What’s New in Illustrator 2021

The 2021 version of Adobe Illustrator brings few interesting new features, although they should prove useful. The really big news – the huge news – is that Adobe has now released a version of Illustrator for iPad, and it’s fantastic. First, let’s get the desktop update out of the way.

Illustrator for desktop

Illustrator is now able to recolor artwork by sampling colors from placed photographs. It’s a straightforward process: you choose Edit > Edit Colors > Recolor Artwork, and the artwork is immediately matched to the photograph. It’s surprisingly faithful, and a color wheel shows pins marking all the colors used so that they can be tweaked individually.

There’s also a new way to set text size, activated by choosing Show Font Height Options from the pop-up menu in the corner of the Character panel. This allows you to set the height of the capitals, the x-height or the current text frame. You can set the height in pixels, for instance, to match the height to a graphic, and it’s a big time saver over the previous manual manipulation method.

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You can now make any line or object snap to type edges without having to outline the text first. Here, a simple horizontal rule is easily made to snap to the baseline of this text. It can also snap to the ascender height or either the left or right edge, but it can’t read intermediate values – so you are unable to snap to, say, the top of the lower case letters, or in this case the top of the upper case A as it’s lower than the ascender next to it.

As has long been the case in InDesign, you can now set text to align to the top, middle of bottom of an area text box, or to be vertically justified within it. And that, together with improved Cloud support, is the sum total of enhancements in this version. If it seems a little lackluster, it’s because most of the effort this year has clearly gone into…

Illustrator for iPad

When Photoshop for iPad appeared last year, it was panned by many for its severely curtailed toolset. The first iPad incarnation of Illustrator, however, is a fully-fledged, powerful drawing tool that, in many ways, boasts features that are more intuitive than the desktop version. Although an Apple Pencil is a bonus, you don’t need it in order to use Illustrator on the iPad; the only real benefit is that your finger tends to get in the way when moving anchor points.

As with Photoshop, a Touch Shortcut button provides tool options. Hold it while dragging an object to move it orthogonally; tap and drag it to the side to get the Secondary Shortcut, which enables you to move a copy of the selected object. It’s also used to constrain a rectangle to a square, and an ellipse to a circle, as well as for many other uses for each tool.

Drawing on the iPad

The Pencil tool is the easiest way to draw paths, and recognizes corner points when you make an abrupt change in direction. Increasing the Smoothing amount will produce softer curves: I drew this outline in one fluid motion, complete with the corner point at the right hand end.

Zooming into a drawing uses the intuitive pinch gesture. Double-tap with the Selection tool to enter Direct Selection mode, so that individual points can be addressed. You can now move each point or its Bézier handles at will.

When in Direct Selection mode a range of options appears in a floating panel, allowing you to cut and add points, convert smooth to corner points, and delete points. There’s also a button that removes points and adjusts the handles of the points either side: this is a great way to smooth curves, removing unwanted bumps.

Combining shapes

The equivalent of Illustrator’s Pathfinder panel is the Combine Shapes panel. Unlike the desktop version, which only shows icons for each tool, on the iPad you see previews showing exactly what will happen to your selected artwork. It takes all the guesswork out of the process, and is a major enhancement.

At the top of the Combine Shapes panel is the Shape Builder, which works in a similar way to its desktop incarnation – except that it’s very much more intuitive. Tap a shape to delete it; drag over two shapes to combine them. It’s as simple as that.

The Shape Builder can be used for many drawing operations. Here, I duplicated the yellow eye by holding the Touch Shortcut button and recolored it, then drew a triangle over it with the Pen tool; and finally, I used the Shape Builder to limit the highlight to the iris area.

Adding color

The Color panel lets you choose colors using a standard color wheel, as well as numerically – and it provides the ability to add transparency as well. Creating gradients is easy, offering linear, circular and dual gradient points that are adjusted by tapping and dragging.

Merging objects

I drew this wing with the Pencil tool, then created two duplicates. Using the Combine Shapes panel enabled me to turn them all into a unified object, with a single stroke around it; but each of the original objects is still a separate shape within that combination, allowing me to adjust each one independently.

The Eraser tool

The Eraser in Illustrator deletes part of an object by dragging the tool over it. You can set the roundness and angle of the tool (if using an elliptical shape), and with the Smoothing value turned right up you can easily produce smooth, clear slots in your artwork. Note here that although this wing is made of three discrete objects, the effect is to erase all three as a single object.

Working with layers

Objects can be grouped together, or moved to individual layers – just as they can in the desktop version. Opening each layer in the Layers panel shows each of the objects within that layer, making it easy to make selections and see the constituent parts of the artwork.

Step and repeat, with bells and whistles

The Repeat panel allows you to produce radial, grid and mirror transformations on selected artwork. Here, this object has been turned into a radial array by tapping the Radial button.

Dragging the slider on the right increases and decreases the number of iterations in the radial array, and the change takes place in real time as you drag the slider up and down.

Dragging the circle button on the edge of the inner circle rotates each object within the array. Of course, you can still change the number of iterations while you’re doing this: it’s a live effect that can be edited at any point.

Two anchor points on the perimeter of the circle let you set the start and end points of the array. It’s similar to the tool used in the desktop version when setting text on a curved path, but far easier to use.

Once you have created the array, you can then Expand it to turn it into regular artwork. This allows you to select individual elements – or, by holding the Touch Shortcut button, to select multiple elements within the array – and then manipulate them independently.

Text handling

Illustrator on the iPad gives you access to a wide range of fonts, and you can add any fonts from the Adobe Fonts collection using the Creative Cloud app. You get full control over size, tracking, leading and kerning, both through the Properties panel and using on-screen controls.

Controls beneath the text let you adjust each of the parameters without opening the Properties panel. Selecting each of the buttons let you adjust the size, tracking and leading using a single slider that pops up beneath the text. This slider doesn’t use absolute location: drag it left or right to decrease or increase the amount, and it will always snap back to the center ready for further adjustments.

Illustrator on the iPad has additional features not shown here: clipping masks, outlining strokes, creating guides, text on a path, and more. Some of the tools are less intuitive, such as the Copy and Paste Appearance buttons nested in the Copy panel – the equivalent of the Eye Dropper tool in the desktop application.

This is far from being a full implementation of the desktop version. There’s no graph tool, no patterns, only basic brushes, no envelope distortion… the list goes on. But as a first release it has all the basic tools you need to produce compelling artwork. Unlike the desktop version, which many users find frustratingly hard to work with, Illustrator on the iPad is a real joy to use.

Steve Caplin is a freelance photomontage artist based in London. His work has appeared in every national UK newspaper, as well as magazines around the world including Businessweek, Men’s Health, Reader’s Digest and many more. He is the author of the best-selling How to Cheat in Photoshop, as well as 100% Photoshop, Art & Design in Photoshop and 3D Photoshop. He writes regularly for CreativePro and is a trainer at Lynda.com. His YouTube channel 2 Minute Photoshop is a growing collection of handy Photoshop tips, each just two minutes long. When he’s not at his computer Steve builds improbable furniture, which can be seen at curieaux.com.