with the illustration, you won’t need the base image any longer.
Now that your image is locked you are ready to apply the Pen tool, so activate it.
Make the Fill colour transparent and set the Stroke colour to something that will be easily visible when laid on top of the image. In this case, a bright magenta will suffice.
The next step is to set the weight of our Pen tool’s stroke. We don’t need this to be too thick, as our marks will only work as guides. In the Stroke palette, set a thickness of 0.02 inches.
This will keep the illustration thin enough for us to still be able to see most of the photograph underneath. If your view of the photograph’s details is obstructed, then it will be more difficult to map the grid.
It is now time to start mapping out a series of adjacent triangles on top of the base photo. No other shapes should be used here, and each triangle should roughly cover one solid area of colour.
Squint when you’re looking at the start image – this helps you to separate out the areas of colour. Draw the first triangle by clicking at the top of the model’s hair, then completing a triangle that covers that section of hair.
Select the first triangle and then copy it by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+C. Paste it on top of itself by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+F. We want this new triangle to be adjacent to the first triangle.
In other words, it will share only one side with it. It’s important to generate new triangles by copying them directly from the ones that have been created before; if we don’t, our grid will have holes and cracks in-between the shapes.
Activate the Direct Selection tool by pressing the A key. Our selection tool’s cursor will change in colour from black to white. Click on the top triangle’s uppermost anchor point.
Drag that anchor point down and slightly to the right, as you can see in our example. The second triangle will now only share one common side with the first triangle.
We’ll keep on repeating this process of copying, pasting and dragging one anchor point at a time until the photograph is covered with triangles.
Copy the second triangle with Cmd/Ctrl+C and paste it on top of itself with Cmd/Ctrl+F. Apply the Direct Selection tool to this third triangle’s top anchor point and then drag it down as shown.
The third triangle should now only share one side with the second triangle. We’re starting to get the hang of this sort of application.
Most triangles will share one common side with another triangle, but some triangles will only share a portion of another triangle’s side.
We’ll use the Add and Subtract Anchor Point tools to make precise edits to the length of one of our triangle’s sides. This will provide much more flexibility in how we lay our grid out.
It’s easy to just make all triangles the same size because it speeds up the process. However, resist the temptation. Really focus on varying the sizes and shapes of the triangles.
The more we vary the locations of our shapes, the more unique our illustration becomes. The reference images in the screenshot, for example, show two circular shapes; one is much more interesting than the other.
So with that in mind, continue mapping out your grid.
You’ve got your grid – now it’s polygon time. Grab the Eyedropper and sample a dark skin tone from beneath the triangle we plan to colour first (see the next screenshot).
Add it to the Swatches palette and the New Swatch window will then appear. If you’re planning to print an illustration, then set this to CMYK mode.
If you’re using an illustration online, then set this to RGB mode instead. Apply the Direct
Selection to the triangle and click on the new swatch.
Press I to activate the Eyedropper. In the reference image, the red triangle has a light tan colour and fades to a darker brown. Sample the tan area to update the Fill colour in the Toolbar.
Drag that Fill colour to the Swatches palette, then repeat for the brown colour. Drag both swatches into your Gradient palette, delete the default black-and-white swatches, then adjust the gradient slider so the tan and brown colours are at opposite ends of the slider.