The isometric projection does not exist in nature, it is a unique view without perspective. Unlike in reality, everything in the distance is at just the same scale as everything in the foreground, creating the characteristic unique to an isometric piece.
Here, illustrator Tim Smith details some of the intriguing yet surprisingly simple theory behind the isometric projection. He provides insightful tips and tricks to help pull off detailed isometric illustrations with ease as he offers up his experience in using this technique to create illustrations with witty narrative.
Having worked through this Masterclass, you will have the basic isometric principles needed to develop and experiment with your own isometric illustrations, 3D models, diagrams, infographics – you name it.
The isometric projection is more creative and versatile that you might think. If you want to know more, drop Tim a tweet
Tim has kindly provided a set of project files including an isometric grid, building blocks, and a lighting example.
Time to complete
Illustrator CS3 and above
Login / Signup here to download this tutorial's project files (it’s free!)
A good illustration has a core narrative, isometric or not, whether set by a client brief or by your own ambition. In this illustration, I was briefed by the client to depict the various problems within the print industry. My narrative idea included five gremlins that I'd already created, each responsible for causing havoc in their own way, from ink wastage to corruption.
Once a narrative is set, I like to start with a rough sketch. This helps to get down the idea and initial design quickly. Isometric grid paper is difficult to find, so I often use graph paper instead.
As a guide, two squares wide by one square high will roughly equal an isometric angle. Alternatively, print off the grid available in this tutorial’s project files.
The 'heart' of the illustration typically sits at its centre; this is where the narrative begins. Emanating from the centre are secondary stories to be discovered when exploring further.
Our eyes naturally follow lines within an image, this is particularly powerful in isometric projection. I've used this to my advantage here with the conveyor belt and ink pipes drawing out from the centre.
I find it useful and time efficient to annotate my sketches. Due to the unique nature of isometric projection, some things are best left to be designed directly into the digital piece once you have the correct isometric perspective working.
Here I've made a note to create four ink pipes rather than two, one each for C, M, Y and K (as are used in the print industry).
Now it's time to get technical. First, it's good to understand the basic principles of isometric projection. The X axis (usually width) and Y axis (usually height) are interchangeable in isometric projection, while the Z axis will represent height.
The isometric angle (defined by the X and Y axes) is at 30º. Don't worry if that sounds a bit too technical, all will become clear.
Using those rules you can create an isometric grid. Open Illustrator and draw a line at 30º. Copy and paste this line enough times and at an equal distance (use the Align tool panel) to cover the width of the document size you require: A3 landscape for example.
Finally, copy and paste all of the lines and reflect them vertically (
Object > Transform > Reflect > Vertical). You now have an isometric grid!
(Alternatively you can download a ready-made isometric grid from this tutorial’s project files.)
Next, turn on Smart Guides (
Cmd/Ctrl + U or View > Smart Guides). This is useful when drawing to the isometric grid you've created, ensuring each anchor point is placed correctly along it.
Also turn on Snap to Point (
Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + " or View > Snap to Point), this can help when stray anchor points need pulling back into place. Make sure Snap to Grid is turned off.
Now that you have your foundation, it's handy to create some reusable building blocks – isometric cubes, pyramids and circles.
Using the Pen tool (
P) follow the examples shown, counting the number of grid increments you need to create the shapes. These shapes can be re-used and customised to build your piece, taking a cube and extending it's height to form a column for example.
These are also available in this tutorial’s project files.
It's time to start the digital line work. You can scan and digitally trace your sketch if you prefer, but use it as a guide only – keep your linework to the isometric grid.
Use the Pen tool with a stoke of 0.25pt and the colour set to magenta. The fine line enables greater accuracy and the magenta colour makes it easier to see over the grid.
Drawing objects that have straight lines is easy. Curves can be much trickier. Keeping to using curves that are a section of a circle is simpler and reinforces the geometric nature of the isometric projection.
This is when your ready-made circles will come in handy. Depending on the axis and position you want to add a curve, cut and re-use the appropriate quarter(s) circle.
For more complex shapes, I find it easier to draw them flat, then use the Extrude & Bevel tool (
Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel) to convert them into something very close to the isometric projection.
Set the X axis to 45º, the Y axis to -35º and the Z axis to 30º (or X -40º, Y -43º, Z 30º for vertical surfaces) and Perspective and Extrude Depth to 0º.
Reflect vertically if needed.
When colouring your isometric image, it's important to consider its level of complexity. With an image as detailed as this, keep colours complementary, with enough contrast in overlapping objects so that they stand out.
A consistent tonal range also helps the image look clean and fresh, should that be what you're aiming for (as it likely will be as that’s why you went for isometric in the first place, right?).
Having all the objects in the scene orientated at the same angle means adding accurate lighting and shadow is quick and easy – and they really adds to the strengths of this unique aesthetic.
Shade an isometric cube first as a reference to the position of the light source, then match all objects to the same lighting. It also helps to have the shadows follow the isometric grid.
As mentioned earlier, a core narrative is important to any illustration – but I often like to add some smaller extra detail to the story, which rewards the viewer for their exploration into the piece. I've included a missing sock in the ink pipes and Pac-Man on the console.
There are a few other examples, but I'll let you discover those for yourself.
Last but not least, take a break! I find if I leave an illustration alone once it's finished, then return to it a day later, it's quite easy to see any imperfections or areas to improve upon, especially with complex isometrics.
Make these tweaks and improvements and you'll give your illustration that extra polish.
Have fun and experiment with the strange physics of this unique view. Perspective does't exist in the isometric projection, so it can be an interesting contrast to add other special (and special) effects that occur over a distance: such as focus, lighting and colour distortion. Or, if you fancy a challenge, try creating impossible Escher like imagery.