Using the Appearance Panel in Illustrator CC 2018

If I didn’t know better, I’d think someone who worked on Adobe Illustrator had a crush on the idea of layers, because they appear not only in the Layers panel, but in the Appearance panel. There are no less than three places where the idea of layering, stacking, or something similar appears in this program—the Layers panel itself, the idea of Sub-layers, and Appearance.

The latter uses the concept a little differently. This panel shows data only for the object (or group) selected, and it’s things like fills, strokes, effects (such as drop shadows), and so on.

Appearance panel

If you have an object selected, you can show the Appearance panel (Window–>Appearance) to see how its attributes are set up. A key point is that the attributes are “stacked” from top to bottom the way you see them, so having a fill above another fill can block the lower one from being seen.


If this happens, you can adjust, say, the transparency/opacity of the upper to partly show the lower, or change the stacking order by dragging the item up or down as you would any layer, sublayer, or other component, or remove the upper one entirely.

Then, editing the attributes is quite straightforward; clicking or double-clicking on most items will bring up the appropriate dialog box, and from there it’s pure vanilla.


When a group is selected, any attribute you change, add, or remove in the panel will affect the group as a whole. In order to do something with one member of the group, you either have to ungroup and select the item in question or otherwise narrow the selection down. This is an example of the kind of step-by-step mindset one often has to develop working with these kinds of programs, but it’s not hard to do.

The normal issue one runs into in doing all this is keeping track of where to go to do what. Changing layers and stacking order of objects and groups is done in the Layers panel; changing the attributes of objects or groups in the Appearance panel. Jotting this sort of thing down initially can help.

Creating Custom Tools Panels in Illustrator CC 2018

I’ve gotten so used to the Tools panel (or Toolbox, as we old-timers call it) in Illustrator as it has been for years that although we can go from single- to double-column for convenience on smaller screens, I hardly ever think about it otherwise. But one feature in Illustrator CC 2018 which is both novel and very much a help is the ability to create one’s own Tools panels—that is, to create custom collections of tools as one needs.

We could do something like this with the panels themselves for quite some time, separating and recombining them as we like. This made possible the idea of the workspace, and Illustrator comes with a bunch of those preinstalled. But not too long ago, someone at Adobe realized it would be helpful to be able to do the same with tools—after all, we occasionally find we need what might seem arbitrary but logical (to a particular user) collections of tools for drawing, selecting, etc.

Luckily, it’s dead easy.

Window Menu

There doesn’t even need to be a document open, but it helps to know what you’ll usually need. Simply go to the Window menu, Tools, and on the submenu, click New Tools Panel.

Dialog Box

The dialog box will ask what you want to call it, and you can type any name you like—though if you need to create more than one (and you can put together as many as you need), it’s a good idea to use names that more or less describe what each will be for.


Once it has a name, the main bit is old as the hills. Drag and drop tools from the main Tools panel into the new one, in any order (a little planning for convenience might be helpful), and there you are. And since this is a program-level feature, not a document-level one, the new collection(s) will be there on that copy of Illustrator from that point on, whenever needed.

The Layers Panel in Illustrator–Tips and Tricks

In my last post, I mentioned that the Layers panel serves a more vital function in Photoshop than it does in Illustrator. No offense to Illustrator, of course! But there is a reason I said this.

In Illustrator, unless the user makes it happen, objects cannot “smear” together as if they were oil paint that doesn’t dry. So the need to separate things by layer for Photoshop-ish reasons does not exist. But the Layers panel in Illustrator does serve another, equally useful, function—that of organizer.

Doc and Layers Panel

In fact, there are two levels of organization we can see in a typical Illustrator document:

First, the layers themselves, which can be used to keep things together in the same fashion as having two or three storeys in a house. A real-life example might be a document intended for publication in Canada, which requires many documents, especially legal ones, to be bilingual. If one places all the graphics in one layer, all the French text in a second, and all the English in a third, one can easily show or hide the appropriate text for printing two versions of the document, and avoid having to create two separate documents, which would take rather more space.

Basic Layers

Second, within each layer, there can be objects whose “stacking order” (in which one object is above or below another) determines what we see or don’t see of each object. The layers’ stacking order can be changed by simply dragging any layer up or down within the Layers panel. Ditto the objects within each layer. So one might describe the Layers panel as a stack of stacks.

Layers and Stacking Order

The only downside to this story is that it can get a little complicated, especially when one has grouped objects within the layers. Groups, however, show themselves by indenting the objects within the group, and having twist/folding arrows to open or close the group, allowing objects within the group to be moved up and down within them.

But one point remains the same between Illustrator and Photoshop: Don’t create more layers than you need, for whatever reason. Each layer is almost a separate document within the file, and takes up a significant amount of room, so be sparing.

How to Use the Selection Tools in Illustrator

Occasionally, new users of Illustrator have trouble understanding the selection tools; there are three, and each does something different. So knowing which to use for what is important. It’s not that hard to get the hang, with a little practice.

Main Selection Tool

The main Selection tool, usually referred to as just that, allows the user to select the entire object. For doing anything to the object as a whole, like changing fill color, edge color, etc., this is good. Furthermore, if one wants to change the object’s dimensions or position, it has to be selected as a whole object. So the Selection tool works for this.

Direct Selection Tool

The Direct Selection tool serves another purpose. If one wants to work on a part of the object, one anchor point, or one segment of the path which makes up the border, this would be the right tool. With the Direct Selection tool, one has to be a little more precise in where to click. Doing so on the anchor point works with that anchor point and the line segments to either side. Clicking on a line segment also selects the adjacent anchor points. This tool is more specific, and gives tighter control over selection. One can also drag to create what’s called a selection box around multiple anchor points, or any part of the object, to work with that part or parts.

Group Selection Tool 1  Group Selection Tool 2  Group Selection Tool 3

The Group Selection tool is a bit more complex, but it too has a method to the madness. When several objects need to stay in the same place relative to each other, they can be selected and grouped. Once they are, the Group Selection tool can select one object within the group (with the first click), a group within several groups (second click), or a set of groups together (third click). Again, the main problem some new users have is to click carefully, as the program simply interprets the clicks regardless. (We all sometimes double-click almost by reflex these days. After working with this program since the late Eighties, that bit still trips me up sometimes, so it’s not the user’s fault.)

The Anchor Point Tool in Illustrator

When working in Illustrator, drawing with the Pen tool (producing Bezier curves) is a mainstay of many documents. (And in a couple other graphics programs, too.) But sometimes the tools that go with the Pen take a little time to get comfortable with. And the one I’ve been told is frankly a little confusing is the Anchor Point tool (which used to be known as the Convert Anchor Point tool, describing what it does).

You may know there are three main kinds of anchor points: Curve points, that have a smooth curve going in and coming out; Corner points, which have a sharp angle between two straight line segments; “Hybrid” points, curved on one side, straight on the other. Converting between them is easy, but using the tool may take a little practice.

Let’s say you want to convert from Corner to Curve.

Start with the Anchor Point tool

Switch to the Anchor Point tool, find the anchor point, put the sharp end of the V on it, hold down the mouse button, and drag. As you drag, you “draw out” control handles, which tell the curve what to do.

Drag to create handles

Some people think they need to do this and get them pointing in the right direction at the same time. Not necessary, though you can if you want.

The opposite is even simpler. To go from Curve to Corner, use the Anchor Point tool to simply click on the curve anchor point, and the control handles disappear. Done.

It’s creating a hybrid point that sometimes causes a little trouble, but it’s not really hard. Usually it’s easiest to create a Curve point first. Then switch to the Anchor Point tool, put the point of the V on the end of the control handle you want to get rid of, and click. (Don’t drag, though.)

Remove a handle

That side now becomes the Corner side, as it were. Dragging from the anchor point brings both handles back.

You can even “break” the connection between the two handles and simply grab one with the A.P.T., give a short drag clockwise or counterclockwise, and the two handles are now independent of each other.

Break handle connection

Or hold down the Alt key, and click a “broken” handle to restore the connection so the two now stay in a straight line again.

Practicing a little with the tool usually makes all this pretty easy. Just take your time.