Illustration is unmatched in its ability to energize ordinary subjects and communicate complex ideas with visual clarity, but what about isometric illustrations? Aren’t they notoriously difficult and time-intensive? In six simple steps, this isometric illustration tutorial makes the process quick and uncomplicated.
Need to enliven a landing page? Visualize boring data? Add punch to bland packaging? Illustration is the answer on all fronts.
In recent years, isometric illustrations have gained popularity for the way they represent three-dimensional depth in two-dimensional space. Plus, the isometric grid negates the need to maintain the illusion of perspective, a common source of illustration frustration.
In Adobe Illustrator, the traditional isometric illustration process is tedious. Make an isometric grid, draw a square, skew it -30°, rotate it -30°, on and on. Luckily, there’s a better way. Illustrator has 3D effects that make isometric illustrations fast and easy: “Extrude & Bevel,” “Revolve,” and “Rotate.”
This tutorial demonstrates how to create isometric illustrations using “Revolve,” but the insights also apply to Illustrator’s remaining 3D effects.
Ready to impress clients, delight users, and learn the secrets of isometric illustration?
Revolve & Refine: An Isometric Illustration Tutorial
Who doesn’t enjoy an ice-cold beverage? Let’s toast the joys of liquid refreshment by designing an isometric bottle with a label.
*Pro Tip: Before starting, find an object reference to inform what the bottle will look like.
Step #1: Draw the Bottle and Liquid
1.1) Create a new Adobe Illustrator document.
1.2) Add the bottle reference to the document.
1.3) Draw an outline of the bottle and the liquid inside.
1.4) Split the bottle and liquid in half (as seen below).
1.5) The stroke thickness of the bottle’s contour defines the glass thickness.
*Pro Tip: Copy and paste the artwork outside of the artboard as a backup.
Step #2: Apply the Revolve Effect
As the name suggests, “Revolve” turns the shape around its axis. In Illustrator, the position of the “Revolve” axis is vertically fixed. This is why the bottle was outlined and split in half.
*Pro Tip: Neither the bottle outline nor the liquid object should have gradients as fill colors.
2.1) To find the “Revolve” effect, go to: Effect > 3D > Revolve…
2.2) At the top of the dialog window, there is a field labeled “Position.” Choose “Isometric Left.”
2.3) Angle – This is the degree of rotation around the object’s axis. If set to 180°, the result will be a bottle vertically split in half. Set the angle to 360° for a fully revolved bottle.
2.4) Offset – Control the offset distance from the object’s vertical axis. Enter “0”.
2.5) Surface – Set the object’s material and lighting properties. Choose “No Shading.”
Ta-da! An isometric bottle with liquid. Time to kick back, relax, and–wait! That bottle needs a label.
*Pro Tip: Don’t use the “Expand Appearance” function on the bottle until the label is created.
Step #3: Prepare the Label
3.1) Use the bottle to define the label dimensions.
3.2) In the example image (below), the height of the body label is apparent, but the height of the neck label isn’t clear because the surface isn’t parallel to the axis. An approximate height will suffice.
3.3) The label length is calculated using the circle circumference formula 2πr.
3.4) With a satisfactory label designed, convert both labels to symbols. The “Symbols” palette is found under: Window > Symbols
3.5) Individually drag and drop the label designs into the palette to create symbols.
*Note: Symbols in Illustrator and Sketch work similarly.
Step #4: Map the Label onto the Bottle
As long as the bottle hasn’t been vectorized using the “Expand Appearance” function, it is fully editable.
4.1) Select the bottle and display the “Appearance” palette: Window > Appearance
4.2) Then, choose “3D Revolve,” and the dialog box from earlier appears.
4.3) To map the design to the bottle, click the bottom left option: “Map Art.”
4.4) This makes it possible to choose and adjust a symbol for the bottle.
4.5) Make sure to match the symbol to the correct surface (see below).
4.6) Click “Scale to Fit,” and the label maps to the bottle.
4.7) Follow the same steps for the neck label.
Step #5: Avoid a Messy File
5.1) Now, it’s time to turn the bottle into Bézier curves using the “Expand Appearance” function: Object > Expand Appearance
Illustrator isn’t primarily meant for 3D object manipulation. Expanding an object’s appearance creates a grouped collection of smaller elements that give the illusion of a 3D object.
5.2) To keep things tidy, combine the elements with the “Pathfinder” or “Shape Builder” tool (see below).
*Pro Tip: Joining objects creates unwanted anchor points. Reduce them by going to Object > Path > Simplify. For those who use Illustrator regularly, the VectorScribe plugin and its Point Removal tool are highly recommended.
Step #6: Add Life with Colors and Gradients
For the final step, bring the bottle to life with colors and gradients. This is where individual artistry comes into play. Add reflections, highlights, and shadows for a realistic look, or use strokes and a simplified color palette for a more graphic vibe. With a solid foundation, the stylistic possibilities are endless.
Cheers to Isometric Illustrations!
Isometric illustrations bring depth, dimensionality, and personality to a wide range of design projects. Use the principles outlined in this tutorial to explore more isometric possibilities, and don’t forget to try Illustrator’s other 3D effects: “Rotate” and “Extrude & Bevel.”
Let us know what you think! Please leave your thoughts, comments, and feedback below.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
- Visual Shelf Life – Why Web Design Illustrations Go Stale
- A Step-by-step Guide to Designing Custom Illustrations Without Any Drawing Skills
- New Realities: VR, AR, MR, and the Future of Design
- The Designer’s Edge – An Overview of Photoshop Plugins
- Evolving Emojis: Designing for the New Face of Messaging
Understanding the basics
Illustrator is a vector graphics program. Vector graphics differ from pixel-based graphics (raster) in that they are infinitely scalable without quality loss. One advantage of Illustrator is the ease with which shapes, colors, and text are edited. As such, it is an ideal tool for creating isometric illustrations.
Isometric illustrations are based on grids comprised of evenly spaced vertical lines and intersecting lines that run at 30° and -30° angles. There are multiple isometric illustration tutorials available on the web, but at the most basic level, shapes and lines are drawn in relation to the isometric grid.
Isometric illustrations are 3D projections in 2D space. Isometric means “having equal measures.” This principle is seen in the isometric grid and its equally spaced parallel lines (running vertically and at 30° and -30° angles). As such, isometric images show details on multiple surfaces without distortion.
Isometric illustrations are popular because they create the illusion of depth. Isometric drawing originated as a way to visualize parts for manufacturing. Isometric illustrations aren’t bound to vanishing points (like perspective drawings), allowing for detailed views of multiple surfaces at once.
Isometric illustrations represent three-dimensional objects in two-dimensional space. Isometric grids create the illusion of depth, but all lines receding into the “distance” actually run parallel to one another, making isometric illustrations easier to render than perspective drawings.