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Understanding how variable widths work

From: Illustrator Insider Training: Drawing without the Pen Tool

Video: Understanding how variable widths work

Perhaps one of the coolest tools to appear inside of Illustrator over time is the Width tool. This was added in Illustrator CS5 and you'll find it right over here right directly above the Shape Builder tool. This looks like a little seahorse over here or something like that. And if you click on it, you'll see that you get this little funny icon, but it doesn't do anything unless you have some paths or some strokes specifically that exist inside of your document. Now before we actually use the tool, let's understand what the tool can be used for.

Understanding how variable widths work

Perhaps one of the coolest tools to appear inside of Illustrator over time is the Width tool. This was added in Illustrator CS5 and you'll find it right over here right directly above the Shape Builder tool. This looks like a little seahorse over here or something like that. And if you click on it, you'll see that you get this little funny icon, but it doesn't do anything unless you have some paths or some strokes specifically that exist inside of your document. Now before we actually use the tool, let's understand what the tool can be used for.

Normally, inside of Illustrator, a stroke has a constant width along the entire path. So just to give you an example, if I take my Line Segment tool and I click and drag here to create a line, and right now it's set to be let's say 10 points in stroke weight. That means that the entire path, I've one anchor point here and one anchor point here, but the entire length of the path now has a width of 10 points or a stroke weight of 10 points. And as we also discussed, the stroke weight is always distributed along the centerline of the path.

So that means that I have five points of stroke weight on one side of the path and five points of stroke weight on the other side of the path. And it's constant. I can have one part of the path be thicker or thinner than another. That change when we now have the Width tool inside of Illustrator. The Width tool allows me to take strokes and to stretch them or make them thinner, so that I can have variable widths along the length of the path. It's important to realize that it's not called the Stroke Width tool because it works on not just strokes, but also on certain types of brushes.

So if I have Art Brushes or Pattern Brushes inside of Illustrator, I can also vary the widths of those as well. But for now, we're going to focus on varying the widths of just a stroke inside of Illustrator. Now let's understand how these widths actually work when applied to strokes. Again, I have now a single path. If I go into Outline mode by pressing Command+Y or Ctrl+Y, I see that I have one anchor point on the left here, one anchor point on the right, and those anchor points are connected by a straight line right here, by a path.

That is the structure of this artwork. If I go into Outline mode, I can see that I've applied an Appearance of 10 points, a 10-point black stroke on this path. Now I'm going to switch to the Width tool and I'm just going to move my mouse over this and you can see that a little different kind of shaped point appears along the path. Now I haven't clicked or dragged with the mouse. I'm just moving my cursor around on top of this path and I can see right now that little white icon that appears there as well.

It almost looks like it's an anchor point, but it's not. It's actually called a width point. The thing though is that I haven't applied the width point to the path. If I move my cursor off the path, it disappears. That's because right now Illustrator is highlighting to me where a Width point is going to go, should I decide now to click and drag with the Width tool. You can even see a little plus sign that appears right next to my cursor. When I move it off the path, that plus sign changes to a little squiggly line or a tilde icon. And that means the right now I cannot apply anything because I don't have a path that I can apply a width point to.

But if I move it now over this, that little icon indicates that if I click and drag, I'll now be adding something called the width point to my path. It's important to realize that a width point is not an anchor point. A width point does not control the structure of my document. A width point controls the appearance of the artwork, meaning that now I have a stroke. If I were to add a width point, you can almost think of a width point as some kind of an anchor point that only applies specifically to the appearance, not to the underlying vector structure of my artwork.

To be honest, if we turn on one of the Smart Guides features, we'll even get additional functionality here as well. So I'm going to press Command+K or Ctrl+K on my keyboard to open up my Preferences dialog box. And from the pop-up menu here, I'm going to choose Smart Guides. Now we turned off Measurement Labels way back in the beginning of this training, but I'm going to turn it on right now just because I want you to see what it does when working with the Width tool. I'm going to click OK and now when I move my cursor over the path, not only do I see the little plus sign and additionally the width point that's there, but a little window appears and it lets me know that right now the width of my path at this exact point is 10 points.

I also see values for Side 1 and Side 2. As we discussed, the width of a stroke is always distributed on both sides of my path. So I have 5 points of weight on Side 1 and 5 points of weight on Side 2. Now you may ask yourself, "I can do the math, I know how to split 10 in half, I can figure out there's 5 points on one side and 5 points on the other." But as we'll soon see one of the most powerful aspects of working with the Width tool inside of Illustrator is that I can actually move the weight to be distributed along different sides of the path as well.

So I may have a width that may add up to 10 points in weight, but I could have 2 points of width on one side of the path and 8 points of width on the other side of the path. How do we do that? Well, let's actually create a width point here. With my Width tool right now I'm just going to click right here on the path and I'm going to drag down. In doing so now, I'm dragging out, we can almost think of them as control handles for this width point. But again remember, what I just created right now is something specific to the appearance of my path.

It has nothing to do with the underlying structure. If I go now and press Command+Y or Ctrl+ Y to go into my Outline view and I click on let's say my regular Selection tool, I do not see any anchor point here. In fact, I'm going to use my Direct Selection tool here. I see an anchor point here, I see an anchor point here, but I do not see any other points. The width point only applies to the appearance of my artwork, not to the underlying structure of my artwork. So let's go back now to my Width tool, and I'll turn the Preview mode back on.

And now when I mouse over this path, you can see that right over here, the width of my path is 33.028 points. And again, it tells me what Side 1 and Side 2 are as well. If I were to mouse over now to this point itself and you'll see now that it kind of snaps to it, I can see exactly the width for this part of the path. Now let's actually take a look at this for a moment, because suddenly I have a path inside of Illustrator that does not have a consistent weight. In fact, if I just take my regular Selection tool and I select this path right now, it may look like it has a brush or something else applied to it, but it doesn't.

It's just a regular path with a stroke on it. And if I look in my Stroke setting over here and my value for the width, it tells me the width right now is 41.759. But there are obviously different values along the entire part of the path. So it's important to realize that the value displayed over here in the Stroke setting and in addition also in the Stroke panel itself represents the widest point of the path. Remember, when I first created this path, I gave it a stroke weight of 10 points, so in reality the end parts here are 10 points.

However, the widest point to this path is always going to be shown here inside of the Stroke panel, so I can better understand that value. Let me click over here just to select the path and we also know that many times as we always want to look at the Appearance panel because that ultimately tells us everything there is to know about the appearance of our artwork. So if I click now let's say on the word Path, just so I can target the entire object over here, I can see that I have a stroke that's colored black, that has a weight of 41.759. Again, that represents the widest point of the stroke along that path.

However, you'll see that there is an asterisk over here as well. That asterisk is very important because strokes with variable widths appear with an asterisk in the Appearance panel to indicate that that stroke has a variable width. In fact, as you're using Illustrator, it's probably the only way that you'll know that there's a variable width applied to a stroke. This can be especially helpful when you receive files that other people have worked on. Now that we understand this concept of width points inside of Illustrator and we know how to use the Width tool, we can start to apply these concepts to real artwork.

Let's start doing that in the next movie.

Show transcript

This video is part of

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  1. 7m 4s
    1. Welcome
      1m 21s
    2. The evolution of vector drawing
      3m 46s
    3. Getting the most out of this training
      1m 30s
    4. Using the exercise files
      27s
  2. 39m 2s
    1. Plotting points vs. drawing paths
      5m 36s
    2. Drawing artwork vs. building artwork
      7m 59s
    3. The keyboard shortcuts you HAVE to know
      8m 52s
    4. Groups and layers really do matter
      3m 11s
    5. Taming Smart Guides and the Bounding Box
      10m 53s
    6. Do you need a drawing tablet?
      2m 31s
  3. 47m 51s
    1. To sketch or not to sketch?
      2m 32s
    2. Setting up a template layer for your sketch
      3m 37s
    3. Optimizing default settings for drawing
      5m 27s
    4. Using the primitive shapes tools
      5m 7s
    5. Mastering the modifier keys
      2m 8s
    6. Mastering the transform tools
      6m 37s
    7. Creating curves with the Reshape tool
      6m 44s
    8. Using the Smooth tool
      3m 35s
    9. Using Simplify to create smooth paths
      3m 2s
    10. Recording an action for the Simplify command
      5m 2s
    11. Mirroring art for speed and accuracy
      4m 0s
  4. 50m 18s
    1. Deconstructing the Pathfinder panel
      1m 56s
    2. Using the Shape Modes functions
      12m 4s
    3. Using the Pathfinder functions
      13m 4s
    4. Understanding how compound shapes work
      11m 45s
    5. Understanding why compound shapes exist
      7m 32s
    6. Exploring additional Pathfinder options
      3m 57s
  5. 52m 51s
    1. Why Live Paint was created
      10m 45s
    2. Creating a Live Paint group
      4m 21s
    3. Using the Live Paint Bucket tool
      7m 8s
    4. Using Live Paint with open paths
      5m 6s
    5. Detecting gaps in Live Paint groups
      3m 42s
    6. Adding paths to a Live Paint group
      5m 34s
    7. Using the Live Paint Selection tool
      6m 28s
    8. Releasing and expanding Live Paint groups
      2m 59s
    9. Understanding how Live Paint works
      6m 48s
  6. 27m 37s
    1. Why the Shape Builder tool was created
      4m 18s
    2. Focusing on the big three: Add, Subtract, and Divide
      2m 27s
    3. Using the Shape Builder tool to add and subtract artwork
      9m 50s
    4. Using the Shape Builder to divide artwork
      3m 48s
    5. Building and coloring artwork at the same time
      3m 50s
    6. Using Gap Detection with the Shape Builder tool
      3m 24s
  7. 23m 2s
    1. Understanding how variable widths work
      8m 25s
    2. Modifying width points along a path
      7m 9s
    3. Saving time with width profiles
      5m 14s
    4. Turning variable width strokes into filled paths
      2m 14s
  8. 28m 21s
    1. Understanding how the Pen and Pencil tools differ
      4m 41s
    2. Adjusting the behavior of the Pencil tool
      7m 5s
    3. Using the Path Eraser tool
      1m 17s
    4. Drawing with the Calligraphic Brush tool
      5m 43s
    5. Drawing with the Blob Brush tool
      5m 53s
    6. Using the Eraser tool
      3m 42s
  9. 3m 44s
    1. Looking at the VectorScribe plug-in
      2m 16s
    2. Next steps
      1m 28s

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