Getting started with Illustrator

Ahh, Illustrator; the promised land. Free from the hackles of bitmap… stretch out your vectors until you run out of screen….and beyond. How many times you wanted to take a piece of design and make it bigger? How many times did somebody say: “hey could you make that like…10 times bigger?” You can! Not with raster art though. It needs to be vector. Which brings us to a first issue. Just what the heck are vectors? Aside from stuff related to rockets and missiles and such, vectors (when speaking about graphics) are scalable pieces of art. A notable difference between raster and vector would be that you can “stretch” a piece of vector art as much as you want without having ugly jaggies invade your drawing. The technical explanation is out there…but for now suffice it to say that vectors can be scaled up without loosing quality.

And what better piece of software for creating vector art than Illustrator? There’s a reason Illustrator is the standard when it comes to vector art. And that reason is that (at least for now) ILL is the best there is. It’s used by the best artists in the field. That doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of it. It looks menacing at first – all new things are. If you have a little experience with Photoshop it looks somewhat familiar…but there’s all sorts of things that don’t do what you think they’re supposed to. The pen tool for instance. People sing praises to it, you’re supposed to learn how to use that first …but words like “Bezier curves” sound a little like made up sci-fi lingo and you just can’t get the gist of it. The gradient tool is another weird appliance. Why isn’t there a comfy slider/picker combination like in Photoshop? Just how do you make a bloody gradient? It’s just weird. ..Or is it? As a wise man said – there’s a reason for everything. A little patience and industriousness will take you a long way – any day.

One thing needs to be established from the very beginning. Illustrator may be a wonderful tool. But it just that – a tool. It doesn’t teach you how to think, how to draw or how to be an artist. For those things you need to go to an art school. Illustrator helps you get your art done faster, better rendered, easier and generally makes the whole process a lot smoother…but you can achieve similar results with just a few Crayolas and paper.

Why then do you need to spend a lot of time learning how to work with Illustrator when you can do it – cheaper – with just a few sheets of paper and colored pencils? Well, because it gets you there faster for one – we are after all living in the age of speed. It may not improve your artistic skills but it makes your art digital, and it makes it scalable!

Now that we got that out of the way – let’s focus on the real reason you’re reading this: actually learning to work with Illustrator. There are a lot of things you could begin with.

When you first open up illustrator – you see a familiar (if you know a little Photoshop) interface. At first glance you might even say they’re twins. They are – in a way… but just like brothers there are lots of differences that become apparent only after you get acquainted.

Pen tool

The “godfather” of all tools on ILL is the pen tool . It and its minions – the “Add /Delete anchor point ” Add tool tools and “Convert Anchor Point ” tool Convert tool rule over everything. He has a “wife” – the “Direct Selection ” tool Direct select tool. All other things are related to the fruits of its labor.

Let’s forget for a while the other tools and focus on the offspring of the pen tool. The pen tool produces paths. A path looks like a thin brush stroke…but is not. As its name says it’s a “path” - a direction and itinerary for anything you may choose to assign to it. Think of a path like a route traced on a map. You can either take a bus on that route, or a bicycle, or a car…or a plane. You can do a lot of things with and to a path. You can stroke it with a brush. You can fill it (even if it’s not a closed curve) you can use it to give direction and motion to a paragraph of text, to a series of other paths and so on.

Paths fall into several categories. They can be ruler straight, bent to an angle, curved – which can in turn be a closed curve, an open curve… All these sound much more complicated than they are. Just like the words “Bezier Curves” – which is another way of naming our paths. There’s a complicated explanation for the term of course. In the 70’s a guy named Pierre Bezier developed a cubic equation to use in CAD operations. It was later used by Adobe as the basis for their Post Script drawing model. The math is available in the Adobe PostScript references for the interested. However, one can play with Bezier curves without really understanding the math behind it. It’s just like turning on the light. No real need to know how electricity works – you just push the button.

What you do need to understand before working with paths is that paths have to be defined somehow. What defines a curve? Well actually a lot of tortured mathematical formulae. But for our needs we will use the convenient handles that the nice guys at Adobe put there for us. A path has a few defining elements: Two endpoints – which is really understandable because every line must have a beginning and an end…unless it’s a circle (but we’re getting there later). If our path is a straight line we’re stopping here. But if it’s a curve we need something more. The “bends” in our path are given by anchor points. Anchor points are the places where we can decide which way our curve will bend. They look like little empty squares and they have 2 handles. You can do all sorts of things with an anchor point and 2 handles. You can select the anchor point (with the direct selection tool) and move it or modify it …

Take a look at it:
The anatomy of a path

A little exercise is needed before all else. So what I want you to do is open up Illustrator (if it’s not already open) and create a new document. For this exercise you will only need the pen tool family and the direct selection tool. Expand the pen tool box (if you click and hold on the pen tool you should see the other tools in the family and be provided with a small triangle to a side that allows you to tear off the box). Do the same with the direct selection tool and move the tool boxes closer. Now pick the pen tool Pen tool and click once anywhere on your canvas. Then move the mouse a little and click again. You should now have a straight line. If your path doesn’t look like my “Simple path” does in the pic then it must be because ILL added stroke and fill to the path by default. We don’t need those yet so we’ll get rid of them. At the bottom of the tool box you should see 2 larger squares – like those in my pic - in the lower left corner. Click on the slashed button that will remove the fill, then click on the stroke square to select it and then click again the slashed button that will remove it too. If you hold your mouse pointer over various tools the bubble help should tell you which is which (like the “None” in my pic.)

Important note: If at any time you will click on your canvas outside of your anchor points you will lose your path. It’s still there but it’s invisible. To bring it out you only need to pick the Direct Select tool Direct select tool and click and drag like you would use the marquee selection in Photoshop. Drag over an area that is likely to include the general location of your path. You’ll see it appear again – with all anchors selected. Drag a “marquee” on the endpoint or anchor point you wish to select. Note you can also see all the shapes in your file if you click “Ctrl+Y” - it will bring out the “outlines” view. At any time you can press “Ctrl+Y” again to get into normal vieving mode or “preview” mode as ILL calls it.

Now you should finally end up with a clean path. Pick the Direct Select tool Direct select tool and click on any of the endpoints to select it. Hold your mouse button down and move it around. Select the other endpoint and move it around. Good. Now for more complicated stuff. Pick the “Add anchor point ” tool Add tool and click anywhere on your path. You should see another little square like the endpoints. Only since it’s not on one end of the path – we can’t call it an endpoint – we’ll call it an anchor…. because of another reason that will soon become apparent. Pick the Direct Select tool Direct select tool and click on your anchor point. And move it around like you did with the endpoints. You will notice you made a bent line. Let’s curve it. Pick the Convert Anchor Point tool Convert anchor point tool and click on your anchor point. Hold and drag. No matter the direction. As long as you start from the anchor point – it will output symmetrical curves. One thing you need to realize at this point that your path is now split into segments. The split point being…you guessed – the anchor point. As soon as you add another – you get another segment. Segments act like little paths. If you drag with the Convert Anchor Point tool from an anchor point and then click and drag just one of the handles – it will act as an endpoint for that segment. It will “move” independently from the other handle. However if you click on an anchor point’s handle with the Direct Select tool Direct select tool (while the anchor point is selected – meaning both handles are visible) you will notice that you can modify the segment – the length of the curve - independently from the other segment. If you try to alter the direction you will see that the handles move at the same time. A good trick that will save you a lot of clicks later on is to make the anchor point, click on it with the Convert Anchor Point Convert anchor point tool, create handles, then click on one handle only, move it and pick the direct select tool Direct select tool. Click on that handle with it – move it – and then click on the anchor point. You’ll see the other handle – for the adjacent segment. Move that one too with the direct select tool and you get a nice pointed, curvaceous split. I said earlier we’re going to get to a closed curve. A circle is a closed curve for instance. But any other curve that loops back onto itself is a closed one. To get a closed path – simply curve your path and click again on the endpoint you created first. You have to click exactly on the first endpoint – or else you’ll just be creating a new anchor point. A closed curve/path must have at least one anchor point. Once you closed your path – you can use the point where you closed down the path as a regular anchor point – but you will have to use the Convert Anchor Point tool Convert anchor point tool on it first – just click it and drag - you’ll get handles.

The next step is to use the pen tool to create curves “on the fly.” Once you understood the above (experimenting is the only way) you’ll be able to use the pen tool to click and drag…in such a manner that you will get nice flowing curves from the first try. And if you need to adjust it – well – you’ll know how to handle the handles…

I realize these sound complicated. But believe it or not – that is the most complicated thing you’ll have to deal with in Illustrator. Once you mastered the paths – the rest is just fill and stroke….and a little effects here and there. But those are easy. The hard part is getting the “feel” of paths. They are complex but once you experiment with them you’ll see it’s easier than it sounds. It may also be boring and long. But if you want immediate results – use the Crayolas.

If you feel you made good progress and paths hold no secrets to you anymore….we’ll get on to the next magical item – color-part-1