Getting started in Illustrator

21 Feb 2013

Getting started in a new application is always daunting especially one like Adobe Illustrator. I regularly receive questions about how to get started. To give newcomers a head start I'm sharing some great resources that should help overcome the feeling of frustration.

How to Get Started with Adobe Illustrator CS6

If you are totally new to Illustrator and need to understand the basics of setting up your documents and getting elements on the page — and how to do these fundamentals the right way you'll love the following. Watch Terry White, Adobe worldwide design evangelist, podcast on How to Get Started with Adobe Illustrator CS6 – 10 Things Beginners Want To Know How To Do.

The Pen tool

I think it's safe to say that this is one of the oldest tools in Illustrator and probably the one that will get you frustrated because it isn't easy to understand when you are just starting to use it. It doesn't have to be… Some time ago I created a pen tool exercise in an Illustrator document that tries to explain how the pen exactly works.

How it works

You simply follow the numbers and the instructions to complete the exercise. The point you need to aim at in each step is the center of each numbered colored dot. Depending on the instructions, you either have to click, click and press, or click and press and then drag, while sometimes holding down the shift or alt/option key. The document is created in 2 layers. The bottom layer, called template contains the instructions, and is locked. The top layer is the 'working layer'. This layer is unlocked, and by default already selected. So this is the layer you'll be working on.

I've used big colored dots for you to click in with the number inside. There are 3 different colors: blue, red and green. The blue ones don't require any dragging, but involve clicking, and often clicking and pressing. The red ones, involve dragging, and sometimes a key needs to be pressed as well. The green ones also involve dragging, but this time dragging one of the handles of the anchor point you've just created, while holding down a key first (alt/option). The document is more extended as it now contains 3 pages (the Adobe Illustrator CS3 version has everything on 1 page), starting with the easiest exercises first, and ending with an actual drawing of a simple tree, and a random swoosh shape.


More Pen tool exercises by Vectortuts+

A similar document created by Ian Yates for Vectortuts+ encourages you to follow the guides to create precise paths, using the hints and shortcuts covered in this article. Download the Pen Tool Exercise file to put them into practice. There are more practical tips in the article as well.

One more Pen tool exercise

One last one that you can watch is How To Use The Pen Tool in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign CS6 by Terry White. He explains the very basics as well in this video.

Pen tool Shortcuts

  • Select Pen tool (P)
  • Select Add Anchor Point tool (+), or when you have the Pen tool selected, just place your pen tool cursor on the path where you want to add a point. Your pen cursor will show a + sign.
  • Select Delete Anchor Point tool (-), or when you have the Pen tool selected, just place your pen tool cursor on the anchor point that you want to remove. Your pen cursor will show a - sign.
  • Select Convert Anchor Point tool (Shift + C), or when you have the Pen tool selected, just place your pen tool the anchor point that you want to convert holding down the Alt/Option key. Your pen cursor will change into the Convert Anchor Point tool.
  • Select Scissors tool (C) to cut out a segment of the path.

New Window

A sometimes overlooked but helpful Illustrator feature is Window > New Window. Not everybody knows that you can display different details of you current document simultaneously in a new window. You can view the same art in different View Modes, Zoom Levels, Proof Setups, and more! Can be very handy.

Hopefully you'll now feel a little less overwhelmed and are eager to do some of my other tutorials too.


  1. 1 Carri 01 Mar 2013

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  3. 3 John 08 Mar 2013

    I’ve been a fan of your site for a long time. I just happened to visit and saw this post on Illustrator. I just recently came across a project that will require Illustrator CS6 so this is perfect! Thanks!

  4. 4 Erik 15 Mar 2013

    Great post!  Illustrator can be a bit daunting at first, lots to learn. This is a great guide to get started.