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Working with Symbols

The symbolism tools are designed primarily for use with Web images, but they have tremendous possibilities for many kinds of artwork. When designing graphics for the Web, keeping file size small is very important. Symbols allow you to record only a single copy of an image in the file, yet use it many times.

We're going to take this opportunity not only to present the symbolism tools, but also to give you a head start on a variety of other Illustrator concepts. We'll be introducing such concepts as fill color, transparency, tinting, and more. Each of the more advanced concepts will be explained in later hours. For now, just enjoy the creative possibilities.

Adding Symbols

Illustrator comes with a variety of artwork already designated as symbols. You'll find it in the Symbols palette. Click on the tab for the Symbols palette to bring it to the front, and then drag it by the tab to the upper-right corner of the work area. Click on the Symbol Sprayer tool icon in the Toolbox and hold the mouse button down until the flyout palette appears. Without releasing the mouse button, move the cursor to the right end of the mini-palette and position it on the little arrow symbol. Release the mouse button. That should turn the strip of Symbolism tools into a small floating palette. Move it to the upper-left corner of the work area. Your screen should now look similar to Figure 3.21.

Figure 3.21 For the next little while, we'll be working with these symbols and tools. (The contents of your Symbols palette might vary.)


Creating symbols can take a lot of horsepower! Be patient when working with symbols. The screen might take a few seconds to redraw, and the tools might not be as responsive as you expect.

Task: Using Symbols

Let's get creative!

  1. Pick a symbol, any symbol, from the Symbols palette by clicking on it. Feeling fishy? Light (bulb) headed? On fire? Puzzled? There's a little something for everyone. The individual little pieces of artwork in the Symbols palette are called symbol instances. Think of an instance as a particular symbol.

  2. With the Symbol Sprayer selected, click on the left side of the artboard, just below your floating palette of symbolism tools, and drag slowly to the bottom of the page. Release the mouse button.

  3. Move the cursor back up to just under the symbolism tools, and a little to the right of the path you just drew.

  4. Click and drag quickly to the bottom of the page. Compare the two sets of symbols. Press V on the keyboard to switch to the Selection tool. Notice that the bounding box (the rectangle that indicates a selection) now encompasses both lines of symbols (see Figure 3.22).

  5. Figure 3.22 The bounding box is the blue rectangle that surrounds the objects currently active (selected) on the artboard.

  6. In the lower-right corner of the artboard, press the mouse button and leave it down for a couple of seconds without moving the mouse. Watch how the symbols continue to be created for as long as the button is down.

  7. Select all and delete to clear your artboard.

  8. Select a symbol and drag a long lazy arc or two to spread some symbols around. Switch to a different symbol instance and drag some more, overlapping the first set in a few places.

  9. NOTE

    As you recall, the term instance refers to the actual symbol in the Symbols palette. When talking about a bunch of symbols on the artboard, all of a particular instance, we'll use the term set.

  10. Hold down the Command (Mac)/Control (Windows) key and click somewhere on the artboard that isn't covered with symbols. This deselects the symbols and gets you ready to start another set.

  11. Double-click the Symbol Sprayer icon in the tool palette that you tore from the Toolbox. In the Symbolism Tool Options dialog box, change the diameter to 100 and increase both the Intensity and Symbol Set Density to 10 (see Figure 3.23).

  12. Figure 3.23 You can use the sliders to make changes or simply type a value in the numeric field.

  13. Switch back to the Symbol Sprayer. Choose another symbol from the Symbols palette and add a lot more artwork to the artboard. You should have something that looks vaguely like Figure 3.24.

Figure 3.24 If your artboard doesn't compare to this masterpiece, don't despair—it was created by a trained professional!

Task: Basic Symbol Manipulation

Now that we've got some symbols with which to experiment, let's do just that.

  1. From the symbolism tool palette, choose the Symbol Shifter.

  2. In the Symbols palette, click once on the type of symbol that you first added to the artboard in the previous exercise. You must select the type of symbol that you want to move before using the Symbol Shifter.

  3. Hold down Command (Mac)/Control (Windows) to temporarily switch to the Selection tool and click on your first set of symbols. The symbol set must be selected on the artboard for the tool to work. (You'll find that manipulating symbols with any of the symbolism tools requires that the set be selected on the artboard.) Release the Command (Mac)/Control (Windows) key.

  4. Now click and drag with the Symbol Shifter in an area of your image where these symbols are overlapped by another type of symbol. Note that only the first type of symbol moves. Release the mouse button.

  5. Press the Shift key and drag again. The symbols that you're shifting are moved on top of (in front of) the other symbols. Option+Shift (Mac)/Alt+Shift (Windows) can send them back behind.

  6. Switch to the Symbol Scruncher. Click and hold on an area of the artboard containing the currently selected symbols. The symbols within the cursor will move closer to- gether. Using the Option (Mac)/Alt (Windows) key moves the symbols farther apart.

  7. The fourth tool in the symbolism tool palette is the Symbol Sizer. As you've probably guessed, you can scale symbols with this tool. As you've also probably guessed, the symbol set needs to be selected on the artboard and the target symbol should be selected in the Symbols palette. Try it out by positioning the cursor over a bunch of symbols and holding down the mouse button for a few seconds. Notice that the symbols in the center of the cursor are affected more than those toward the edge (see Figure 3.25). Try the Symbol Sizer with the Option (Mac)/Alt (Windows) key. Indeed, the targeted symbols are reduced in size.

  8. Next on the agenda is the Symbol Spinner. Aptly named, it will rotate targeted symbols. Give it a shot. Pay attention to what happens when you drag the cursor in a tight circle several times. Drag figure 8's over a group of targeted symbols.

  9. Select all and delete. It's time to analyze what we've done and refresh the artboard for the next round.

Figure 3.25 To the left are the original symbols. To the right you can see the result of using the Symbol Sizer. The symbols in the center are enlarged much more than the symbols toward the edge of the cursor.

The true value in these symbol manipulation tools is in randomizing your set of symbols. When you created them with the Symbol Sprayer, all of the symbol instances (the individual pieces of artwork) were the same size, pointed in the same direction, and were generally uniform except for location. These tools help you create more natural-looking groupings.

Task: Advanced Symbol Manipulation

Let's get set up before we actually start this project. In the Symbols palette, grab a colorful symbol and use the Symbol Sprayer to add some to the lower half of the artboard. Now select a very plain symbol, perhaps one that is a single color. Be quick with the Symbol Sprayer, adding a light spread of symbols over much of the artboard (see Figure 3.26).

Figure 3.26 Your choice of symbols might vary, as might the distribution across the page.

  1. Select the Symbol Stainer. In the Swatches palette, click on a color that is substantially different than your second symbol.

  2. Click and hold for one second on some of your symbols. (Make sure that the symbol is selected in the Symbols palette and that the symbol set is selected on the artboard.)

  3. Move the tool to another area and hold down the mouse button for two seconds. The longer the button is down, the more the color changes. It adopts a tint of the selected color or swatch.

  4. Switch to the Symbol Screener tool. In an area where the two types of symbols overlap, click and hold down the mouse button for a second or so. Check the result. Experiment with longer and shorter times. Try Option+clicking (Mac)/Alt+clicking (Windows) with the Symbol screener. Just as the previous tool changes color, so this tool changes opacity.

  5. The final symbolism tool is the Symbol Styler. In the Styles palette, choose Scribbly Fawn (the first style in the second row). Click and hold on your targeted symbols. The longer you hold the mouse button down, the more the style is applied.

  6. Select all and delete to clear the artboard. Select a symbol, activate the Symbol Sprayer, and add just a few of the symbol instance to your artboard. Too many symbols in your set could result in a long wait.

  7. Use the Symbol Stainer, Symbol Styler, and Symbol Screener to customize your symbol set. Rotate and resize a few, too.

  8. In the Symbols palette, choose another symbol instance by clicking on it once. Then, from the palette's menu (the small triangle in the upper-right corner), choose the menu command Replace Symbol. Give Illustrator a little while to do its stuff and the symbol on the artboard should be replaced. All of the twisting, turning, resizing, staining, screening, and styling should all remain unchanged. Figure 3.27 shows a simplified example.

Congratulations! You've just been exposed to the concept of "live" in Illustrator. Basically, what the term means is that you can change the appearance of an object without changing the object itself. In this case, we used the various tools to alter the appearance of the symbols, but the symbols themselves remained unchanged. When we replaced the first symbol instance, the second instance assumed all of the live appearance changes. You'll learn more about how this works in Hour 18, "Working with Filters and Live Effects."

Figure 3.27 On the left are the original symbols. In the center, they've been fine-tuned with the symbolism tools. On the right, the symbol instance has been replaced, and the changes applied to the symbols remain.

Defining a Symbol

You can easily create your own symbols. Create a vector object, color it, even apply a style to it (which you'll learn about later), and use the Symbols palette menu command, New Symbol. Try it using the basic creation tools you learned at the beginning of this hour. Create a spiral symbol, a circle symbol, and a five-pointed star symbol. Test them using the Symbol Sprayer.

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