An Illustrator’s Foray into the World of Adobe Illustrator – Week 1

From the moment I picked up a pencil, or crayons, or whatever I could put to paper to leave a mark, I’ve been an illustrator.  I still love to draw with paper and pencil and still make sounds effects for the drawings I work on (yes, I rev engines when I’m drawing vehicles or make sword fight sounds when drawing weapons).  I’ve loathed to put down the “analog” drawing technology to try the new digital versions, but with all the projects I have in my head and the harsh realities of the art design world it soon became apparent that illustrators who didn’t adapt to digital graphic design methods would be left behind … especially one-man publication studios like me.  So a few years ago I started playing with various graphic design software and found that most of them were accessible and could be quite fun to operate in.

I’m a self-taught digital graphic designer.  And by self-taught I mean I just try things in software until they work, which usually entails clicking buttons or cursors and then pressing Ctrl+z when the desired result doesn’t occur.  I’m no computer guru, but like most in my generation I can usually operate basic programs.  I have done most of my graphics work up to this point in various iterations of Adobe Photoshop.  Stretching its tools to the max, I have been able to do image editing, graphics creation, logo design, and layouts in software that was never really designed to do all of those functions specifically.  Essentially, I’ve been making do with what I had and getting by with “good enough” in design.

That is until I was given the opportunity to work with both Illustrator CS5 and InDesign CS5 and discovered the greater power inherent in using the appropriate software for the appropriate task.

I went into Illustrator thinking it would be like Photoshop.  I could start with a concept and click my way around until I found what worked and “undo” my way through the program until it did what I wanted.  In Illustrator I found the first piece of software that did not let me do this.  Unlike Photoshop, when you start a project in Illustrator you start with nothing.  No image to edit, only your creativity to go on.  So in one sense it’s freeing; you’re no longer trapped by the confines of a base image and are free to create an image of your own.  This freedom has its own limits however, and those are represented by the software interface.  Many features in Illustrator don’t do exactly what you’d expect.  For example, those who think an eraser in Illustrator will do what it does in Photoshop will be shocked when it does nothing of the sort.  I, like I’m sure many of you, found myself scrambling to make sense out of what everything does and how it’s different.

I’m always reluctant to seek help in software.  I always feel I should be able to figure it out, but in the case of Illustrator I really needed the assistance.  I turned to one of my best friends, Google, and did the most basic search: “Illustrator drawing tips” and came up with the following tutorial as a result:

This 15-minute tutorial was a terrific starting point, and I highly recommend it.  The host instructs you on how to make a magnifying glass in Illustrator CS5 using just the shape creation and shape builder tools.  More importantly, he assists you in seeing images as shapes and you start to think in combinations of shapes to make compositions.  I followed the steps and made the simple graphic he teaches you:

Learned from the convenient "5 Tips" tutorial

By performing only a couple of functions of the shape builder tool, you begin to think of other applications for it. You can go from a simple polygon shape like the glass and create slightly more complex objects made of polygons like this:

Axe graphic made using the methods learned in the "5 Tips" tutorial.

It’s a very flawed graphic but a vast improvement over not even knowing how to navigate the software!

Unsatisfied with the flat look of the metal on the axe I was curious how to make it look more like real metal, so I searched “metal textures in illustrator” and came up with this:

With those two tutorials combined, I gained the tools I needed to get started and created this:

New and improved Axe using the methods learned in the "5 Tips" and "Metal Texture" tutorials.

Two tutorials and things have drastically improved!

If you’re new to Illustrator, give these tutorials a try.  It takes a tiny bit of the mystique out of the software and gives you a great place to start getting used to the interface.  Plus you’re creating from scratch in a way unlike anything you can do Photoshop.  If someone like me, who still clings to pencil and paper like grim death can be dragged into the digital age by these, anyone can!

Over the coming weeks as I learn things in Illustrator I’ll post them.  Next week I’ll post a couple great tutorials I found on building spheres, adding more texture, and rendering in 3D.  I’m learning as I go, as many of you might be doing too, so if anyone out there has any tutorials they’ve found related to the one I’ve posted for the week, please share them.  Hopefully, we can all navigate the complexity of Illustrator together …

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