How to Create a Traditional Chinese Bird and Flower Painting Using Gradient Mesh
Editor’s Note: This tutorial is a little bit special. It marks the first time in over ten years of Envato Tuts+ history that a tutorial originating in a non-English language—in this case, Chinese—has been translated for our English-speaking audiences. We consider that one small step for Envato Tuts+, but one giant leap for cross-cultural design dialogue. Author Dao Lian is an excellent vector artist, and is active in the user community of Envato’s Chinese content partner, ZCOOL.
In today’s tutorial, I’m going to show you how to create a peony—China’s national flower—in Adobe Illustrator using the Gradient Mesh Tool.
The Symbolism Behind the Illustration
Chinese painting has a tremendously long history, with distinctive characteristics and style that set it apart from other artistic schools. While the old European masters were particularly fond of rendering bowls of fruit and posed models in painstaking detail, the Chinese masters focused on themes that primarily landed in one three categories: people (renwu), scenery (shanshui—literally “mountains and waters”), or “birds and flowers” (huaniao). We’ll be tackling the latter today.
You’ll notice there’s no background color in this piece, and that’s because whitespace, in Chinese art, is also a big deal. The great Chinese painters across the ages were expected to master the principles of 虚实 (xushi) and 藏露 (canglu), or “the simulation and the reality, the hidden and the revealed”. In other words, what should be drawn outright, and what should be left to the viewer’s imagination? What should be shown, and what should be suggested?
Our subject today will be a peony—China’s national flower—which symbolizes prosperity and luck. It’s a fairly common theme in Chinese art, often incorporated into poetry and visual design by artists and the literati. This is what we’ll be creating:
This is a vectorized version of brushwork like this:
Traditional painting is typically done on silk or parchment with a brush dipped in ink or pigment. We’ll be using vector software (Adobe Illustrator CC 2015) to explore how to recreate this style in vector format. It’s pretty amazing how one simple command—”Feather”—can simulate Chinese ink-work to such excellent effect.
1. How to Set Up Your Artboard
Open Adobe Illustrator and select File > New. In the New Document dialogue box, set the document width to 240 mm, the height to 280 mm, the resolution to 300 (in order to make it easier to use this in print), and the color mode to CMYK. Once you’ve got it set up like the picture below, click OK to create a new document.
2. How to Draw the Flowers
We’ll be using a repetitive technique to build each peony: draw the shape of every petal using the Pen Tool, then apply color with the Mesh Tool, and finally place the petal in a layered arrangement to form the final flower. Let’s practice with one of our easier petal shapes. Using the Pen Tool, draw the outline of a petal.
Using the MeshTool, gradually add color to the petal, following the steps and sample palette below:
Mesh Tool technique: When adding a mesh, we reach complexity through simplicity. Sometimes when a mesh appears complicated, it’s only because additional anchor points were automatically added by Illustrator as the mesh was created. In my experience, the best method of building a mesh is to start with a single horizontal and vertical grid line. This way we lay a good foundation of structural clarity moving forward.
Adding color to a mesh: Color blending on a mesh is controlled by the distance between each anchor point. If you want color to smudge together more gradually, move anchor points farther away from each other. If you move the points closer together, the color transition happens faster.
When faced with a complicated shape, many people wonder if it’s a good idea to simply use a single mesh for the whole object. This, of course, is unlikely to work well. I find that the best way to proceed is to break your object up into multiple meshes—that way, the grid lines are easier to control.
The flower is separated into three layers, allowing the front and back petals to come together in a logical sequence. The first layer is the outermost grouping of petals; the second layer is the central part of the flower, including the bud and stamen; the third layer is the backdrop petals that encircle the rest of the flower.
We’ll be drawing the stamen (the yellow bit in the center of the flower) in the next step, but for now, we’ll start with the first layer. Using the Pen Tool, draw each of the five petals according to the image below, and then color them with the Mesh Tool and arrange them as shown on the left. When you’re done, select all the petals and Group them (Control-G).
The second layer has ten petals. Using the Pen Tool, draw each one of the petal shapes. Then color each one using the Mesh Tool, and arrange them as shown. Select all the petals in the layer, Group them (Control-G), and then click Arrange > Send to Back (Shift-Control-
[) to move it behind the first layer.
The third and final layer has five petals, the simplest of which we already drew in our warm-up. Repeat the above process for the third layer: using the Pen Tool, draw each one of the petal shapes. Then color each one using the Mesh Tool, and arrange them as shown. Group this layer, and click Arrange > Send to Back (Shift-Control-[) to move it behind the first layer.
Now, let’s draw the stamen. The central part of the flower is split into a background color, with the stamen filaments in the foreground. The blue background color is created using the Pen Tool and colored using the Mesh Tool, like our petals. The yellow filaments are painted with a self-defined brush.
Compare the outline of the two flowers below, and you’ll see that the stamen is a thick-to-thin Pen Tool path, while the blue background is a filled mesh.
Use the Pen Tool to draw a closed path in the shape of a single stamen filament. Open your Colors panel and in your color selector, change the fill color to yellow (C=0, M=0, Y=100, K=0).
Next, make sure your yellow stamen is selected. Open the Brushes panel (F5), and click the New Brush icon. Choose Art Brush and confirm.
Set the brush name to “Flower Stamen Brush”, and all other options can be left as default. After you’re done, you’ll see the new brush appear in your Brushes panel.
In order to build a stamen with visual depth, we need a variety of filament strokes. Repeating the process above (starting with Step 5), build three more stamen brushes with slightly varying shapes and colors.
The first brush: 26 times per stamen, color: C=0, M=0, Y=100, K=0 (you already created this one)
The second brush: C=31, M=58, Y=95, K=0
The third brush: C=12, M=11, Y=78, K=0
The fourth brush: C=5, M=1, Y=52, K=0
Use the Pen Tool to create a series of around 40 paths in lightly curved lines, and apply the brushes you created in the last step to those paths.
Stroke frequency I used:
The first brush: 26 times per stamen
The second brush: 6 times per stamen
The third brush: 6 times per stamen
The fourth brush: 3 times per stamen
Finally, use the Pen Tool to draw the background shapes and the Mesh Tool to create the colored background. Now we’re done with this bit.
3. How to Draw the Remaining Flowers
We’ll be using the same method as above to draw the remaining peonies: sketching out the petal outlines with the Pen Tool, coloring the petals with the Mesh Tool, and then arranging them in layers around a central stamen.
This darker peony is also crafted in three layers, moving from front to back. Here’s an overview of the layering:
The first layer contains a bottom cluster of three petals, plus a main group composed of 13 petals. Using the Pen Tool, draw the base shapes of each petal. Using the Mesh Tool, shade them with a palette of darker pinks.
The second and third layers each have five petals. Using the Pen Tool, draw the base shapes of each. Using the Mesh Tool, shade them, arrange them as shown, and Group them together.
Next, we’ll draw the centerpiece flower, which is made up of two peonies joined together. Because this is the main body of our picture, this flower group needs to look lush and have clear depth. Here’s a layer overview:
Finally, arrange the flowers on the artboard, and we’ll move on to drawing the leaves.
4. How to Draw the Leaves
Use the Pen Tool to draw the leaf outline. Fill the central strokes with a darker black, and fill the outermost stroke with a gray gradient. Note that the middle gray has an Opacity of 80%.
Select all the paths in the leaf, and then select Effect > Stylize > Feather, and set the Feather radius to 0.3 mm (0.1 inches).
Using the Pen Tool, draw out the background of the leaf, and then using the Mesh Tool, apply color. Stick the color on the layer behind the outline.
Set the leaf outline’s Color Mode to Multiply and Opacity to 90%, and you’re done with the leaf. This technique is what creates the traditional Chinese brush-stroke effect.
Using the same method, draw more leaves in different shapes and sizes. Because real leaves sprout at different times during a plant’s life cycle, and because leaves make up a considerable amount of the picture, we need to make several kinds of leaves to give our picture some depth; about four to six types is enough. Here are some leaves that I created.
Arrange your finished leaves on the artboard.
5. How to Draw the Blue Leaf Sprig
The blue spring consists of seven different leaves collected into a single bunch. Let’s start with the first one. Using the Pen Tool, draw the leaf outline, and fill it with blue (C=94, M=87, Y=98, K=61).
Using the Mesh Tool, click along the leaf’s edge to add anchor points, and adjust the anchor point colors.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the rest of the leaves in the shapes below.
Using the Mesh Tool, color the leaves as shown.
Arrange the leaves into a sprig, select them all, and Group (Control-G) them.
6. How to Draw the Branches
There are three types of branches in this piece: primary branches, thin branches, and filler branches. We’ll be starting with the primary branches, which, like the leaves we drew in Section 4, consist of an outline paired with a background mesh.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the outline of a thick branch. Remember, we’re simulating calligraphic brush strokes here, so the strokes should be a little craggy.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the background shape of the branch, and fill it with brown.
Using the Mesh Tool, add color to the branch. In terms of adding color with the mesh, you don’t have to fastidiously structure the shape of the grid. It’s fine if an anchor point is a little off—this way, the colors blend together a bit more naturally, and the style jives with traditional Chinese painting.
Place the color under the outline, and Group (Control-G).
There are five primary branches in the piece. Continue drawing the rest of the primary branches following the process outlined above. Those that are arranged towards the back should be lighter and more desaturated. Those towards the front should be darker, with more full-bodied color.
We’ll now be tackling the thinner branches at the top left of the picture. Using the Pen Tool, draw the outline of the branch, fill it with a medium gray, and set the Opacity to 80%.
Use the Pen Tool to draw the fill shape, and then make the fill color a lighter gray than the branch outline.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the outline for the second thin branch, and then create a background shape and fill it in with gray.
Use the Mesh Tool to shade both thin branches for a watercolor effect. You’ll be using the same colors that you used on the back thick branches.
There are a total of 11 flower buds in my final piece, but of course you can add as many or as few as you like. Use the Pen Tool to draw the shapes of the flower buds.
Use the Mesh Tool to shade each bud. For these buds, you don’t need to add complex mesh anchor points; just adding one on each bud is fine. Use a lighter red graduating to a darker red background.
Arrange the buds along the thin branches.
Arrange the thick branches and thin branches on the artboard.
The structure is still a little loose, so we’ll want to add a few additional branches to fill it out. We’ll be creating about ten of these little branches to fill out the disconnected spaces between the leaves. So let’s do the first one: using the Pen Tool, draw the branch shape.
Go to Effect > Stylize > Feather and set the Feather Radius to 0.3 mm (0.1 inches).
In the Transparency panel, change the Blending Mode to Multiply.
Repeat the steps above, filling in the blank spaces between the leaves.
The main body of the painting is now done! We’ll finish up by adding some final touches for contrast: a butterfly and a rock.
7. How to Draw the Butterfly
Because the butterfly serves as a contrast to the main body of the painting, we don’t need to make it excessively complicated.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the outline of the butterfly and fill it with black.
Select the whole outline, and go to Effect > Stylize > Feather. Set the feather radius to 0.3 mm (0.1 inches). Then in the Transparency panel, set the Blending Mode to Multiply.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the background fill shape for the body.
Using the Mesh Tool, color in the body. I’m using splashes of bright colors fading into gray for an iridescent effect.
Arrange the body on a layer that’s over the wings, but under the arms and legs.
Using the Pen Tool, draw the background fill shape for the wings.
Using the Mesh Tool, color the background shape of the wings, and arrange below the wing outlines.
8. How to Draw the Rock
Now for our finishing touch: the rock. In Bird and Flower paintings, you’ll often see this type of rockery used as contrast so that the picture feels more complete. When drawing the rock, the outline strokes are done using Illustrator’s native brushes to simulate a calligraphic dry ink brush effect. For the color, we’ll be using our old friend, the Mesh Tool.
Let’s tackle this final detail together.
I’m using three different methods to create the different strokes of the rock outline. For the selected strokes below, I used the Pen Tool to draw a path and applied a brush to that path.
Using the Pen Tool, draw three separate paths.
Open the Brushes panel (F5) and select Vector Packs > Grunge Brush Vector Pack > Grunge Brush Vector Pack 06, and apply that brush to the paths.
For the top and bottom strokes, we’ll use the Pen Tool to draw the shape of the stroke and the Mesh Tool to add color. Using the Pen Tool, draw the shapes as shown below.
Using the Mesh Tool, apply dark color to the top and bottom strokes.
Now for the central strokes. Use the Pen Tool to draw the shape of the path, color it, and then use the Feather effect (Effect > Stylize > Feather > Feather Radius 0.3 mm / 0.1 in).
Use the Pen Tool to draw gray background shapes, and place those behind the strokes.
Use the Mesh Tool to apply color to the background shapes in shades of green and gray.
Finally, place the rock and the butterfly in the arrangement, and you’re done!
The techniques used in this tutorial—particularly the pairing of feathered top-strokes with mesh-colored shape layers—can be used to recreate a whole school of traditional East Asian art in vector format.
Interested in learning more about traditional Bird and Flower paintings? Check out these resources for a look at some of the great masters: