Illustrator Blend Tool

 By: Tom Gillan
A very useful tool among the many in Adobe Illustrator is the Blend tool. Specific contexts would be when you need to create a custom border for a design; or when creating an interesting background to a web banner.

The usual method of creating a blend of two or more colours is to select the Fill colour of a shape and add either a Linear or Radial blend via the Gradient tool, the Gradient panel and the Swatches panel.

However, Illustrator allows us also to blend shapes using the Blend tool. We first need two shapes to work with, of different colours and shapes. An example would be a yellow rounded rectangle and a blue elliptical shape. These shapes may be either far apart or overlapping each other, but for the best effect ensure that both shapes have no stroke (outline) colour. To remove a stroke colour select the shape with the Selection tool (the black arrow), click on the Stroke icon to bring it forward at the bottom of the Toolbox on the left-hand of the interface.

Next we select the Blend tool from the toolbox and click on the first shape, then on the second shape. The resultant blend will be a gradient between the two colours, very similar to what you'd get with the Linear or Radial options of the standard Gradient tool. However, there is an advantage over the normal method in that we can now select either of the original shapes with the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow) to edit its colour, or adjust its scale, position, rotation or individual anchor points. Having done so will result in the overall blended shape altering. This presents much greater versatility than the older Gradient tool method allows for.

There are other options available to us with the Blend too. If we now double-click on the Blend tool to open up its dialog box, we see various settings which can be fine tuned. For example we can change the effect from a solid colour blend to Specified Steps, or Specified Distance. With the former we still see what appears to be a gradient, but it in fact consists of over 200 small incremental steps. Change these number of steps to 5 or 6 to get a better idea of how Illustrator conducts the transition. As we can see, as well as progressively changing the colour from one to the other, the shapes also gradually morph from one to the other.

An additional feature is the ability to "explode" these shapes to deconstruct them. To do so go to the top Object pull-down menu (or right-click on the shape) and choose the Expand option. All of the intermediate shapes are now fully editable as individual objects. The blend is itself no longer editable as such, so a degree of care should be taken if taking this step. If there is a possibility that you may want to return to the original effect created by the Blend tool, it's a good idea to simply copy the blended objects onto the Pasteboard at the side, for future use.
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