Polyart, or short for polygonal art, has become one of the most trendy looking design styles in the digital ARTmosphere nowadays, and with good reason too. It’s an easy-to-learn-and-execute technique that turns your photos into blocky, geometric images that’s real cool to look at.
For this tutorial, we will be using an image of an owl and turn it into an artsy-fartsy polyart. This technique can be applied to any image though, so feel free to use any image of your preference.
Filtering Our Image in Photoshop
Let’s start by downloading this image of an owl from DeviantArt. We will be using this as reference for today’s creative exercise. Please be reminded though that you’re not allowed to redistribute or use for commercial-purposes any image you download from this and any other similar websites. That will be our little disclaimer for this post.
All right, let’s open up our image in Photoshop and start adding some colour filters to give it an artsy-fartsy look about it.
- Blending mode: Difference
- Opacity: 24%
- Blending mode: Lighten
- Opacity: 21%
- Blending mode: Exclusion
- Opacity: 50%
Arrange your layers like in the image below to arrive at that result.
Getting Ready for the Tracing Process in Illustrator
Once you’ve filtered your image, save it as a JPEG or PNG file and open it up in Illustrator. We will then setup our layers palette to make tracing the image easier and quicker for us in the long run. The following is a quick run down of the layers we will put up and what they’re for.
REF top – This is our top most layer and and will contain our reference photo. This layer will be hidden most of the time and will be activated when we want to compare our progress with our reference. Keep this layer locked.
Poly – This will contain our vector objects. This is where all the tracing will happen. This is our only unlocked layer, too.
REF – Our reference photo will be place here, conveniently below our Poly layer for tracing. Keep this layer locked.
Background – This is where we will place our vector background. When we hide the REF layer above it, your polyart will display against this background. Keep it locked as well.
White – This can be any colour that is in great contrast with our custom background. In this case, white worked fine. Basically, we will display our artwork against this layer when we want to check if our poly art doesn’t have “holes” in it. You’ll understand what that means as you go along. Lastly, keep this layer locked.
Before we start with tracing our reference photo, let’s create our background first. Click on your Background layer (unlock it if you had it locked during the layer setup process) and create a rectangle with a gradient fill and cover the entire artboard. For the colours in the gradient, I simply sampled two colours from the reference photo using the Eyedropper tool and used those. In this case, those colours are #a69565 and #8c8f5e. The gradient is of Linear Type at 0º angle. When you’re done, lock this layer back again so you don’t accidentally select it. You’ll be doing a lot of clicking in the next phase.
For this entire process to work and show its full effect, you really only need to know one word: Triangles. Not quadrilaterals, but triangles. 3-sided polygons only. Quadrilaterals just wouldn’t look right.
Basically the idea is we will be using lots of triangular shapes to follow the shape and contour of our image. The more detailed you want your result to look like, the smaller–and therefore the more–triangles you will use.
We will be creating lots of triangles, so let’s toggle some settings for extra assistance. These are your Smart Guides and Snap to Point settings. They will assist you tremendously in making your triangles.
- Activate Smart Guides by clicking on View > Smart Guides
- Cmd/Ctrl + U for the keyboard shortcut
- Activate Snap to Point by clicking on View > Snap to Point
- Cmd+Option+‘ for Mac
- Ctrl+Alt+‘ for Windows).
Let the Tracing Begin!
Once you have those settings turned on, you can now begin adding your triangular polygons. Now this process is fairly simple, but can be fairly lengthy and repetitive depending on how detailed you want your result to look like.
Grab your pen tool and start adding your triangles. Pay attention to the contour of your photo, where the light strikes and shadows form, the various colours that are projected, as these will guide you into adding your triangles.
Each time you form a triangle, remove the fill option (hotkey: /) if there are any, and grab the eye dropper tool. Ask yourself, what colour would best represent this patch of triangle? Now there are varying colours enclosed within the triangle, but this entire area could only be a single colour as it is LOW polyart after all. In this case, the triangle encloses the light-coloured feathers of the owl, so I’d definitely want a light colour for this triangle. Grab the eye dropper tool and sample a light colour from within the triangle. Zoom in if you have to when you want to be more accurate in pin-pointing an exact colour.
Once done, hit the Escape key to deselect this triangle and start over again with another triangle, and then some more, always repeating the same process of analyzing how to best represent a certain area with the use of triangles, while also determining which colour to use depending on depth, contour, and basically just the colours found in your reference. When making these triangles, make sure their corners or anchor points touch each other.
Repeat this process over and over again, until you cover the entire image with triangles of various sizes, shapes, and colour. Check out this GIF that demonstrates this process a couple of triangles through.
Checking Your Progress
If at the beginning you’re quite uncertain you’re headed to right direction with what you’re doing, just keep moving forward. You won’t be able to gather much with just a few triangles. Keep adding those triangles in and you’d eventually be able to see your polyart shaping up.
This is where the layers we’ve previously setup in Illustrator come into play. Every now and then, turn off the visibility of your reference image (REF layer) to see how it looks like against your vector background. Zoom out and see how things are shaping up. If you see one area that looks too broad or flat, you can fix that area by deleting some of the triangles and recreating new ones with better arrangement.
Also, check every now and then if you have some triangles whose corners got misplaced and didn’t intersect with other corners. You can do this by hiding both the REF and Background layers, leaving your polyart displayed against the White layer. If your poly art does have mis-aligned corners, the white colour from your White layer will be seen through your polyart as if you’ve got holes on your artwork.
When this happens, the easiest way to fix this is to change to Outline View by clicking View > Outline (Hotkey: Cmd/Ctrl +Y). You will see your vector triangles in bare bones and this will let you easily interact with your anchors. Hit the Direct Selection Tool (hotkey: A) and click on the particular anchor that got offset and snap it back to place. I imagine it’s going to look like a giant web of vector paths, so zoom in if you have to.
On Some Important Areas…
Also, there will be some areas that will need to be handled delicately and with extra attention to detail, as these areas make up the most important parts of your image. This means you’re going to have to work up close and utilize smaller triangles to achieve a good result. This can be meticulous and can take lots of work, but these will also be the areas that will give your result some real value and quality. Overall, they’ll be very rewarding in the end and you’ll be glad you took the time to work on those.
Such areas I’m talking about are the owl’s eyes, beak, and feet. Check out these parts in the screenshots below.
Also, you don’t always have to connect your triangles at corner points each time. You can intersect at midpoints or just about anywhere along the side of an adjacent triangle. Sometimes this is the best way to approach some areas in your reference.
After I’ve completed working on the owl, I decided not to completely finish the branch, and this actually gave it a nice, cool effect. Stagger the triangles a bit and make it look scattered and random. This will give it that extra flare and a modern geometric approach.
Also, at this point, I decided I wanted to increase the brightness of my owl to give it some extra oomph. To do this, select everything (including your background, so you may need to unlock your Background layer), and select Edit > Edit Colour > Recolour Artwork. Click the Edit tab on top, link all your colours by clicking on the chain icon, and then increase the brightness on the slider bar on the middle.
Here’s a quick rundown of the steps in making our polyart:
- Form a triangle using the Pen Tool
- Make sure Smart Guides (Cmd/Ctrl+U) and Snap to Point (Cmd/Ctrl + Option/Alt + ‘) settings are on for assistance.
- Work with Outline View (Cmd/Ctrl + Y) or Zoom if you want to be precise
- Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to snap misplaced anchor points back to place.
- Hit slash key (/) to toggle the No Fill Option for your triangle
- Hit “I” for the Eyedropper Tool and sample a colour that is within your triangle.
- Hit Escape key to deselect.
- Rinse and repeat.
In conclusion, this entire process is a simple but repetitive procedure that doles out some cool results. If you have the patience for it, you can learn a lot from this entire exercise aside from the obvious technical procedure and trendy artwork you can derive from it. When I worked on this – after having to repeat it three times just to get a good start – I also found I began to see contour and depth as shapes, which helped me understand the relationship between shadows and highlights in a more simplistic manner. And this I think – in addition to the cool result – is another reason which makes this entire activity worthwhile.