Tom Arah inspects the major 2D illustration programs' 3D capabilities.
It's one of life's smaller ironies that, while the world we live in is
three-dimensional, the drawing packages we use to illustrate and recreate
that world are resolutely two-dimensional. Programs like CorelDRAW, Illustrator
and FreeHand are ideal for producing the flat design for a wine label,
for example, but reproducing that label on a realistic wine bottle on
a realistic table in a realistic room is another matter entirely. So how
do you go about giving your work real depth?
Some principles, such as that far away objects are smaller and appear
more closely packed, are almost instinctive but the most important mechanism
for successfully recreating the illusion of depth, Linear Perspective,
is anything but intuitive. So much so that it was only in the Renaissance
that the principles of one-point perspective were rediscovered from the
Romans and and only in the 17th century that the same was achieved
for two-point perspective.
The central concept here is understanding that lines that are parallel
to the viewer and receding appear to converge to a vanishing point. For
a one-point perspective, imagine that you are looking at large cubes face-on
and so parallel to the picture plane. You will see that the edges of either
the top or bottom face - depending on whether the cube is above or below
your horizon/eyeline - and the visible side face all converge towards
a single distant vanishing point on the horizon. For a two-point perspective,
imagine looking at rotated cubes that are not straight on. Here you will
see the edges of both left and right side faces converging on two separate
vanishing points and the edges of the visible top or bottom face converging
on both (for a good introduction to linear perspective see http://www2.evansville.edu/studiochalkboard/draw.html.)
Perspective and realistic 3D shapes can give your 2D work new depth.
When drawing receding flat surfaces such as walls, buildings and so on
this manual approach of drawing vanishing points and convergence lines
might sound manageable but the complexity rises steeply as soon as you
want to draw non-linear shapes such as circles and text. Imagine having
to realistically hand-draw paintings on the receding wall, for example,
or manually producing illustrations to show how your flat-on packaging
design will actually look on a rotated 3D box. Of course for the number
crunching involved in geometric challenges such as this, the computer
comes into its own.
The first major 2D drawing package to graft on perspective control was
CorelDRAW right back in version 2 and the implementation today is largely
unchanged - simply select your object or group and select the Effects
> Add Perspective command. This surrounds your selection with a rectangular
bounding box divided into a grid of squares and, using the Shape tool,
you can then drag any corner either in or out to apply a perspective to
your object(s). By default a 2-point perspective effect is produced but,
by holding down Ctrl or Shift, you can produce the more common 1-point
perspective effect and by holding down both you can produce the most common
centred, head-on perspective effect.
As the presence of the onscreen grid suggests, the perspective effect
is simply an envelope distortion in which the contents of each original
square on the grid square are mapped to the new distorted version. The
main addition is that, where the bounding box's edges converge, either
one or two vanishing points appear onscreen (you might have to zoom out
to see them) and you can interactively drag these to control the effect.
This is particularly useful as it means that you can share the same perspective
view between multiple objects by first marking the position of one object's
vanishing point(s) by dragging on guidelines and then quickly lining up
the other objects' vanishing points on the same intersection.
Creating a truly realistic 3D scene in this way is still asking a lot
but even the simplest perspective effect can really make your work stand
out as our brains are tuned to reading the depth information that perspective
distortion implies. If you drag on the limpest and flattest clipart character
you can find, for example, and then place it over a rectangle to which
you've applied a perspective the rectangle is seen as the receding ground
and suddenly the clipart springs to life as part of an implied scene (adding
a drop shadow helps the illusion further). And the advantage of the computer
is that it's just as simple to add perspective to complex objects such
as text or grouped artwork (though sadly not to CorelDRAW's bitmaps, fills,
symbols or paragraph text) as it is to a rectangle. In this way it becomes
reasonably straightforward to add perspectivized artwork to our gallery
walls or to the sides of our cereal box.
Even basic perspective effects can still be effective.
CorelDRAW's pioneering capabilities show the immediate benefits of perspective
control, but they are fifteen years old now. So how do the other major
drawing packages compare? Surprisingly, throughout its long life, Illustrator's
in-built control has been weak and hidden away. However if you dig in
the help file you'll discover that, if you begin dragging a corner handle
to resize an object or group with the Free Transform tool, if you then
hold down the Ctrl, Alt or Shift+Alt+Ctrl key combinations you can produce
2-point, 1-point and centred 1-point perspective effects. With no control
over vanishing points however this is seriously disappointing.
Things are at last looking up with Illustrator CS's new 3D capabilities.
In particular the new 3D Rotate command can take any 2D object or objects
and rotate them to any angle in 3D space either interactively via the
dialog's track cube or numerically. To then produce the converging lines
effect necessary to give a realistic illusion of depth you set the dialog's
Perspective setting, designed to simulate the effect of a lens angle,
to any figure between 0 and 160 with larger figures creating the illusion
of greater depth.
It's a big step forward especially as the effect can be applied to imported
bitmaps and fills which makes a huge difference, say, for adding real
paintings to the gallery wall or creating a ground plane that actually
looks like grass or tarmac. And best of all, because the effect is non-destructive,
you can always fine-tune it later, save it as part of a style and even
blend your effects to produce Flash animations. There's one major limitation
to the Illustrator approach however - there is still no role for vanishing
points so it's difficult to co-ordinate effects to produce a realistic
scene rather than just standalone receding objects.
FreeHand comes to the rescue with a completely different approach to
perspective in the form of its Perspective Grid introduced in version
9. In fact this works similarly to the way in which traditional artists
work by setting a horizon with fixed vanishing point or points and then
drawing a grid of converging lines to these points for the vertical and
horizontal planes onto which they can draw their receding objects, say
to add multiple windows or paintings to a wall. Traditionally to then
add other perspectivized objects on different planes, say to draw the
opposite wall and windows, they rub out the existing grid and draw a second
and so on.
The beauty of FreeHand's computerized system is that it's easy to instantly
define your grid by setting the the grid cell size and interactively fixing
your horizon and vanishing point(s). More usefully you can then simply
drag the vertical and horizontal planes into position as necessary using
the Perspective tool. Most useful of all, is the ability to automatically
attach your 2D objects to these grid planes. And, once attached to the
grid, you can move your object up or down or in and out along the plane
and it is not only automatically distorted appropriately but scaled as
well so that you can be sure, for example, that your windows or paintings
will look in proportion on the wall.
FreeHand's perspective grids let you co-ordinate your perspective
effects to create 3D scenes.
It's another big step forward but again it's by no means perfect. To
begin with, the FreeHand implementation can't handle bitmap objects and
object fills aren't perspectivized either. More importantly the whole
process is hardly intuitive - for example to attach your objects to one
of the grid planes you first have to begin moving the object or group
with the Perspective tool and then hit one of the four cursor keys and,
if you decide that you want to resize the object while maintaining its
perspective, you need to do this with awkward keyboard shortcuts. And
to top it all, the help is so inadequate that only a fraction of FreeHand's
userbase will be taking full advantage of this unique feature.
By repositioning your perspective grid planes you can co-ordinate effects
to create basic shapes such as cubes and tables and basic scenes such
as rooms, but this remains a complex chore and there's no flexibility
if you decide you'd prefer another view of your work. The biggest limitation
of all, and true of all three packages' linear perspective capabilities,
is that they are designed to deal only with flat objects such as walls,
roads, pictures, text and so on. And of course in the real world most
objects aren't actually flat at all - they have depth and volume. To take
our work to the next level we need a better way of creating more advanced
In fact the solution, extrusion, is a simple extension of the same underlying
principle of receding parallel lines converging to a vanishing point though
in this case the lines recede from around the edge of the selected shape.
Again the drawing application that pioneered the development of this form
of 3D handling was CorelDRAW back in version 2. Nowadays the easiest way
to create the effect is via the Interactive Extrude tool. To create a
realistic box/cube, for example, all we need to do is select a rectangle
and then drag off in the direction of the vanishing point and set the
desired depth by dragging on the cross-bar on the extrusion control line.
If you create the extrusion with no fill, it is presented onscreen in
wireframe format which shows exactly how the effect is produced - effectively
a second smaller version of the selected shape is offset and converging
lines drawn from points around the edge of the first object to the equivalent
points on the second. More usually you'll create a solid shape via a filled
extrusion in which case those faces that make up the object geometry but
which are currently hidden are removed from the final effect, as you can
see if you use the Arrange>Break Apart Extrude Group command and then
the Ungroup command.
These are the simple underlying principles behind extrusion but the idea
can easily be taken further. In CorelDRAW this is done via the tabs via
the dropdowns on the Extrusion tool's context-sensitive Property bar.
To begin with, once created, you can use the proxy in the 3D Rotation
dropdown to rotate your object in 3D space and so set it at any angle
to the viewer. Using the Bevel dropdown you can also add a bevel - effectively
you are creating another extrusion this time centred on the original shape
and with a vanishing point in front of the object.
It's not just the extruded 3D object's geometry that can be controlled,
you can also manage its formatting. Using the Extrude Colour dropdown,
you can set the extruded face's colour to be the same as the front face,
another colour or a gradient - the latter is particularly useful as it
can give the effect of realistic shading. Greater shading control and
so realism is available from the Lighting dropdown which lets you add
up to three customizable lights that are positioned on a grid around the
object and which then lighten the colours or gradients of those faces
that would be illuminated.
Putting all this together, we can quickly create a rotated and beveled
cube with gradient colouring and multiple lighting. And if we then break
apart this advanced effect to see just how it is produced it turns out
that all we are talking about are a few perspectivized and appropriately
formatted faces. This shows the basis of the extrusion effect for the
most basic shape of them all the rectangle/cube. Crucially, exactly the
same principles can be applied to any other shape, the only difference
being that curves must be broken down into short line segments that are
then turned into perspectivized faces. The end results look smooth but,
if broken apart, you'll see that for objects such as 3-dimensional text
the number of individually formatted planes making up the effect quickly
rises into the hundreds.
Extrusion effects are fundamentally simple but can be scaled up.
CorelDRAW's extrusion capability can be scaled up to produce some truly
eye-catching three-dimensional effects, but again the basic functionality
has changed little over the last fifteen years - so can the competition
do any better? Until this year the answer was a resounding "no" as neither
FreeHand nor Illustrator offered any extrusion capabilities, but in their
latest MX and CS releases both packages have finally tackled 3D shape-handling
FreeHand MX's new capabilities are immediately familiar taking the form
of a Corel-style interactive Extrusion tool complete with a positionable
vanishing point and a cross-bar for setting object depth. There are differences
though such as the ability to directly rotate your new object in three-dimensional
space. Using the Properties Inspector you then have fine control over
your extrusion including the ability to set up shading. This is limited
to two lights but, making up for this, is the ability to control the number
of steps that determine the smoothness of the final extrusion so that
you can rough out your effects quickly and then improve quality for final
The real advance that FreeHand MX provides is its ability to turn your
starting shape into a whole host of new three-dimensional objects. This
power is made available through the support for "profiles" which means
that your extrusions no longer have to stretch in a straight line towards
the vanishing point. By cutting and pasting an open path into the Inspector
and selecting "Static" your shape will be automatically angled to follow
the path. Even more powerful is the "Bevel" option which effectively uses
the profile path as an extrusion envelope enabling you to create a huge
range of symmetrical solid shapes such as vases and bottles. Sadly FreeHand's
lack of advanced formatting control means that you can create the 3-dimensional
shape but not make it look like a real world object.
FreeHand MX's extrusion profiles enable the creation of entirely new
Illustrator CS takes a completely different approach to extrusion and
3D handling based on technology from Adobe's almost-forgotten vector 3D
application, Dimensions. At first sight its new Extrude and Bevel command
looks very like the 3D Rotate command that we saw earlier as the top of
the dialog shares the same track-cube for rotating objects. Below this
is the extrusion power with the ability to set the depth in points and
choose from various bevel presets or use your own. Again perspective must
be set as a lens setting so the lack of vanishing point support cuts down
on interactivity and the ability to co-ordinate scenes. On the positive
side the formatting control is more advanced with the ability to add any
number of lights and minutely control their intensity, ambience and so
on. And Illustrator CS also offers a "plastic" shading option that gives
the object a reflective glossy appearance that can really bring it to
Like FreeHand MX, Illustrator CS also moves into completely new 3D territory
in this case with its Revolve command. Using this you can create new three
dimensional shapes by sweeping a closed path around the vertical y axis.
To create a bottle for example you can simply draw one-side of it and
then revolve the shape around either its left or right side. And because
you can offset shapes you can not only create objects such as lamp bases
but the lampshade itself. And you can still rotate the revolved object
that you create in 3D space and shade it just as you can for extrusions.
You can even choose to show hidden surfaces which is ideal for transparent
objects such as our bottle.
Again though we hit the same problem that we did with FreeHand - creating
the shape is one thing but making it look realistic and a believable part
of a larger scene is another. Here Illustrator CS breaks important new
ground with its surface mapping capability. This is available via the
Map Art sub-dialog in both the Extrude and Bevel and Revolve dialogs and
allows you to apply any previously saved symbol, including bitmaps, to
the surfaces of your object. The mapping process isn't exactly simple,
as you have to manually work your way through each surface and position
each symbol, and it's particularly disappointing that there are no options
for tiling symbols which would enable much more realistic texturing. However,
the ability to customize even the curved faces of your object is a huge
Illustrator CS offers advanced 3D handling including revolving and
We've certainly come a long way. With Illustrator CS we now have the
tools in place to see how our flat design would work as a label on a transparent
wine bottle. With FreeHand MX meanwhile we have all that we need to create
a realistic room and perspectivized table on which to put the bottle.
Of course to be able to produce truly believable illustrations with real
depth what we really want is the best of both approaches - and a lot more
power besides. There's still a long way to go but things are certainly
moving in the right direction - these days you don't necessarily need
a dedicated 3D package to add an extra creative dimension to your work.
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