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Adobe Illustrator CS5 : Understanding Appearances (part 2) - Targeting Attributes, Applying Multiple Attributes

11/27/2012 6:26:00 PM

Targeting Attributes

Upon closer inspection of the Appearance panel, you’ll notice disclosure triangles to the immediate left of the Stroke and Fill attributes. Clicking these disclosure triangles reveals an Opacity setting that lets you control the opacity of an object’s stroke and fill independently (Figure 8). In fact, a single path contains three Opacity settings by default: one for its stroke, one for its fill, and one for the overall object. When you apply an Opacity value to a single attribute, you’re targeting that specific attribute. And in case you were wondering, yes, it’s certainly possible to apply a 50% Opacity value to an object’s fill and also apply a 50% Opacity value to an overall object (resulting in a 25% opacity, if you think about it; see Figure 9).

Figure 8. Although the fill of this object has an Opacity setting of 50%, the stroke appears at 100% opacity.

Figure 9. Be aware of the accumulative effect of applying Opacity values to an overall object as well as to its attributes.

Since it can be confusing at times, it’s important to realize that when you click an attribute in the Appearance panel, the attribute becomes highlighted to indicate that it is targeted. If you want to target the overall path or object, click the target that is listed at the top of the Appearance panel, near the thumbnail (Figure 10). Alternatively, you can click in the empty area that appears beneath all the attributes listed in the Appearance panel.

Figure 10. Clicking the target is a quick way to target the entire object, not just one of its attributes.

Applying Multiple Attributes

Objects that have a single fill and a single stroke are referred to as having a basic appearance. However, vector objects aren’t limited to just one fill and one stroke. In fact, a single object can contain as many fills or strokes that your creative mind craves. An object with more than just one fill or stroke is referred to as having a complex appearance.

To add an attribute to an object, click the Add New Stroke or Add New Fill button at the bottom of the Appearance panel (Figure 11). You can also target any existing attribute and click the Duplicate Selected Item button. Once you’ve added an attribute, you can change its place in the stacking order by dragging it above or beneath other attributes in the Appearance panel. You can also remove targeted attributes by clicking the Delete Selected Item button.

Figure 11. There’s no limit to how many fills or strokes you can add to an object in Illustrator.


To reduce a selected object to a single fill and a single stroke with those attributes set to None, click the Clear Appearance button at the bottom of the Appearance panel.

You may be wondering what good two fills or two strokes do in an object, because one always covers the one beneath it. Earlier, we discussed the ability to target a specific attribute so that you can apply settings to each individually. By applying different attributes to two different fills and by applying an overprint or an Opacity setting to the top fill, you can create some interesting effects (Figure 12).

Figure 12. Combining two fills in a single object lets you create interesting effects, such as a pattern fill with an overlapping transparent gradient fill.


Even if you don’t use the Appearance panel to add multiple Fill or Stroke attributes to an object, you may work with someone else’s file that does contain a complex appearance. As such, it’s always important to use the Appearance panel when working in any document.

Likewise, you can add numerous strokes, each with different widths, colors, and dash patterns, resulting in useful borders and effects (Figure 13). Although you can certainly use more traditional methods to simulate these effects by overlapping multiple objects on top of each other, adding multiple attributes to a single path means you have just one path to work with and edit (as opposed to multiple paths). Considering the Illustrator limitation of being able to edit only a single control handle of a single path at any one time, seemingly simple edits to multiple paths could prove extremely difficult and require much time and effort. 

Figure 13. Using overlapping multiple strokes on a single object is one way to simulate stitching patterns.

New Art Has Basic Appearance

Ordinarily, Illustrator styles a newly drawn object based on the last object that was selected. For example, if you click an object with a black stroke and a yellow fill, the next object you draw will have a black stroke and a yellow fill. However, if you select an object with a complex appearance and then create a new shape, the default behavior is that Illustrator will not style the new object with the complex appearance. Instead, Illustrator uses the basic appearance of the previously selected object (Illustrator uses the topmost Fill and Stroke attributes and does away with any that appear beneath them in the appearance’s stacking order).

In the Appearance panel menu, you can deselect the New Art Has Basic Appearance setting (Figure 14), which instructs Illustrator to draw new shapes using the full complex appearance of any previously selected object. If you ever want to reduce an object to its topmost fill and stroke while removing all additional attributes that appear underneath, you can choose Reduce to Basic Appearance from the same panel menu.

Figure 14. Selected by default, the New Art Has Basic Appearance setting forces newly drawn objects to always have basic appearances.

Expanding Appearances


Although some people don’t trust Illustrator and expand all appearances before sending final files off to print, we don’t condone such behavior. There is no risk in printing files with appearances—they print just fine. Additionally, expanding your appearances limits your options if you have to make a last-minute edit or if your printer has to adjust your file.

You’ll notice that you can’t target a specific fill or stroke of an object from the artboard—the only place to access this functionality is through the Appearance panel. This makes the Appearance panel infinitely important, but it may make you wonder how an object with a complex appearance will print. After all, how does the printer or export format know how to draw these multiple attributes on a single path?

The answer is that Illustrator breaks these complex appearances down into multiple overlapping paths, and each path contains a basic appearance. This process, called expanding, doesn’t happen on your artboard—it happens in the print stream or the export process.

Sometimes you may want to manually expand your appearances to access the multiple attributes as individual objects on the artboard. To do so, choose Object > Expand Appearance. Remember that once you’ve expanded an appearance, you are dealing with a group of multiple objects, not a single object anymore (even fills and strokes are separated into individual objects). Each of the individual objects has a basic appearance, and you have no way to return to the original complex appearance.

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