Adobe Illustrator is a very popular piece of software used for creating illustrations but I have spent countless hours using it in the past. Here are a few things I wish I knew when I first started using it which may stop you going mad…

1. Clipping masks

For many designers, the first software they’ll start to learn is Adobe Photoshop, and why wouldn’t it be, it’s the most powerful and versatile out of the ‘big three’ – Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. You’d think swapping between the three would be relatively simple with the programs working in the same sort of way, this is where Adobe Illustrator's clipping mask tool will confuse nearly all new users.

The clipping mask tool in Illustrator, gives you the same end result as Photoshop, but forces you to take a different approach to getting there. As we all know, in Photoshop, to create a clipping mask you take your element you want clipped, create your shape/path underneath that layer and then right click on the layer you want clipped to ‘Create a clipping mask’. In Illustrator it’s almost the exact reverse. To create a clipping mask in Illustrator, simply take the element you want to clip, create your shape/path OVER that element, select both, then right click and select ‘ Make Clipping Mask’. Alternavitly instead of right clicking you can select both objects and then go to ‘Object’ in your menu, then Clipping Mask and select ‘Make’.

2. Live Paint Bucket tool

This tool is very useful, but more importantly it’s takes us back to every designers first piece of software…Microsoft Paint. This simple but very handy tool lets us fill drawn out shapes with colour. This is particularly useful when ‘Live Tracing’ your scanned in Illustration and colouring (yes you can do this in Photoshop, but sometimes you’ll need it as a complete vector file).

To fill with colour (paint), simply select the paths/shapes you’d like to fill, hit the ‘Live Paint Bucket’ tool (shortcut key K), select the colour you wish to fill it with, and simply select the area you want to fill. You’ll noticed a bolder line outlining the area it will fill. No need to ever open MS paint ever again.

3. Live Trace

As mentioned above, the Live Trace tool is a great way of taking your hand drawn illustrations and turning it into vector artwork that can be scaled up as big as you want…literally. By scanning in a high-resolution copy of your scribbles and opening in Illustrator, by selecting the Live Trace tool (and tweaking the parameters) you can turn your illustrations into vector artwork in seconds, and by using the Live Paint Bucket tool, colour how you please.

4. Blend tool

The blend tool is another very powerful tool that many people new to Illustrator should be working with. One of the many reasons I use it is to create quick smooth colour gradients. To do this, I have set up three different colours that I think would look nice in a gradient. I select the 3 colours and ‘Make’ my blend by going to Object > Blend > Make (shortcut key Command + Alt + B). By going back into the Object > Blend section I go to Blend Options and change the option to ‘Smooth Colour’ this will create a quicker and smoother gradient compared to using the gradient slider tool in Illustrator.

5. Selective tools

This is a great time saving tool. You’ve scanned, live traced and coloured your complex illustration, but you don’t like the tone of red you’ve used and want to change it. Manually going through and “shift/selecting” each element takes a lot of time depending how many different small areas you have and you run the risk of missing elements.

Select the colour you want to change, go to ‘Select’ in your menu bar and find ‘Fill Colour’. You’ll find many things you can select the same appearance of like Fill & Stroke,  opacity and below the ‘Same’ dropout you’ll notice an ‘Object’ dropout where you can select all elements that are the same, like text, stray points etc.

6. Map Art in 3D mode

This is another tool that is high effective but underused. The Map Art tool allows you to place a ‘symbol’ onto the 3D shape you’ve created. For example if you’ve just sketched out your own world map and wanted to stick it onto a 3D sphere or place your face onto something like a 3D coin, this is the tool for you.

It’s very simple to create 3D shapes in Illustrator, I’ll keep this basic as, this is another subject which would need it’s own in depth article.

  • First you want to deal with what you’re placing onto your 3D shape. It could be an icon, a poster, anything depending on the shape. Whatever it is, you want to open up the Symbol’s window and place it in there, making it a ‘Symbol’

  • To create our ‘coin’ shape simply draw a circle using your shapes Ellipse tool and fill with a colour. Then go to ‘Effect’ > ‘3D’ > ‘Extrude and Bevel’.  This will open up a dialog box with many options that I’m going to ignore for this and just use the default settings.

  • The next step is to go to ‘Map Art’ in that dialog box, this will show the basic anatomy of your shape. Find your ‘symbol’ in the drop down section at the top and place it onto which ever surface of the shape you want. Our basic coin shape has 5 surfaces, for this we’re going with the first one which is the front.

  • Select 'preview' and move/scale how you like then hit OK.  It’s well worth looking into more advanced tutorials and exploring this tool further whether you’re new too Illustrator or not.

7. Bonus Tip – Quick Scaling

A handy little tip Nick Harris showed me in InDesign also works great in Illustrator. How to quickly scale an image by 50%. In the Transform value place '/2' after the size in width or height and pressing enter will halve that value. For example 60mm/2 + Enter will give you 30mm. This obviously isn’t just limited to halving.


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