There's More Than One Way to Skin a Cat in Vector

It's a common occurrence when you're reading a tutorial that probably matches or is easier than your skill set and you think, "That's not how I'd do it." I know this has happened to me several times. I go with the tutorial, though, because I know that in vector, there is more than one way to do things, and perhaps someone else's workflow may expose me to other techniques I hadn't considered.
There's a phrase in the UK that goes: "There's more than one way to skin a cat." OK, it sounds foul, but it basically means there is more than one way to do something and achieve the same result. This is the basis of today's tutorial.
It all started when I was in the back garden and I was looking for inspiration for a new article... and, well, it did come up, and that was 9 Tips and Tricks to Render Anything in Vector. The premise of the article was to show people how to get into the mindset of seeing in vector. 
I decided to test myself and look for things I'd render in vector and how I'd go about it, and my eyes were drawn to a very vectorable thing... a garden fence.

A curved garden fence

I want you, the novice or the expert vector artist, to take a beat and imagine how you'd render that fence in vector. How would you start? What tools would you use? I can place a bet that not everyone would construct it the same way.
To make things a bit easier, let's remove the background, foreground and perspective, and look at it in a simple way as a stock image from PhotoDune

Stock image of a fence

So let's imagine we're aiming for this end result... but let's remove all colour and think of it even more simply as a silhouette. 

Silhouette of a fence

I'm going to go over a few ways in which you could render it in vector. For each method, I'll explain how you'd do it, list the pros and cons, and give examples of when you might opt for that method.
I've opened the black and white stock image in Adobe Illustrator and then runImage Trace with the following settings.

Apply Image Trace

As an optional step, you could click on Expand to turn the Image Trace into a vector path. You could then recolour, should you require it. And you're done.

The fence created using Image Trace

  • Super quick: took less than a minute, even after playing with settings.
  • Despite playing with the settings, I couldn't find a way to make all of the edges straight. So although it's an accurate representation of the JPG, it's perhaps not the most clean-looking end result. 
  • Quite simply, Image Tracing an image feels dirty... well at least for me!
  • When the fence is a small detail of your design, perhaps something in the background
  • When you need to present something in minutes and quality isn't an issue
With Smart Guides (Control-U) enabled, use the Pen Tool (P) to trace around the first set of vertical planks. This will give you 90-degree corners where required and help you line up the points accurately.

Trace around the image using the Pen Tool

When the first group is complete, select them all and then with the Selection Tool(V), hold Alt and move your first group over to the next place to duplicate it.

Duplicate the first group

Then by pressing Control-D, you can duplicate your last action to accurately place your third group.

Duplicate the third group

Use the Pen Tool (P) to draw the top vertical plank. Then using the Selection Tool(V) while holding Alt, duplicate it to the bottom plank.

Create the top and bottom planks

As a final step, but not completely necessary, you could use the Pathfinder panel > Unite to combine all the shapes together. And you're done.

Finished fence vector illustration using the Pen Tool

  • Straight edges are created throughout.
  • Points are accurately placed due to Smart Guides.
  • It took longer than the Image Trace method, perhaps five minutes, but this is still relatively quick for a fence silhouette. 
  • As the shapes are all straight sides, you don't need to be a Pen Tool master, as you don't need to play with handle bars!
  • If you're not careful with Smart Guides, you may misclick a point and would have to undo or use the Direct Selection Tool to adjust your points.
  • Spaces between the planks are not equally spaced.
  • When the fence is a small detail of your design, perhaps something in the background
  • When you need to present something in a short amount of time and quality isn't an issue
Again with Smart Guides (Control-U) enabled, use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw the first post. Draw the plank a little higher than the tallest plank.

Draw a rectangle

With the Selection Tool (V), Alt-drag the plank to the end of the first set to duplicate it.

Duplicate the rectangle

Select both rectangles and create a Blend (Control-Alt-B). While selected, go toObject > Blend > Blend Options and change the Spacing to Specified Steps and the value to 5, as there are five planks between the two you've already created. 

Create a Blend

Use the Pen Tool (P) to create the shape which will trim the top of the edges of the fence. When you're drawing it, ensure the right side is flush with the next section of the fence. Then select this new shape and your blend and create a Clipping Mask(Control-7).

Use a Clipping Mask

With the Selection Tool (V), select the clipping mask group and Alt-drag to duplicate it, keeping the right side edge of the shape flush with the next group. Then use Control-D to duplicate your previous action to create the third group.

Duplicate the clipping mask group

To ensure we've got the same width, go into the blend group and duplicate one of the planks.

Duplicate a single plank

While selected, go to Object > Transform > Rotate and rotate the vertical plank by 90 degrees to make it horizontal. Then, using the Free Transform Tool (E), stretch the shape and put it in the correct place. Use Alt-drag with the Selection Tool (V) to duplicate the shape.

Create the horizontal planks

As an additional step, you could use Pathfinder > Unite to combine the shapes, but as is, here is the end result.

The finished fence

  • Straight edges are created throughout.
  • Rectangles are accurately placed due to Smart Guides.
  • Due to using Blends, the planks are all uniformly shaped and have equal spacing.
  • A little more time-consuming than the previous methods, perhaps 10-15 minutes.
  • Due to accuracy, you could use this method in most scenarios. 
Create the initial planks using the same method as before, with the Rectangle Tool(M) and Blend (Control-Alt-B). Duplicate one of the planks for use as a horizontal plank for later on.

Create a Blend

While selected, go to Object > Expand to expand the blend into fills. With the shapes selected, create a Compound Path (Control-8).

Expand the Blend

Create the shape for the section using the Pen Tool (P) and with that and the compound path, use Pathfinder > Intersect to trim the shape.

Use Pathfinder  Intersect

Using the duplicate of one of the original rectangles, Rotate it 90 degrees and use the Free Transform Tool (E) to resize the length so it is flush with the first plank of the set, and then the start of the second set as shown below. Then duplicate it using the Selection Tool (V) and Alt-drag.

Create the horizontal planks

Select all of your shapes and go into the Brushes panel and select New Brush, then Pattern Brush. I've used the default settings below. Because the shape is one colour, I've changed the Colorization Method to Tints, should I wish to change the colour of the fence later on.

Create a Pattern Brush

Using the Line Segment Tool (/), draw a line and apply your new brush.

Draw a line and apply the brush

And here is the end result from using the brush:

Pattern Brush final

  • Straight edges are created throughout.
  • Rectangles are accurately placed due to Smart Guides.
  • Due to using Blends, the planks are all uniformly shaped and have equal spacing.
  • Can be reapplied with a couple of clicks along a path, should it be required.
  • A little more time consuming than the previous methods, perhaps 10-15 minutes.
  • It's not a duplicate of the original image—if you wanted to duplicate the original image you'd have to take it a step further and create a clipping mask, which would add time to the process.
  • Any time when you need to reapply the fence in any size, length, or colour. 
There are many methods, and not just the ones I've shown you, that you could use to create the fence. I'm sure there are some advanced vector users who will want to point them out in the comments, and I encourage you to do that. 
So which is the right way to go about it, given all the methods shown? Well, as with most vector tasks you undertake, it completely depends on the way in which you're intending to use the graphic. This will dictate which is the most efficient and most appropriate way to render it. Consider the following to decide:
  • How relevant is the element to the entire graphic? Is it a small detail in the background or is it the entire graphic?
  • How much time do you have to create it?
  • Will you need to edit the element in the future?
  • What is the purpose of the graphic? Is it going to be an icon, an illustration, a pattern?
Once you've considered those, then you'll know which is the right way.


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