Ugly side of “Beautiful Strokes” in Illustrator CS5

Posted on Feb 6, 2012

In Illustrator CS5 there’s a variety of new tools for organic, expressive drawing, and intuitive structure-building.  They look good in advertisement videos, but their behaviours with other tools are mysteriously inconsistent.  After bumping my head against these quirks for several weeks, I systematically explored what they do (and not do; click on image for larger version):

CS5 Bursh quirks

How different strokes interact with different tools/settings


I don’t really see why the paths created using different methods, or having different properties, ought to behave differently, but they do.  In general:

(i) A path with uniform profile, basic brush, drawn with pen/pencil tool is first-class citizen.  Almost every applicable options are open to it.

(ii) A path with non-uniform profile is limited: some features (e.g., align inside/outside) are disabled.  Editing path preserves the profile, even though that may often not be what you want (e.g., when using the shapebuilder, who wants their path weight to shift around?)  Profile is saved into graphic styles.

(iii) A path with non-basic brush appearance is strictly limited: all stroke features are disabled (dash lines, arrows, etc.).  No access to profiles anymore, and this overrides any profiles the object had.  I have not tested whether this happens to all brushes, or only calligraphic and bristle brushes.  Strangely, as long as the appearance is that of a brush, the shape of the path can be edited by the brush-tool, even though it was originally drawn with the pen/pencil tool.

(iv) Pressure-sensitive tablet drawn organic lines are no good in practice.  I think the implementation is just not thought through clearly.  None of the unique information inputted from a tablet pen (rotation, width, etc.) can be edited or added to existing paths.  The implication is that, if you want a nice thick-and-thin line drawn with a tablet, you must get it right when you first draw the line.  (Good luck.)   All of this information can be lost simply by using the pathfinder/shapebuilder, and since it cannot be re-established, the implication is that you can either use shapebuilder or organic drawing but not both.  And if you’d like to use a more interesting brush appearance, all the limitations of (iii) applies.  The behaviour with saving as/loading from graphic styles in puzzling – why is it this way?  And then, if you know of some way to overcome these limitations, I would love to know.

Wish-list for CS6: Dear Adobe devs, please standardize the ways the tools, brushes, settings, appearances etc work.  I know that they’re probably all built with different models, but on the day-to-day basis, artists using your tools don’t need to know about them.  When we open a file, we really shouldn’t need to analyse what tools the paths were originally built before being able to make modifications to them.

Make them all stackable – there’s no reason, from the users’ perspective, why properties on a brush cannot be stacked onto a variable profile.  Properties of objects should always be modifiable after it was created.  When paths are semi-automatically modified (e.g., shapebuilder), preserve the visual appearances of the parts we “didn’t touch” (create a uniform stroke for the new paths — don’t shift the existing ones such that everything needs to be readjusted).  (This is particularly mystifying when you thought you’re simply using the original shape as a guide.  For example, I have a base shape and an overlapping shadow shape; subtracting the outside shadow shape ostensibly does nothing to the base shape, but it does in fact jiggle the base shape profile in an unpredictable way.)

In the mean time, I’ll stick with the basic brush and manually add in the line variation profile at the end.  sigh