Blending Colors with Freeform Gradients in Adobe Illustrator

When you mention vector art or Adobe Illustrator, what comes to mind for many people are simple, flat illustrations and sharp vector edges, but there are several ways to create smooth, blended colors that give your vector art life and dimension. For this peach design, I’ve used the freeform gradient tool, a game-changing addition introduced in Adobe Illustrator CC 2019. Let’s take a look at how to use the freeform gradient tool and the color blending effects you can achieve from basic to advanced.

3d Peach Color Blending Example with Freeform Gradients
3d Peach Color Blending Example with Freeform Gradients

If you are interested in a video tutorial of how I made the 3D peach above using freeform gradients, feel free to check that out here:

What Makes the Freeform Gradient Tool Different?

When you create a linear or radial gradient, you can only edit color stops along a single axis. With freeform gradients, you can add multiple points anywhere in your shape and easily adjust the position, color, opacity, and color spread for each point.

Three types of gradients in Adobe Illustrator
Three types of gradients in Adobe Illustrator

Freeform Gradients vs Gradient Mesh: Precision vs Flexibility

Describing how the freeform gradient tool works often brings up the comparison to the gradient mesh tool.  While gradient mesh gives the artist extremely fine control over results, it can be slightly unintuitive and requires more planning and tweaking to get a specific outcome. Because gradient mesh points are always based on a grid, it’s not possible to quickly add, delete or move a single mesh point without affecting both of the lines that the point intersects.

Freeform gradients on the other hand are extremely flexible which makes them fabulous for quickly experimenting with color schemes and placement of points and lines of color.  Adding, moving and deleting points is quick and easy.  With this tool, you can have multiple lines and points in a single shape that are not tied to a grid formation.

Gradient Mesh vs Freeform Gradients
Gradient Mesh vs Freeform Gradients

How to Apply a Freeform Gradient

You can apply a gradient by selecting a shape, pressing G on your keyboard to bring up the gradient tool, and clicking on the shape to apply a gradient.  By default, you’ll get a simple linear gradient, but you can use the shortcut that now appears in your properties panel to change it to a freeform gradient.

Alternatively, you can open the gradient panel and apply the freeform gradient directly by selecting the freeform option under type.

When a freeform gradient is first applied you will end up with a couple of randomly placed points of different colors, these vary based on the art and colors present in your file but can be changed easily.

Editing a Freeform Gradient

To edit a freeform gradient, make sure your gradient shape is selected and click the Edit Gradient button that shows up either in the gradient panel or in the properties panel.

Enter Editing Mode for Freeform Gradients
Enter Editing Mode for Freeform Gradients

Adding, Deleting, and Moving Points

Once you are in editing mode, you may add points by simply clicking anywhere in your shape. To remove a point, select it and hit either the Delete or Backspace keys.  Moving points (or lines,) is as easy as clicking and dragging.

Tip: If you are having trouble adding points to your shape because they are too close, try zooming in!

Changing the Color, Opacity, and Spread of Gradient Points

By double-clicking on any of your freeform gradient color stops, you’ll access the color window pop-up.  Here you will be presented with three options to adjust the point’s color.  You can do this via the classic color dialog box, by choosing a swatch from your swatches palette, or by using the eyedropper tool to choose a color from another element in your document.

Editing Freeform Gradient Colors
Editing Freeform Gradient Colors

Point Mode vs Line Mode

There are two ways to add gradient stops to a freeform gradient, Point Mode or Line Mode.

Point Mode is super straightforward and allows you to add individual points that can be moved around completely independently inside your gradient shape.

Line Mode lets you create lines or paths with multiple color stops that can be dragged around and adjusted to curve or mold the direction of your gradients within the shape.  Creating gradient lines works very similarly to using the curvature tool to create paths and offers great control over how colors flow through your design.

To edit the gradient line, click and drag points on the line anywhere you’d like.  Clicking on the line itself will add a stop to the path.  Like points, you can add as many lines as needed to a single freeform gradient.

Line mode versus point mode in freeform gradients
Line mode versus point mode in freeform gradients

Adjusting Opacity and Spread

Each point has two additional settings you can use to create different effects: Opacity and Spread.  Opacity works exactly as it does in any other application with 0% being completely transparent and 100% opacity being completely opaque.

The spread setting is unique to the freeform gradient tools and lets you adjust the range of a color stop, and how it blends with the colors around it.  The higher you set the spread for a particular stop the larger the blend range of that point will be in comparison to others around it.

Opacity and Spread Settings
Opacity and Spread Settings

Advanced Color Blending Techniques

Combining multiple shapes using freeform gradients with varying point opacity and blending modes can be a powerful way to create advanced shading effects in Adobe Illustrator. In the image below, I’ve layered two freeform gradient-filled shapes to achieve this three-dimensional effect on a peach.

The top curved shape creates a deep shadow around the stem of the peach. This shape is set to Multiply blending mode and the gradient stops that follow the line along the top of the shape are all set to 0% opacity to create a transparent feathered edge that blends into the main peach shape. The main peach shape is completely shaded using a single freeform gradient made up of multiple paths using line mode.

Advanced Freeform Color Blending Techniques
Advanced Freeform Color Blending Techniques

Limitations and Work Arounds

While the freeform gradient tool boasts flexibility and an intuitive user experience, there are a few limitations to be aware of.

First, freeform gradients cannot be directly applied to live text, compound shapes, or strokes. They can, however, be used inside clipping masks, so with a few extra steps, you can still use them in conjunction with these objects.

Secondly, it can be difficult to reuse a freeform gradient that you’ve already built.  They cannot be saved as swatches in your library and attempting to sample them with the eyedropper tool or apply them from a saved graphic style yields glitchy results.

Finally, when exporting a file with a freeform gradient, the gradient itself will generally not be editable in other vector programs, and expanding a freeform gradient yields a clipping mask containing a non-native art object rather than a mesh or other fully vector element.

As long as you keep these limitations in mind, you should be able to find endless creative applications for freeform gradients in your own designs!

Where to Learn More About Freeform Gradients

You can read more about using the freeform gradient tool in the Adobe Illustrator Manual here: https://helpx.adobe.com/ca/illustrator/using/gradients.html#create_apply_freeform_gradient

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