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Unlock the True Power of Illustrator By Mastering Vectors

Drawing rectangles, ovals, and stars is nice, but that's not why you use Adobe Illustrator. The true power of Illustrator is that you can use it to create custom shapes as you need them—this allows you to tweak a design to perfection. Illustrator comes with a variety of tools and functions, each with its own strengths and uses. Whether it's the mystifying Pen tool, the Live Paint feature that allows you to edit and color vector objects more freely, or the dependable Pathfinder and path functions that have helped make Illustrator so powerful over the years, this chapter reveals the true art of the vector path.

Drawing and Editing Free-Form Vectors

Strip away the cool effects. Forget all the fancy tools. Ignore the endless range of gradients and colors. Look past the veneer of both print and Web graphics. What you're left with is the basis of all things vector—the anchor point. You can learn to master every shape tool in Illustrator, but if you don't have the ability to create and edit individual anchor points, you'll find it difficult to design freely.

Illustrator contains a range of tools that you can use to fine-tune paths and edit anchor points. At first, it might seem like these all perform the same functions, but upon closer inspection, you'll find each has its use.

Mastering the Pen Tool

Just the mention of the Pen tool sends shivers down the spines of designers throughout the world. Traditionally, Illustrator's Pen tool has frustrated many users who have tried their hand at creating vector paths. In fact, when the Pen tool was introduced in the first version of Illustrator in 1987, word had it that John Warnock, the brain and developer behind Illustrator, was the only one who really knew how to use it. In truth, the Pen tool feels more like an engineer's tool rather than an artist's tool.

But don't let this prevent you from learning to use it.

Learning how to use the Pen tool reaps numerous rewards. Although the Pen tool first appeared in Illustrator, you'll now find it in Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, and Adobe Flash; if you know how to use it in Illustrator, you can use it in the other applications as well. You can use the Pen tool to tweak any vector path to create the exact shape you need, at any time. Additionally, if you give yourself a chance, you'll see that there's a method to the madness. After learning a few simple concepts, you'll quickly realize that anyone can use the Pen tool.

Usually, when new users select the Pen tool and try to draw with it, they click and drag it the same way they might use a normal pen on paper. They are surprised when a path does not appear onscreen; instead, several handles appear. At this point, they click again and drag; now a path appears, but it is totally not where they expect it to appear. This experience is sort of like grabbing a hammer by its head and trying to drive a nail by whacking it with the handle—it's the right tool, but it's being used in the wrong way.

While we're discussing hammers, let's consider their function in producing string art. When you go to create a piece of string art, you first start with a piece of wood, and then you hammer nails part of the way into it, leaving each nail sticking out a bit. Then you take colored thread and wrap it around the exposed nail heads, thus creating your art. The design you create consists of the strands of colored thread, but the thread is held and shaped by the nails. In fact, you can say that the nails are like anchors for the threads.

When you're using the Pen tool in Illustrator, imagine you're hammering those little nails into the wood. In this situation, you aren't drawing the shape itself; instead, you're creating the anchors for the shape—the Bézier anchor points. Illustrator draws the thread—the path—for you. If you think about drawing in this way, using the Pen tool isn't complicated at all. The hard part is just figuring out where you need to position the anchors to get the shape you need. Learning to position the anchors correctly comes with experience, but you can get started by learning how to draw simple shapes.

Drawing Objects with Straight Paths

Follow these steps to use the Pen tool to draw a straight path:

  1. Select the Pen tool, and click the artboard once—do not click and drag.

    Clicking once with the Pen tool creates a corner anchor point. This anchor point is the start point of your path.

  2. Now, move your pointer to where you want the end point of your path (Figure 4.1); click again to define a second corner anchor point.
    Figure 4.1

    Figure 4.1 Once you've clicked once to create the first anchor point, move your pointer to the location where you want the second anchor point.

Once you create this second point, Illustrator automatically connects the two anchor points with a straight path, completing the line (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Clicking a second time creates the path between the two anchor points. No clicking and dragging is necessary.

For now, the first concept becomes clear: when you're using the Pen tool, clicking—not dragging—is what defines a corner anchor point.

At this point, with your Pen tool still selected, Illustrator assumes you want to add points to your path. By clicking again, you can create a third corner anchor point, and if you do, Illustrator draws a path to connect the second anchor point to the newly created one (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 Each successive click with the Pen tool continues to create additional path segments.

Admittedly, this behavior may prove confusing because you may have been expecting to start a new path rather than add to the existing one. To start a new path, you first have to deselect the current path. The easiest way to do this is to click a blank area on the artboard while pressing the Command (Control) key, which temporarily changes your tool to the Selection tool. Once you've deselected the path, you can click with the Pen tool to start drawing a new path.

So now you understand a second concept: when drawing an open path with the Pen tool, each click adds another anchor point to the path until you deselect the path, which is how you indicate to Illustrator that you've finished that path.

You can indicate that you've finished drawing a path in another way—by drawing a closed path. Until now, you've been creating open paths, but now you can try to create a closed shape—in this case, a triangle:

  1. With nothing selected, select the Pen tool, and click once to define the first anchor point of the triangle.
  2. Move the pointer to another part of the artboard, and click again to define the second point.
  3. Now move the pointer once more, and click to define a third anchor point (Figure 4.4).
    Figure 4.4

    Figure 4.4 A triangle needs three anchor points; the third click creates two path segments.

    A triangle has three sides, so you have all the anchor points you need, but at the moment, the object you've drawn is an open path.
  4. To complete the shape, move the pointer so it rests directly on the first anchor point that you defined, and click once to close the path (Figure 4.5).
    Figure 4.5

    Figure 4.5 Clicking the first anchor point completes the shape. This is the shape after it has been closed.

    At this point, if you click again elsewhere on the artboard, the Pen tool starts drawing a new path.

This brings us to a third concept: when you create a closed path, the next click with the Pen tool starts a new path.

If this sounds confusing, try it once or twice, which should help—especially if you pay attention to your Pen tool pointer. When you're using the Pen tool, the pointer changes as you draw, helping you understand the three concepts you've just learned. When the Pen tool is going to start creating a new path, a small X appears at the lower right of the icon; when the Pen tool is going to add anchor points to an existing selected open path, no icon appears next to it; and when the Pen tool is going to close a path, a small O appears at the lower right of the icon (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 The Pen tool shows subtle indications in its icon that let you know the function it will perform.

Drawing Objects with Curved Paths

The paths you've drawn up until this point were all made up of corner anchor points, which are connected with straight lines. Of course, you'll also need to create paths with curved lines; this section explains what you need to know.

In Chapter 2, Vectors 101, you learned that curves are defined with direction handles, which control how the paths between anchor points are drawn. When you want to draw a curved path, you follow the same basic concepts you learned for creating straight paths, with one additional step that defines direction handles:

  1. To draw a curved path, select the Pen tool, and make sure an existing path isn't selected. Position your pointer where you want to begin your path, and then click and drag outward before releasing the mouse (Figure 4.7).
    Figure 4.7

    Figure 4.7 Clicking and dragging with the Pen tool defines the smooth anchor point and, at the same time, allows you to position the direction handles.

    This action creates a smooth anchor point where you first clicked and defines direction handles at the point where you released the mouse.
  2. Now position your pointer where you want the next anchor point to be, and click and drag once again (Figure 4.8).

    Using the direction handles as guidance, Illustrator draws a curved path connecting the two smooth anchor points.

    Figure 4.8

    Figure 4.8 Clicking and dragging a second time completes a curved path between the first two anchor points and defines the next curve that will be drawn.

  3. Move your pointer to another location on your artboard, and click and drag to create a third smooth anchor point.
  4. Click and drag the first anchor point to close the path (Figure 4.9).
    Figure 4.9

    Figure 4.9 Clicking and dragging on the first anchor point completes the curved shape.

We can now define a fourth concept: clicking and dragging with the Pen tool creates a smooth anchor point and defines its direction handles.

Learning to anticipate how the placement of direction handles creates the path you want takes time, but you don't have to get it right the first time. Once you create a smooth anchor point, you can switch to the Direct Selection tool and click and drag the anchor point to reposition it (Figure 4.10). Additionally, when you select a smooth anchor point at any time, the direction handles become visible for that anchor point, and you can use the Direct Selection tool to reposition those as well.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 Using the Direct Selection tool, you can change the position of anchor points and direction handles to adjust a curved path.

Drawing Objects with Both Straight and Curved Paths

In the real-design world, shapes consist of both straight and curved lines. You can use the knowledge you've gained up until this point to create paths that contain a mixture of both corner and smooth anchor points. Basically, you know that clicking with the Pen tool produces a corner anchor point and a straight line, and you know that dragging with the Pen tool produces a smooth anchor point and a curved line.

Try drawing a path with both types of anchor points:

  1. Select the Pen tool, and make sure you don't have an existing path selected (look for the small X icon on the Pen tool pointer). Click once to create a corner anchor point.
  2. Move your pointer, and click again to create a straight line (Figure 4.11).
    Figure 4.11

    Figure 4.11 You can begin a new path by creating two corner anchor points to make a straight line.

  3. Move your pointer, and click and drag to create a smooth anchor point.

You now have a single path that consists of both a straight line and a curve (Figure 4.12).

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 Adding a smooth anchor point creates a single path with both straight and curved paths.

You can use Illustrator's Convert Anchor Point tool to convert a corner anchor point to a smooth anchor point, and vice versa. To do so, choose the Convert Anchor Point tool (which is grouped with the Pen tool), and apply the same concepts you've learned. Click an existing anchor point once to convert it to a corner anchor point, and then click and drag an existing anchor point to pull out direction handles and convert it to a smooth anchor point.

Changing Direction on a Path

As you were creating smooth anchor points, you may have noticed that when you are creating or editing direction handles, a mirror effect occurs. On a smooth anchor point, the direction points are always opposite each other, and editing one seems to affect the other. Remember that the direction handles control how the path passes through the anchor point, so the direction handles are always tangential to the curve (Figure 4.13).

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 With a smooth anchor point, the direction handles are always tangential to the curve of the path.

You can, however, change the direction of a path as it passes through an anchor point:

  1. Use the Direct Selection tool to select a smooth anchor point.
  2. Switch to the Convert Anchor Point tool, and click and drag one of the direction handles (not the anchor point).

    In essence, this creates a combination point, which you can then continue to edit with the Direct Selection tool (Figure 4.14).

    Figure 4.14

    Figure 4.14 Clicking and dragging a direction handle with the Convert Anchor Point tool creates a combination anchor point.

To make life easier, you can create combination points as you draw with the Pen tool:

  1. Start by clicking and dragging to create a smooth anchor point.
  2. Move your pointer to a different position, and click and drag again to create another smooth anchor point and, hence, a curved path.
  3. Now, position your pointer directly on the second anchor point you just created. You'll notice that the Pen tool icon shows a small inverted V in its icon.
  4. Click and drag the anchor point while holding the Option (Alt) key to drag out a single direction handle (Figure 4.15).
    Figure 4.15

    Figure 4.15 As you're drawing a path with the Pen tool, you can create a combination point by clicking and dragging the last anchor point of the path while holding the Option (Alt) key.

  5. Move your pointer to another location, and click again; you'll see that you've created a combination point.

Converting Type to Outlines

Overall, using the Pen tool takes some getting used to, and if you're going to use Illustrator often, it's best to practice. While practicing, you might find it useful to convert some type to outlines (choose Type > Create Outlines) to see how the anchor points are positioned in those shapes (Figure 4.16). Try to re-create them on your own, and get a feel for when you need a corner anchor point and when you need a smooth anchor point. The more you use the Pen tool, the easier it will be to use.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 When you're learning to use the Pen tool, it can be helpful to convert some type characters to outlines so you can study the placement of the anchor points and direction handles. Choose Select > Object > Direction Handles to see the direction handles for an entire shape at once.

Adding and Deleting Anchor Points

Because anchor points are used to define paths, you must add and delete points from a path to achieve the shapes you need. You may think you can select an anchor point with the Direct Selection tool and simply press the Delete key on your keyboard, but doing this deletes a portion of the path (Figure 4.17). Although this may be useful at times, what you really want is to keep the path but remove the anchor point.

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17 Using the Direct Selection tool to select and delete an anchor point (left) also deletes the connecting path segments (center). The Delete Anchor Point tool keeps the path closed but removes the anchor point (right).

To delete an anchor point from a path without deleting the path, select the Delete Anchor Point tool, and click the anchor point once that you want to remove. Likewise, you can switch to the Add Anchor Point tool and click a selected path anywhere to add a new anchor point to the path (Figure 4.18). As an alternative, you can click the Remove Selected Anchor Points button in the Control panel. Note that this button will not appear when all anchor points of a path are selected.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18 The Add Anchor Point tool enables you to add new anchor points to an existing path.

Illustrator tries its best to help you get your work done, but sometimes its overzealousness gets in the way. By default, when you move your pointer over an existing path with the Pen tool, Illustrator, thinking you want to add a point to the existing path, conveniently switches to the Add Anchor Point tool. Likewise, when you move your pointer over an existing anchor point, Illustrator switches to the Delete Anchor Point tool, thinking you want to remove that anchor point. This is great, unless you wanted to start drawing a new path with the Pen tool on top of an existing selected path. You can turn this feature off by checking the Disable Auto Add/Delete option in the General panel in Preferences, which politely tells Illustrator, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Drawing with the Pencil Tool

To draw with the Pencil tool, simply click and drag on the artboard. As you drag, you'll see a light path trail the movement of your pointer (Figure 4.19). After you release the mouse, Illustrator creates the anchor points necessary and creates a vector path for you (Figure 4.20).

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19 As you drag with the Pencil tool, a faint line traces the path of your pointer.

Figure 4.20

Figure 4.20 After you release the mouse, Illustrator creates anchor points as necessary and displays the drawn path. Depending on your mouse control, the path may have a jittery appearance.

Because drawing with the Pencil tool relies on how steadily you handle your mouse or tablet pen, you can employ several tools and settings to help create better-looking paths.

The Smooth tool, which you'll find grouped with the Pencil tool in the Toolbox, is a tool you can use to iron out the wrinkles of any selected vector path. Select any vector path, and click and drag over it with the Smooth tool. Doing this repeatedly makes the vector path smoother and smoother. The angles in the path become smoother, and the path itself modifies to match the contour of the direction in which you drag with the Smooth tool (Figure 4.21).

Figure 4.21

Figure 4.21 Using the Smooth tool repeatedly on a path can enhance its appearance.

Double-clicking the Pencil tool or the Smooth tool opens the Pencil Tool Preferences dialog, allowing you to specify that tool's behavior (Figure 4.22).

Figure 4.22

Figure 4.22 Selecting the Edit Selected Paths option allows you to easily reshape or adjust existing paths.

  • Fidelity, Smoothness. Available for both the Pencil and Smooth tools, the Fidelity setting determines how close the vector path is drawn in relation to the movement of your mouse or input pen. A lower Fidelity setting results in a path that more closely matches the exact movement of your mouse. A higher Fidelity setting results in a path that is smoother and less jittery but that may not match your stroke exactly. If you're good with handling the mouse or if you're using an input pen, you might go with a lower setting. If you have trouble controlling the mouse or pen precisely, you might benefit from a higher Fidelity setting. The Smoothness setting refers to how much smoothing Illustrator applies to paths as you draw them. The higher the Smoothness setting, the fewer anchor points you'll see on your paths. If you're looking for more fluid strokes, increasing the Smoothness setting will help.
  • Fill New Pencil Strokes. By default, Illustrator creates paths drawn with the Pencil tool as paths with a stroke but no fill. In Chapter 2, Vectors 101, you learned that even open paths can have fills and that checking this option gives you the ability to choose a fill color and create filled paths as you draw them with the Pencil tool. This setting is available for the Pencil tool only, not for the Smooth tool.
  • Keep Selected, Edit Selected Paths. With Illustrator's default behavior, when you draw a path with the Pencil tool, the path becomes selected as soon as you complete it. You can change this behavior by deselecting the Keep Selected option. When the Edit Selected Paths option is selected and your pointer is within the specified number of pixels from an existing selected path, Illustrator allows you to modify the selected path by simply drawing over it with the Pencil tool. This can be helpful because it allows you to tweak a path to perfection as you are drawing it, almost as if you were using the Smooth tool. Where this gets in the way, however, is when you intend to draw a new path but inadvertently end up editing a path that is selected instead. This can happen often if you have the Keep Selected option turned on. Many designers prefer to turn off the Keep Selected option but leave on the Edit Selected Paths option. This way, if they do need to edit a path, they can Command-click (Control-click) a path to select it; at this point, the Edit Selected Paths feature lets them draw over it.

You can also use the Path Eraser tool to remove parts of a vector path. It's important to realize that the Path Eraser tool is not akin to the Eraser tool found in paint programs, which you can use to just erase pixels at will (however, Illustrator has an Eraser tool that does just that, which we'll talk about shortly). You use the Path Eraser tool specifically to erase portions of a selected vector path. As you trace over an existing selected path with the Path Eraser tool, a light path appears to trail the movement of your pointer. When you release the mouse, Illustrator deletes the portion of the path you've traced.

Using the Reshape Tool

Using the Direct Selection tool to select individual points on a path results in some anchor points moving while others remain stationary. In most kinds of path editing, this is the desired behavior, although it can result in paths that appear distorted (Figure 4.23). At times, you may want to stretch a path by moving selected points, but you may also want other points to move as necessary to maintain a nondistorted path appearance. The Reshape tool is perfect for this task.

Figure 4.23

Figure 4.23 Although you can always select individual points on a path and move them, you may not get acceptable results.

  1. Select a path using the Selection tool, and then select the Reshape tool.
  2. Click an anchor point or a part of a path that you want to act as a focus point when you stretch the path. This way, you'll have the most control over how this focused point is moved.

    You can also hold the Shift key and select additional focus points (as well as drag to marquee-select additional anchor points).

  3. Once you've selected your focus points, click and drag one of the focus points to reshape the path.

    You'll notice that as the points that are in focus move, other points in the path move as well to keep the general proportion of the path (Figure 4.24).

    Figure 4.24

    Figure 4.24 Using the Reshape tool, you can stretch paths and reshape them without telltale distortion.

Using the Eraser Tool

Illustrator CS3 features a new tool called the Eraser tool. Unlike the Path Eraser tool, the Eraser tool works as you would expect—it simply erases parts of objects. That being said, the Eraser tool has a variety of settings, and you should know about some "side effects" as well.

You'll find the Eraser tool in the lower part of the Tools panel, grouped with the Scissors and Knife tools (Figure 4.25). To use the Eraser tool, select it, and then click and drag over any object (or objects). If nothing is selected, the Eraser tool will erase all objects across all layers in your document, with the exception of locked layers, of course (Figure 4.26 on the following page). For more control, you can make a selection first and then use the Eraser tool, at which time the tool will erase only those objects that are selected (leaving all other objects intact).

Figure 4.25

Figure 4.25 The Eraser tool (not to be confused with the Path Eraser tool) is grouped with other tools that cut or sever objects.

Figure 4.26

Figure 4.26 A single swipe with the Eraser tool erases all objects in its path.

It's important to realize that although the Eraser tool is cool and makes it seem effortless to quickly remove parts of an illustration, the tool still must abide by the general rules of how vector objects are drawn. This means if you try to erase part of a single closed path, the result will be two closed paths, not open ones. It's easiest to see this when attempting to erase paths that contain strokes (Figure 4.27). In addition, although you can certainly use the Eraser tool to erase portions of a stroke, you must reapply the strokes to each segment of the resulting path (Figure 4.28). In the latter case, you can get around this by first applying the Object > Path > Outline Stroke command before using the Eraser tool. The same applies when trying to erase paths with brushes applied (refer to Chapter 5, Brushes, Symbols, and Masks, for more information on brushes).

Figure 4.27

Figure 4.27 Although you may initially expect the eraser to simply remove an area from an object (left), the result will actually be two closed shapes (right).

Figure 4.28

Figure 4.28 If a stroke has the Round Cap option specified, the eraser may appear to create a clean break while you're using it (left), but the result will be two paths, each with its own respective round cap appearance (right).

Once you get used to the behavior of the Eraser tool, it becomes a useful (and fun!) tool to use. Even better, you can adjust some really powerful settings to get the full potential of the Eraser tool. First, you can adjust the size of the eraser by tapping the bracket keys on your keyboard (just as you would adjust brush size in Photoshop). You can also double-click the Eraser tool in the Tools panel to open the Eraser Tool Options dialog (Figure 4.29). You can manually adjust the numerical values for the angle and roundness of the Eraser tool, or you can click and drag the black dots and the arrow in the preview near the top of the dialog to adjust those values visually. You can adjust the size of the diameter of the eraser as well.

Figure 4.29

Figure 4.29 The Eraser Tool Options dialog offers control over how the Eraser tool works.

By default, all the values are fixed, meaning they remain consistent as you use the Eraser tool. However, you can choose to make the values random and select a variation for each setting. Even better, if you have a pressure-sensitive tablet (such as the one from Wacom, for example), you can choose other variables including Pressure (Figure 4.30). For example, setting Diameter to Pressure with a high Variation value gives you the ability to erase with more control and flexibility (Figure 4.31).

Figure 4.30

Figure 4.30 When choosing variable settings such as Pressure, the preview window in the Eraser Tool Options dialog displays the minimum, median, and maximum sizes of the eraser.

Figure 4.31

Figure 4.31 By applying pressure with a Variable setting for the eraser, you can achieve natural-looking results not possible with a mouse.

Cutting Paths with the Scissors and Knife Tools

When editing paths, you might find you need to cut or split a path at a certain point. With the Scissors tool selected, you can click any topmost vector path (selected or not) to cut the path. In essence, you create two anchor points by doing this. The Scissors tool can cut only one path at a time.

The Knife tool is much like the Scissors tool, only you cut or split a path by dragging the pointer across a path instead of clicking it. Whereas using the Scissors tool results in an open path, using the Knife tool results in at least two closed paths (Figure 4.32). The Knife tool cuts through multiple paths when nothing is selected, but cuts through only objects that are selected (even if those selected objects appear beneath other objects).

Figure 4.32

Figure 4.32 Using the Knife tool to slice a single object results in two separate closed paths.

Using the Scissors or Knife tool is unwieldy at best, and you may find that if you're doing a lot of path editing, you'll get better results using Live Paint groups, which are covered later in this chapter.

2. Creating Compound Paths | Next Section

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