Illustrator’s Pen Tool: The Comprehensive Guide

If you use Adobe Illustrator, then it’s almost certain that you use the Pen Tool when creating your paths. This comprehensive guide aims to introduce or remind you of features, shortcuts, and methods for working with what is arguably Adobe’s most essential tool.

Click on artboard to create paths with straight segments, click and drag to create paths with Bezier curves.

Bezier curve
Note the tooltip which gives you precise pixel coordinates wherever your cursor points

Click on a path segment to add anchor points.

Add anchor point

Click on anchor point to remove from path.

Delete anchor point

Click on an anchor point and drag to create bezier handles where there were none, click on an anchor point with handles to remove them.

Convert anchor point

Alternatively, click and drag midway along a path to manipulate it as a curve.

Not part of the Pen Tool group, but definitely associated with it. Click on a path segment to divide into two paths.

  • Select Pen Tool (P)
  • Select Add Anchor Point Tool (+)
  • Select Delete Anchor Point Tool (-)
  • Select Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift-C)
  • Select Scissors Tool (C)
  • Join two anchor points (Command/Control-J)

The Pen Tool takes on different forms depending on what you’re doing when you’re using it. Each cursor intuitively makes you aware of the action you are about to perform.

(Caps Lock to toggle between pointer and cross hair)

Prepared to begin path
Prepared to begin path
Whilst midway through creating or editing a path
Whilst midway through creating or editing a path (with grid coordinates)
When mouse button is pressed
When mouse button is pressed
When ready to add an anchor point to path
When ready to add an anchor point to path
When ready to remove an anchor point from path
When ready to remove an anchor point from path
When hovered over begin point of path to close path
When hovered over begin point of path; to close path
When hovered over endpoint of existing path to continue path
When hovered over endpoint of existing path; to continue path
When ready to convert path or anchor point
When ready to convert path or anchor point
When ready to or in the action of manipulating a curved path
When ready to, or in the action of manipulating a curved path
When ready to join new path to existing path
When ready to join new path to existing path
  1. Pen Tool hovers over anchor point: changes to Delete Anchor Point Tool
  2. Pen Tool hovers over path segment: changes to Add Anchor Point Tool
  3. Pen Tool hovers over end anchor point: changes to Continue Anchor Point Tool
  1. Hold Shift to constrain movements to 45°, 90°, 135° or 180° whilst creating or editing anchor points and handles.
  2. Select anchor point with Direct Selection Tool (A) and click Delete. Anchor and adjoining path segments will be deleted leaving two paths.
  3. Pen Tool-Option (Alt): changes to Convert Anchor Point Tool.
  4. Pen Tool hover over bezier handle + Command (Control): allows editing of bezier curve.
  5. Pen Tool-Option (Alt) whilst creating bezier curve: splits curve (unhinges handles).
  6. Pen Tool hover over bezier handle + Option (Alt): splits curve (unhinges handles).
  7. Scissors Tool (C)Option (Alt): changes to Add anchor point tool.
  8. Add Anchor Point Tool-Option (Alt): changes to Delete Anchor Point Tool.
  9. Delete Anchor Point Tool-Option (Alt): changes to Add Anchor Point Tool.

You can access the preferences which influence the Pen Tool (P) and other related tools by going to Illustrator > Preferences > Selection & Anchor Display.

Selection  Anchor Display
Selection & Anchor Display

Radius of the selection area around anchor points. Must be between 1 and 8 pixels, 1px if you’re deadly accurate with your mouse or have a lot of anchors in close range of one another, 8px if you prefer less precision. 3px is the default value.

When checked, this option allows selection of objects only by clicking their paths. Clicking on their filled areas is ineffective, comparable to working in Outline mode (View > Outline).

Also checkable via View > Snap to Point, though via the Selection & Anchor Display dialogue the tolerance can also be determined from 1 to 8 pixels. This value again represents the radius around anchor points. When lining up two objects, anchor points from one will snap to points of the other should they be positioned within the specified range.

It’s worth noting that since the release of Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 Bezier handles are immune to grid-snapping. You can therefore make sure your anchors all stick to the grid (great for web use) whilst maintaining precision with free curves.

Determines the way in which your path anchor points and handles are displayed.

When checked, highlights anchor points when hovered over with cursor.

When checked, this options displays the handles of points when multiple points are selected. Otherwise, handles of multiple selected points are not displayed.

Corner widgets allow you to drag corners in order to make them rounded. You may find it helpful to specify the corner angle at which you no longer want to have the widget displayed. Choose from 105°, 120°, 135°, 150° or 165°.

When wanting to lay down an anchor point I always find it helpful to know what the path will look like. Checking the Rubber Band option gives you a preview of the path before you commit.

Select the Direct Selection Tool (A) before selecting the Pen Tool (P). Hold-Command (Control) to give you access to the last tool selected (in this case the Direct Selection Tool) for editing of paths and handles without deselecting the path.

With path selected, use the Spacebar to give you access to the Hand Tool (H). Move your screen without deselecting the path or changing tools.

While creating or editing an anchor point, click and Click-Hold-Spacebar to alter the position of the anchor point you’re working on. Since the release of Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 this manipulation is also possible on the closing anchor of a path.

With the Direct Selection Tool (A) select the end point and starting point of a path. Command (Control)-Jto Join.

With the Direct Selection Tool (A) select the end point and starting point of a path. Command (Control)-Option (Alt)-Shift-J to join and average simultaneously.

Bear in mind that the colour of your highlighted paths and their Bezier handles is dependent on the colour of the layer they’re placed on.

To smoothen a path by reducing the number of anchor points open the Simplify dialogue (Object > Path > Simplify) and adjust according to your needs.

Conversely, should you want more anchor points to improve manipulation go to Object > Path > Add Anchor Points. A new anchor point will appear after every existing anchor point on the selected path.

To prevent the Pen Tool (P) from changing its function when interacting with other anchor points or paths, open the general preferences dialogue (Illustrator > Preferences > General) and check the Disable Auto Add/Delete option. The Pen Tool will now only draw paths.

Disable Auto AddDelete
Disable Auto Add/Delete

Since the release of Adobe Illustrator CC 2014, control over Bezier handles has improved. Now, whilst dragging handles of an anchor point press and hold Command/Control to independently stretch and shrink the leading handle, whilst keeping its movement paired to the trailing handle.

Drag handles from the first anchor point when beginning a curved path.

Drag your handles around just one third of the curve you’re creating for a smooth path.

Position anchor points on a curve where the paths begin to change direction, not in the middle of its curve.

Be sparing with your use of anchor points, fewer points = neater path.

This is all well and good in theory, but while these tips are fresh in your mind why not put them into practice? Download the Pen Tool Exercise file and follow the guides to create precise paths, using the hints and shortcuts covered in this article.

If you need some inspiration for your designs, check out the popular vectors on Envato Market. If you’re struggling to create a particular vector with the Pen Tool, you might find something there that you can use in your project.


Adobe Illustrator Tutorial: Tracing images in Illustrator CC

Illustrator is often used to convert artwork that has been scanned or rendered in a pixel-based painting program, like Adobe Photoshop, into crisp vector line art. There are two ways to trace images in Illustrator CC. You can manually trace them using template layers and drawing tools or you can use the Image Trace feature, discussed in further detail later in this section, that automatically converts a bitmap image into a vector graphic.

In the first part of the exercise, you will place a scanned image as a template and retrace it using the skills you just learned with the Pen tool. In the second part of the exercise, you will learn how to use the Image Trace feature, equipped with built-in presets and custom settings, to convert a bitmap image into a vector graphic.

Placing an image as a template

1 Create a new Illustrator document by choosing File > New. In the New Document dialog box, type ai0502_work into the File name text field. Choose Print from the Profile drop-down menu. Choose Letter from the Size drop-down menu, if it is not already selected. Click OK.

2 Select File > Save. Make sure that you are in the ai03lessons folder, and keep the type Adobe Illustrator. When the Illustrator Options dialog box appears, click OK.

3 Choose File > Place. In the Place dialog box, navigate to the ai03lessons folder and select the ai0502.tif file. Select the Template check box at the bottom of the Place dialog box to import the selected artwork as a template layer. Click Place. A faint outline of a truck appears in your document.

Turn your artwork into a template before placing it in on the artboard.

4 Select the Move tool (), and then click anywhere on the artboard to deselect the truck artwork.

5 In the Control panel, choose None () from the Fill Color drop-down menu and choose the color black from the Stroke Color drop-down menu, if it isn’t already selected. Choose 2 pt from the Stroke Weight drop-down menu.

Set the attributes for the vector stroke.

6 Select the Pen tool () from the Tools panel. Position the cursor near label 1, then click and release to create the first anchor point of the path along the tracing template for the truck. If necessary, increase the magnification to see the template more clearly.

Create the first anchor point of the truck.

7 Press and hold the Shift key and click along the truck outline near label 2. Because you held down the Shift key, Illustrator creates a straight 90° line to the second anchor point.

8 Press and hold the Shift key, and click at label 3 to continue tracing the truck’s outline.

9 Continue to hold down the Shift key, and click along the truck body at labels 4, 5, 6, and 7.

10 The line between labels 7 and 8 is diagonal, and not on a 45° or 90° angle, so release the Shift key and click at label 8.

Continue outlining the truck.

11 Again, press and hold the Shift key, and click at labels 9 and 10.

12 Release the Shift key on the keyboard and click at label 11. Up to this point, the exercise has dealt entirely with creating straight lines and corner points; for the line between labels 11 and 12, you need to create a curved line.

Because the point created at label 11 is a corner point, the Pen tool automatically will default to creating a straight line between this anchor and the next anchor point. You will change this behavior by converting the anchor point from a corner to a curved anchor point.

13 Hover the Pen tool over the anchor point created at label 11, and look for the Convert Anchor Point symbol () to appear next to the tool. Click and drag with the tool in the direction of the curve to create a new direction handle.

As you drag to create the directional handle, the cursor
has the appearance of an arrowhead without a stem.

14 Click with the Pen tool at label 12 to create a smooth point and complete the line.

15 Hold the Shift key on the keyboard, and click labels 13, 14, then 15.

16 The half circle between labels 15 and 16 presents the same challenge that you faced previously. Again, hover the Pen tool over the anchor point you just created. While holding the Shift key, click and drag upward to create a constrained directional handle.

Move the direction handle up to start another curve.

17 At label 16, click and drag the cursor down to create a new smooth point and continue the line.

18 Position the cursor over the anchor point that you just created at label 16, and click on it when you see the Convert Anchor Point symbol ( ) appear next to the Pen tool. Hold down the Shift key and click at label 17 to convert the curve point to a corner point.

19 Repeat the process, explained in step 18, until you reach the anchor point numbered 20. After you have collapsed the anchor point at label 20, position your cursor over label 1. A circle appears next to the Pen tool (), indicating that this action will close the path you have just drawn. Click on the anchor point to complete the line and close the path.

20 Choose File > Save, then choose File > Close.

Placing an image using Image Trace

Illustrator CC provides an Image Trace feature that converts raster images into editable vectors. Using the Image Trace feature, you choose from a number of presets to help you create the best conversion and achieve the results that you want.

When you place a bitmap image in your document, you can access Image Trace in two ways: using the default presets located in the Control panel or using the Image Trace panel.

A. Auto-Color. B. High Color C. Low Color.
D. Grayscale. E. Black and White. F. Outline.

Along the top of the Image Trace panel are six preset buttons: Auto-Color, High Color, Low Color, Grayscale, Black and White, and Outline. Simply select your image and choose one of the default presets. The preset you choose will preview live on the artboard.

To customize the results, you may want to fine-tune the trace, which can be done manually using the options in the Image Trace panel. You can control the number of colors used, path and corner appearances, complexity of the tracing, and more.

Image Trace Options

Preset: Specifies 11 types of tracing presets.

View: Specifies the view of the traced object. You can choose to view the tracing result, source image, outlines, and other options.

Mode: Specifies if the tracing result will be in color, grayscale or black-and-white.

Palette: Specifies the palette used to determine the number of colors in the tracing result. To let Illustrator determine the colors, select Automatic (this option is available only when the Mode is set to Color).

Color settings: Depending on what is selected for the Mode and Palette options, the following color settings are displayed:

Colors: The number of colors used in the tracing result (this option is available only when Mode is set to Color).

Grays: The number of grays used in the tracing result (this option is available only when Mode is set to Grayscale).

Threshold: Value for generating a black-and-white tracing result from the original image (this option is available only when Mode is set to Black and White).

Paths: Controls the distance between the traced path shape and the original path shape. The lower the value, the tighter the path fits; the higher the value, the looser the path fits.

Corners: Specifies the corner appearance. A higher value results in more corners.

Noise: Determines the pixel area that is ignored while tracing.

Method: Specifies a method for tracing:

Abutting — This option creates paths that are cutout.

Overlapping — This option creates paths that are stacked.

Fills: Creates filled regions in the tracing result.

Strokes: Creates stroked paths in the tracing result.

Snap Curves To Lines: Determines if curved lines are to be replaced with straight lines.

Ignore White: Specifies if White filled areas are to be replaced with no fills.

1 Choose File > Open. In the Open dialog box, select the file and click Open. This Illustrator file consists of two images already placed for you on separate layers for this exercise. You will only see one image, the bananas, as the Target layer’s visibility is turned off at this time.

2 Choose File > Save As. In the Save As dialog box, make sure that you are in the ai03lessons folder and name the file, then click Save. When the Illustrator Options dialog box appears, click OK.

3 You will first work with a picture of bananas, converting it from a bitmap image to a vector image. Select the Zoom tool () in the Tools panel and click once on the center of the page to enlarge the view so you can see the tracing results better.

4 Using the Selection tool (), click on the picture, then choose Window > Image Trace. The Image Trace panel appears. Position the panel to the side of your image so you can view both the panel and image at the same time.

Click on the picture and open the Image Trace panel.

5 On the top of the panel are six preset options. Click on the Auto-Color button. The Auto-Color preset previews live on the artboard.

Click the Auto-Color preset and preview the results on the artboard.

6 The default preset gets you started, but you may want to fine-tune the tracing results before expanding the final image. If you do not see the Advanced options, click the arrow to the left of Advanced in the Image Trace panel to expand the advanced options.

7 From the Palette drop-down menu, select Full Tone. In the Advanced option section, type 25% in the Paths, 50% in the Corners and 70 px in the Noise text fields, then press Enter (Windows) or Return (Mac OS). As you can see, these small adjustments produce a much better rendering of the original bitmap image.

Make some custom adjustments to enhance the image tracing results.
To view your original image, click and hold the visibility icon located to the right of the View drop-down menu. Let go of the mouse button to turn off the preview and continue making adjustments.

8 Once you are satisfied with the results, you can save your own preset to use again on other images. Click on the Preset panel menu and select Save as New Preset. In the Save Image Trace Preset dialog box, type Full Tone Image then click OK.

Save your own custom preset.

9 In the Control panel, click the Expand button to finalize the trace and expand your image into a fully editable vector image. Try using the Selection and Direct Selection tools to experiment with the results.

Click Expand in the Control panel to complete the vector trace.

10 Choose File > Save. Leave the file open for the next exercise.

Working with the new Image Trace Method option

One of the new features worth experimenting with in the Image Trace panel is the Method option. There are 2 methods to choose from:

  • Abutting — This option creates cutout paths.
  • Overlapping — This option creates stacked paths.

To understand the difference between these two methods, perform the following steps:

1 If the Layers panel is not visible, choose Windows > Layers or click the Layers button ( ) in the dock on the right side of the workspace. In the Layers panel, click the visibility icon () to the left of the Bananas layer to hide it, then click the visibility icon to the left of the Target layer to show it.

2 If the Image Trace panel is not visible, choose Windows > Image Trace. Using the Selection tool ( ), click on the picture of the target to select it. In the Method section in the Image Trace panel, click on the Abutting option. At the top of the panel, click on the Auto-Color preset button (), then click on the Expand button in the Control panel.

3 Click anywhere on the artboard to deselect the image. Select the Direct Selection tool ( ) from the Tools panel, then click and drag the outer red circle on the target slightly to the right. You will notice that by choosing the Abutting option, the paths are cut out in sections that you can move and edit easily.

Choose the Abutting method in the The results.
Image Trace panel.

4 Now let’s try the Overlapping method to see the difference. Choose Edit > Undo Move to reposition the red circle back into place, then choose Edit > Undo Expand Tracing to undo the tracing of the image and bring it back into its original bitmap state.

5 With the target still selected, click on the Auto-Color preset button () in the Image Trace panel, then select the Overlapping button for the Method. Click on the Expand button in the Control panel.

6 Click anywhere on the artboard to deselect the image. Select the Direct Selection tool () from the Tools panel, then click and drag the outer red circle on the target slightly to the right. By choosing the Overlapping method, the paths stack on top of each other.

Choose the Overlapping method in the The results.
Image Trace panel.

7 Choose File > Save, then File > Close.

How to import brushes in Illustrator

we have collected some of the best Illustrator Brush Packs from all across the internet. Floral, foliage, chains, snowflakes, sketches — you name it — we have put together 25 of the best brushes you can find for Adobe Illustrator. Here is how to load them:

And here are the links for downloading:

Marker Pen Strokes Illustrator Brush Pack (64 Brushes)

Marker Pen Strokes 64 illustrator brushes free

Floral Brush Illustrator Pack

Floral Brush Pack for illustrator

Decorative Chalk Brushes (10 Brushes)

Decorative Chalk Brushes 10 illustrator brushes

Grunge Illustrator Pack (13 Brushes)

Grunge Pack 13 illustrator brushes

Glare Fractal Illustrator Brush Pack (8 Brushes)

Glare Fractal 8 illustrator brushes

Paint Brushstroke Illustrator Brush Pack (15 Brushes)

Paint Brushstroke 15 illustrator brushes free

Victorian Vector Pack Brush Pack (10 Brushes)

Victorian Vector Pack 10 illustrator brushes

Kaleidoscope Brush Pack (10 Brushes)

Kaleidoscope 10 illustrator brushes

Wedge Illustrator Pack (19 Brushes)

Wedge Pack 19 illustrator brushes

Multi-Colored Paint Brush Pack (57 Brushes)

Multi-Colored Paint 57 illustrator brushes

Smoke Pack Brush Pack (10 Brushes)

Smoke Pack 10 illustrator brushes free

HQ Paintbrush Style Brushes Illustrator Brush Pack (27 Brushes)

HQ Paintbrush Style Brushes 27 illustrator brushes

Abstract Pack Illustrator Brush Pack (15 Brushes)

Abstract Pack 15 illustrator brushes

Marker Brushes (230 Brushes)

Marker Brushes 230 illustrator brushes

The Hairbrush Kit

The Hairbrush Kit for illustrator

Woodcuts Illustrator Brush Pack (6 Brushes)

Woodcuts 6 illustrator brushes

Glare Brushes (15 Brushes)

Glare Brushes 15 illustrator brushes free

Spanners Illustrator Pack

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Urban Squares Brush Pack

Urban Squares for illustrator

Awesomeness Illustrator Pack

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Killer Retro Starbursts Brush Pack

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Little Bloom Flowers Brush Pack

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Lino Cut Brush Pack

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Floral Brushes

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Vine Brushes

Vine illustrator brushes

Willow Brushes

Willow illustrator brushes

RMPL Line Art Brush Pack

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Circles Brush Illustrator Pack

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Christmas Illustrator Pack (35 Brushes)

Christmas Pack 35 illustrator brushes

10 Things You Should Know About Adobe Illustrator

I hope the ten tips below will encouraged you to give Illustrator another look. It’s a complicated application but it can’t be beat for vector work and once you get the hang of how it’s different from Photoshop, everything starts to make sense.As I go through the tips below, a lot of the explanation will be based on how working in Illustrator is different than Photoshop. The two apps are quite similar so you should be able to leverage your existing knowledge as long as you keep the information below in mind.

1. Vector Graphics Are Magic

The absolute first thing you should know about Illustrator is that it’s used to create vector graphics. As you probably know, vector graphics are very different than the raster graphics that you typically create in Photoshop (it’s true that Photoshop has some limited vector capabilities, but no where near what you can achieve in Illustrator.). Instead of being comprised of static individual pixels, vector graphics are mathematically drawn by your computer and can therefore be drastically changed with absolutely zero loss in quality.

What this means on a practical level is that when you create art in Illustrator, no matter what its original size is, at any time you want you can make it as big as a billboard or as small as a thumb tac. This has major positive implications to the way you work.

For instance, let’s say you’re in Photoshop and you have a circular logo that is small and you want it to be big. As you’ve probably no doubt run into a million times, if you try to increase the size of that element, it pretty much gets destroyed. Watch how much a simple circle loses quality as its size increases:


This makes creating and working with complex graphics in raster quite difficult because your freedom to change your mind is limited, even if you’re using Smart Objects you’re constrained to the object’s original size.

With vector graphics, these problems simply don’t exist, giving you the freedom to continually change your mind and your artwork at will without worrying about any visual degradation.


Also, since vector graphics are comprised of points and lines, you have an unlimited amount of freedom to go in and change individual line segments.


But You Already Knew That

Odds are, if you’re reading this blog you already know what the differences between vector and raster graphics are. The thing that you need to accept now is that Illustrator really does blow Photoshop away in this area (Fireworks is an interesting in-between that does both fairly well). Even better, you don’t have to choose one over the other but can instead use them and all the other apps in the Creative Suite synergistically throughout your various projects.

2. What’s All This Crap on My Screen?

The first thing that you’re likely to notice when you start using Illustrator is that there is a whole lot of stuff going on when you select and edit something. This is something that lots of new users tend to hate right off the bat because it looks confusing, but in reality all of the information and controls that Illustrator throws as you are extremely helpful.

The Bounding Box

For starters, whenever you select anything, you’ll see its bounding box. This is an intuitive feature that you should instantly understand, the part that’s not intuitive is why it won’t go away.


In Photoshop, you only see an object’s bounding box when you’re in the midst of a transform. In Illustrator, you see the bounding box whenever you have a complete object selected and the active tool is the Direct Selection Tool (V).

If you have multiple objects selected, the bounding box will appear around all of them, allowing you to move or transform them together. The same rules apply as you’re used to in Photoshop: hold shift to scale uniformly, throw in the Alt/Option key to scale from the center, etc.


One major different here is that you can’t grab and independently move a specific corner of the bounding box like you can in a Photoshop transform. This makes shearing and putting perspective on objects a bit trickier as you have to use the dedicated tools for these types of transformations. Later we’ll get a glimpse of how to use Free Transform, which will feel much more like you’re used to in Photoshop.

Smart Guides

Smart Guides are the major thing that bugs many newbies and pros alike. These are the little bits of information and outlines that pop up as you hover over, move or transform something. They may seem like they’re just getting in your way but try to get used to them and use them as much as possible, you’ll soon start to see their value.


Smart Guides allow you to size objects on the fly using precise measurements and align whatever you have selected with points and lines from other objects around it. They make it really easy to create complex layouts very quickly and are much easier than “eyeballing” things. You also of course have a full set of alignment tools for these types of operations:


Turn It All Off

I highly recommend working with all of these extras turned on, but some users simply hate all of the distractions. Admittedly, I feel the same way about the extras for InDesign so I definitely understand this mindset.

Fortunately, Illustrator allows you to silence the noise and turn all of this stuff off. As a quick way to turn off the bounding box, hit Command-Shift-B, or go to View>Hide Bounding Box.

Similarly, turning off the Smart Guides is as easy as hitting Command-U, or going to View and unchecking Smart Guides.

3. Layers Are Different

When switching from Photoshop to Illustrator, it’s important to note the conceptual changes in the workflow. Despite the fact that the two applications share so many features, it’s frequently the case that the feature is used in a very different way.

Layers are an excellent example of this. In Photoshop, every piece gets its own layer. In fact, an individual object is really defined by the layer it’s on. If you throw two elements on the same layer, they become a single element and if they overlap, you won’t be able to separate them anymore. Also, applying an effect to an object affects the whole layer.

In Illustrator, layers aren’t so much the way to access every separate piece on the page as they are a convenient organization utility. If you choose, you can create an incredibly complex piece of art with thousands of individual elements all using a single layer. Further, the elements on that layer have their own sub-hierarchy and can be independently edited and arranged at any time.

So, for example, instead of having a layer for every item, it would be pretty typical to create one layer that holds all your various text items, another for your vector graphics and possibly even a third for imported Photoshop art.


How Layers Work in Ai

There is a ton of functionality in Illustrator layers that you won’t see in Photoshop. For starters, each layer has a little dropdown arrow that allows you to see the hierarchy of each element within that layer. Here elements can be rearranged to adjust the visual stacking order of the result (use Command-[ and Command-] to bring an item forward or push it back).


On the right side of the palette you should see a circle next to a colored square. Clicking on the circle allows you to easily select an element. Click on the layer’s circle to select everything within the layer or an individual element’s circle to select only that item.

The colored square indicates the color of that layer. For convenience, the bounding box and other pop-up graphics are color-coded based on layers, that way when you select something you can instantly see which layer it is belongs to. To move an item from one layer to another, simply click and drag its little square.

4.The Pathfinder is Awesome

Let’s face it, drawing on a computer is hard. Even simple shapes can be difficult to create if you’re not a master of the Pen Tool. As with most professional vector software, Illustrator makes creating complex shapes much easier through the use of boolean operations found in the Pathfinder palette.


The little previews on the Pathfinder buttons are pretty self explanatory. They all essentially allow you to combine two shapes in an interesting way. When you first use Ai you might be tempted to think that this is a novelty feature that you’ll never use, but trust me, if you’re going to be doing illustration, putting the Pathfinder to work will save you loads of time.

A little bit of creativity goes a long way and once you can learn to see the simple shapes that make up complex objects, the Pathfinder will be your best friend.

Shape Builder

If you have CS5, Illustrator gives you another way to perform complex boolean operations. The Shape Builder Tool (Shift+M) allows you to simply click and drag through overlapping objects to combine them.


Try holding down the Option key to subtract geometry rather than add it. Check out a video tutorial on the new Shape Builder tool here.

5. Artboards, Not Pages

For over a decade Illustrator users have mourned the fact that it’s impossible to create multi-page documents. Adobe intentionally keeps multi-page projects as a key feature of InDesign though so there wasn’t much hope for a solution.

Recently though, the problem was solved in an interesting way by allowing users to create multiple artboards. These can be used in any number of ways: separate ideas for the same project, designing both the front and back of an object, etc.


You can create as many artboards as you want in a single document. They can even be different sizes. Functionally, there are a lot of benefits to using multiple artboards within a single document instead of simply creating multiple documents. You can easily move/copy objects back and forth and print or export selected artboards all at once.

6. Effects Are Weird

In place of “filters” like in Photoshop, Illustrator gives you various “Effects” that can be used to manipulate your artwork, and they take some getting used to. To see what I mean, let’s use one. Below I have some text that’s been converted to outlines and I want to give it some perspective. As I mentioned above, the bounding box doesn’t give me this freedom so I went to Effects>Distort & Transform>Free Distort.


Now, when I apply the tranformation, things get a little wonky. The effect can clearly be seen on my text, but when I select the object, all of my points are still in their original positions and don’t reflect my current artwork at all.


This is because the transformation isn’t actually applied in a permanent way. Instead of actually messing with the shape of your object, effects are applied “live”. This is actually a great thing because it means that you always retain the integrity of your original object and can go back and edit the effect at any time.

To edit the effect, select your object and bring up your appearance palette. There should be a little “fx” icon somewhere with the name of the effect that you applied. Simply double click that icon to edit it or drag it to the trash to delete it.


Photoshop Effects

You may have noticed that there is actually a set of Photoshop effects available inside of Illustrator. These can be fun to play with, but in all honesty I’d recommend using them sparingly, if at all. Illustrator effects are built for vectors and use mathematical calculations to adapt to changes in the artwork, Photoshop effects are raster and therefore not as reliable when attempting to apply them in a vector-driven workspace.

7.The Eyedropper Does a Lot

Inside of Photoshop, the Eyedropper tool grabs a color from your document or screen… that’s it. In Illustrator however, the tool is much more powerful. Here are a few things you can do with it.

Grab A Color from Another Item
This one you know about. Select one object, eyedropper another, the color of the second object will be applied to the first.

Example: Select red box, Eyedropper blue box, both boxes will now be blue.

Apply The Selected Object’s Color Elsewhere
An alternate way to use the Eyedropper tool is to select the object whose color you want to replicate elsewhere, then hold down the Option key and click on anything else that you want to give that color to.

Example: Select red box, Option-Click on blue box, both boxes will now be red.

Grab The Styling From Text and Other Objects
Illustrator’s Eyedropper tool not only grabs color but style as well. You can use it to make two text objects have identical fonts, color and size or to grab the stroke from a shape object.

Example 1: Select red Futura 12pt text, Eyedropper blue Helvetica 15pt text, both objects become blue Helvetica 15pt text.

Example 2: Select a white box with a black stroke, Eyedropper a blue box with a yellow stroke, both boxes become blue with yellow strokes.

Tip: hold down shift to only grab the foreground color of an object.

8.Fonts Make Sharing Files Difficult

When I pass a Photoshop document off to someone, no matter what fonts are used, they can actually open it up and see what the original design looked like. Without the fonts, they can’t edit the text, but they can at least view it.

In Illustrator this is not the case. If you create a piece of art for someone and send it along to them, if there are uncommon fonts used, odds are that person won’t be able to view your .ai file correctly (they’ll see the wrong fonts).

In practice, most people just send along the fonts, but this could be a poor choice for several reasons. First, font licensing is complicated and you’re technically not supposed to just give your expensive fonts to everyone who wants to see your file.

Also, it’s often the case that someone such as a commercial printer requests your files but you don’t really want them changing anything. In both of these cases you can save yourself a lot of trouble by going to Type>Create Outlines (Command-Shift-O). This essentially turns your text into vector shapes and therefore eliminates any font issues and takes away the viewer’s ability to change the text.


Alternatively, you could save the document as a PDF and share it that way. Many clients will request the “original layered files”, in which case a PDF won’t suffice, but if the person doesn’t care about file formats then PDF is the way to go.

Dealing with Missing Fonts

If you’re on the other end of this discussion and receive a file with missing fonts, there is little you can do to fix it. However, Illustrator does make it easy to target specific missing fonts and replace them throughout a document with something from your system. This is done in the Type>Find Font dialog.


9. Useful Keyboard Shortcuts (for Mac)

To finish off our Illustrator basics discussion, you should familiarize yourself with how to get around the interface quickly and smoothly using keyboard shortcuts. Obviously, hovering over any tool will show you the equivalent shortcut, so here are some other useful tricks you may not know. Many of these are right out of Photoshop so you should feel right at home.

I’ll just throw in the Mac shortcuts here. PC users should just know that ⌘ (Command) = Control and ⌥ (Option) = Alt.


  • Zoom In/Out: ⌘+ or ⌘-
  • Fit Artboard to Screen: ⌘0
  • Zoom to Actual Size: ⌘1

Temporary Tool Switching

  • Temporary Hand Tool: Hold Space from any tool
  • Temporary Selection Tool: Hold ⌘ from any Tool (gives you Direct Selection if already in Selection Tool)
  • Temporary Zoom Tool: Hold ⌘Space from any Tool


  • Paste In Front: ⌘F
  • Paste In Back: ⌘B
  • Paste In Place: ⌘⇧V

Working with Objects

  • Duplicate an Object: Hold ⌥ while dragging
  • Group Objects: ⌘G
  • Ungroup Objects: ⌘⇧G
  • Bring to Front: ⌘⇧]
  • Send to Back: ⌘⇧[
  • Select All on Active Artboard Only: ⌘⌥A
  • Lock Selection: ⌘2, ⌘⌥2 to unlock all
  • Hide Selection: ⌘3, ⌘⌥3 to show all


  • Check Spelling: ⌘I
  • Show Grid: ⌘”
  • Make Guides: ⌘5 (select a shape first)


10. Useful Keyboard Shortcuts (for Windows)


  • Zoom In/Out: Ctrl + or Ctrl-
  • Fit Artboard to Screen: Ctrl 0
  • Zoom to Actual Size: Ctrl 1

Temporary Tool Switching

  • Temporary Hand Tool: Hold Space from any tool
  • Temporary Selection Tool: Hold Ctrl from any Tool (gives you Direct Selection if already in Selection Tool)
  • Temporary Zoom Tool: Hold Ctrl Space from any Tool


  • Paste In Front: Ctrl F
  • Paste In Back: Ctrl B
  • Paste In Place: Ctrl ⇧V

Working with Objects

  • Duplicate an Object: Hold cntrl +alt  while dragging
  • Group Objects: Ctrl G
  • Ungroup Objects: Ctrl ⇧G
  • Bring to Front: Ctrl ⇧]
  • Send to Back: Ctrl  ⇧[
  • Select All on Active Artboard Only: Ctrl+ A
  • Lock Selection: Ctrl 2, Ctrl+alt+2 to unlock all
  • Hide Selection: Ctrl 3, Ctrl+alt+3 to show all


  • Check Spelling: CtrlI
  • Show Grid: Ctrl”
  • Make Guides: Ctrl5 (select a shape first)

Fundamentals of Adobe Illustrator


For vector work, Illustrator simply can’t be beat and you should really set your reservations aside and give it a shot. Even if you’re commonly creating raster graphics for the web, there are a number of things that Illustrator simply does better than Photoshop so getting to know both apps and their strengths/weaknesses is a must.