Creating a Dappled Light Effect in Vector Images

April 19th, 2011
in Design case study

Illustrations from Indian mythology are a theme on my web-technologies and cms software blog, Content Deliverance. When looking for a supporting image for a food blogging post, I remembered the story of Shabari from the Ramayan. I wanted to show Shabari offering Ram fruit, but I also wanted to bring in the atmosphere of the lush forest-garden around the hermitage, where this meeting occurred. I needed to show the complexity of the Shabari character with a fairly simple vector illustration that would be displayed at blog sizes. The visual of dappled light coming through the canopy of leaves was attractive in my head, so I decided that was the way to bring the required seriousness to this image.

Vector art of Shabari from the Ramayana

Producing shadows is always a tricky prospect in digital art; Make it too mathematical and it looks like a trick, make it too organic or fuzzy and it looks like an artist’s fervour gone wrong. Studying how the leaf shadows were created on the figure of Shabari gives a good insight into the organised approach to creating vector illustration. I feel it was a crucial element in the image. I used Inkscape for this illustration, but the same ideas and techniques hold true in any vector graphics software.

Steps to create vector leaf shadows

Working with no visual references, I created a basic figure for Shabari, concentrating on the right silhouette and the basic lighting using linear gradients. I kept the figure simple, because I imagined the dappled light would produce enough apparent detail to create the right impression of form and weight. The figure started out as four vector shapes as shown to the left above, with separate shapes for the two arms, the body, the head and the hair. This was done for the sake of organisation, adjustability, and because those were the pieces that needed different gradient directions and intensities. I had an existing group of foliage shapes from a previous illustration. It was basically a simple leaf shape rotated round to produce a floret of ten leaves of varying sizes. This floret was grouped and then repeated to create foliage. I used the same shapes here for the effect I required.

Before and after the dappled light effectI started by duplicating the figure’s shapes and applying a union (menu: Path > Union in Inkscape) on all those vector paths to create a single shape of the figure’s silhouette. Then, the leaf florets were arranged over the body shape to create a convincing shape of how the shadow from a canopy of leaves would fall on the forms. Notice how the forearms were left mostly free to allow them to emerge from the shadows. Once all the leaves were in place, they were all ungrouped and flattened by unioning the paths into a single foliage shape. Finally, the body shape and the foliage shape were intersected (menu: Path > Intersection in Inkscape) to get the shape of the leaf shadows overlapping the figure of Shabari. The newly created foliage shadow was then placed over the original multi-object gradient-shaded figure of Shabari and given an appropriate amount of transparency (menu: Object > Fill and Stroke... > Opacity in Inkscape) so that the figures shading would show through while still being in shadow.

The effect worked out very well. As you can see in this before and after image to the right, the original gradient figure seems flat and artificial until the body and foliage shape is applied on top of it as a shadow. Suddenly the figure appears to have a lot more detail and nuance because of the way the shadows wrap around the contours, and your brain fills in the missing detail to create a rich and atmospheric effect.

The final illustration was displayed on a post about how to run a food blog in WordPress and added a nice visual to a long and technical post about plugins and reviewing techniques. The dappled light shadows from the trees above play an important visual role in making this a successful illustration while keeping it simple enough to be readable at a few hundred pixels across.

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