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#34 The Power of Appearances

One of Illustrator's most powerful and underutilized features isn't really a feature, it's a panel: the Appearance panel (Window > Appearance or Shift-F6). Many designers may know it's there and have perhaps used it from time to time, but few understand its full scope or exploit its potential...largely because Adobe has never given it the hype it deserves.

Understanding Appearances

Paths and anchor points have no appearance. They define shapes, or lines, but contain no information about how that shape or line looks. Paths are like skeletons, and appearances are the attributes that flesh out the skeleton, giving it recognizable form (Figure 34a). All attributes applied to an object—fill, stroke, effects, opacity, etc.—make up its appearance.

Figure 34a

Figure 34a A series of paths (top) as seen on the Illustrator artboard vs. those same paths with appearances applied to them (bottom).

The Appearance panel is a direct conduit to all appearance settings for an object. It also shows you all the appearance attributes of a document, and reveals the stacking order of all appearances applied to a selected path or object at a glance. This one panel gives you one-click access to the panels and dialog boxes for any fill, stroke, opacity settings, and live effects that are part of an object's appearance (Figure 34b).

Figure 34b

Figure 34b The Appearance panel and its options at a glance.

Adding Multiple Fills or Strokes

Illustrator creates all artwork with what's called a "basic" appearance, meaning one stroke, one fill, and no effects. But you can achieve a "complex" appearance for any object, ranging from one or more effects to multiple fills and strokes (Figure 34c).

Figure 34c

Figure 34c The guitar illustration has complex appearances applied but uses no more paths than the simple version in Figure 34a. The body of the guitar (left Appearance panel) has two fills—a solid color and a pattern fill (with a 50% overlay blend mode) above it in the stacking order. Both the body and the neck (right Appearance panel) have two strokes—a thin white stroke stacked above a wider black one—and a drop shadow. The frets along the neck are individual paths, each with two strokes applied via the Appearance panel.

Saving Appearances as Graphic Styles

Once established, any appearance can be saved as a Graphic Style (Window > Graphic Styles or Shift-F5) that applies all appearance attributes saved within it in a single click. A change to the style changes every object in the illustration to which that style has been applied.

To create a Graphic Style from an appearance, select an object with the desired appearance, then drag the small thumbnail of the appearance next to the object name (Path, Compound Path, etc.) into the Graphic Styles panel (Figure 34d). You can double-click its thumbnail in the Graphic Styles panel to give it a useful name. Once defined, that style can be applied to any other object with a single click on the style thumbnail.

Figure 34d

Figure 34d Creating a Graphic Style from a specific appearance is as easy as clicking the Appearance thumbnail (right) and dragging it into the Graphic Styles panel (left).

Assigning Appearances to Layers

Appearances can be applied to an entire layer, so that all art drawn on or moved to that layer automatically has that appearance. This can be an enormous time-saver in complex, layered illustrations like maps, where common appearances (i.e., road lines) are applied to many objects.

To assign an appearance to a layer, select any object that uses the desired appearance and locate it in the Layers panel by expanding the disclosure triangle for the layer it's on. The selected object will have a solid colored square next to its name, and you'll see a small gradient circle indicating that a complex appearance is applied (Figure 34e). Option-click (Alt-click) the gradient circle, drag it up to another layer in the panel, then release the mouse. You'll see a gradient circle applied at the layer level in the panel for that layer (Figure 34f).

Figure 34e

Figure 34e A selected object (with square at far right) in the Layers panel. The gradient circle indicates that a complex appearance is applied, and the circle around that indicates that the appearance is targeted. The path above it has a hollow circle, indicating only basic appearance in use. The path below it also has a complex appearance, but it is not targeted.

Figure 34f

Figure 34f A layer with a complex appearance assigned to it, indicated by the gradient circle at the layer level in the panel.

Note that once the appearance applies to the layer, the objects on that layer do not need to have any appearance applied to them. The layer handles all of that (Figure 34g). Any appearance attributes applied directly to an object on that layer will be added to the layer-level appearance. Also, as soon as you move an object off of that layer, the object loses all layer-based appearance attributes.

Figure 34g

Figure 34g An object with 100 percent layer-based appearance applied. Note that all appearance attributes in the panel are attached to the layer. The only attribute under "Contents" is a default opacity setting.

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