First Look: Illustrator CS4

Illustrator is the oldest of all of the applications in Adobe's Creative Suite. And while the company has steadily updated the drawing application since its debut in 1986, Adobe continues to find important improvements with every release.

Illustrator CS4 is no different, with its revamped interface, new gradient tools, the Blob brush, and more. Packed with changes, the new version announced this week promises to be a great upgrade for users of all levels.

New interface

Like the rest of the CS4 suite, Illustrator version 14 (for those who are counting) features Adobe's new Application Frame, a large window that holds all documents and palettes, and provides you with a neutral-colored background. A new Application bar that sits above the Options bar of the previous version gives you window management tools and an easy mechanism for switching between Workspaces (different window layouts).

Windows in Illustrator can be kept as tabbed documents within the Application Frame, and the program includes many new commands for automatically re-arranging and organizing the different tabs.

Drag-and-drop manipulation of objects is much more sophisticated in the new version. For starters, you can copy an object from one illustration to another by simply dragging it from the source document to the tab of your target document. The target document will take focus and you can position and release your object.

You can also manipulate an object by simply dragging and dropping it on a tool palette. For example, if you drag and drop an object onto the Transparency palette, it selects and you can alter its transparency.

Introduced in Illustrator CS3, the Isolation mode--which allows you to easily isolate a single path for manipulation without having to lock or hide surrounding paths-- has been improved. Now, when you put an object into Isolation mode, Illustrator displays the object's hierarchy as a series of clickable "breadcrumbs" at the top of the screen. This simple mechanism allows you to navigate through the grouping hierarchy of an object, isolating any part as you go.

Other interface improvements include clipping masks that now only show their clipped area when you're editing them, and improved Smart Guides which display on-cursor readouts of dimensions as you create shapes, guides that indicate when shapes are aligned, and additional displays which show rotation angle and rotation relative to other objects.

Finally, working with Graphic Styles and Appearances is much easier thanks to interface improvements that make it possible to hide the visibility of complex, render-intensive components of an appearance, among other changes.

Multiple Artboards

Illustrator documents still only support one page, but you can now create multiple Artboards within a single document. Each Artboard is self-contained--it has its own Layers stack and properties--but they can all be contained within a single document. So, if you have related illustrations--a large poster and smaller postcard, for example--you can keep them in the same document.

A new Artboard tool lets you drag out an Artboard of any kind. You can then start drawing in the new Artboard just as if it were a separate Illustrator file. Several new interface elements allow you to easily bring a specific Artboard into focus, so that you won't have to hassle with scrolling all around your document.

You can link text boxes together from one Artboard to another, making the Artboard feature a reasonable substitute for Illustrator's lack of multiple page support. For short publications, this will be a very welcome feature.

Connect the Blobs

The new Blob brush lets you create painterly shapes that don't clutter up your document with excessive vector data. With the Blob brush, as you paint more strokes, Illustrator automatically combines them into a single shape, just as if you'd used a Pathfinder command to merge them together.

Parameters on the Blob brush let you specify size, shape, and random variation for each parameter, to create strokes that have a more "analog" feel. Special keyboard shortcuts let you quickly switch between the Blob brush and the Eraser. With the Eraser, you can easily chisel away parts of your Blob brush strokes. The combination of the two tools lets you create very painterly effects without overloading your image with a huge number of new paths.

Making the gradient

Illustrator's Gradient tool receives a huge upgrade in the form of a new interface that displays gradient controls directly on the path to which you've applied a gradient. The new control makes it simple to fine-tune both the direction and spacing of the tones in your gradient.

Gradients have received another important improvement in that you can now assign transparency to any color stop on a gradient.

Other improvements to CS4 include a new Separations Preview feature that makes it easy to review your overprinting and separation settings to ensure that individual plates will export correctly, and the ability to search and utilize color palettes from the online Adobe Kuler community.

First impressions

Illustrator is 22 years old this year, and with the release of CS4, most users should consider it a very happy birthday when the final version ships next month. I'll have a full review of the application then.

[Ben Long is a San Francisco-based photographer and writer.]

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