Brighten Up Your Work for Summer with Gradients

Brighten Up Your Work for Summer with Gradients

The sunlight streaming through your office window is probably making it difficult to stay at your desk, and not just because of the glare on your computer screen. Even if you love your job, you’d most likely rather spend the summer days relaxing on the beach at sunset or ziplining through the rainforests of Costa Rica. You may not be able to take a three-month long vacation, but with a few new techniques, you can bring the fun and color of summertime into your designs.

One way to release the vibrancy of summer in your work is to use the gradient features in Adobe Illustrator. Gradients can inject new life into your projects, making those days when you have to meet a late deadline before you can go to the pool much more colorful.

The magic of gradients.
Knowing how to manipulate gradients is an advantageous skill for any designer. With a few short steps, you can create a dazzling image that looks like it took hours to create.

Use gradients to:

  • Create the illusion of depth.
  • Give the appearance of transparency and varied layers.
  • Add texture to your image.

The more comfortable you get with exploring how different color combinations create depth and tactility, the more competitive you become. Expand your design repertoire and embrace the hues of summer with these tools.

1. Blend tool
Evgeniya Righini-Brand spent a month experimenting with gradients for her Skillshare class and vouches for the ease and effectiveness of the Blend tool. “As a graphic designer I always look for the most efficient ways of creating illustrations and love taking something very basic and making something unique,” she says. “That’s why I find the the Blend tool is so important. It allows you to create so many different things with just a few clicks.”

The above image looks like something a digital effects expert would spend hours making, but with Evgeniya’s technique it can be simple. Click here for a step-by-step how-to.

To start, create at least two separate shapes, each with a color gradient fill. Two shapes are all that you need to create a linear figure, but once you’ve mastered the blend tool, you can experiment with a wide variety of shapes and structures.

Under the Objects menu, select Blend>Make. The program will automatically fill the space between the original shapes either with a set of new objects, or with a smooth transition between them.

To create a single smooth transition from the first object to the last, select Option>Blend>Blend Options, which opens a new window. The step number indicates how many different objects will appear between the two initial images. To create a seamless transition between gradient-filled objects, choose Specified Steps, and choose the maximum number, 1000 steps. You can adjust the number slowly to less steps until you get the smooth transition you like best. If you are creating a transition between two solid color filled objects, use the Smooth Color mode instead of Specified Steps.

You now have a gradient that flows from one end of the shape to the other, but the image lacks depth and complexity. To add movement to the image, create an open path separate from the image. The shape you make with the path will eventually be the shape of your gradient image, and it can be anything, from a wavy line to a spiral to monoline lettering.

Once you have the path drawn, select both the path and the gradient image, and click Object>Blend>Replace Spine. The image contorts to fit the path. Add shadows and additional details to create a unique object that appears to leap from the page.

The blend tool makes your images stand out, literally, and it only takes a few minutes to use. Your imagination is the only limit for what your finished object will be.

2. Color wheel
Another way to create the illusion of movement and depth with gradients is to make your image look like it’s made up of separate, translucent layers. This is the technique designer Maria Gronlund used to turn a simple spiral into a clear depiction of a layered snail shell.

Maria experimented with dozens of hues to find the clarity that would bring the shell to life. The darker hues placed between lighter hues give the illusion that you’re seeing through one part of the shell to the other side and create the illusion of shadowing, which gives the image dimensionality. 

The trick to capturing this visual lies in the various sliders of the color wheel window. For the colors to blend just right and create a harmonious, seamless image, the hue, saturation, and brightness need to be adjusted manually. If a color is too noticeably different from the color next to it, the transitions appear harsh and disjointed, ruining the effect. If the colors are too similar, you won’t be able to achieve the desired illusion.

Play around with the sliders, paying close attention to how the colors look when positioned next to each other. Does the center of the object look too gray? Do the darker colors overpower the image, or make it look as though the object is cast in shadow? Gronlund recommends not trying to get each color perfect the first time you place it in the image. It’s easier to start with a general idea of how you want the image to look, then experiment with the HSB sliders.

3. Mesh tool
Gradients can also be used to add a level of texture to either an image or a background. For textures, Evgeniya recommends the mesh tool.

“I love to use the mesh tool to create nice textures and abstract graphics, because it allows you to create a very smooth blend of different colors that merge into one another in a more random way in comparison to standard gradients,” she says. Click here for a step-by-step how-to.

To get started, create a solid color shape in any color you want to use as a starting point.

Using the mesh tool, add several mesh points to the object . These will be the focal points of the distorted gradient. Once you’ve added the mesh points, choose a color to originate from each. Like with any gradient, choose colors which can smoothly blend into one another.

On the Tools panel, you have several tools which can be used for altering the gradient further. Experiment with warp tool and the wrinkle tool to achieve the desired effect. By experimenting with the set of colors used in the Gradient mesh, you can create a beautifully textured image that evokes any number of emotions. Check out Evgeniya’s portfolio for more examples.

Best practices for using gradients.
As you practice mastering the various tools, keep in mind that not every gradient is going to look vibrant and breathtaking. Evgeniya and Maria each have some tips for avoiding common gradient mistakes.

  • Use intermediary colors, especially if you’re transitioning between complementary colors. To avoid having a gray or dirty colour in your gradient, add a new color to the middle of the gradient. For example, if you’re trying to blend blue and red, don’t assume the transition will look like vibrant purple. Manually add a purple hue that will balance both colors.
  • Be cautious using black in transitions. Many times, using K=100 black will weigh down your design, making it appear flat and lifeless. If you want some darkness in your design, adjust the hue and saturation, tweaking the black to match the tone of the other colors in the gradient.
  • Avoid color banding. Instead of moving from green to turquoise to blue, incorporate more tints and hues to help the distinct colors of the gradient blend together. The viewer shouldn’t be able to point out where one color merges into the next, because it will appear completely natural to their eye.

Gradients can be the perfect way to brighten up your creative projects this summer. Embrace the vibrancy of richly saturated color gradients, and watch your designs lift off the screen.

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