Illustrator rethinks its interface, its tracing capabilities and the whole basis of vector-based illustration!
Illustrator, Adobe’s vector drawing application, was first launched back in 1987 and its antiquated interface has been crying out for an overhaul for years now. Illustrator CS2 finally obliges with support for saving palette arrangements (though not menus or shortcuts) as named workspaces. Much more significant is the introduction – at last – of a context-sensitive Control Palette.
It’s difficult to overstate what a difference this makes. Previously just the basic setting up of an object involved multiple trips to a whole host of palettes – Colour, Swatches, Stroke, Transparency and so on. Now you can simply work your way along the Control Palette setting fill and stroke colour, outline width, brush style, opacity, graphic style, position and size. Even better, you can click on the names of many of the Control Palette parameters and the relevant palette opens up immediately below offering finer control. Adobe says that the Control Palette offers direct access to 80% of Illustrator CS2’s power and that seems about right. It’s even possible to work with all other palettes hidden which makes a very welcome change.
In terms of new power Adobe is making much of two innovations, the first of which is its Live Trace capability. Previously Illustrator offered a basic AutoTrace tool for creating a single shape at a time, now it has fully integrated the powerful raster-to-vector conversion power of its standalone Streamline application. Place a bitmap and hit the new Live Trace command and a few seconds later the entire bitmap image is replaced by an astonishingly high quality vector equivalent.
The Live Trace feature works well with colour photos and pen and ink sketches.
Because the link to the original bitmap is maintained the tracing is “live” which means that if you resize or externally edit the source, or change settings, it will automatically update. Using the Control Palette dropdown you can select from 13 presets ranging from Comic Art through to High Fidelity Photo, Technical Drawing to Hand Drawn Sketch. Alternatively you can call up the Tracing Options dialog to take control over advanced settings such as path fitting and minimum area and preview the effect as you make your changes. Powerful creative options include the ability to base the tracing on a swatch library that you select, or to add generated colours to the current swatch selection.
Live Trace is an excellent way for illustrators to sketch naturally on paper and then convert the scan to high quality vectors. But editing the resulting sketch is by no means simple – in particular simply adding coloured fills to your work can be a nightmare. The problem is that humans think about drawings in a very different way to computers. We might draw four intersecting lines, for example, and then expect to be able to colour the resulting square. To the computer though there is no square just four separate lines. The only way to colour the apparent object is to laboriously recreate it from scratch.
Well not any more, thanks to Illustrator CS2’s new Live Paint capability. This treats all lines and objects as if they are on a single layer so that overlapping objects create new regions and intersecting lines create new edges. Turn a selection of lines and shapes into a Live Paint Group and you can then use the Live Paint Bucket tool to interactively fill apparent regions or the Live Paint Selection tool to select any combination of apparent regions or edges ready for formatting. Illustrator has even thought of those occasions where lines don’t quite intersect but still look like shapes to the human eye and offers the ability to automatically close gaps in the Live Paint group.
Live Paint revolutionizes the way vector objects and paths are handled.
The system isn’t perfect – brushes, transparency and live effects are lost in the conversion – but you can usually work around this, especially as you can copy and paste any Live Paint selection as a new object. And I’ve saved the best till last. The effect really is live so that if you move or redraw a defining line, the Live Paint fills and edges update automatically! This really is exciting stuff most obviously for illustrators, but also for general graphic designers producing logos or even just the odd shape.
After such an amazing creative breakthrough the other introductions to Illustrator CS2’s creative arsenal inevitably seem mundane, but in other releases they would qualify as highlights. To begin with, you can now specify whether strokes are placed along the inside, centre or outside of a path. You can also now apply Photoshop’s range of creative filters to your vector or bitmap objects much more easily thanks to the introduction of Photoshop’s thumbnail-based Filter Gallery. And now you can quickly apply spot colour swatches to colourize greyscale images and drop shadows.
Crucially these spot colours will preview and print accurately as separate plates either directly from Illustrator or from InDesign CS2 or Acrobat 7.0 Professional. Other examples of enhanced integration are the ability to export Photoshop PSD files in which grouped text boxes remains editable and to output PDFs in which you can toggle the visibility of layers in Acrobat 7.0. And, as with InDesign, when you place a Photoshop PSD file you can now choose any embedded layer comp to quickly explore creative options.
To output your work for use on the Web, Illustrator CS2 now offers enhanced Flash export including the ability to embed text as curves, to better control the mapping of layers to frames and to lock and compress the resulting SWF movie. And Illustrator now supports the latest SVG 1.1 standard and the emerging SVG Tiny and SVG Basic formats for display on mobile handsets. Print still remains paramount and here the new suite-wide PDF, and especially prepress PDF/X presets, are enormously important. And Illustrator CS2 also offers the new ability to output tiled artboards to multi-page PDFs.
Adobe is pitching this last feature as if it somehow addresses Illustrator’s one over-riding limitation: its self-imposed restriction to working on a single page at a time. It doesn’t and for general graphic design this gives multi-page rivals CorelDRAW and FreeHand MX a huge headstart. For producing one-off vector-based illustrations though Illustrator CS2 is in a creative league of its own and leaves the competition standing.
ratings out of 6
requirements Pentium III ; 256/512MB RAM ; 820MB free hard disk space; Windows 2000 (SP3) onwards.
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