Fun with Illustrator’s Lesser Known, Yet Powerful Tools

Believe it or not, Illustrator is capable of some amazing effects similar to those in Photoshop, all waiting at the tip of your finger in the Tools palette. These are NOT filters, but some lesser known Basic Illustrator Tools that , if harnessed right, can transform a single path into a work of art. I'll show you some simple examples, but I invite you to explore these really, really easy tools a little further using your imagination.

These effects may or may not be new to you, but I've been using Illustrator for over half a decade, and I felt like a kid at a candy store once I started playing around with them! Here is an example of what you can do in a matter of seconds (literally):

Experimenting with Illustrator Tools

After reading the tutorial on Ndesign Studio about Abstract lines, and after I posted this story, I started digging deeper into Illustrator's (CS) Basic Tools palette. I discovered that there are a number of extremely powerful tools right under my nose that I've never taken advantage of. These tools include: Warp, Twirl, Bloat, Crystallize, Wrinkle, Scallop, and Pucker. The reason I find these tools so amazing is the fact that they not only look cool, and can be useful for a number of different things, they completely transform your paths into intricate, detailed shapes that would otherwise take days, if not weeks to achieve if you tried to draw them manually. And to top things off, guess what? These effects are completely vector WITHOUT a single filter! They actually manipulate the PATH itself, instead of just applying an appearance.

Examples of Experimenting in Illustrator:

I listed 7 tools above and they can all be found if you click and hold on the Warp tool. If you want you can detatch these tools as their own mini-palette by clicking on the little arrow at the end.

Click to detatch

Here is a quick visual aid:

Warp tool expanded

1. The Warp Tool

In these 3 examples, I will always start off with the same circle path, shown below at actual size. That's it, just a circle. Everything you see past this point (including the design above) was created from a single circle path in seconds, using these Illustrator tools. Here we go:


After you create a simple shape on the artboard, select the Warp Tool, and go to town on it. Here is what I did in a matter of seconds:

Using the warp tool on a circle
Warping the circle
Warping the circle part 2
Warping the circle part 3
Warping the circle part 4
Warping the circle part 5
Warping the circle part 6

Warp Tool Options:

Play around with these to see what you can get as a result. Tip: while using any of these tools, hold down Option + Shift (Mac) or Alt +Shift (PC) hold and drag to resize the tool! Also, to access the options panel, double click on the tool icon in the toolbar.

Warp tool options

2. The Twirl tool:

Again, starting off with a single circle path and using the Twirl tool, here is an example of what you can do with a few seconds of experimenting:

Twirling the circle
Twirling the circle some more
Extremely swirled circle
Extremely twirled circle part 2
Extremely twirled circle part 3

Twirl Tool options:

Tip: The “Twirl Rate” setting controls the direction of the twirl (clockwise, counter-clockwise). A positive Twirl Rate will give you a counter-clockwise twirl. A negative Twirl Rate will give you a clockwise twirl.

Twirl tool options

The Crystallize Tool:

Again, starting off with a circle. . .

Starting with a circle
Crystalize tool 1
Crystalize tool 2
Crystalize tool 3
Crystalize tool 4
Crystalize tool 5
Crystalize tool 6

Crystallize Tool Options:

Crystalize Tool Options

Tips for Exploring this on your own:

  1. Experiment with gradient fills to see what kind of effects you can get.
  2. Try different stroke sizes and/or brush strokes on your shape before you distort it and see what happens.
  3. Experiment with opacity and layering. Duplicate shapes distort, duplicate, distort.

The possibilities are literally endless, but be careful how complex you get. You can easily crash your machine with these complex paths! I hope this inspired you, at least a little bitt 🙂