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Tips for getting the most from Free Illustrator training resources

by sjledet on January 25, 2012

Not everyone can afford or wants to attend a hands-on, instructor-led class. No doubt about it, some of the best resources for learning Adobe Illustrator are absolutely free (as in beer, not as in speech). The biggest problem is sifting through the chaff. A simple Google Search for free illustrator training returns almost four million results. Some of the very best free illustrator training resources out there are Mike’s Sketchpad, studio and Illustrator World. For those on a budget who are looking for a great way to self-study Adobe Illustrator, these really are some excellent Adobe Illustrator resources available for free on the Internet. Some people learn best by reading and interacting, but if video works for you (always seems to put me to sleep), then there’s If you’ve got more time than money, free Illustrator training is a great way to go.

Step 1: Begin with the end in mind.

There’s still some tips that apply though, whether you are going to use free Illustrator training resources or invest in higher-end Illustrator training courses or materials. One of the most important things to think about before starting to learn new graphic arts software, whether it’s Illustrator or anything else, is to begin with the end in mind. While this is true even if you are taking a structured, instructor-led Illustrator training class, it’s especially true for those folks using the many free Illustrator training resources available on the net. Even if you have time to spare, the chances are good that if you don’t set some specific goals and objectives, you’ll end up surfing too much and wasting a lot of time. You are also more likely to give up.

So take some time to think about what you are going to try and accomplish. Do you want to be able to create mock-ups in Illustrator for use in web design projects? Are you going to be bringing artwork into Flash? Do you need to be able to create logos from scratch? Of course, you might just be learning Illustrator for fun, but even then, you will probably enjoy it more if you take the time to create some structure for your Illustrator training plan before you begin.

It’s a really good idea to write your goals and objectives down. This will be the beginning of your study plan. Print your objectives out and put them in a binder to keep with printouts of the projects you create along the way as you become an Illustrator master. It will make the whole project more fun and leave you with not only a great reminder of how far you’ve come, but also the beginning of a portfolio.

Step 2: Plan regular time, both for learning Illustrator and for practice.

Not planning for and making adequate time available is one of the reasons many people who try to learn Illustrator on their own end up giving up on it and either taking an instructor-led class or farming out work to independent designers, free-lancers or agencies. Learning a sophisticated and powerful program like Illustrator is a big job. It’s not something you are going to do one evening in an hour or two. Learning Illustrator well requires a regular and consistent investment of time, both in study and in practice. It’s highly recommended that you set up a regular schedule, so that you are studying Illustrator at a set time each week, just as if you were taking music lessons or learning Karate.

While each person learns at a different pace, an investment of at least one to two hours a week is probably the minimum to expect if you plan on really learning Adobe Illustrator. At that rate, it’s probably somewhere between a three to six month process to get to where you are pretty comfortable tackling most real-world Illustrator work that comes your way. Some people can handle more than an hour or two a week, but it’s better to pace yourself. If you can always leave wanting more and looking forward to your next lesson, you are less likely to burn out along the way.

Step 3: Structure your Illustrator training time using outlines.

If you are going to really learn a subject, you need to break it down into manageable chunks. The Adobe Certified Illustrator Expert exam preparation guide is a good tool for this. A sample Illustrator training outline is provided at the end of this article, but it’s just a start. It’s best to modify this, and come up with something that’s suited to your goals and interests. It’s not easy for a beginner to modify the outline, but a bit of reference work with the Illustrator help file will help provide a good foundation for learning.

Once you have an outline, try to break it down further into manageable chunks. 10 to 15 minute segments are ideal. That will leave you extra flexibility when you are studying, so you can take breaks or try to achieve little steps like just finishing that segment. You can set up little rewards like a piece of candy, or a sip of beer, or whatever your favorite little reward is.

Other tips for learning Illustrator for free

  • Join a community. You’ll find a lot of help on Adobe’s Illustrator forum, but there are also other Illustrator specific forums such as the forum at Illustrator World.
  • Get a study buddy. While experts on the forums will be able to answer specific questions, there’s nothing like a peer group to give you encouragement and support. Experts won’t be impressed by your beginning work, but peers will be.

Sample Adobe Illustrator training outline for self-study

1. Working with Illustrator documents

  • Given a scenario, choose the correct document options or create a custom document profile.
  • Given a scenario, create a document template.
  • Given a scenario, save a document with the appropriate format and options.
  • Given a scenario, select the proper settings in the Preferences dialog box.
  • Given a scenario, create Guides, Grids, and use Smart Guides.
  • Manage Illustrator workspace and panels.
  • Build a document structure based on layers.
  • Given a scenario, choose a preview mode to visualize the document.
  • Customize keyboard shortcuts by using the Keyboard Shortcuts dialog box.
  • Control object size and other options by using the control bar. Given a scenario, create and use multiple artboards.
  • Given a scenario, work with multiple documents.
  • View and modify document metadata information.

2. Drawing and transforming objects

  • Create and modify a vector object using the Pen tool and bezier controls.
  • Given a scenario, customize the Stroke panel settings to achieve the proper visual appearance.
  • Given a scenario, cut, erase or delete portions of an object by using the appropriate tool.
  • Use Isolation Mode to edit objects, groups, symbols, or layers.
  • Given a scenario,create either a clipping mask or layer clipping to hide parts of objects.
  • Given a scenario, use a mix of open/closed path, compound path, and compound shapes.
  • Align or distribute objects precisely on an artboard.
  • Select one or more objects and arrange their stacking order.
  • Modify an object with one or more transformation tools.
  • Create and apply a pattern swatch.
  • Record steps as a reusable Action.

3. Managing color and transparency

  • Given a scenario, set up Color Management settings and proof color on screen.
  • Given a scenario, create or load swatches, organize them, and apply them to objects.
  • Apply transparency options to objects.
  • Recolor and fine-tune artwork color by using Live Color.
  • Explore color combinations using Color Guide.
  • Given a scenario, use the appropriate tools to create, modify, save, and apply color gradients to objects

4. Using type

  • Given a scenario, create the appropriate text object.
  • Format type by using character and paragraph attributes.
  • Create and apply character and paragraph styles to text.
  • Use the Glyph and OpenType panels to obtain special characters.
  • Format a story.
  • Locate or replace fonts inside a document.
  • Given a scenario, customize language dictionaries.
  • Given a scenario, adjust and apply hyphenation.

5. Controlling effects, appearances, and graphic styles

  • Given a scenario, adjust the appearance of objects by using the Appearance panel.
  • Given a scenario, save and apply Graphic Styles.
  • Given a scenario, apply the appropriate Live Effect to an object.
  • Use the Eyedropper to copy attributes between elements.

6. Building graphic objects

  • Create and format a graph.
  • Produce a smooth color mix by using and controlling a gradient mesh.
  • Given a scenario, adjust the settings for the Blend tool.
  • Given a scenario, choose or create the appropriate brush.
  • Create and use a symbol.
  • Create and edit a Live Paint Group.
  • Apply and edit an object distortion envelope.
  • Given a scenario, use the Eraser tool or Blob Brush.
  • Given a scenario, prepare and create artwork by using variables.

7. Working with images

  • Import images into your document.
  • Manage assets with the Link panel.
  • Turn an image into a vector object with Live Trace.

8. Preparing for Web and Flash

  • Given a scenario, choose the proper settings to save illustrator artwork for Web or mobile devices.
  • Prepare a document for Adobe Flash authoring.
  • Given a scenario, export to Flash SWF.

9. Preparing for print

  • Analyze the content of a document by using the Document Info panel.
  • Use the Flattener Preview to preview and create custom settings to control the transparency flattening process.
  • Given a scenario, choose the correct overprinting options.
  • Preview and analyze on screen color separations.
  • Given a scenario, choose the correct print options and create custom print presets.
  • Given a scenario, choose the correct PDF presets or customize options.
  • Thank you for the tips and free training links!

  • Great resources!

  • Sterling, I really appreciate the level of detail you’ve shared. It gives me a sense of confidence and trust in your ability to deliver. I’ve bookmarked your blog and will be back… thanks!

  • Wow. You do teach cool stuff! Thanks for sharing such valuable info and resources!

  • Very impressed with your knowledge and thoroughness. Well done!

  • Wow this is great! Thank you for sharing this valuable information, I know many people who  will benefit from this post. Like you mention if you look this up on a search engine you get a bunch of results and you are not sure which ones are good or bad or even real. Thank goodness for experts like you who value education and not just for those who can afford it.  

  • This was so great. We’ve purchased training from sites such as but always looking for ways to reduce training costs. We use AI fairly often in our agency so just shared this article with rest of my team.

  • Alison Stripling

    I need to set up time each week to learn tips and tricks for the Creative Suite. Good tips with having a study buddy…now I have to find one! And goals? I have to work on that too.

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