How to Use Illustrator: Mesh Tool in a Micrography Portrait

The Making of a Micrography Portrait Using Illustrator’s Gradient Meshes.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

The Mesh Tool is an excellent way to create 2D shapes that look 3D in Illustrator. In fact, the Mesh Tool is one of the best ways to create one of those popular micrography portraits.

A micrography portrait, also called more simply called a typography portrait, are vector illustrations using text to outline and/or shade a person. Illustrator allows designers advanced control over the text forms using the Mesh Tool. Making micrography portraits in Illustrator are also useful to produce vector artwork that’s infinitely scalable and re-colorable.

I created my micrography portrait of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her subject/friend, Avian Learning Experiment, or Alex, as part of a workplace creative exercise to illustrate a famous person or role model. Read more about my choice and the creative strategy behind my micrography portrait in its Case Study. If you’re more interested in the technical how-to to learn how to make your own micrography portrait like this in Illustrator using the Mesh Tool, then please read on!

Creative Approaches to Creating a Micrography Portrait

Designers approach making a micrography portrait differently.

One method places text characters to create a texture and fill in shadows on the subject. On one hand, a designer might choose whatever characters to best create a form or texture. On the other hand, a designer might restrict characters to a particular quote of the subject to add greater symbolic meaning to the portrait.

Another method applies text along a line to curve and into hints of 3D forms. These portraits often apply grayscale or colorful shading to enhance the 3D effect. This method allows designers to further characterize the portrait with legible quotes and phrases rather than isolated characters.

Lastly, another method applies text to organic shapes. This warps text into whole shapes that hint 3D forms. Similar to the type on a line approach, some designers cover the portrait with quotes. Others build a high contrast portrait and shade the darkest portions with the quotes.

All three methods produce creative, eye-catching results. Micrography portraits explore shapes, textures, and how to make something look 3D in a 2D medium. They also explore the construction of typefaces and how to use typography illustratively. In sum, they are excellent creative exercises and popular works of art!

Inspiring Examples of Micrography Portraits

Example of a micrography portrait by Sean Williams.
Audrey Hepburn by Sean Williams
Example of a micrography portrait by Ali Wamahiu.
Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior by Ali Wamahiu
Example of a micrography portrait by Jesus Rojas.
Frida Kahlo by Jesus Rojas
Example of a micrography portrait by Ankur Kaul.
Self-Portrait by Ankur Kaul, All That I Do
Example of a micrography portrait by DeviantArt user chinad0ll.
Self-Portriat by DeviantArt user chinad0ll

Use the Gradient Mesh Tool to Make a Micrography Portrait in Illustrator

The Behind the Scenes Making of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and Alex the Parrot

When making my micrography portrait of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and Alex, I knew I wanted to do the third creative approach described above. Their quotes are meaningful, especially since the point of Dr. Pepperberg’s whole study was capturing Alex’s intelligence reflected in his verbal answers to questions and scientific quizzes.

Build the Shapes Outlining the Micrography Portrait

First, I identified a reference photo of the two together. Then, I set about outlining the shapes in Illustrator.

When drawing out shapes in Illustrator for a micrography portrait, remember that larger shapes produce larger text. Also, longer, narrow shapes produce longer strings of text. I began with strokes only to better see the forms and my reference.

However, none of the shapes can overlap. Otherwise, text will lay over top on each other and become illegible. The Pathfinder tool’s Intersect mode divides large shapes into smaller pieces. The Shape Builder tool combines or delete parts of more complex shapes.

Apply a Gradient Mesh Rather Than an Envelope Distort

To make the text stretch to fill the shape, you’ll need to apply an Envelope Distort. The best approach for this is applying an Envelope Distort to custom shapes in particular. Find this under the Ai Application Bar > Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Top Object.

However, I quickly learned going straight to Envelope Distort produced erratic, often illegible text.

Yet, I also learned the first step Make with Top Object does is automatically generate a mesh to the shape before laying in the text. I took control my creating by own meshes first!

I selected my shape, switched from stroke to fill, and went to Ai Application Bar > Object > Apply Gradient Mesh. At first the gradient mesh doesn’t appear because there’s a solid fill. However, this is perfect for me since I want all my text to be flat black. Then, notice a small 4-quadrant grid appear on the shape. This is the Illustrator mesh tool.

Rarely does Illustrator automatically generate an acceptable mesh. (I guess graphic design still needs a human touch after all.) Instead, I can manipulate these points into a grid that’s better. This means each edge should have at least one mesh anchor point. The tool prefers placing two points on one side and ignoring a side, even with what I perceived to be easy rectangular shapes. Some crescent-like or triangular shapes require placing a point on or near a vertex.

Most importantly, identify mesh point placements that equally span the shape. This creates the most legible text for the micrography portrait in Illustrator.

Infographic. How to build a gradient mesh and add text to it using Adobe Illustrator.

Manipulating Illustrator Mesh Tool Points and Anchors

Many people find Gradient Meshes intimidating. That’s because mesh points behave very differently than regular anchor points from shapes drawn with the Pen tool. I myself had little experience with the Illustrator Mesh Tool before this micrography project. Before Illustrator 2019’s new Freeform Gradient feature, I used Gradient Meshes to “paint” vector objects like these tulips:

Example of colored gradient meshes  used to "paint" tulips in Illustrator for an PMR Tidings email header.

Anchor points are the points that define the actual shape. Mesh points are the points that define the mesh grid. Objects with Gradient Meshes have both. Handles still manipulate the direction of the shape’s anchor points. Dragging the handles changes the outline of the shape. Dragging mesh points “warps” the grid to follow the edges of the shape. However, for maximum legibility, I needed my Gradient Meshes to be regular and structured.

The basics of using the Illustrator Mesh Tool to manipulate a Gradient Mesh are these:

  • Move a mesh point by clicking and dragging it regularly.
  • To move a mesh point along a grid line, Shift + click and drag the point along the line.
  • Alt + click to delete a mesh point. Click anywhere to add a new one.
Animation. Work in progress shots of making a gradient mesh, editing its points, and adding text in Illustrator for a micrography portrait.
Work in progress shots of making a gradient mesh, editing its points, and adding text in Illustrator for a micrography portrait.

Unfortunately, I found working with the Illustrator Mesh Tool frustrating! I encountered a lot of obstacles that many online tutorial didn’t seem to address. Look below for troubleshooting tips.

Applying Text to Gradient Mesh

Once the gradient mesh is prepped, type the text somewhere on the Illustrator document. Then move it over the destination shape and arrange it behind the shape. The shape must be on top. Select both objects. Then, go to the Application Bar > Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Top Object.

Switch back and forth between editing the mesh and editing the text by selecting either the “Edit Envelope” or “Edit Contents” mode from the Application Bar.

Animation. Work in progress screenshots for the making of the micrography portrait.

Check out the Micrography Portrait Case Study.

Troubleshooting the Illustrator Mesh Tool & Gradient Meshes

I used the Pathfinder tool’s Intersect mode to divide my shape but results in mismatching edges and gaps. How do I fix it?

Intersect mode prefers the shapes in question to have the same fill-stroke treatment. If you draw stroked lines over a filled shape, the edges will match up. However, if you accidentally leave the lines as fills and there’s no stroke, the Intersect tool attempts to close the path first before dividing your shape—hence the gaps. Return to your original shape and make sure the intersecting lines are stroke-only.

Gradient Mesh is grayed out. I can’t apply it to my shape. How do I get it to take?

Check that your shape is a simple shape and not a compound shape. Sorry, no donuts. Basically, gradient meshes don’t know how to handle holes. Make sure there are no holes in your shapes. Draw a few lines dividing the shape then use the Pathfinder tool’s Intersect mode to split the shape into smaller pieces without holes.

Here’s an example of how I treated an iris, a compound shape like a donut. Notice the two pieces:

Animation. Breaking down complex shapes, like this woman's iris, to make gradient meshes.

I can’t edit the mesh at all. What do I do?

When the gradient mesh is uneditable, make sure:

  • The layer is unlocked
  • The mesh isn’t too close to another (unlocked) mesh, which interferes with the mesh point selection
  • The mesh is applied to a simple and not compound shape

OK, I checked those things, and my mesh still isn’t editable.

Sometimes the Illustrator file gets corrupted. When this issue persists, clearing Illustrator’s Preferences file (Shift + Control + Option + Cmd when launching the program) doesn’t work. While I can’t explain what causes the file corruption, I’ve found that copying everything into a new Illustrator document, saving it, and working from that file onward fixes it.

How do I make my gradient mesh show in Outline mode?

Select the shape and in the Application bar at top, make sure the mesh is on “Edit Envelope” mode rather than “Edit Contents.”

How do I apply text to the gradient mesh?

Type your text somewhere into the Illustrator document, then move it behind the destination shape. Make sure the shape is on top. Select both then go to the Application Bar > Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Top Object.

How do I change the text within my mesh?

Select the shape and in the Application bar at top, make sure the mesh is on “Edit Contents” mode rather than “Edit Envelope.”

How do I convert a mesh point to corner or smooth?

There’s corner anchor points, smooth anchor points, and gradient mesh points. You cannot convert mesh points to corner/smooth, which only works on anchor points. Instead, manipulate the mesh handles and placement on the gridlines to create the effect of a corner or smooth anchor point.

How do I move a mesh point along the grid lines?

Shift + click the point, then move.

Shift + click isn’t moving my mesh point.

Make sure you’re editing the mesh points with the Mesh tool rather than the Direct Selection tool.

I keep hitting Perspective Grid. How do I turn it off?

Use Cmd + Shift + I to turn off the Perspective Grid if you accidentally hit it from the Tools Panel instead of the Mesh button.

How do I convert a mesh object back to a regular object?

To release a mesh, go to Object > Path > Offset and enter 0.Path Offset generates two shapes, the original mesh and new stroked shape the same size. Delete the mesh and keep the new shape. (You might have to move one to see/get to the other.)

The mesh point was moving but now it’s stuck. How do I get it to move more?

Mesh points cannot traverse across the shape’s anchor points. Move the anchor point first with Shift + Click, then move the mesh point.

Animation. Troubleshooting stuck mesh points when using gradient meshes to make a micrography portrait in Illustrator.
Step-by-step troubleshooting for a stuck mesh point in a gradient mesh while making a micrography portrait in Illustrator.

My mesh point simply won’t smooth over. The handles force a point, and I can’t get them to be a straight line. How do I get the mesh point handles to go in the same direction?

Sometimes the mesh point handles insist on a point. Being a mesh point, the user cannot convert to a smooth point. In these instances, try:

  • Deleting the mesh point (Alt + Click) and re-make it elsewhere
  • Move the mesh point along a vertical line
  • Make both handles short and tight against the point to minimize the disruption

Sometimes this is enough to break up then the point before moving the mesh point back into position. All else, make both handles short and tight against the point to minimize the disruption.

My mesh point handles are fine, but the grid line adds loops or points out of nowhere. How do I get the mesh’s grid line to even out?

This problem occurs when anchor points have been shifted out their original placement. You might have moved these anchor points to place mesh points better. (See The mesh point was moving but now it’s stuck. How do I get it to move more? above.) This can also happen when the gradient mesh automatically takes it best guess at mesh point placement but thinks there should be more than you what you the human see is necessary.

This has a tricky but handy solution.

First, grab a mesh/anchor point from the shape’s edge that connects to the wonky grid line. Shift + click and drag that point into the shape along the grid line until the wonky portion is no longer visible.

Then, release. The shape edges are distorted but the grid line is corrected.

Click and drag the point outward, back to where it should be to finish the shape and tweak as necessary.