Every major vector program has the ability to create files with layers. Some artists use layers copiously, others not at all. Layers help organize a file, and provide some pretty nifty editing options. A well-organized file benefits the contributor as well as the designer.

In the example below, the three layers contain the three major elements of the file. It is logically organized, and therefore easier for the buyer to edit. If the designer just needed the dart, for example, she could simply delete the other two layers and use the dart by itself.

The Layers panel in Illustrator is, at first glance, pretty straightforward. Various options exist on the panel to add, delete, show and hide layers.

Double-Click any layer to bring up the Layer Options dialog box, which will allow you to name the layer, and give you access to more options. These are:

Color: This refers to the highlight color. If you’re drawing a red tomato, and your highlight color is red, it might be hard to see. Here you can change it to something else.

Template: This designates the layer as a template. It automatically dims any images on the layer and locks the layer. This is often used when hand-tracing a photo.

Lock: Locking a layer prevents objects from being selected or added to the layer. The lock icon in the layers panel does the same thing.

Show: Simply shows or hides the layer. Same thing as clicking the eyeball in the Layers panel.

Print: Turned on by default, but if you don’t want a certain layer to print, uncheck this box.

Preview: Deselecting this box displays the selected layer in Outline mode. Command/Control-click on the layer’s eyeball to toggle between modes.

Dim Images to: Lets you set the opacity of placed images on the layer. This can make it easier to see an image when tracing. Often used on a template layer.

Anatomy of a Layer

The Layers panel gives you lots of visual cues as to how the file is organized. First of all, the order in which the layers are arranged in the panel correspond with the “stacking order.” That is, each layer is stacked on top of another, so its objects are more “in front” or “on top” of the others.

Flip down the gray disclosure triangle to the left of a layer’s thumbnail to reveal all the elements in that layer. Each sub-layer is also arranged in a stacking order.

Colored squares next to the layer names indicate that objects are selected. A larger square lets you know that all objects on that layer are selected; A smaller square means that only one or some of the objects are selected.

The circle at the right of each item is called the “target indicator.” You can click this circle to “target” a particular object — even if it’s part of a group — in order to apply appearance attributes to it, such as drop shadows or other effects. In this example, I’ve targeted just the small path that makes up the dart’s shadow in the illustration.

Targeting and selecting are not quite the same thing. Something that is targeted is also selected, but a layer can be selected without its objects being targeted. There’s a tiny black triangle at the top right of the layer name. Click in that corner to select everything on the layer. You’ll see the larger colored square, letting you know that the layer’s objects are selected. But those objects are not targeted, which is indicated by a hollow single circle. A double circle lets you know that objects are targeted.

There are four variations of the Target Indicator, each with its own meaning. Knowing what these circles indicate is a good way to see “under the hood” of your file. This information can also be used to find hidden transparency or other attributes in the file, in order to troubleshoot it.

The item is not targeted, and has no appearance attributes beyond a single fill and a single stroke.
The item is not targeted, but has appearance attributes.
The item is targeted, but has no appearance attributes beyond a single fill and a single stroke.
The item is targeted and has appearance attributes.

Navigating layers

As we’ve seen, Layers can be moved and rearranged simply by dragging them in the layers panel. Individual objects can be moved between layers as well. Remember those small colored squares? They’re actually called “proxies,” because a square can represent an object. So if you want to move an object from one layer to another, select the object in your illustration, then drag that little square to another layer. If you want to make a copy of that object on another layer, hold down the Option key (PC: Alt) while dragging. Now you’ll have two of the same object, in exactly the same position on two different layers.

If you want to combine two layers, click on their layer names, then go to the flyout menu on the panel and choose “Merge Selected.” If the two layers are not next to one another, Command-click (PC: Control-click) to select them. Shift-click to select layers that are adjacent.

There are even more options on the Layers panel flyout menu:

Some are too complex to get into here, and will be saved for a later article. The very last one, “Panel Options,” allows you to specify the size of the layer thumbnails, making them easier to see. And since there is more than meets to the eye when it comes to layers, that is a good thing!


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Cheryl Graham (FreeTransform) began uploading to iStock in December 2005. She creates Adobe® Illustrator® tutorials for the Layers magazine Web site, as well as her own blog, freetransform.net.