Illustrator Basics for Beginners

Tool avoid awful designs in any software, always use a colour wheel or colour combination tool or website. Please, for the love of…

Beginner’s Guide to Illustrator

The videos below the sections of text should play from a point that describes the relevant tool…

To zoom in press Command or Ctrl (PC) and + or – to zoom in and out.
Press the space bar then click and drag to move the artboard around. Handy when you’re zoomed in.

Black Selection Tool in Illustrator

The Selection Tool – on the top left of the tools’ panel,

  • Generally the default selection tool.
  • Great for scaling and resizing
  • You can click & drag to make a box and highlight multiple elements
  • Rotate – hold cursor over an anchor point. Use shift to rotate in 45 degree increments

Gives outside handles to manipulate size of selection.

If you hover over the corners, you can also rotate the shape with this tool

Direction Selection Tool in Illustrator

Best for selecting individual items. Click and hold shift to select multiple elements.

When you select an element you will get white-hollow anchors appear.

Click the anchor point once to change the anchor point to filled in blue. If the anchor point is filled in blue, then you can drag and manipulate it independently of the other anchor points.

You can also delete anchor points. For example, if you create a square and then click and delete an anchor point it will become a triangle.

You should also so ‘lines’ emanating from the anchor points – these are called ‘handles’. You can move this to create different shapes also.
Technically, moving the handles – changes the ‘path of the stroke’ (line or outside edge of an object) as it passes through an anchor point.

Layers in Illustrator

Used for arranging elements of your image, along with the bring forward/backward tool

Bring up the Layers Panel by going to “Window” at the top and then selecting “Layers” from the dropdown menu.

Layers allow you to organise everything.

Give your layers meaningful names if possible, like ‘Main text’ or ‘header image’

Click the icon at the bottom of the layers panel to create a new layer.

Draw something new to ‘populate’ this layer.

You can then drag the new layer on top in the layers panel, so that your new image/drawing will be at the ‘top’ or ‘front’ of the design.
Think of them as ‘stacked’ – the top layer will be at the top and potentially hide layers below.

You can tell which layer you are ‘on’ thanks to the highlight colour. The original layer is normally blue, the second one will normally be red etc.

The selection box and anchors change colour to correspond with the layer colour.

Click the eye icon in the layers panel to make them invisible/visible.

Locking Layers is really helpful. Click the empty box next to the eye-icon to lock a layer – a padlock icon should appear. This is great if you have a background image that you don’t want to select or edit for the remainder of you designing process.

Line Tool in Illustrator

Hold down Shift to produce lines at 0 degrees, 90 degrees of 180 etc.

Hold down Alt to produce lines which emanate from the centre point/where you clicked originally

Press Shift & Alt to combine both.

If you make a line, and select it – in the Stroke Window (go to “window” at the top – “Stroke”) you will have a number of pre-made arrow heads you can use to make an arrow.

The arrow head will only be visible with the stroke. Thicker (higher weight) stroke means bigger arrow head.

Pen Tool in Illustrator

Tricky to get used to – it’s all about practice. Every time you click on the artboard you will produce an anchor point, clicking again will threat a line through that anchor point – it’s a bit like connect the dot-drawing.
Click once to make initial anchor point, click on another point to create a straight line.

Creating curves using the pen tool – click & drag.

Hold down the mouse button and move the cursor up, down and around to change the curve.
Same principle as before, click somewhere else to create a new anchor point and ‘connect the dots’.

You can use the pen tool to trace the outline of objects.

Scissor Tool in Illustrator

To find the Scissor Tool, click on the Eraser Tool.

The scissors tool allows you to snip-out parts of a path. For example, if you draw a circle for a head, you could snip out the bottom part so there is a gap where the neck is to go.

Image Trace Tool in Illustrator

To Trace you can open the Panel by going to “Window’ near the top then – Image Trace

It’s great for turning a small image (like a clipart image) or a photo into a vector image that can be expanded to be as big as you like without losing quality.

Click expand in the header-bar and this will change the image into a number of elements that can be edited, deleted, moved around etc.



Fills and Strokes in Illustrator

Stroke basically means outline. Any shape or line can have a stroke.
In the menu/tool bar at the top, go to “Window” – “Stroke” to reveal the stroke panel.

You can make the stroke thicker by increasing the ‘weight’. If you select the stroke you can also align it differently using the icons next to the ‘Align Stroke’ section. With this you can put the stroke inside the outline, outside, or on the outline.

Check the ‘Dashed Line’ box to make the stroke dashed.

Give the stroke a smooth rounded corner with the “corner” options and icons or a sharp corner – you probably won’t notice this unless your stroke is really thick.

Use shift + x to swap the fill and stroke colour.


Ellipse Tool in Illustrator

Hold down both shift and ALT to create a perfect circle (shift) from the centre point (ALT).



Artboard Tool in Illustrator

This tool is normally found near the bottom – 4th from bottom on the tools side-menu – it looks like a square of coordinates on a map. Click this and you can change the shape of the artboard you’re on.

You can also add and delete artboards using the menu-bar at the top running horizontally.

Copy & Paste in Illustrator

Press and hold “Alt” then click and drag on an element, like a shape you’ve just made, and you’ll get a copy!

You can also click & drag whilst holding ALT & shift, and you’ll drag out a copy on the same ‘plane’ as your original image.

You can also copy using the normal CMD + C and paste ‘in front’ using CMD + F
You can do all the different pasting-types using the drop down Edit menu near the top.

Align Tools in Illustrator

Use the (black arrow) selection tool to drag and select a number of items.

At the top on the horizontal menu bar, ‘align options’ should appear including a number of icons (on my macbook I just get some text ‘align’ which I have to click).

On the right you should find an ‘align to’ drop down with a little square icon with 4 triangles inside of it.

Using the ‘horizontal align centre’ option to demonstrate –
Align to the artboard will centre the object in the middle of the artboard

To align to the “key object” – first define the key object:

Align or distribute relative to a key object. Select the objects to align or distribute. Click again on the object you want to use as a key object (you don’t need to hold down Shift as you click this time).”


Once everything is aligned how you’d like it, you can use the ‘shape builder tool’ to create a shape out of your alignment. Click and drag between the shapes to create one shape!