Illustrator Symbols Illustrated

By Esben

I don’t often use symbols in Illustrator because I don’t generally make repeating shapes. The control over an element is also very limited when you use a symbol and control is often a huge component for me, but then again if you want chaos… its off to symbols and symbol sprayer!

Symbol Leaf Header

Why Chaos is Good

It is so difficult to make something random, without unconsciously making a pattern and that’s where symbols come in.

Making a Symbol

It’s the easiest process!

Draw a shape and drag and drop your artwork into the symbol panel. Remember to save the symbol! Give it a name and the Symbol Type should be “Graphic.”

Sample Leag Symbol

The symbol will keep its original size, so if it’s too big or small for your image, drag the image out from the symbol panel, scale it and make it into a symbol again.

Using the Symbol Sprayer

It’s more complicated than you might think actually. The best way to learn this complicated tool is to experiment.

You can control the individual symbolism options (the group of symbol tools) if you double click the symbol sprayer tool.

Always start with the normal Symbol Sprayer tool and place some symbols on artboard, then you can manipulate the placed symbols, with the other symbol tools. Click and hold to bring up the tools underneath the Symbol Sprayer. You can tear off this menu by clicking the arrow on the end of the menu.

Symbol Sprayer Tool Symbol Sprayer Tool For applying the symbols, hold down left mouse bottom and move the mouse to spray.

Symbol ShifterTool Symbol Shifter Move the symbols toward the direction you move your mouse.

Symbol Scruncher Tool Symbol Scruncher Pulls the symbols closer together

Symbol Sizer Tool Symbol Sizer Gives individual symbols different sizes. This is a real timesaver, since doing this manually takes forever.

Symbol Spinner Tool Symbol Spinner Turns the symbols 360 degrees around the center point. If your symbols are really close together and you want a bit more control, make the diameter of the tool’s brush smaller.

Symbol Stainer Tool Symbol Stainer Select a new fill and press on one symbol, select a new fill etc, until you have some diversity in colors. This helps to make depths and breaks colour pattern.

Symbol Screener Tool Symbol Screener Gives symbols lower levels of opacity (screen/increase transparency)

Symbol Styler Tool Symbol Styler Is quit clever actually! It combines graphic styles (pre-made styles) and symbols. For instance if you want a drop shadow, different stroke widths or some other differentiations, this tool can do that.

Breaking Symbols

When you break symbols (select the symbol group and click the drop down arrow on the Symbol palette and select Break Link to Symbol; greyed out if you don’t have a group selected), then the symbols become regular shapes. Sometimes placing a group of symbols and manipulating them until you are satisfied and break the link and reimporting the shapes into a symbol can be very useful.

My Experience

It’s not possible to rely on Symbols to make the above image, you have to break the symbol link and manually adjust size, rotation and even colour. But the image above should be rather easy to make—it just takes a couple of strokes and applying the leaf as a symbol.