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All About Transformation in Adobe Illustrator

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This post is part of a series called Guides to Illustrator Tools.
An Introduction to Illustrator's Color Tools

In this tutorial you will learn everything you ever wanted to know about one of the most powerful Adobe Illustrator Tools - Transformation. Discover how it works, learn multiple ways of transforming objects, study the tools of transformation, and many other useful techniques.


Tutorial Details

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  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS3
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Estimated Completion Time: 30 minutes

Introduction

Illustrator has plenty of tools, panels, and commands that make our work much easier. Among them, however, there are several outstanding ones that I personally consider the most important features of this program. They include brushes, the Appearance panel, Effects, and, of course, transformation.

Knowing transformation is knowing a lot - it gives you power you may never even thought about. So today we'll try to learn everything about transformation in Illustrator. This topic is especially useful for beginners, but intermediate users may also find interesting facts here.


Section 1. Transformation Terms: What is...

Before we learn how to transform, let's first understand what every term related to transformation means. This way we'll better know how every tool works.

Transforming

The term transformation originates from the late latin word "transformation" (metamorphosis). Transforming an object is typically changing its position or shape, or both. Of course, it seems obvious and easy enough, but this simple operation is capable of altering your image drastically.

There are many types of transformations altering various parameters (position, size, angle, etc.), they can be performed both separately or together at the same time. Transformation applies to one or more objects that are already selected with the Selection Tool (V).

Bounding box

The object in your document may be of diverse shapes, but the algorithms of transformation apply to all of them equally. It is because the program has a unified system of transformation, whether we speak of ellipse, spiral, or rectangle. Every object has a so-called bounding box, which is the area with borders drawn around it.

The borders touch the left-most, right-most, top-most, and bottom-most points of an object. It includes four corner points and four sides, equally important in transformation. The bounding box allows to easily transform any object. It is usually visible by default, but you may want to turn it off (Shift + Command + B).

Point of Transformation

The bounding box usually includes a central point indicated - it is not necessarily the central point of an object, as it is calculated from the box borders. If you don't see the center, try opening the Attributes panel (Command + F11) and click the Show center icon. By default, this central point of an object is considered a point of transformation, or reference point. This means, that when an object is for example scaled up, the center will remain in place, while all other points change position.

Still, while performing transformation, we can change the transformation point. In this case the new point we choose (in relation to the initial shape of an object) will remain in place. I want to emphasize, that a reference point may be assigned in any part of your document, not just within your object.

Moving

A major type of transformation is moving. Although many Illustrator users don't even know about it, move is a transformation. Moving an object means changing its coordinates, so the position is altered - hence, moving is transforming.

This is the most popular way to transform, as we always move objects from one place to another. Moving is usually based on the central point of an object, and the transformation point is not changed. Moving is measured in points, pixels, or other distance units that are set in Preferences (Command + K).

Scaling

Scaling is altering the size of an object. There are many ways of scaling an object in Illustrator, but all of them change the size of an object. Any transformation point may be assigned while scaling. On two-dimensional graphics there are two axes, so the object may be scaled in two directions.

It is possible to scale it separately (horizontally or vertically) - in this case the shape and proportions of object will be changed. Proportional scaling will constrain the object's shape, transforming simultaneously in two directions. Scaling is measured in percents, starting from 100% as the initial object size.

Rotating

Rotating is changing the object's angle. Varying from 0 to 360 degrees, we can rotate the object from the initial position on a virtual imaginary circle. Depending on the point of transformation we assign, the diameter of this virtual circle may be altered. If we leave the transformation point on the default center of the object's bounding box, then the object will rotate around itself. There are many ways of rotating an object, entering a needed angle. Rotation is measured in degrees from -360 to 360.

Mirroring

Mirroring, or reflecting, is a more complex way of transformation. It flips the object in any direction, reflecting it from the axis we need. We can simply flip an object vertically or horizontally, or insert any other angle. It also rotates it depending on the axis and transformation point.

This transformation (shown below) results in a mirror reflection of the original object, when we assign the point where mirror stands. Keep in mind, that symmetric object won't change after reflecting. Reflection is measured in degrees.

Shearing

Another complex transformation type is shearing. It means skewing an object (or, more precisely, it's bounding box) according to one axis, around an assigned point. The slant is varied from horizontal or vertical axis to any angle. Shear may be preformed with many tools and commands. It is measured in extent of slant in degrees and shear angle in degrees.

Free Transform

The last transformation type is free transform - as it follows from its name, this method allows to freely transform the object by several parameters at once. This means that position, size, angle, and slant may be changed simultaneously, combining several types of transformation in one.


Section 2. Transforming with Tools

Using Appropriate Transform Tools

The most popular way of transformation is using appropriate tools from the Tools panel. There are several transformation tools that change different parameters of a selected object. Let's analyze all of them.

Move

The Move Tool (V) is combined with the Selection Tool and presents a familiar black arrow. The easiest way of moving is, actually, moving a selected object manually by dragging it to the desired position. However, oftentimes we need precise positioning when simple dragging doesn't work. In this case we can move the object from the dialog of the chosen tool - in this case, the Move Tool.

Click the tool in the Tools panel twice, and you'll get a dialog where all options can be entered. For the Move tool, it includes either horizontal and vertical move in any units (according to rectangular coordinates), or if you like polar coordinates more, you can enter distance and angle to move the object precisely. You may insert both positive and negative numbers. Also you may want to press the Copy button in the dialog to create a moved object duplicate. The transformation point is not changed here.

Scale

The Scale Tool (S) looks like a small rectangle being scaled up. To scale a selected object, simply drag the handles of its bounding box (eight white squares). For horizontal scale, drag horizontally, and for vertical scale, drag vertically. For both, drag the corner handles, and to constrain the proportions press Shift. By default, the central point is the point of transformation, but you can fix it in a different position by simply clicking a place you need before transforming an object.

However, if you need to scale the object precisely, double-click Scale in the Tools panel and enter the needed numbers in the dialog. You can choose wether to insert percent for uniform (proportional) scaling, or enter separate numbers for horizontal and vertical scaling. Again, it is possible to press Copy to duplicate an object while scaling. Oftentimes when you need to scale the object from the dialog, you also want the default transformation point changed. Simply Alt-click where you want the new point to sit, and the dialog will open.

Rotate

The Rotate Tool (R) is a small circular arrow. To rotate an object, select it and drag it in the needed direction. As the default transformation point is in the object center, it will be rotated around itself. You can assign different reference points by clicking in the needed place prior to rotating. Also you may want to know that holding Shift allows you to rotate on the angles divided by 45, such as: 45, 90, 135, 180, and so on.

Of course, if you need a precise angle, double-click Rotate in the Tools panel and insert a degree in the dialog. Positive numbers rotate counter-clockwise, and negative numbers rotate clockwise. You may press Copy to duplicate an object while rotating. To change the transformation point from the object center to any other place, Alt-click to assign the new point and open the dialog.

Reflect

The Reflect Tool (O) is a small mirrored triangle hidden under the Rotation Tool. To reflect a selected object, just drag it to the needed direction. The default reference point is in the center, so the object will be reflected around the axis that intersects it's center. To use exact horizontal or vertical axes for mirroring, hold down Shift. To change the transformation point, as usual, click where you want to place it before transforming.

Again, for precise reflection, double-click Reflect in the Tools panel and insert an axis you need in the dialog. Yo can choose Vertical or Horizontal axes for perfect symmetry, or enter a custom angle. To duplicate an object while reflecting, press Copy. To change the transformation point from the object center to any other place, Alt-click to assign the new point and open the dialog at the same time.

Shear

The Shear Tool looks like a little slanted rectangle and is hidden under the Scale Tool. To shear a selected object, drag anywhere in the needed direction. The transformation point will be fixed in the center. To shear along a horizontal axis, drag horizontally, and to shear along a vertical axis, drag vertical. To constrain an object's width or height, or to shear along axes slanted by a 45-divided degree, hold down Shift. As with other transformation tools, assign different reference points by clicking in the needed place prior to shearing.

For a precise angle, double-click Shear in Tools panel and insert the shear amount in degrees and axis in the dialog. Press Copy to duplicate an object while skewing. To change the transformation point from the object center to any other place, Alt-click to assign the new point and open the dialog.

Using the Black Arrow/Direction Selection Tool

As I already mentioned, the Selection Tool (V) is used for Move - the first and most important type of transformation. Still, this tool can also be used to manually perform some other transformation methods. We can easily change not only the object's position, but it's size and angle.

Scale

To scale with the Selection Tool (V) select an object and simply drag the handles on it's bounding box (white squares in the corners and on the sides). The object will be scaled in the direction you drag.

If you want to constrain the proportions, hold down Shift to scale in both directions while dragging the corner handler. The reference point is not considered in this case, so the object will be transformed according to the direction you drag without any fixed transformation point specified. You cannot determine the reference point, but if you want to fix a central point while scaling an object with the Selection Tool, hold down the Alt button.

Rotate

To rotate with the Selection Tool (V), select an object and place the cursor over any corner handle of its bounding box. When the little double arrow appears, you can rotate the object in any direction and angle.

In order to keep the exact angles (45, 90, and so on), hold down Shift - the object will snap to this angle while rotating. The reference point can not be changed while rotating with the Selection Tool, so the object will be rotated around itself with the transformation point in the center.

Reshaping and Distortion Tools

Besides the transformation tools described above, Illustrator has some extra tools that can alter object shapes in other various ways. They not only change one object parameter, like position, size, or angle, but they can distort and reshape it drastically. Let's briefly take a look at these tools.

Free Transform Tool

The Free Transform Tool (E) allows to transform the object freely - it combines all transformation tools into one, including: move, scale, rotate, reflect, and shear. Also, it allows one to perform perspective distortion. Basically, with this tool you can drag handles on the object's bounding box in any direction, unlike with other transformation tools.

To rotate or scale, simply place the cursor near the handle you need on the object bounding box and perform the transformation just like with the appropriate tools. To reflect an object, drag from the handle on one side to the opposite one, while holding Shift. Finally, to shear the object with the Free Transform Tool, move one of the side handles to the needed direction, while holding down Command + Alt.

To drag one corner handle separately, press the mouse key over the corner and then press Command after this - now you can reposition it as you distort the object. To constrain the horizontal or vertical baseline while dragging a handle, hold down Shift. If you want to drag two handles symmetrically to distort in perspective, drag a corner handle while holding down Alt + Command + Shift.

Reshape Tool

Reshape Tool is hidden under the Scale and Shear tools. It also allows one to transform an object its own specific way. To my mind, it works much like scaling but considers anchor points while transforming. When you select an object and choose the Reshape Tool, you can move any existing anchor point on the object by dragging it to the desired position. However, the result will be reshaping the entire object proportionally with no need to tweak every point separately. This effect of this tool can be only seen on open paths.

Warp Tool Group

A group of tools worth mentioning are the Warp Tools group (Shift + R). Although these tools do not transform object in the usual way, they still deform the shape significantly, so I think we can briefly overview them. Within this group, there are eight tools that affect the shape of an object locally in various ways. From warp to wrinkle, to bloat, to pucker, they add anchor points and segments to the object deforming it drastically.


Section 3. Transforming with Menu

We've learned how to use the transformation tools to change the object's parameters - position, size, angle, shape, and others. Still, in Illustrator there are always multiple ways of doing one action. Let's try to perform transformation with appropriate menu commands: Object > Transform.

Usual Transformation

All the usual transformation types we observed (move, scale, rotate, reflect, and shear) can be performed with appropriate menu commands from Object > Transform.

They work just like the tools described above, only you can't change the reference point from the object's center, and transformations can't be performed manually. When you access the submenu (for example, Object > Transform > Scale) the dialog pops-up similar with one of the appropriate tools. Simply insert the desired parameters and press OK to apply or Copy to duplicate an object.

Transform Again

The most important shortcut about transformation, to my mind, is Object > Transform > Transform Again feature (Command + D). This command repeats the last transformation applied with the same parameters, be that move, scaling with altered reference point, or rotation with duplicating.

This useful feature allows one to create very interesting effects - for instance, from a simple object transformed again several times we can get a nice flower. Transform again can be really helpful in many cases, so just remember this shortcut: Command + D.

Reset Bounding Box

We've already spoken about the bounding box and its role in transformation. It represents a rectangle touching object borders from four sides (top, bottom, left, and right). However, you may notice that the bounding box is oftentimes altered when the object is transformed - for instance, after rotation by 45 degreed the bounding box will no longer be a perfectly positioned rectangle, as the angle will be changed.

Still, you may face a need to change the view of bounding box back to frontal rectangle with horizontal and vertical sides. To do it, go to Object > Transform > Reset Bounding Box. It will be changed back to the default rectangle, while the object remains rotated by 45 degrees.

Transform Each (Several Objects)

As you may have guessed, it is possible to transform not only one separate object, but a group of objects. To do it, simply select all the objects you need (holding down Shift will add an object to selection).

However, in this case the virtual bounding box will be drawn around all the objects. This means that, for instance, rotation will be performed as if it was one large object, according to the bounding box. Still, we sometimes need to transform all the selected objects separately - say, rotate them. Here is when Transform each works best.

Select all the objects you need and go to Object > Transform > Transform Each (Alt + Shift + Command + D). You'll see a dialog with numerous parameters. All the transformation methods are combined there, so you may enter horizontal and vertical move, horizontal and vertical scale, rotation angle, reflection along X or Y axis, and also change a transformation point from center to any bounding box handle in a little proxy on the right. All selected objects will be transformed separately, and you can also press Copy to duplicate them. Another useful feature is the Random checkbox, check it if you want objects to transform randomly.

Transform Each (One Object)

I want to mention one more creative way of using the Transform Each command. Remember the Transform again feature? Unfortunately, it memorizes only one last transformation applied - move, scale, reflect, etc. But sometimes we want to make a series of object copies with a few kinds of transformation applied to each. For example, ten rectangle copies rotated by 10 degrees and scaled down to 90% each. We won't be able to repeat both transformation methods with Command + D to achieve this effect, as rotation and scaling are two separate steps.

But here is a trick - select the object and run it through the Transform Each command, enter all parameters and press Copy - this command combines all four transformation methods still being considered a single step. Now you can transform the object again for as many copies as you need.


Section 4. Important Keys and Shortcuts

Like most graphic programs, Illustrator has plenty of secret shortcuts to make your work easier. Transformation has numerous helpful keys and shortcuts worth memorizing.

Transform Tools Shortcuts

Almost every transform tool has a key. To remind you again, let's remember all of them: Move Tool (V), Scale Tool (S), Rotate Tool (R), Reflect Tool (O), Free Transform Tool (E), and Warp Tools group (Shift + R). Shear and Reshape tools don't have default hot keys, but you can easily assign them shortcuts in Edit > Keyboard shortcuts (Alt + Shift + Command + K).

Transform Helpful Keys

Although we already mentioned this, I think it might be helpful to remind again - while transforming manually with specific tools, you might want to use special modifier keys for changing some parameters. They work almost equally for every transformation tool you use, so remember these simple modifiers, as they will save you time and make the transformation process easier.


Section 5. Transforming with Panel

Besides the transformation tools and menu, there is another way of transforming objects in Illustrator. The entire panel is dedicated to it - Transform panel (Shift + F8). Keep in mind, that the Transform panel works with entire objects or groups of objects, and that here absolute measurements are used, unlike with the transform tools or menu, where we use relative measurements.

Reference Point

The Transform panel has a small proxy that indicates a transformation point. There are nine possible positions - center, fours corners, and four centers of the object bounding box sides. You can choose any of these points for reference, but you can't fix another random transformation point with the Transform panel. The position chosen will indicate the starting point for calculations while transforming with the panel.

Position

To change the position of an object (or move) with the Transform panel, you can insert the needed values in X and Y fields. You can see the numbers in these fields - they show the coordinates of the object's reference point. X indicates the horizontal coordinates of the object (or, more specifically, chosen reference point), while Y shows vertical coordinates in your document. Simply enter new numbers in the appropriate units (measurement units may be changed in Edit > Preferences > Units & Display performance). Keep in mind, that in Adobe Illustrator the origin of coordinates by default is positioned in the bottom-left corner of the document.

Size

To change the size of the object (or scale) with the Transform panel, enter the desired numbers in the W and H fields. W means width of object, and H is it's height. The values in these fields indicate the initial width and height of your object in chosen units (pixels, points, inches, etc.). Enter new numbers to scale the object, or click the chain icon to constrain proportions and enter only one value, as the other one will change proportionally.

Angle

To change the angle of an object (or rotate) with the Transform panel, insert the needed angle in the appropriate Rotation field, or select the angle from the drop down menu. The object will be rotated around the point, assigned in the proxy. After rotation, the angle will be changed back to 0 automatically.

Slant

To skew an object (or shear) with the Transform panel, choose the angle in the Shear field, or insert the value you need manually. The object will be sheared around the point, assigned in the proxy. Skewing with the panel, however, is less flexible than with the appropriate tool. After shearing, the angle will be changed back to 0 automatically.

Reflect

To mirror an object (or reflect) with the Transform panel, go to the panel flyout menu and choose Flip horizontal or Flip vertical. The selected object will be reflected along the axis going through the chosen transformation point. Flip horizontal reflects horizontally - using vertical axis. Flip vertical reflects vertically - using horizontal axis.

Useful Options

In the flyout menu of the Transform panel you can choose Scale Strokes and Effects if you want all the strokes and effects applied to a selected object to be transformed along with object itself. Also you may choose to either transform objects or patterns applied to it as a fill, or both. The same options can be chosen in every transformation tool we learned above - simply by checking the appropriate checkbox in a tool dialog.


Section 6. Transforming Separate Elements

When speaking about transformation, we considered separate objects or groups of objects. However, transformation may be applied to parts of one object, like anchor points or segments. This does not apply to the Transform panel, as it only works with entire objects.

Transforming Segments

Just like entire objects, segments may be transformed in Illustrator with the appropriate tools or menu commands. To do it, select a segment of the object (the part of path between two anchor points) with the Direct Selection Tool (A) - white arrow. Now you can use the transformation tools or menu commands (move, scale, rotate, reflect, and shear) to change the shape of the segment. Keep in mind, however, that for moving a segment you should use the Direct Selection Tool - simply drag it where you need, or press Enter to insert exact move values.

Transforming Anchor Points

The same rules apply to anchor points. To transform an anchor point, select it with the Direct Selection Tool (A). Now you will see the handles - the guides attached to the point that condition a direction of the path. The transformation will be applied to these handles. Use the transform tools or menu commands to change their direction. Again, don't use the Selection Tool (V) for moving points, as it only works with entire objects - choose the Direct Selection Tool to move anchor points. The Transform again feature also works with separate elements, also reference point can be changed just like with entire objects.


Section 7. Dynamic Transformation

All the transformation methods we described above are so-called destructive methods - they change the shape of an object. There are, however, ways of altering an object with non-destructive transformation. This is done with Illustrator Effects. This transformation embodiment can be applied to entire objects only, it does not work with separate points or segments.

Advantages of Effects

Adobe Illustrator Effects allows one to apply transformation or any other change as a style, when the initial object shape is kept intact. In this case all effects are shown in the Appearance panel (Shift + F6) and are fully editable. You can duplicate, delete, change settings of any effect applied to the object in the Appearance panel. If you want to apply all the effects applied to an object, go to Object > Expand. There are plenty of outstanding effects in the Effects menu, but we'll only learn how to work with Transform effect in this tutorial.

Transformation Effect

In the Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform is hidden an important transformation command. It's a dialog that looks pretty much like the Transform Each window - the same options for scale, move, rotate, flip, and random. All usual transformation tools are combined here in one effect. The only one field we didn't see before is number of copies. Here you cam enter how many copies of the object you want transformed.

Enter all the settings you need for every field and apply - the effect will be shown in the Appearance panel. Now you can go back any second and tweak the settings of the Transform effect, changing dynamically any parameter. The interesting fact is that the initial object shape is not altered - you can check it in outline mode (Command + Y). Moreover, you can apply several transformation effects with different settings to one object.

Free Distort Effect

In the Effect > Distort & Transform > Free Distort there is an effect that works much like the Free Transform Tool we spoke about above. Here you'll see a model of your object with a bounding box and four corner points. You can change the object shape freely by dragging corner points in any direction to distort it manually. Again, the effect is listed in the Appearance panel and does not affect the initial object's shape.

Other Distort & Transform Effects

There are other interesting effects in Effect > Distort & Transform group that can alter the object's visual appearance drastically. Pucker & Bloat drags object anchor points inwards or outwards on the distance you insert. Roughen, Tweak, and Zig Zag create nice random effects. Twist will twist an object to the desired angle. We won't observe them in detail, but try them all to get familiar with these Transform effects.


Conclusion

Any topic in such a powerful program like Adobe Illustrator can be discussed for hours - you always find more secrets, tricks, and new features. It is especially true with Transformation - one of the most popular Illustrator features.

I tried to sum up everything I know about Transformation fundamentals in this tutorial, but I'm sure any of you can practice and find your own secret to transformations. Below is a simple abstract composition created with transformed geometric shapes - an example of how transformation can be applied in your artwork.

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