How To An Illustrator: Distant Mountains

Another answer to a technique question from Reddit: Here's a fast way to make a bunch of mountains fading into clouds in Illustrator. There are others; this is the way I'd do it.


1. Make two swatches: pink, blue. Check the “global” box in the swatch options for each of them. Draw a big pink rectangle on one layer, make a new one to draw mountains on.

2. Draw a vague inverted-u shape with whatever tool is quickest. I like the pencil tool, double-click on the pencil tool; turn on 'fill new pencil strokes' and 'edit selected', turn off 'keep selected', it's defaults are terrible for fast drawing.

3. Open the Appearance palette. Visit its menu, uncheck “new art has basic appearance”.

4. Fill your shape with a pink-blue gradient made from those two global swatches. Set it to 90°.

5. Add the roughen and tweak effects to this fill. Roughen at 0% size, detail to taste, corner points; tweak 0% horizontal, vertical to taste, play with the modify checkboxes.

6. Add a new fill using the button at the bottom of the appearance palette. Make it solid pink and on top of the first fill. This will be the clouds.

7. Add the ellipse effect to this fill. Relative, 0pt of extra width/height.

8. More effects: transform, 50% vertical, centered on the bottom center of the object; roughen, 4%. 5/in, smooth; Gaussian blur, 13px.

9. Graphic Styles palette: make a new style.

10. Using this style, draw more mountainous shapes. Use object>arrange to put the lower ones nearer, if you didn't draw them in that order.

Stuff in the Appearance palette should be arranged like this.

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Tonight’s Illustrator how-to: drawing symmetrically.

  1. Draw a big rectangle, centered where you want the center of rotation to be. Far bigger than you anticipate ever drawing in. Like ‘3x as wide as the entire canvas’ big. Give it no stroke and no fill; it’ll become invisible when it’s not selected.
  2. Layers panel: click on the dot to the right of the name of the layer.
  3. effect>distort and transform>transform
  4. in the angle box, type 360/x; in the copies box, type x-1 (where ‘x’ is however many copies of the stuff you draw you want to see – for instance if you wanted to see 15 total copies of your stuff it’d be 360/15 and 14. Illustrator can do simple math in all its numeric input boxes!)
  5. effect>distort and transform>transform – yes, a second one, this time check ‘reflect X’, make one copy, and leave everything else alone.
  6. maybe open up the layer and lock the invisible rectangle so you don’t select it by accident while moving stuff around.
  7. hit up the appearance palette’s dropdown menu, ‘clear appearance’
  8. start drawing shapes
  9. if you want to edit the symmetry, then click on the dot you clicked in step 2, then go to the appearance palette and click on the ‘transform’ entry.

It sounds complicated but it took me like a minute to set up at most, then I doodled this in like another minute or two by drawing a few black and white shapes with the pencil tool.


And here’s a screengrab of the outline view that shows you just how little stuff I actually drew. That little dot near the middle of everything is the center of the big invisible rectangle I drew in step 1.

If at some point you want to tweak individual instances of your symmetric stuff, then click on the dot next to the layer’s name and do object>expand appearance. If ‘expand appearance’ is ghosted then go unlock the invisible rectangle you drew in step 1.

You could also go pay money for Astute Graphics’ MirrorMe plugin, but that tends to not play well with wanting to have symmetry happening across multiple layers, plus I can never remember how to use the damn thing because they only provide documentation in the form of frickin’ youtube videos. This way is covered by what’s already part of AI, and you can do stuff like have, oh, 14 copies of what you draw on one layer, and 11 on another, and expect that to stay consistent across closing and re-opening the file.


And here’s a thing I did elaborating on the insectoid mandala I drew for this post.

Fuzzy shading.


A quick (~15min) doodle of Baron K from Parallax, mostly done to test out a shading method someone asked about on Reddit. The uniform is probably off-model, I didn’t bother pulling up the pitch bible.

I’m not sure about the Baron’s eyes here. I need to do some exploration of how to show expressions and keep his eyes looking like cute little beady mouse eyes. Does he look like he’s looking in a particular direction to you?


This is what I ended up with for the shading effect. Choose color, opacity amount, and blur/mezzotint settings to taste; if you make a Graphic Style and draw all your shading using that, you can tweak the appearance then do ‘redefine graphic style’ to apply it to the whole drawing.


And this is what it looks like if I turn off the blur and mezzotints. Just a bunch of shapes drawn with the pencil tool and occasional use of ‘draw inside’.

A Young Lady’s Illustration Primer, or, Peggy buys a Surface.

This Sunday, I suddenly found myself thinking “I want to be able to work in Illustrator on a tablet badly enough to deal with Windows”.

I’ve avoided running Windows for my entire computing life, which stretches back to before MS-DOS existed, so this was a pretty surprising thought.

My first impulse was towards a Wacom Cintiq Companion; after reading some reviews and chatting about it with Mel, I found myself zeroing in on Microsoft’s tablet/computer hybrid. Which starts around $500 for the lowest-end Surface Pro 3, and goes up to around $2000 for the snazziest Surface Pro 4. Plus accessories, of course.

I started thinking about Things That Would Annoy Me As A Long-Time Mac User, googling around, and talking about these things on Twitter.

Tuesday, the cashflow-unclogging I’d been working on at the end of last week finally happened. And I still felt like this enterprise was a good idea. So I walked out to the Microsoft Store that sits lost and lonely across the University Village parking lot from the Apple Store. Seriously, there’s like a dozen people staffing it who mostly just sit around playing with the things only a few people an hour are coming in to look at. It’s gotta be kind of dispiriting to look out their door and see the always-bustling Apple store.

At any rate, I wandered in and chatted with the guys at the door about my desire to look at the Surfaces, and my intent of using it for Illustrator. I think they know that “people who want to run the Adobe Creative Suite on a tablet” is a not-insignificant portion of the Surface’s market, as they had Photoshop and Illustrator installed on the demo tablets. I played with AI a bit, doing the beginning of a doodle, and finalized the decision I’d pretty much made well before I started walking: I was gonna buy a mid-range Surface 4.

I ended up getting the Surface/Office/keyboard/sleeve/whatever-Microsoft-calls-their-version-of-Applecare bundle, for a total cost of about $2080. I’d discovered in my test drive that that the Surface’s stock keyboard/screen cover is powered by the Surface, and stops working when it’s detached, so I got them to let me get a cute little folding Bluetooth keyboard instead of the Type Cover. Ultimately I would end up returning all of these things except for the Surface and the extended warranty, and using it with a spare Apple bluetooth keyboard I had in the closet, as the folding keyboard was too floppy to balance on my knee and blindly hit shortcuts with my left hand. Not having a cover feels kind of weird, so I’ve got a couple lightweight ones coming from Amazon – the only non-keyboard covers they had were SUPR TACTICAL PRO DEFENSE cases, which are very Not My Aesthetic.


The Surface unboxing experience was pretty nice. One might even say Apple-esque.

The Surface unboxing experience was pretty nice. One might even say Apple-esque.

Little details like this "pen magnetically attaches here" icon on the plastic covering the tablet's screen made me anticipate an Apple level of polish throughout the whole thing. Surely I'd have it seamlessly running Illustrator in an hour or two!

Little details like this “pen magnetically attaches here” icon on the plastic covering the tablet’s screen made me anticipate an Apple level of polish throughout the whole thing. Surely I’d have it seamlessly running Illustrator in an hour or two!

Why, it even shipped with power in the battery! Cool. It's ready to get going as soon as possible!

Why, it even shipped with power in the battery! Cool. It’s ready to get going as soon as possible!

A screen or two into the setup. Hey, that's a pretty neat idea! Especially if you can change it to do other things. Which you can.

A screen or two into the setup. Hey, that’s a pretty neat idea! Especially if you can change it to do other things. Which you can.

Friends had noted that Windows 10 is super snoopy and sends home insane amounts of telemetry. So my reaction to this screen in the setup was "uh, nnnope, gee, I like how tiny and unimportant the links to actually look at what permissions you're giving it are."

Friends had noted that Windows 10 is super snoopy and sends home insane amounts of telemetry. So my reaction to this screen in the setup was “uh, nnnope, gee, I like how tiny and unimportant the links to actually look at what permissions you’re giving it are.”

All of these switches, of course, default to on. I might have turned on the "typing data" one to let the screen keyboard autocorrect better, but I'm really not intending to be doing a lot of typing on this thing.

All of these switches, of course, default to on. I might have turned on the “typing data” one to let the screen keyboard autocorrect better, but I’m really not intending to be doing a lot of typing on this thing.

Here are some well-intentioned ideas that my mental model of a security researcher burst out laughing with delight at. Because she's absolutely sure all of these have been rigorously tested for edge cases and overflows that can be exploited maliciously.

Here are some well-intentioned ideas that my inner security researcher burst out laughing with delight at. Because she’s absolutely sure all of these have been rigorously tested for edge cases and overflows that can be exploited maliciously. Possibly I spend too much time reading Hacker News. But nnnnoooo. I’m not taking these risks when I’m using an OS that generally looks like a giant walking security hole from outside.

Not planning on using the stock Windows browser, don't have any other Windows machines to share updates with. Though that's a clever idea. There were a lot more pages of switches to turn off than this; I only photographed the ones that I wanted to tweet snarkily about.

Not planning on using the stock Windows browser, don’t have any other Windows machines to share updates with. Though that’s a clever idea. I guess giving all users of Windows 10 a unique advertiser supercookie is clever too, but not in a good way. There were a lot more pages of switches to turn off than this; I only photographed the ones that I wanted to tweet snarkily about. I think I left one switch on in pretty much every page.

This, on the other hand, sounded pretty nifty and I said hell yes I will sign in with my face.

This, on the other hand, sounded pretty nifty and I said hell yes I will sign in with my face.

Cortana, on the other hand... I almost never use Siri on my iThings. I'm just not interested in talking to my computer. I said nope.

Cortana, on the other hand… I almost never use Siri on my iThings. I’m just not interested in talking to my computer. I said nope.

Then it ran out of power. I'd been wondering how long it would make it; there wasn't a battery indicator visible anywhere in the welcome screens. Whoops! I plugged it in and hoped it'd recover gracefully.

Then it ran out of power. I’d been wondering how long it would make it; there wasn’t a battery indicator visible anywhere in the welcome screens. Whoops! I plugged it in and hoped it’d recover gracefully.

After a wait just long enough to make me wonder if I'd bricked it, the Surface started booting again.

After a wait just long enough to make me wonder if I’d bricked it, the Surface started booting again.

It had a couple other lines about "welcome to Windows 10" before this. Then it just sat here long enough that I was beginning to wonder what was up.

It had a couple other lines about “welcome to Windows 10” before this. Then it just sat here long enough that I was beginning to wonder what was up.

Which took a few minutes longer.

Which took a few minutes longer.

IMG_2200 IMG_2196 IMG_2197 IMG_2198

and then it did it again, and then it did it again. Four times that little progress bar filled up. With no indication of how many more times it might be intending to do this, how long it expected this to take, or what these four phases of the update were. Nice job, Windows. Good show.

and then it did it again, and then it did it again. Four times that little progress bar filled up. With no indication of how many more times it might be intending to do this, how long it expected this to take, or what these four phases of the update were. Nice job, Windows. Good show.

And then I was off learning a lot of things about Windows. Here are some of the things I learnt about Windows 10 and the Surface:

  • If you use SharpKeys to swap the Control and Windows keys so you don’t have to try to retrain twenty years of hitting the key immediately left of the space bar plus some other key to trigger shortcuts, the neat eraser-click feature quits working. Because internally the Surface pen is presenting itself as two devices, a stylus and a keyboard, and pressing the eraser button sends a press of the Windows key instead of sending a nice sensible “BUTTON_2_PRESSED” sort of event. I dithered back and forth and ultimately decided that “not tying my fingers in knots trying to press control instead of command” was more important than “clicking the pen button to launch Illustrator”. Some people have suggested that an app called Radial Menu can maybe remap the Windows key in a more subtle fashion that doesn’t interfere with this; I have it installed but haven’t tried playing with it yet, as turning off SharpKeys will involve a logout.
  • There are two entirely separate preference programs. One of them is a very cleanly-designed tablet-friendly app called “Settings”, and is accessible by a nice friendly gear icon in various places in Windows 10. The other one is called “Control Panel”, and it reeks of 1995 up in there. Sometimes little windows from 1995 will come up when you type stuff in the search bar, with no immediate way to summon their parent to go looking at all the available switches; ultimately someone on Twitter told me you access it by right-clicking on the Windows icon and selecting “Control Panel” in the menu that pops up. Which is not a thing I would have ever discovered, given that tapping that same button summons the nice friendly Start menu.
  • If you want a program to automatically launch itself on power-up, there is no easy way to do it. Everyone will tell you to just add it to the “Startup Items” section of the Start menu, but that doesn’t exist in 10 anywhere I can find. The only way I could do it involves visiting 1995: you have to navigate to a hidden directory by right-clicking on the Windows icon, choosing “run”, and typing “shell:startup”, then put an alias to the program in the directory window that pops up. Good luck finding out where the program lives; I ended up launching the program and using the Task Manager (found in that Windows icon right-click menu as well) to reveal it in the directory structure, then alt-dragged it into the Startup directory. Which worked for Illustrator, but not for Evernote. Because I’d installed the app store version of Evernote, which meant that it’s installed somewhere I don’t have filesystem access privilege to. The OS pointed me towards where I’d need to go to temporarily get admin access to do this, but really, as long as Illustrator auto-launches I’m happy enough here.
  • One of the control panels hidden away in 1995-land is called “Pen and Touch”. It has a tab called “Flicks”, where you can set up things to happen when you rapidly slash the stylus vertically or horizontally. If you’re an artist who’s learnt to draw with confidence, this is probably going to happen fairly regularly once you get going. And this defaults to on. You’ll want to type “flicks” into the search bar and turn that off.
  • Sharing. Windows sharing is a giant hot mess. You will be asked to learn about things like “workgroups”. Don’t bother. Just don’t bother. Install Dropbox and use that to copy over the preference files Illustrator no longer offers to sync between your computers. And use it to sync with your art files, as well, while you’re at it.
  • Yep. Illustrator no longer syncs preferences between multiple machines. Adobe added that feature a few versions back, then quietly dropped it. Presumably because it was buggy, I dunno, I never used it. Photoshop still has it of course. Photoshop gets all the developer love over at Adobe. Despite all the time they’ve been putting into Illustrator features designed for touch devices lately, it refuses to run in portrait mode – other programs are fine with it, but as soon as you flip over to AI you’re locked in landscape. Nice job Adobe.
  • You will probably only want to use Microsoft’s “Edge” browser long enough to download a different browser. And you will want to stick an ad-block plugin or two into that new browser. And you will want to turn on Windows Defender, and back that up with one of a few different programs. I chose Chrome, with the Adblock and Ghostery plugins, and backed up Windows Defender with Malwarebytes, whose website has a big friendly robot giving you a thumbs-up.
  • Seriously look at this dude. EEEEYYYYYY. We have decided that "Crush Malware" is Robot Fonzie's name, not a description of what Malwarebytes does, and want to see him popping up when the program has something to say. "CRUSH MALWARE HAS A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS FILE, LADY BUTTERPANTS!" Ideally with gloriously monotone text-to-speech that you can laugh at, and turn off.

    Seriously look at this dude. EEEEYYYYYY. I and my friends have decided that “Crush Malware” is Robot Fonzie’s name, not a description of what Malwarebytes does, and want to see him popping up when the program has something to say. “CRUSH MALWARE HAS A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS FILE, LADY BUTTERPANTS!” Ideally with gloriously monotone text-to-speech that you can laugh at, and turn off.

  • The Windows 10 equivalent of Apple’s Exposé is activated by putting your finger on the left bezel, and swiping right into the screen. I don’t know what they call it in WinTenLand but it’s just as handy for swapping between apps as it is in OSX. Mirroring that gesture on the right side will get you their version of the Notification Center. Trying a vertical version of it on the top or bottom of the screen does nothing.
  • It’s real easy to run installers multiple times because it can take a moment for anything to happen after you click on them. So you click again, with no response. And again. And suddenly you have three copies of the installer running.
  • The thing at the bottom of the screen is called the “taskbar”, and is a mix of the Dock and the right side of the menu bar. If you search for settings relating to it you can move it to the top of the screen where it will feel more natural to a Mac person. You can also drag those menu bar items on the right around, but do NOT long-press on them – you’ll summon their menus if you do that. You can also set it to auto-hide, and it’s hard to get back with your finger or the stylus. Right now I just hit the control key on my keyboard to summon it, which gets remapped to the Windows key. Also you can hide the Dock aspect of it, which I kinda like.
  • I find that the Surface works best if you set it to ‘tablet’ mode. Mostly. The app store won’t show its back button, I guess because it expects there to be one in the taskbar I’ve set to auto-hide. And there are a few other things like that springing from the fact that I’m making UI settings nobody raised on Windows would make.
  • The Start screen is made up of a bunch of tiles. You can drag them around. If you long-press on them, you can delete them by hitting the little safety pin on their upper right, and resize them by poking around in the menus that come off the “…” on their bottom right. Which will probably be hidden by your hand. Windows 10 is trying really hard to be a touch-oriented OS, but the mask keeps slipping.
  • Despite the general impression I have that Windows tends to fall over and die when you ask it to sleep or hibernate, the Surface seems to hibernate reliably. I’ve set it to hibernate when I press the power switch while it’s on battery, and sleep when it’s plugged in. I also set it to hibernate after two minutes of sleep, to prevent it getting accidentally awoken in my bag and sitting there wasting battery and overheating. You can do this by searching for ‘power options’, choosing ‘edit plan settings’, then doing ‘change advanced power settings’.
  • It works perfectly well with a Mac bluetooth keyboard. I had a spare one in my closet that now lives in my purse. Turn it off when you put it in the bag, turn it back on while you’re waiting for the Surface to wake from hibernation.
  • The calendar app was quite happy to connect to my iCloud calendar. It wasn’t updating when I was on battery for a while because I’d turned off background apps while on battery in the Battery Saver settings; I went in and allowed that to go through. I’m pretty sure it’d be equally easy to hook up the Mail app to the GMail account that sits between my Apple devices and the mail server on my host (it makes a great spam filter), but I really don’t want to do email on this thing. I’m trying to make it a sketchbook, not a distraction machine.
  • Oh, the stylus: Not quite as nice as a Wacom stylus. One button on the barrel that takes a fair amount of pressure to press. No padding, I may end up trying to kludge a pencil cushion onto it or something. Eraser doubles as a second button with very limited function. Decent pressure response, supposedly has 1024 levels. Not sure if it has tilt or twist, I never use those anyway. Google says it doesn’t. Also I should probably buy a spare one in case I lose this one. (About $45-50 on Amazon, $60 from MS.)
  • I need to figure out how to remap caps lock to shift-ctrl-alt so I can have the same Extra Meta Key I’ve gotten used to in Illustrator. And rewrite a couple of Applescripts in Javascript and figure out how to call them on a couple of keystrokes.
  • For the record, here’s everything I’ve installed on it to make it something largely dedicated to drawing in Adobe Illustrator: Chrome, Dropbox, Evernote, f.lux, ManicTime (tracks time spent in various apps, has a display similar to Time Sink, which I use for that purpose on the Mac), Malwarebytes, Radial Menu (for maybe remapping some keys, maybe doing some homebrew key shortcut panels or stuffing a lot of menu items into things I can quickly invoke with the stylus), Sharp Keys (also for remapping keys), Telegram (for talkin’ to people a little, but not too much), TimeMe (for a big clock on the homescreen, plus weather and battery status), and the Kindle app for maybe reading a book on a plane or something. Though really I’ll probably just take the iPad for that still. Oh and of course Illustrator, and some plugins for it. I still need to copy over all my fonts and get my brush libraries settled in.

All in all, I feel like it’s been worth the money and the day or two of setup. I spent about $1900 for a device with about half the storage of my 13″ Air, the same amount of RAM, a moderately faster CPU, and an alien OS that I had to spend a solid day wrangling with. But it’s also a device that weighs about half as much as my Air plus the Wacom tablet  (.7kg vs 1.8kg – not much more than one of the black-covered hardbound sketchbooks I carried around for years). And it’s pretty close to print resolution – 267ppi. I can finally turn off anti-aliasing in Illustrator and stop seeing rendering glitches when I draw masked shapes, which I’ve been wanting to do for years. And I can draw on the bus, or on a plane, something I really can’t do when I need to plant the Wacom tablet next to the laptop. I still have to find a place for the keyboard under my left hand (maybe sitting on top of my bag to raise it to a comfortable level), but it’s a lot more compact than the computer plus tablet.

Taking it out is a lot quicker too; instead of taking out the computer and the Wacom, then taking out the stylus, stylus stand, and the USB cable, then plugging them together, I just pull out the Surface with the stylus clinging tenaciously to its side, turn it on, then pull out the keyboard and hit its switch. Pull the stylus off and I’m ready to draw in not much longer as it’d take me to pull out a sketchbook and my pencil case, find the next blank page, and choose a drawing tool. And it’s really nice to have that kind of casualness to drawing again. Windows is a colossal pile of alien hassle to me, but after a solid day and a half wrestling with it (and a lot of helpful suggestions from various folks on Twitter – thanks a ton, everyone!) I’ve gotten it to a point where it’ll mostly just stay the hell out of the way and let me enjoy my magic sketchbook.

sitting in a chair outside on Wednesday night, balancing keyboard and Surface on my legs.

Sitting in a chair outside on Wednesday night, balancing keyboard and Surface on my legs, breaking it in by drawing a new version of the genie I summoned to live inside my first Air a few years back so she’ll feel at home riding around in this thing as well. Who is probably just a figment of my imagination.

I probably could have been happy with a lower-end Pro 4. Or maybe even a Pro 3, but I wanted the high res screen of the 4, and eight megs of RAM. Mostly because my Air has 8M and I know Illustrator won’t go into swap hell when I do complex painterly things or super-dense stuff like the climax of Rita. I haven’t tried any serious torture tests on it yet but I’m confident it’ll do fine, as even the low-end Surface 3 has more CPU than my late 2013 Air. It won’t be replacing my Air for everything (in part because I really would rather have something that runs OSX) but it’s damn close, and I don’t think the Air is going to be leaving the apartment much any more. The only thing it has over the Surface is better battery life (advertised at 12h vs 9h) and twice the SSD (512gb vs 256, though I could have spent more for a 521gb or 1tb Surface.). And costing about $800 less when I bought it a couple years ago, and running an OS I have thoroughly tamed.

Final verdict: A pretty cool magical sketchbook if you’re willing to spend a couple days wrestling with with all the 1995 buried inside it, and can afford about $2k. It’s a no-brainer if you’re already used to Windows and have that kind of money handy.

some pointillism

Saránta Eptá

Fooling around with making Illustrator do stippling for me via the magic of a few scatter brushes. Because holy shit all those dots would be a ton of work. Especially when I decided to retroactively make them tiny little skulls  once it turned into my Bloodborne character.


Illustrator, about ~30min to draw, plus another half hour fooling around with turning the dots into different things.


edit: here, have some brush settings. They’re all called “leaf” because I started with one of my standard toolkit brushes, a jaunty little rectangle scatter brush I use for abstracted leaves. I ended up replacing them with a skull made up of five paths (overall shape, each eye, nosehole, highlight) joined into a compound path. I made the others by just duplicating the first brush and changing the settings, mostly by either widening the scatter range to create a broader stroke, or by raising the spacing to make it lighter. You could easily make a few more if you wanted to take a stippled piece further than I did here. Things may start to get a little sluggish though. Use multiple layers, hide them and maybe make simple gradient proxies, consider writing up a feature request for something like Expression’s “freeze layer” function again. (Expression was a wonderful natural-media vector package that Illustrator is still trying to catch up to; one thing it could do was “freeze” a layer. Which was like locking it except it also rendered a moderately high-res bitmap, and used that for building the preview instead of rendering everything from scratch. It made working with complex drawings a lot faster.)

How To An Illustrator: abusing image trace

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 7.42.54 AMFucking around with image trace because someone asked how to do this kind of stuff on Reddit.


  1. import image
  2. object->image trace->make
  3. window->image trace, set it to black and white with a threshold of about, oh, 30 or so. Maybe open up the ‘advanced’ triangle and check ‘ignore white’; I’ll talk about why you might want to do this later.
  4. in the layers palette, drag the layer this image is on to the ‘create new layer’ button at the bottom of the palette.
  5. you are now editing a new copy of the image, in this new layer. Set the trace threshold a little higher.
  6. repeat steps 4/5 until you feel like you have Enough layers to work with. You might want to set these layers to about 20-50% at some point so you can see what’s going on.

Now, you have at least two options here. First I’ll talk about how I did the B&W image with pattern fills.

  1. I’d checked ‘ignore white’ in step 3 above. This gave me a set of paths that were just the black parts, as opposed to solid black and white.
  2. make a new layer at the top of the stack, call it ‘construction’. Probably lock all the other layers so you don’t interact with them by accident.
  3. somewhere above the image, draw a horizontal unfilled, stroked line that’s around half again as long as the diagonal of the image.
  4. effect->distort and transform->zig zag. If you want wavy lines like this then choose ‘smooth’ in the ‘points’ section.
  5. alt-drag the line to well below the bottom of your image.
  6. select both lines, object->blend->make. Then object->blend->blend options and fiddle with the settings until you like the spacing between your lines.
  7. select that whole blend and drag it into the swatch palette to make a pattern fill. You could also do object->pattern->make but that will immediately throw you into the pattern editor mode, and we don’t need to do that here.
  8. Hide the ‘construction’ layer. Show everything else. Select all the image traces and do object->image trace->expand. Sadly you can’t expand multiple image traces at once; you have to select them one by one. I feel the most efficient flow for this is to unlock one layer, select all, expand the trace, lock the layer, then go on to the next one, but whatever works for you. You might want to record an action or add a keyboard shortcut to the image trace expand as it’s pretty deeply buried in the menus.
  9. Lock all your layers; unlock one and do edit->select all. Then pick the wavy lines pattern swatch you made.
  10. Lock off that layer, unlock another one. Select all and pick the wavy lines pattern swatch.
  11. Choose the rotation tool and start to rotate the image. Before you let go, press the ~ key. This is a switch that says “only transform the pattern fill”; you’ll see your outlines replaced by bounding boxes of all the paths. Maybe hold down shift to constrain it to 45º angles.
  12. Repeat steps 10/11 until you’ve dealt with all your layers.
  13. Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could use whatever fill pattern you like for this.

(As a side note, the ~ trick to move a pattern fill around in a shape works with the scale, reflect, and arrow tools, as well. It does not work with the free transform tool.)

And here is another way to do it: opacity masks.

  1. do those six steps at the top of the post, but turn off  ‘ignore white’ in the image trace options.
  2. lock everything except one image trace layer. Select all; cut. Yes, cut.
  3. In the layers palette, click on the circle to the right of the now-empty layer’s name.
  4. In the transparency palette, press the ‘make mask’ button. Check ‘clip’ and ‘invert mask’.
  5. Click on the big black square that appeared in the transparency palette, and paste. Now you have an opacity mask. You can see its outline if you do view->show edges, and you can see it in the transparency thumbnail’s palette, but nothing shows up on the screen. That’s because the opacity mask is a greyscale image that affects the transparency of what it’s attached to, and right now it’s attached to an empty layer.
  6. Click on the empty square in the transparency palette to go back to editing the layer, and draw something in it. Maybe a big black rectangle. Maybe a colored one. Maybe a pattern fill. Maybe draw two circles and blend them, that’s what I did here. And then duplicated and slightly offset them to create a cool morié pattern in the image.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6. If you want to move some of the stuff you drew in step 6 without moving the opacity mask, then click the chain link between the two thumbnails in the transparency palette. Otherwise you’ll move the opacity mask as well.
  8. Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could also try unchecking ‘invert mask’ on one layer and using it to overlay art in the lighter areas of the image, rather than the darker.

There are other ways to do this – you could expand the image trace (with ‘ignore white’ on), turn it into a compound path, and use it as a layer clipping mask for the layer full of whatever imagery you want to draw; you could probably do something involving destructive operations with the Pathfinder palette, too. Which is a major sin in my book as I like to do non-destructive edits whenever possible.

If I was to rank these methods from most to least editable down the line, it’d be opacity mask > pattern fills > layer clipping mask > pathfinder stuff. For instance, I wanted to add a little extra shadow under the chin to help distinguish it from the face. With the opacity mask method I could just go into a layer mask and draw some black shapes over the image trace. Adding more shapes the pattern fill way can be a little finicky with keeping the fill patterns in alignment; adding more shapes to a complex layer mask is even more fiddly, and destructive pathfinder operations have to be done completely from scratch.

You can also do a similar trick with Astute Graphics’ WidthScribe palette, if you feel like spending some money for a plugin that only has a bunch of YouTube tutorials and no manual.

bug report: “unwanted toads in my brush palette”

So there’s this side effect of Adobe’s attempt to retool Illustrator into something that can be driven entirely by a touchscreen: an uneditable, undeletable “Touch Calligraphic Brush” appears at the top of your brush palette.

This has annoyed me for a while, as I am pretty committed to driving it with keyboard and stylus. It’s not a huge annoyance, but it’s just this… intrusion… on my otherwise neatly-organized files. I finally decided to write it up as a bug.

In other news, this Purple Arrow I picked up at American Mary the other day on a budtender’s recommendation is some pretty good stuff.


Concise problem statement:

An uneditable, undeletable “Touch Calligraphic Brush” appears at the top of the Brush palette for every single document, including ones that predate touch devices. On my Macbook Air, which is not a touch device, with files that have never been loaded on a touch device.

Steps to reproduce bug:

1. Start Illustrator on a computer with no touchscreen.
2. Load a file or create a new one.
3. Try to edit the “Touch Calligraphic Brush”.
4. Try to delete the “Touch Calligraphic Brush”.


The Touch Calligraphic Brush stays there at the top of your brushes palette. It refuses to move. Refuses to let you change its settings. It mocks you every time you look at the brush palette, an unasked-for, unwanted squatter in the middle of your tools, like a toad that’s plopped itself down in the middle of your pencil box. It’s polite, as toads go. It doesn’t demand you feed it flies, it doesn’t excrete all over a work in progress and ruin it, it doesn’t even croak. But it’s always there right in the middle of where your tools are. And sometimes you put your hand on it when you reach for a pencil without really looking, and it’s all clammy, and gross, and why is this toad in the middle of my pencil box, taking up space I could keep drawing tools instead? When you call the people who make the pencil box, they tell you that, oh, yes, the toad has to be there for the benefit of people working in the exciting new medium of toad secretions, so that when they try to use a toad to draw with, there’s always a toad there, and this just leaves you (as an artist working in the medium of pen and ink) rather baffled as to why this means *everyone* has to have a toad in their pencil case now.

I mean, also sometimes the pencil box summons this five inch tall giraffe made of fire who burns your drawing up, and that’s something both you and the people who made this magical pencil box are more concerned with, but still. I just keep on putting my hand on this toad sometimes, and it’s just moderately annoying on a constant low level.
Expected results:

The Touch Calligraphic Brush acknowledges that its presence may be unnecessary or unwanted for some people, and lets you edit and delete it.

Or even better, perhaps the Touch Calligraphic Brush never even appears if you’re not on a touch device.


How To An Illustrator: Messy Brushes

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.39.46 PM

Here’s a thing I’ve been kind of wanting for a while, and finally nailed: that dotty, super-spitty-airbrush look.

  1. Draw a black circle.
  2. effect->brush stroke->spatter, play with the parameters until it looks good
  3. object->expand appearance
  4. object->image trace->make
  5. window->image trace, play with the parameters until it looks good
  6. object->image trace->expand
  7. drag into brush palette, make a scatter brush

All the brushstrokes in that screenshot are done with the same green with varying opacity settings: 50% for all of them, normal/screen/multiply mode.

You probably shouldn’t try to fill in a whole image with this as things would get pretty slow to render; use it to create accents.

You could try different starting shapes and different effects – maybe a triangle that’s been put through the ocean ripple effect is just what you want. Kinda looks like a lot of messy angular brushstrokes, huh?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.52.44 PM

Or how about if I add a ‘roughen’ effect to the paths I drew, on top of using the scatter brush?

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 1.54.19 PM

Wow, it sure looks like I made a lot of twitchy little brush dabs there, doesn’t it. Thanks for doing the work for me, Illustrator!

stipply brushes

Edit, some time later: Or how about that oh-so-coveted spitty airbrush look? Seriously, I see people asking for that one all the time.

Caveats: You don’t want to try and draw an entire picture with these kinds of brushes. Illustrator will slow way the hell down. Lay in flat shapes with simple filled paths, then come back in and paint highlights/shadows with your Messy Brushes.

schooling: clouds

Over on the Illustrator subreddit, someone posted a link to this image, asking “is it possible to make something like this in Illustrator”:


“What Only Exists In The Mind”, by Jeffrey Smith

And it got the usual “not really, use photoshop/uh I guess you could use gradient meshes but use photoshop/you could but it’d take years, use photoshop” answers from people whose knowledge of Illustrator kinda stops at the pen tool.

Me? I looked at it and was like, yeah, pretty easily. Lots of organic pencil tool shapes, do some blurred shapes for the smooth hills, stack up some transparency in one of the ‘light’ blend modes for the tonal shift in the sky, make some art brushes for most of the tree you’re good. I tossed off a quick reply to that effect and went to bed.

I woke up to a reply saying “I call bullshit”.

And I was like, oh, kid, it’s on now.

So I got out of bed and got to work. Forty minutes later, I had this.


Which obviously is not as intricately done as the original image, and doesn’t have the knowledge of How To Clouds that the original artist seems to have been building for about a decade or so (seriously this guy can clouds wicked good, like half his gallery is is full of meticulously-rendered cloudscapes). But I was like, yeah, if I was willing to spend a whole day drawing clouds at about 4x the size of the jpeg under discussion, I could get a sky like that image. “Doing the rolling hills and mountain is left as an exercise for the reader.”

I replied with my quickie rough and those caveats, and got a ‘holy shit!’-toned reply back. Yeah, I’m just that good. *preen*


And then I spent about fifty minutes on a picture of myself blowing a cloud off my stylus like a gunslinger after a trick shot, with some of my own usual tricks for clouds added to the mix – various amounts of gaussian blur, a bit more roughen/tweak effect here and there, and of course a mezzotinted overlay for texture. I’m still not as good at clouds as Mr. Smith is and probably never will be, given that his handle is “Ascending Storm”, but I’m pretty happy with how this one came out.

If you want to see how it’s done, a CS6 source file is here: (I use CC2016; CS6 is the oldest version it’d save it as without crunching the blurs into an uneditable bitmap.) Or you can read about the tricks I used to draw this in a fraction of the time you think it took if all you know is the pen tool.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.45.19 PM

The basic appearance of the cloud shapes is this:Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.20.49 AM

Roughen in this case was set to 4pt, absolute size, 15/in, and tweak was set to 3% horizontal and vertical, only modify in/out control points. This results in a simple ovoid squiggle becoming something kinds complicated and cloudy:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.23.03 AM

Draw a big white bubbly cartoon cloud, add this effect, and suddenly you’ve got all these fiddly vaporous bits. Change the fill color to black and start drawing some shapes at 50-70% opacity, maybe switch back to white and a high opacity and add in a few inner highlights, and pretty soon you’ll have some nice stormclouds with very little work. (Protip: go into the ‘tools’ section of Illustrator’s keyboard shortcuts and assign the number keys to 10-100% opacity, then you can switch opacity on the fly.)

You can further complicate this; Smith’s work has fairly discrete colors and really solid, heavy clouds, but I prefer more vaporous clouds on sunnier days. So for the self-portrait clouds I added a little bit of gaussian blur. Not much, just like 2-5 pixels worth on different shapes as I went out towards the left edge of the cloud. (Process: select a handful of shapes, press the hotkey I’ve made for gaussian blur, frob the slider, hit okay. Select more shapes further down, repeat.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.30.21 AM

That still looked a little chunky, so I targeted the layer and added a bit more roughening, tweaking, and blurring to the entire cloud at once:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.36.52 AM


You can target a layer for effects by clicking the circle on its right in the layers palette; the dark circle on the ‘clound‘ layer indicates that there’s an effect applied. These are some pretty subtle effects – roughen is 1pt absolute, 47/in; tweak is 2pt, modifying anchor points and ‘out’ control points; the gaussian blur is 1.7 px. All of these numbers are ones I arrived at by the time-honored method of yanking the slider to a random point that felt about right and tweaking it until it looked good; I’ve been using these effects long enough that I have a general sense of how it’s gonna look.

You can, of course, compact more of the shapes in the cloud into one path. I did a lot of the shading on the figure with this appearance stack:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.43.09 AM

Two quick paths become like six super-ragged, fiddly, translucent shapes, for some nice smooth and textured shading done in seconds. There’s a few interesting tricks going on with this appearance stack, so I’ll dissect it a bit more.

The ‘add’ at the top seems to do nothing if it’s the only effect on a path. Go on, try it – draw a quick shape with the pencil tool, give it a fill color, and add the ‘add’ effect. Nothing seems to change. But if you switch to a stoked path, you’ll see the difference: the ‘add’ effect forces Illustrator to close your sloppily-drawn open path for you This is important down below in the top two fills, because it completely changes how ‘offset path’ functions…

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.50.44 AM

See? Turn it off, and the two fills with an ‘offset path’ effect turn into what looks like a simple, boring stroke. (I’ve also turned off the roughens and tweaks to show this better.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 11.49.23 AM

I mean, it’s not like there isn’t a cool watercolor edge effect kind of thing going on here, but it’s just not much good for multiplying your effort by drawing one path and having Illustrator lay down two or three more similar-but-different ones, right? But doing the ‘add’ effect (it’s under the Pathfinder effects, btw) closes the path, and suddenly ‘offset path’ starts outputting a slightly larger or smaller copy of the whole shape.

Each added fill is offset a different amount from the base shape; they’re also tweaked up at a large scale (5pt, out control points only), then roughened (4pt absolute, 15/in), then tweaked again (3%, in/out control points) to jank them up nicely.

As to the figure? Since I was being quick and lazy, I googled ‘blow smoke from gun’ to get a general idea of the pose, dropped the first one with a good silhouette into Illustrator (the second one on the results page), and quickly sketched the outlines of the major shapes with the pencil tool.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.51.08 PM

I then deleted the image, drew solid shapes that looked like what I see in the mirror, drew some loose shading with that cloud appearance, and added some more shading with the appearance stack outlined above. Mix in a photo of my Wacom stylus to get its proportions dead on, and a few minutes looking at how I hold it when I lift it up nearly vertically, and I was pretty much done.

(That probably sounds pretty cavalier; honestly after drawing for twenty years it really is that simple to me. As always, the big major tips for this are “learn to draw for real”, and “double-click the pencil tool, turn on ‘fill new paths’ and ‘edit selected’ and turn off ‘keep selected’, then you can very rapidly swish out solid shapes with your Wacom tablet and throw your RSI-inducing mouse in the trash where it belongs.)

And for the finishing touch, I added one of my trademark cheats to make an image look a lot more detailed than it really is: make a new layer, draw a big rectangle that covers the whole image, add the mezzotint effect, then target the layer and set it to about 12-25% hard or soft light. I do the transparency on the layer rather than the mezzotinted rectangle because that way Illustrator doesn’t try to re-render the mezzotint effect every time I tweak the transparency.