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Digital Artwork: Illustrator 101

Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based image editing program that was created in 1986 for use with the Apple MacIntosh.  The current version is Illustrator CC, a part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, a monthly subscription-based service. Illustrator is typically used to create vector images from scratch (logos, designs, etc) and to vectorize bitmap images. Since bitmap images are made of small pixels (dots) they do not scale well.

When the size of a bitmap image increases the dots become distinguishable, thus the term “pixelated.”  Vector images are created using lines and mathematical formulas, allowing them to be easily enlarged without losing quality.  So, where Adobe Photoshop is used to edit and create bitmap images, Illustrator and its competitor CorelDRAW are used to edit and create vector images.  While Photoshop offers many more image editing features (because bitmap images are more versatile), Illustrator is an important tool for product decoration, as most business, school, and organization logos must be created as vector images. 

Bitmap images can be converted to a vector by tracing the design in Illustrator using either the live trace tool or pen tool.  Bitmap images often need to be converted to a vector so the colors within the artwork can be easily constrained and separated. The live trace tool has several different options for tracing images, depending on the type of image.  The most often-used trace functions are: Simple Trace, Color, 6 & 16, Photo Low & High Fidelity, and One Color Logo.

The pen tool can also be used to trace a bitmap image.  With the pen tool you can place anchor points (called nodes) around each color/section of the artwork.  The pen tool will likely take much more time to trace than the live trace tool, but it is often the only resort for low resolution bitmap images. 

Illustrator is a lot like Photoshop when it comes to the layout and available tools for editing the artwork.  The toolbar is where you will find the majority of the tools that are used to create and edit artwork in Illustrator. 

+The Selection Tool allows you to select certain colors/areas within the design. 

+The Magic Wand is another selection tool.  It is used to select aspects of the artwork based on pixels of similar color value in the same region.  Like the Lasso and Marquee tool, the Magic Wand is typically used to delete or fill a certain aspect of the artwork.

+The Lasso Tool is similar to the Marquee Tool, which is used to select a rectangle or other fixed shape of the artwork.  The Lasso Tool however, is a freehand selection tool.  The user will draw around the area they want to select, and the shape must ultimately be closed off.  These tools are typically used to delete portions of artwork or fill colors/patterns.

+The Pen tool is another way you can trace a bitmap, placing anchor points (nodes) around each color/section of the artwork.  The pen tool can take much more time to use than the quick trace tool, but it is often the last resort for low resolution bitmap images. 

+The Line Tool is a simple tool for drawing a line between two points.  Simply click and hold your mouse in one spot and drag to the other.  In order to draw perfect vertical or horizontal lines, press and hold “Shift” while drawing the line.

+The Shape Tool allows you to draw multiples kinds of shapes by clicking on a point and then dragging the cursor until it has reached the desired size.  To draw a perfect shape, like a square or circle, simply hold “Shift” while dragging the shape.

+The Text Tool, located near the bottom of the toolbar, allows you to add Text to an image.  The font, size, and color settings are available in the top toolbar once the Text Tool has been selected.

+The Eraser Tool erases content from the active layer. The size and pattern of the eraser itself are adjustable, as is the hardness. It is also capable of erasing content from underlying layers by selecting the background eraser, an option available if you click the black arrow in the lower right-hand corner of the Eraser Tool button.

+The Eyedropper Tool is used to select a color for use in another aspect of the artwork.  Tap on the desired color with the Eyedropper Tool and the color will appear on the set of overlapping boxes at the bottom of the toolbar.  

+Within the Menu Bar is the Live Trace tool, which is available when you are using the selection tool.  The live trace tool allows you to do a quick trace of the artwork.  

Functions Located in the Top Menu Bar:



        =Open an existing file to edit


        =Place a design onto the canvas

    +Save As

=Allows you to choose the name and the type of file a design will be saved as


    +Cut, Copy, Paste

=Common Functions that can also be performed with keyboard shortcuts

+Color Settings 

    =Edit the colors and hues of the artwork

+Tracing Settings

=Choose the right type of trace to convert a bitmap image into a vector



        =Move, scale, rotate, & reflect the design, and more


    =Adjust the way the artwork layers are stacked


=Combine elements of the design into one unit, making them easier to move and edit as a group


    +Text Settings

        =Edit the font, size, & color of the text, and more



        =Selects objects similar to a highlighted element of the artwork


        =Select a specific part of the artwork to edit


    +Text Effects

        =Warp, wrap, & blur text, and more

+Image Effects

    =Add effects like drop shadows, glows, and more to the design

View & Window

    +Change your view or the windows that are visible

Functions Located On the Far Right: 


+View and edit layers and sub layers of a design


=Create lines made up of various curved and/or straight segments that can be easily manipulated


    +Fill Color   

        =Fill an object with a chosen color

    +Stroke Color & Size

        =Adjust the width and color of lines

    +Color Swatches

=A window with various preset colors and other design elements, like patterns or gradients

Control Tools


=View your edit history and more


=Text & image alignment tools


=Manipulate the shape of an image or text


=Create or trace paths within an image


=Edit Text


=Allows for larger blocks of texts


=Advanced text settings, including special characters

Illustrator is one of the best graphic design software programs available, and it has even more tools and functions than those listed here.  It will take time to master any graphic design program, but it is essential knowledge for any product decorator. Illustrator is an excellent tool for both design, bitmap tracing, and color separating, making it a valuable addition to any product decoration business.

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