January 2014

After taking a short break from the illustration while finishing my flash animation and completing case studies, I turned my attention back to solving the problem of finding the best way to illustrate this brain coral. After watching a number of tutorials on gradients, variable width strokes and similar Illustrator tools that I thought would help me achieve my goal, I decided that the Extrude & Bevel  tool used in conjunction with the Blend tool could be the best ticket to creating the 3D coral surfaces.

The illustration had to first be broken down into two parts: Extruding and Beveling the coral “worms” (with its whole subset of variables), and then the Blend tool to create the striations on the coral worm surfaces.  I first set about using a Wacom stylus to redraw the top surface of the coral with the Pen tool. In hindsight, although I was able to draw very naturally with the stylus, the sensitivity of that tool created too many points and in future I would either a) figure out how to dial down the sensitivity of how many points the stylus laid down as I drew, or b) use the pen tool and create the necessary bezier curves on the fly, which would progress more quickly as I got the hang of it.

Coral shapes drawn with stylus and simplified

Coral shape surfaces drawn with stylus and simplified

After finishing the outline I then went through and simplified the resulting paths as much as possible to ease the burden on Illustrator when creating the extruded shapes. I then started in one section and began painstakingly extruding each individual path to the correct perspective as it sat on the coral sphere base (which I made into another layer and did a preliminary modeling with the mesh tool). If a path covered more area than seemed correct for a given extruded perspective, I would break up the path using the knife tool and make those corrections to the extruded angles. Beveling the shapes proved a bit tricky; too much bevel, though desirable in order to mimic the soft curve of the coral, would result in overlapping paths and strange artifacts and slices. So far I’ve had to keep the bevel simple, small and in the diffuse shading setting to compromise between the solidity of the extrusions and the softness of the look. Finally, also in the Bevel and extrude panel, I modified the light source and intensity and added a 2nd, less intense light source to mimic the contrasty light in the original image.

coral sphere with mesh tool modeling

coral sphere with mesh tool modeling

partial coral shape extrusion

partial coral shape extrusion

After doing about 50% of the illustration this way (extruding individual paths) I decided to select most of the remaining paths as a whole to see what would happen if I did a mass extrude and bevel all together. As I expected, the perspectives were off in some areas, but I think it might have been easier to go this route and correct what was already there by degrees rather than start from scratch each time. Illustrate and learn!

Full extrusion and sphere with some corrections needed

Full extrusion and sphere with some corrections needed

Once the path had been extruded, I picked a section of the coral “worm” shape and used the Arc tool to draw an arc at the beginning and end of one section of the extruded path. I then used the Direct Selection tool to copy the curving line of the coral surface between those two arcs and copy it to the center of the extruded path surface. With that new copied line, I created a custom spine for the blend between the two arcs. I then use the Blend tool to get the arcs to move along that custom spine, and both tweak the position of the arcs with the direct selection tool and the curve of the spine with the direct selection and bezier handles. (btw, I learned this invaluable method of creating a custom spine through the tutorials:  Illustrator CS6 with Deke McClelland. Thanks Deke!) Moving on, once the blends were in more or less an okay position, I put a gradient in the stroke of initial arcs, which carried through the blend. Then, as you’ll notice on the image below, the lower blend strokes have been treated with rounded caps, bevel join, and gradient across stroke options selected, and also some variable width treatment, with the stroke widening slightly at the base of the beveled side. The upper blend hasn’t gotten any of that treatment yet (plus it needs some scale and positioning adjustment), and it makes quite a difference.

blended arcs with custom spine

blended arcs with custom spine

So, as you can see, a lot of work and learning as I go accomplished even after Digital Design ended a month ago, but I definitely want to have this piece in my final portfolio, so I think if I keep at it, the end result will be worth it. Keep you posted!

December 2013

Still feeling like there was probably a better way to illustrate the coral, I happened on another approach while researching the variable width tool. That was to make lines of the whole coral surface shape and expand the lines using the variable width tool, then apply a gradient to the stroke of those lines. It was also an epiphany when I caught a glimpse of how the motorcycle exhaust pipes were constructed in one of the Adobe tutorials that Professor Krikun had shown us back in the beginning of the semester.

So here is how I started:


Then I began to expand each of the lines of the coral. A painstakingly slow process, I’m finding, as expanding the width on lines that have sharp curves causes a mesh to appear in the width tool which goes crazy trying to double back on itself and results in concave pockets running along the widened stroke. Nevertheless, if I can do more research on how to use this tool, I think I can make it work, because applying the gradient to the stroke along the stroke path yields the results I’m looking for in creating the correct value structure of the surface and walls.

I recently found a tutorial on creating a realistic snake that had a similar look and the illustrator’s solution was to measure the entire length of the snake (or the coral “worms” in my case) and widen the stroke in a straight line, then curve it to its proper shape. I would have to experiment when to apply the gradient, before or after creating the proper shape.

Work in progress, but learning a ton!


November 2013

My November upddates involved dropping the idea of using the linear gradient to illustrate the coral, and focus on the three layers:  background, or outline of the coral, the walls, or raised portion of the coral, and the surface layer of the coral, as a whole. I wanted to use the mesh tool to create a sphere from the background but the uneven outline was making the mesh tool go crazy. So instead I used a radial gradient to create a similar look. In retrospect, I could have created a perfect circle inside the background shape and used the mesh tool on that as a separate layer, but using the gradient was more time efficient, especially since most of the shape would be covered. Then I chose the radial gradient over both the surface and the raised portion of the coral to further develop a sense of light source and three-dimensionality. At this point, my illustration was still left somewhat cartoonish as I strove to find appropriate looking light sources.

Shown here is the radial gradient (in yellow) on the coral surface:


Then the sphere treated with a radial gradient:


Putting a radial gradient on the surface and the raised edges…but with the walls still sliced as before:


After removing the slices in the raised walls and treating it to a solid color. My biggest problem using a radial gradient on the solid walls was that the dark and light sides of the coral weren’t corresponding to reality.  I would have to take each wall and treat it to a separate value.


October 28, 2013


Working with the Blob and Erase tools, I felt I was able to reproduce a pretty good looking outline of the coral forms. In order to replicate the striations of the growing coral, I’ve been using the gradient tool and slicing the paths made with the Blob Tool to recreate lines along the surface of the coral relief. I also took the outside perimeter outline and treated it slightly with the mesh tool to give the underlying sphere shape some roundness. As far as the gradients, I feel there’s probably a better way to approach this illustration but with the tools I have so far, this is where we are:


When the top started looking too busy, I  began playing with an overall radial gradient for the top surface and not worrying to much about not having the lines…it was all getting way to busy. Probably the best way to lay the lines on the top would be to make a pattern and copy it through….at least that’s what seems like it would make sense.


Anyway, it’s time to start moving on to the logo, so while I’ll continue to refine my Brain coral illustration, additional tweaks will start to happen in the background…

October 1, 2013


Finally getting a grasp on outlining the brain coral photo I choose to illustrate for my logo design. While I finally started making headway once I got the hang of using bezier curves and the pen tool on the fly, I think I stumbled upon a much better set of tools to accomplish the organic nature of the coral in a much more efficient fashion. The tools I’m using now for the illustration are the blob and erase tools. So far I’ve separated the positive “crown” outline of the coral and the relief, or height, of the coral growth into two different layers, with the photograph layer at the bottom. My results so far are below (click PDF file):

Brain Coral_1_blob_tool_variant_2_v5

September 2013


So Global Coral Reef Association is the winner for my Logo Design assignment and I have furiously commenced thumbnail sketches to bring this idea to fruition. I’ve thought about several ways to incorporate the name of the organization into a coral reef design reminiscent of the “brain” coral I presented at last week’s class. Letters can be so organic that it seems a no-brainer (no pun intended!) to do it this way, so here are a few sketches in that direction:

Sketch 1

This sketch was primarily to loosen up and kind of study the coral in my original concept photo….and to get a feel for how coral moves and turns as it grows. I kept the logo simple with a straighforward overhead view, as seen in the bottom sketch. As yet I had not determined whether the letters would be represented by the coral surface or the recesses in between.

Coral study, birds eye letter view

Coral study, birds eye letter view

Sketch 2

Here I wanted to incorporate some depth into the coral and logo, much as you would experience it if you encountered it yourself in the ocean. Again, the letters make up part of the actual coral bed, this time with the logo letters represented by the positive form of the coral growth.


Yellow Brain Coral

Sketch 3

This is where I started staring at the app icons on my iPhone….shapes and logos that, while they still carry an incredible amount of detail, are strikingly simple in their overall shape.

In addition, GCRA is an organization that actually builds man-made coral reef to replace what is being destroyed using discarded or constructed materials and an electrically charged process (cool!). To that end, I wanted to incorporate a color to color or color to transparency gradient to represent building the coral; something from nothing.

Lettering on 3D Globe

Sketch 4

Here are a couple of quick studies to show different positioning of the letters on the globe above….I think I would push this even further for the letters to cover as much of the globe as possible (in the positive coral shape) while still maintaining the proportion of coral coverage overall.

Variations on logo size and placement

Sketch 5

In this study I broke away from the direction above to explore another “look” with similar depth to Sketch 2 but from another angle. I would also experiment with wrapping the organization name around the globe on a path like rings around a planet.

slice of globe with coral

Sketch 6

Oh hello! Here’s one of those lying awake in bed at 2am moments….why am I not considering LOWERCASE letters in my logo design? potentially so much more organic and easier to integrate with the coral! Here’s a mostly head-on study to see how that looks…I can see combining this with Sketch 3 with really good results. Pressing on….

lowercase logo relief


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