Adobe Illustrator: 101 (Part 1)


I have done an entire Digital Techniques series mostly dedicated to showing how I create comics in Illustrator… and it has been brought to my attention that a “Illustrator Basics” article to get people situated with the software as a whole may be a good idea. Far be it from me to deny the lovely Webcomic Alliance followers a breakdown of the Adobe World of Vector Artwork Creation! annnnnnd maybe a pros and cons list. You know I love ’em.

First off, lets explain the difference between Photoshop and Illustrator.

Almost everyone who has ever tried to put a friend’s head on the body of some goofy creature for kicks has at least HEARD of Photoshop. Whether you have Elements or the full-blown version, Photoshop is a pretty universal graphic application. So, what’s the point of having TWO applications for graphics creation, huh Adobe? The biggest difference between the two applications is how the graphics are created within the software itself. Photoshop, as you may have seen when you zoom in on an image, reads and creates graphics made up of small dots of color. These are called pixels, and the general name for this graphic type as a whole is “bitmap”.  You may have also seen something called “DPI” in Photoshop; this refers to the resolution, “DPI” means “dots (pixels) per inch”. A photo that is 300dpi will hold up printed or viewed at a larger size, whereas a 72dpi photo will need to remain at a smaller size or it will become “bitmapped”. More pixels per inch equals a smoother picture! For a better explanation of that, here’s a visual demonstration:


Uh-oh, bitmapped! low-resolution, low dpi

Smooth! High resolution, higher dpi!

You can easily see the difference a higher dpi makes. However, if you have even a moderate understanding of Photoshop, you probably know this already. So, if Photoshop uses pixels, what does Illustrator use? Vectors, my friend… vectors.

Vectors are not made out of pixels, built up like bricks to make a house. Instead.. and I know you artists may get a bit freaked out by this…. vectors are mathematical objects comprised of dots, line, curves and fills. Once the framework of the vector shape is created, fill color selected, stroke added, a graphic will appear. It’s truly a different way of creating an image, and takes some getting used to. However, this new format has some strong advantages as I will discuss later. One being that ugly bitmapped image you see above– in Vector Land, you will not being dealing with those! Why? Everyone say it with me now: because vectors are not built up of pixels.

Again, it’s always best to share visuals when dealing with visual people:

Here you can see the lines, dots and curves selected, and how they make up the flower image. Other qualities, like the gradients (blended colors), can also be added into the "fill" of each shape, creating a more complex looking image. Again, more math!

It does look very complex, but trust me, there are shortcuts to make this process simpler and less .. well… like work. Some of those are what I use- wacom technology, calligraphy brushes, and a stylus pen. It feels more like art and less like math *shudder*

As promised, a Pros and Cons List.

You may have debated whether to switch to Illustrator before, or are wondering why you’d EVER want to ditch Photoshop. As always, it depends on your style, your preferences, and time you can dedicate to learning new software. So, I have constructed some pros and cons to working in Illustrator, as opposed to Photoshop or another bitmap photo-editing application.


  • No more bitmapped graphics! As you read above, vectors are not made up of pixels, but of simple mathematical dots, curves, lines and color fills. You don’t need to worry about resolution or if the image will look smooth and clean on the web OR in print. Which leads me to…
  • Resizing is a cinch! Due to the make-up of  a vector graphic, you can virtually resize it to any dimension and it will hold it’s resolution. This is why many designers prefer to create logos in vector format- the logo can be sized down to fit on a business card, or blown up to fit on a billboard!
  • Takes up less space. You may have noticed that the higher the resolution on a bitmap (ie: Photoshop) image, the more space that suckers takes up sitting on your hard drive. Pixels may be little, but they add up to a lot. Again, with the way vector graphics are formatted, the files take up very little room in comparison. Yes, even with complex comic images!
  • Smoother, cleaner look. It’s possible you really dig the rougher, raw look to freshly scanned lineart, or lineart done in Photoshop…. if so, terrific. I have seen some awesome comics that would lose something if they tried to clean up what makes them special. However, for my style, I wanted the smoothest, cleanest line I could get. Inking in Illustrator achieved that look for me, using a wacom-enabled Tablet PC and calligraphy brushes.
  • Coloring with Live Paint and vectorizing with Live Trace. These are nifty little tools only available in Illustrator that could make your comic creation process a lot easier. Refer back to THIS episode of Digital Techniques to see how to use Live Trace — a tool that converts bitmap images (such as scanned lineart) into a smoother, editable vector image). Then, check out THIS video to see how you could use Live Paint to easily point-and-click to add flat colors in no time at all!


  • Complexity is hard to achieve. If your style consists of a ton of shadows, highlights, lighting effects and textures, you’d have to be a series MASTER of Illustrator to achieve that kind of detail. For starting out, I recommend Illustrator to comic styles that lean towards flat, smooth artwork, with minimal gradiation effects. Not that it cannot be done, but the learning curve for that would take a LOT of time.
  • In love with layer effects? Say goodbye. Photoshop’s layer effects are wonderful tools, I’ll admit. But finding a way to bevel-emboss a shape, for instance, in Illustrator is quite a task. Drop shadows and glow effects have been added in the later versions of the software, but they can be finicky.
  • Also, no more neat-o filters. Like I mentioned about Illustrator being difficult with textures, if you like using Photoshop’s selection of fun and funky filters like rough pastels, watercolor, or the texturizers, than you’ll be missing that quite a bit in Illustrator.
  • The biggest downside to switching to Illustrator, is just that– SWITCHING to ILLUSTRATOR.  It’s a whole other way of thinking about “drawing”, like using the other side of your brain. If you do plan to switch over, prepare yourself to take some time to adjust and settle in. And for Pete’s sake, bring a wacom tablet or Tablet PC along for the ride, or it’ll be even bumpier.
In the second part of this series, I’ll give you the basics about the palettes, tools, and menus, so the initial shock of “OMG where IS everything? WHAT is all this stuff?” doesn’t last too long. If you are used to Photoshop, Illustrator is arranged similarly, which is nice, but a tour guide always helps.



Posted in Drawing, Featured News, Helpful Hints, Tech, Tutorials.


  1. It reminds me of doing 3D modeling work. I know it can be a lot simpler than that, but that was my first impression.

    For this old fart, I can’t see drawing in it … yet. Old dog/new tricks thingy. BUT… I do see this as an invaluable tool for logos and the like. Especially if doing things for print. Make HUGE posters or banners and loose nothing. That’s a big selling point to me. If nothing else, just for my comics banners at conventions would look so much better.

    As you know, I don’t draw in Photoshop, but I use it to create other elements like backgrounds and headers for my comic’s website as well as my clients. So, this “old dog” will be following this closely to see if I can learn something new.

    Great job!

    • definitely great for logos, Byron. I try to do all my logo designs in Illustrator– except those that require lots of details like embossing. Some things Photoshop still comes in handy for.
      But keep in mind- you can do part of the log in AI, and copy-paste as a “smart object” into PS– preserving the vector… meaning, it’ll always stay sharp and bitmap-free!

  2. My two cents…

    It’s probably too much work/effort to use Adobe Illustrator unless you plan to reuse some of the artwork. For example, if you are creating prints or merchandise, it’s worth creating the artwork for that in Illustrator. Using Illustor however unfortunately means exporting to extra large png files if you want your readers to appreciate the artwork. You can export to SVG or Flash with some loss of detail.

    On the other hand, there are online comics that use Illustrator. El Goonish Shive, Real Life Comics, are comics that reuse some of their art assets. There are other comics that make more obvious use

    One of the things you can get away with with AI (and Flash, Inkscape, and Manga Studio) is the vector scaling of backgrounds and foreground assets. Or in other words you don’t have to redraw non-changing things so frequently.

    If you normally draw on paper and scan things in, you probably won’t want to to use Illustrator unless you want to do digital inking. It’s about the same amount of effort as it would be in Photoshop, but comes off cleaner.

    Illustrator comes with ALL versions of the CS5.5 suite.

  3. Another decent vector drawing software package is Eazydraw but it’s only for Mac. I tend to use it when I’m making stuff for buttons or t-shirts since it’s better with scaling. For the price, Eazydraw has quite a few features that are very nice.

  4. Pingback: Webcomic Alliance - Adobe Illustrator: 101 (Part 2)

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