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Blog Home Design Design Elements & Principles Illustrator FAQ: The Total Beginner’s Guide to Vector Illustration, Pt. 1
Illustrator FAQ: The Total Beginner's Guide to Vector Illustration, Pt. 1 - Cover

Illustrator FAQ: The Total Beginner’s Guide to Vector Illustration, Pt. 1

In this Illustrator Q&A, get answers to the questions every beginner asks. We’ll cover artboards, canvases, backgrounds, and the basics of vector drawing.

Vector drawing in Illustrator might come easy to a few, but for many it’s an alien process and a complicated tool. But it doesn’t have to be. If you start with the basics, you can build a solid foundation in vector illustration.

For this article, we found some of the most frequently asked questions about Illustrator and answered them with simple explanations. In part one of this two-part series, we will cover artboard and canvas sizes, backgrounds, vector shapes, and color application.

Artboard and Canvas Size

Creating a new document is the first step of your Illustrator journey. Open Adobe Illustrator, then hold down Command + N to bring up the New Document window. This popup menu is where you can name your new document, set height and width dimensions, define measurements, and more.

Illustrator new document panel

You can choose from a variety of preset sizes within the Mobile, Web, Print, and Film & Video tabs, or you can simply input your own values. When finished, hit Create to go to the Illustrator program.

How do I change artboard size in Illustrator?

To change the dimensions of the artboard you’re currently using, head to the Artboard Tool (hit the Shift + O keys) and drag the corner handles to resize. When this tool is activated, you can also organize and move individual artboards for easy access.

To add a new artboard to the main screen, open the Artboards panel (Window >Artboards) and select the folded square icon at the bottom right. In this panel you can also click on the dropdown menu in the top right corner to find options for duplicating an artboard and changing the orientation.

How do I change canvas size in illustrator?

Note: In Illustrator, the workspace that you usually call a canvas is the called an artboard. Artboards work in virtually the same way as a canvas – the different is that you can work across multiple artboards in a single file.

Changing artboard size in Illustrator

To change the canvas (aka artboard) size, you can quickly tweak the dimensions by opening the Artboards panel (Window >Artboards), then clicking on the canvas square icon next to the artboard name. This brings up an Artboard Options menu where you can change both the width and height dimensions or change the artboard name as needed. Hit OK to return back to the main screen.

Background Basics

Now that you’ve set up your document and created a custom artboard, let’s go over the basics of backgrounds.

How do I change the background color in Illustrator?

To change the canvas/artboard background color, activate the Rectangle Tool (M) and draw a rectangle the size of your artboard. There are two techniques for creating a rectangle background:

  1. Activate the Rectangle Tool (M) and click and drag the cursor across the artboard. Resize the rectangle as necessary
  2. Activate the Rectangle Tool (M) and right click on the canvas to pull up the Rectangle menu. Enter the dimensions of your artboard, then hit OK. Move the rectangle shape on top of the artboard using the Selection Tool (V) to act as your background.

Adding background color in Illustrator

Once you’ve created your background shape, pull up the Color or Swatches menu. If you can’t see these menus in your workspace, head up to the Window toolbar and activate them.

By default, Illustrator creates your first shape as a black outline with white fill. To change the fill color, click the solid box and use the slider or swatches to select the color. To delete the outline around the box, select the stroke color box (it looks like a frame), then select the white box with the red slash running through it – this means “empty.” The fill and stroke colors are always previewed on the lefthand side of the program for easy reference.

Learn more about color in Illustrator below.

How do I remove the background in Illustrator?

To remove the colored background, simply activate the background shape with the Selection Tool (V) and hit the Delete or the / key. Using the delete button removes the shape entirely, while using the forward slash button only removes the fill color, while keeping whatever stroke you have applied.

How do I make the background transparent in Illustrator?

Note: In illustrator, vectors automatically have a “transparent” background. Since shapes, lines, and drawings are saved as components, there’s no background element unless you add a colored box around your image. It’s almost as if your drawings are “floating” on the artboard.

Adobe Illustrator defaults to a white workspace for each artboard or canvas. Having a white background can be confusing for some when working in the program. To change the white background to a transparent checkerboard background, head up to the top toolbar and go to View > Show Transparency Grid. This same technique can be accessed by hitting Shift + Command + D.

However, transparency does come into play if you want to save your vector as a raster file so that you can upload it to the web or use it in apps that can’t read vectors. In this case, click File > Export > Export as and choose to save your file as PNG. (PNGs are the most basic raster file type that allows for transparency.) Hit Export. In the PNG Options window that appears, set the Background Color to Transparent. Make sure you have deleted any colored background that you’ve added to the canvas before you do this.

saving a transparent png file in illustrator

Vector Shapes

Shapes are essential to vector drawing; they form the foundation of patterns, characters, objects, and more. In vector drawing, the lines and curves that make a shape are called paths. Learning how to create basic and complex paths is a crucial skillset for new digital artists.

There are two ways to create vector shapes in Illustrator: with the Pen Tool or a Shapes Tool. The Pen Tool comes in handy if you’re creating complex shapes like a mountaintop or a silhouette, while the Shapes Tool is useful when creating basic shapes, i.e. rectangles and circles.

Using the Pen Tool

The Pen Tool is the most important tool in Illustrator. With it, you can create the simple and complex shapes, lines, and curves that will ultimately become a drawing, logo, pattern, and more.

To begin, let’s create an irregular shape with the Pen Tool. Activate the tool by hitting P on the keyboard or by selecting the pen tip icon on the left toolbar. Click on the artboard to lay down the initial anchor point, then click around to continue your path. The more anchor points you set down, the more angles your shape will have. Close up the path by clicking on the initial anchor point. A circle will appear next to the pen cursor when the shape is closed.

creating a shape with the pen tool in illustrator

Even though you’ve closed the path, you can still make adjustments to each anchor point. Activate the Direct Selection Tool (A) and click on an individual point and drag it around. Add more anchor points with the Add Anchor Point Tool (+) or delete existing anchor points with the Delete Anchor Point Tool (-).

curving paths in Illustrator

To curve the paths of your shape, activate the Anchor Point Tool (Shift + C) and drag the line path in any direction.

Need more pointers? Check out this essential guide to the pen tool in Illustrator

Using the Shapes Tool

The Shapes Tool is a designer go-to for both quick shapes and complex polygons. You can access all of the shape tools from the Rectangle Tool (M) dropdown arrow; hold down the cursor on the rectangle icon to bring up the Ellipse Tool (L), Polygon Tool, and others.

shapes tool illustrator

To create your shape, click and drag the cursor across the artboard. Hold down the Shift key to constrain the shape’s proportions and make a perfect circle or square. Use the Polygon Tool for shapes that have more than four sides. Click on the artboard to bring up the Polygon menu, then enter in the values for the radius and number of sides.

How do I add rounded corners in Illustrator?

Sometimes you don’t want sharp, pointy corners in your design. Rounded corners adds a smooth and fluid quality that sharp corners lack.

Start off by creating a vector shape with one of the Shapes Tools mentioned above. Activate the vector shape with the Selection Tool (V) to see the shape highlighted. Within each corner, you’ll notice small circles; these handles can be pulled inwards to round out those corners. Pull the handles back out to reduce the roundedness.

Rounded corner illustrator

Sometimes you just want to manipulate a single corner instead of all of them. To do so, activate the Direct Selection Tool (A) and click on an individual corner. A circle will appear within the selected corner. Drag the cursor inwards to round out the corner. This technique also works when rounding the corners in a complex shape created with the Pen Tool (P).

Rounding one corner of a shape in Illustrator

For a more in-depth look, check out this complete guide to rounded corners in Illustrator.

Color & Stroke

Color is a vital component of illustration and graphic design; it sets the tone and mood of a composition with the help of psychology. Color psychology focuses on color symbolism and meaning and how colors and their combinations impact human emotions. Each hue involved evokes a specific emotional responses from viewers, shaping how that they perceive the overall design. Learning how to apply color intentionally and thoughtfully is a necessary skillset for any illustrator, no matter the expertise.

How do I color in Illustrator?

Manipulate the color of your image by changing the stroke and fill. You can only add or change color on a vector object, whether it be a line, text path, or shape. Draw out a shape or line with the the Pen or Shapes Tool mentioned above or use the Text Tool, mentioned below, to type out a phrase.

Color in shapes in Illustrator

Illustrator has two menus that work for applying color: the Swatches and the Color panels. Add color in the Swatches panel by clicking on a swatch square, or look through default swatches by clicking the dropdown menu and selecting Open Swatch Library. In the Color panel, you can adjust the color values by moving the RGB sliders or by dragging your cursor around the color range.

How do I add an outline stroke in Illustrator?

Adding a stroke to any shape requires the same technique as adding a color fill. With the Selection Tool (V), click on a vector object and hit X to enable the stroke option.

Change stroke color in illustrator

Use the Swatches or Color menus to add or change the color, then adjust the stroke weight with the Stroke panel.

How do I make a gradient in Illustrator?

Start by creating a vector shape. Then open up the Gradient panel; if it’s not active, navigate to Window > Gradient. Select the vector object and click on a gradient type, either Linear, Radial, or Freeform. By default, Illustrator will create a white to black gradient fill.

Add gradient fill in Illustrator

You can adjust the appearance of the gradient in many ways: with custom swatches, gradient stop locations, specific angles, and more. Drag a swatch from the Swatches panel onto a gradient stop to change its color, and move the gradient stop’s location to modify the gradient transition.

Learn more in our guide to the gradient tool in Illustrator.

How do I change the color of an image in Illustrator?

In a simple composition with a few shapes and paths, you just need to use the Selection Tool (V) to click on a vector shape; head to the Color or Swatches panels and select a swatch or manipulate the RGB sliders.

Select by color in illustrator
Image via Alternative Geometry.

For more detailed compositions, I prefer to use the Select by Color technique. Instead of clicking around each individual shape on the artboard, you can take a shortcut by selecting by fill color. Select a vector object, then go to Select > Same > Fill Color. Every vector shape with the same color will be selected, giving you the ability to change the colors of multiple objects in one click.

How do I erase in Illustrator?

How to erase in illustrator

Erasing away vector shapes is great when you need to make small changes to your image. Activate the Eraser Tool (Shift + E), select a vector object, and click and drag across the shape. To adjust the size of the eraser cursor, toggle the [ key to decrease and the ] key to increase.

Interested in learning even more about Adobe Illustrator? Check out these beginner articles:

Cover image via emojoez.

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