artsy fartsy,  illos,  na blow me,  Shop Talk

Day Nine: Why I Love Illustrator Day

11/9 why-i-love-illustrator

When I think about it, I think the reason I love Adobe Illustrator so much is because I hated it for so long. It really is true that you learn to love what you suffer for. And believe me, I suffered for Illustrator.

My first introduction to Illustrator was at my entry level job as a graphic designer for a direct mail company. Direct mail is a fancy way of saying “junk mail” but it was really nice junk mail and I learned a lot making it so even though I love to make fun of the “Junk Mail Factory” I worked for, I don’t really want to knock it as an industry. It’s pretty effective, if done right.

As an entry level designer, I had to make a lot of maps. A lot, a lot. Thousands a day, in fact. These were little maps that were lazered onto letters that were mailed to potential customers who might want to shop at the store that was pictured on the map with a five pointed star. The maps were simple. Just a major cross street, a highway, a N symbol for north and maybe a few squiggly lines for roads or rivers or whatever.

Making the lines was what was tricky. We didn’t use photoshop to do this. We didn’t use google. We used the pen tool in Illustrator and manually drew them with the mouse. We didn’t hand draw them and then scan them in or trace over google maps. No, we just clicked with the mouse and forced the line to curve or go straight using the pulleys and levers that Illustrator is so famous for. I know people who aren’t familiar with photoshop or illustrator will be completely bored by this but you can probably google a slideshow somewhere. Maybe I’ll find one later and link it in.

Here’s a pretty good one by someone who is way way way better at Illustrator than I am.

My point of all this discussion is that I HATED the pen tool. It was so awkward. It never did what I wanted it to do. In the beginning, I had no idea how to drag and click the little levers and I made every curve with a thousand jaggy points. It was horrible. Trial by fire.

Then one day, I decided to take a class in Illustrator at the local university extension program. This class sucked. It was right at dinner time and I was always starving and tired from working all day and then going to school at night. It was in an underground lab with cement floors and they always kept the air conditioning going full blast. They said it was because the computers needed cool air but I think that’s a bunch of baloney because I’ve sat at my desk with a space heater blowing right on my feet and my cpu for years and never had any “over heating” problems. I think lab people just like to be frozen, if you ask me. Bunch of cadavers…

I struggled with the class but learned a lot. One by one the mysterious little symbols in the tools palette started to make sense. With time I was even able to freehand a silly cartoon of myself. I never imagined I would learn to illustrate with this program. I was a graphic designer, not an illustrator. I just wanted to learn it so I could make maps more easily and maybe learn to manipulate text and create logos.

And yes, over the years I have made lots of logos. Logos logos logos. That’s what I did for a very long time. None of them are famous but still… I’ve made a ton of them. Logos are fun. They are like little illustrations but they need to be simple. But the reason using Illustrator to make logos is so important is because Illustrator creates VECTOR art.

I think I’ve explained the difference between vector and raster art so many times, people start to glaze over when they read those words. I’ll just give you the cliff notes version.

Vector art is created using points and pulleys. It’s the click and drag between point A and point B. Basically, it’s a mathematical equation that the computer saves for you and that’s about all that matters to me because you know how much I hate math.

What is beautiful about vector art is that size is irrelevant. You can make an illustration the size of your thumb or as big as a bus and it doesn’t effect the size of the file or the quality of the line. Vector art lives on in smooth clarity forever. Much different than it’s evil brother the raster file.

Raster art is created using pixels. Photoshop uses pixels. Photographs use pixels. Pixels are beautiful little squares of color. The only problem with pixels is that if you blow them up to the size of a bus, they become gigantic building blocks and your smooth line becomes a stair case you could climb on. This jaggedy edge is called “pixelization” and looks like crap.

I’m sure you all have done it. Taken a file from the internet and tried to print it on your home ink jet printer and wondered why it came out looking like some kind of dot matrix texas instrument invaders game from 1980 about an inch big on your giant letter size piece of paper. That’s an issue of resolution but that’s beside the point. The jaggedness is what I’m talking about.

This is particularly troublesome for people who try to create logos in photoshop or paint shop pro. Your logo will look great on the screen or even great printed super small but if one day you decide you want to make signs as big as your head then your beautiful logo suddenly looks like crapola.

And that is why I love Adobe Illustrator. You don’t have to recreate your logo in every different size. The eps file can print any size you want and the line will be crisp as a cucumber until the end of time.

I know I’m boring you with this and I’m sorry. But there are probably a few graphic designers out there reading this, who are shaking their head and laughing at me trying to stumble through explaining this stuff. I’m sure there is probably even a better blog who has covered it in a much more succinct manner. But this is my post and you asked me why I love it so I’m telling you in my rambling awkward style.

I haven’t even gotten to how fun it is to draw in illustrator. I know it’s really really hard at first. I hated it too. My first illustrations were pencil drawings that I scanned into photoshop and then did some kind of trace outline filter and then exported into Illustrator.

Those were the days. My computer would crash almost every time I tried to do this. But I knew there had to be a way. Eventually I got tired of all the sketching and scanning and exporting and decided to freehand it with the mouse.

Over the years, using the mouse as a pencil became very natural to me. It’s sort of like learning how to write with a really fat round pencil… it’s hard at first but you get used to it. Just like you got used to those big fat pencils in kindergarden. Remember how hard that was at first?

I’m so used to it now, that I actually prefer it. I tried out a waccom table but I hate the way the waccom pencil follows me after I’ve lifted it off the mousepad. I’m so used to the way the mouse lifts from the mouse pad the same way a pencil lifts from paper. Bla bla bla… I’m sorry for boring you again.

To make a long story short. Illustrator is an incredibly powerful and useful program. It requires a lot of patience to learn it but it will pay you back fifty-fold. If you have any questions about Illustrator, I would love to hear them. I might not be able to answer them but I’ll do my best.


  • bethany actually

    Yay, you did it. I knew you could. I even remembered the difference between vector and what ever the other one was. Well, I remembered that vector was a smooth line no matter what, where the other one was a whole bunch of squares. I’m just a sieve, I mean sponge, aren’t I? :)

  • comfortablycrazy

    That was weird. When I logged out of your site yesterday my computer must not have logged me out. Because my comment was posted as you. Which actually is kinda funny, if you read it like you wrote it.

  • becky

    Illustrator is so great! I took a class at the jr college and I loved it. I should practice more with it, in fact.

    If anyone wants a great self-paced book, they should try the “Adobe Illustrator Revealed” series (author: Chris Botello). That’s what we used in my class and it was fabulous. I learned so much!

  • Kuky

    I’ve used Illustrator but I can’t remember ever making an illustration with it. Your post makes me want to give vector art a try now but it’s so intimidating.

    SAJ says: It is intimidating. It takes forever to get comfortable with manipulating the line as if it were a piece of thread instead of a paint stroke… BUT YOU, I think, would be particularly well suited for Illustrator. Your style of art would be so manipulatable as a vector. The fun thing about Illustrator illustrations is that you can use pieces and parts of them over and over and over again in so many ways it makes you want to set up shop with your creations on everything!

  • familymclean

    Yikes! I am trying to find the love for Illustrator. I know nothing and am super comfy in photshop. I have CS2 and am so frustrated. Every time I try to draw freehand I loose half my lines or they move on me. Then when I try to paint bucket something there are all these paths. Ack, I must be in way over my head!
    Your post was great, btw, I just really need a good walk through!

  • Super Sarah

    I am just about to do a two part Photoshop course at my local community college. Its a well recommended course with a great teacher (apparently!) and I can’t wait. I haven’t actively used photoshop since college, years ago when it was all new. Anyway, so although I am not learning about illustrator, I just wanted to chime in and say your post is topical for me because its reminded me that its not going to be easy learning stuff all over again, but the rewards are likely to be worth it!

  • MamaPajama

    Fifteen years ago I was a graphic designer and used all the great computer programs that make a Mac such an elegant machine. Now, I’m a corporate print buyer and use a peecee and all the ugly Microsoft programs.

    I still have an older version of Illustrator on my Mac at home, you’re inspiring me to use it again.

  • Jillian

    I never knew the difference between vector and raster before, nor why anyone would want to make vector art! Thank you for enlightening me. :)

    SAJ says: I always thought rastor and vector were dinosaurs before I learned Illustrator… hee hee

  • Louise

    Thanks! I know nothing about graphic art, or illustrator, or anything really… but I want to and have been eyeing up the free trial of illustrator for awhile now. Maybe I will try hunting down a class in my wee little city? You inspire me :)

  • Joy

    Thanks so much. I dabble at graphic design in my communications work. I mostly use Photoshop and InDesign, because that’s where I’m comfortable. Illustrator is this scary other place I don’t ever explore. I generally knew the raster versus vector stuff, but it’s good to have real explanation.

    I guess I just need to go in and start playing around to get good at it.

  • Meghan

    Very helpful, thank you so much. I think signing up for a class will help me immensely, I’m sick of getting frustrated and giving up. Your explanation might be just what I needed to let me see the light.

  • witchypoo

    Is Illustrator just for macs? I was playing with vectors in Fireworks, and was all, I suck at this so much. I wanted to create a watermark for my photos, and then I realized that I’m not posting any of my photos yet, and why should I suffer so?
    Heh. I kid. I’m old, but would like to think I can still learn new tricks.
    Thanks for the info.
    Best be watching out for CC. She is impersonating you ;)

  • BeachMama

    That was a fabulous post, and I have to laugh at CC’s first comment, it did sound like you were commenting on yourself. Your explanation even makes me want to use Illustrator. I have Photoshop Elements on my PC and just switched to a Mac! So much to learn for just everyday stuff. But, I was contemplating getting the full Photoshop for my Mac, you make me want it all. Although I think I am better at photography than illustrating. Will see, I am taking a small course in the New Year, so if I like Photoshop enough, I may take it to the next level.

    Thanks for sharing your Love of all things Illustrator with us.

  • Annika

    Ohh, now I want to play around with Illustrator. Thank goodness I know I don’t have the patience to learn a new skill right now.

    SAJ says: Yes, toddlers do hinder the learning process quite a bit. But at the same time, I find Baby Bug inspiring me to draw things I never would have thought up without her.

  • OMSH

    I want to take a class, but first, I need to know how to draw.

    And THAT … that you can’t teach.

    There is hope for my darling Emelie though – I sure wish I knew where to start her.

    SAJ says: Sketching is the best way to start. I had an aunt who once told me to “draw every day”. So I did. And amazingly I could see myself get better, even as a kid. Also, if you can learn to use the pen tool in photoshop it’s only a hop skip and a jump different from illustrator. Tell Emelie she can come visit me for a week some summer and I’ll teach her everything I know.

  • Angella

    I actually understood your explanation, even though I could not draw my way out of a paper bag.

    I’m just glad yu have the tools you need to do the amazing things that you do :)

  • Alissa

    I also know nothing about drawing but totally understood the differences as you’ve explained them. When you use a mouse to draw do you use an old fashioned one or can you use laptop mice as well? If you can/do use a laptop mouse can you use either type of mouse (the touchpad type & finger manipulated button – if you know what I mean?)?

  • Rae


    Sorry for all the screaming, but seriously? I TOTALLY thought you used a tablet. You are one of my favorite illustrators, and that is just so, so encouraging, hearing how you figured it out. I am an artist but have never made the leap into art on the computer, although I made my first banner recently, but that was with photoshop. Anyways, I blather. I loved this post, totally informative. And you are super talented, girl.

  • girl fried egg

    I need to get better with Illustrator, so I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Of course, I still have tons of questions. Need to take a class, or I might get that book becky recommended (thanks!).

    I don’t know how it could be done exactly, and it might reveal too many secrets, but I’d love to see a step by step SAJ process for how you build your ills.

  • amanda woodward

    We have a kinship, you and I. I create my vector illos with the mouse and pen tool as well. NO tablet! I feel the same way…

    Although I’ve grown tired of working entirely in vector, I do feel glad for learning it. All of the struggles way back when make it so effortless now.


  • erika

    fabulous post. i still don’t have a firm grip on using illustrator and i use a tablet.

    i thought you did too! same goes for amanda! no questions for now, but i’m sure i will have some in the future.

  • Spandrel Studios

    Your explanation is brilliant – I know a few people I’m going to send to this post! I’d been toying with the idea of learning at least the basics of Illustrator because I’m one of those sorry souls who’s created my logo in PhotoShop (hey, I’m a writer and jewelry designer, not an illustrator) but you’ve inspired me to give it a whirl! Thank you!

  • Susan

    *taking notes*…every little bit of knowledge about Illustrator has helped me so much! It really is fun once you get the hang of it. I’m definitely not completely comfortable using it though.

  • Kuky

    I was playing with Illustrator last night. I had so much fun with it. And I was going to write a post about it so came back to your post. Then I saw the link you put up for the video. OH MY FREAKING GOD, that was amazing. I think I sat there with my mouth open watching it. Wow I have so much to learn. I hope you talk about Illustrator more.