Q-Review: Illustrator CS4 from a comic creation perspective

cs4.jpg In October 2008, Adobe released Illustrator CS4 (in addition to a ton of other graphics, web, and video software). I use Adobe Illustrator to draw and letter the Q-Burger comic. It’s a fantastic and powerful tool that is uniquely suited to how I draw.

Which of these two questions will you ask?

If you don’t own Illustrator, but you want to get a vector-based drawing application, your question would be, “Should I shell out the tons of cash to buy this software?”

And for owners of the CS3, CS2 or CS1, the question that’s always raised when Adobe releases new versions of their incredibly expensive software is “Do I really need to upgrade?” It’s a wise question to ask, because these applications do a LOT of stuff, and if you only use a sub-set of features, it’s not inconceivable that these features won’t have been updated between versions.

I’ll try to answer both of these questions in the following paragraphs.

The Blob Brush is the Blomb!

The blob brush is the single most compelling reason for upgrading to CS4. This is a new feature that will appeal to newcomers to Illustrator and to old hands alike. It finally provides a somewhat natural-feeling tool to create brushstrokes that are editable with the eraser tool.

I’ve talked to many artists who are interested in using Illustrator, but experienced complete disorientation upon launching it and just trying to something as simple as draw something. And I understand that completely. I’ve been there, and it’s only after investing a ton of time in educating myself that I’m comfortable saying that I understand it.

Illustrator has had the paintbrush tool for a long time now. The standard paintbrush tool draws in paths, and then gives the path characteristics based on the setting used. This tool works very well with a Wacom tablet to create a line with pressure-based variation that closely emulates a real brush and ink. The problem comes when trying to edit the path.

If you use the eraser tool to edit a line drawn with the paintbrush toolo, it cuts the path into segments and destroys the appearance, removing any line variation. This is very frustrating to artists used to traditional media and/or Photoshop users who like to be able to fine tune their brush strokes with the eraser. It’s just not possible to do.

Blob brush to the rescue. Where the paintbrush draws paths, the blob brush draws in closed paths. The difference is that you can use the eraser tool to edit closed paths. You can shave off stray lines with ease just like you would in Photoshop.

If you’re having trouble grasping just how awesome this is, that’s not surprising. Especially if you aren’t a current user of Illustrator. The value of the tool is a little tough to convey just by writing about it, so I’ve linked to a couple of video tutorials I found floating around out there so you can see for yourself how this new tool will benefit Illustrator users, new and experienced.

Adobe TV. IIllustrator CS4 Blob Brush Tutorial - Web Design Library

Increased Speed and Stability

The launch times have been improved across the board with the CS4 apps, and that’s great. Adobe has also improved shutdown speed as well, which I appreciate. I’ve had far too many run-ins with Photoshop or Illustrator taking forever to close when I’m trying to quickly reboot my machine.

They’ve also increased scrolling speed. While zoomed in to 300x or 400x for detail work, I’m able to use the hand tool to zip to other parts of the panel I’m working on with greater speed. And CS4 is a modest improvement in terms of the render speed of Live Trace, but not nearly the same boost that I saw going from CS2 to CS3.

Changes to the workspace

I like the interface improvements that have been made. Adobe added a single-window feature to the Mac version of the software that allows you to keep all of Illustrator’s panels and artboards in one application window, which makes things a bit more manageable.

The cosmetic changes to the work environment are nice when looking at the CS4 suite as a whole, as the entire line looks more similar. It’s more noticeable with Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash (the Macromedia acquisitions). They look like they belong to the family now.

But my favorite interface tweak, and it’s a minor one, has been the easier access to the custom workspaces. I’ve created my own workspaces for inking and lettering that have tweaked to show only the applicable tools. It’s nice to be able to check which workspace is currently in use, and then to easily switch between them.

Multiple artboards and the Appearance panel

Multiple artboards and the newly beefed up Appearance panel are very nice features that I just don’t have a use for currently. This is mainly because they didn’t exist in previous versions, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t become completely reliant on them in the future.

A big deal has been made of the multiple artboards, but when creating comics, I don’t see the value of having one file contain all 22 pages of an issue, or all 60 episodes of a season of Q-Burger. Maybe it’d be a time saver for sending materials to other collaborators or to the printer, but for my purposes, there’s no advantage. And what’s more, I’m afraid of file corruption. If all 60 of my episodes are contained in one file and that file gets corrupted, then that’s all 60 episodes gone. Not that, in this age of cheap external harddrives and offsite back up, that’d be a fatal event, but it’d be inconvenient.

The Appearance panel used to be the panel that told you what strokes, fills, and effects are applied to a specific object in your artwork. The improved version now makes it the place where you can directly edit those effects. Where you used to have to open other panels to edit strokes and fills, Illustrator gives you access to those controls right in the Appearance panel. This saves a lot of menu opening and clicking around in other panels. Nice, but I’m not in the habit of using it yet. That is likely to change.

Questions answered

Illustrator is intimidating and confusing for new users. But if you want to take advantage of vector art for your comics, Illustrator CS4 is the the right place to start. The Blob brush will give you the intuitive line editing functionality you’ve grown used to in other drawing apps. I think this is the single most beneficial feature for comic creators.

And if the blob brush doesn’t have the same appeal to you, and you’re still wondering about whether to drop the $199 to upgrade from a previous version, the speed increases, the interface tweaks, and the multiple artboards might be enough to justify the upgrade. It depends on what features you rely on to create your work.


Adobe TV.

IIllustrator CS4 Blob Brush Tutorial - Web Design Library