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The Symbol Sprayer Tool in Adobe CS5 Illustrator

The Symbol Sprayer tool in Adobe Creative Suite 5 (Adobe CS5) Illustrator is one you must experiment with in order to understand its full potential. In a nutshell, it works like a can of spray paint that sprays, rather than paints, symbols — objects that, in Illustrator, can be either vector- or pixel-based. Each symbol is an instance.

Press the Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) key to reduce the effect of the symbolism tools. In other words, if you’re using the Symbol Sizer tool, you click and hold to make the symbol instances larger; hold down the Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) key to make the symbol instances smaller.

You can also selectively choose the symbols you want to effect with the Symbolism tools by activating them in the Symbols panel. Ctrl-click (Windows) or Command-click (Mac) multiple symbols to change them at the same time.

Just about anything can be a symbol, including placed objects and objects with patterns and gradients. If you’re going to use placed images as symbols, however, choose File→Place and deselect the Linked check box in the Place dialog box.

To create a symbol, select the object and drag it to the Symbols panel or click the New Symbol button at the bottom of the Symbols panel. Yes, it’s that easy. Then use the Symbol Sprayer tool to apply the symbol instance on the artboard by following these steps:

  1. Select the symbol instance in the Symbols panel.

    Either create your own symbol or use one of the default symbols supplied in the panel.

  2. Drag with the Symbol Sprayer tool, spraying the symbol on the artboard.

    That’s it. You can increase or reduce the area affected by the Symbol Sprayer tool by pressing the bracket keys. Press ] repeatedly to enlarge the application area for the symbol or press [ to make it smaller.

    Using the Symbol Sprayer tool to create fish.
    Using the Symbol Sprayer tool to create fish.

Note that you can access all sorts of symbol libraries from the Symbols panel menu. Find 3D, nature, map, flower, and even hair and fur symbol collections by selecting Open Symbol Library.

If you want to store artwork that you frequently need to access, simply drag selected objects to the Symbols panel or Alt-click (Windows) or Option-click (Mac) the New Symbol button to name and store the artwork.

Retrieve the artwork later by dragging it from the Symbols panel to the artboard. To release the symbol back into its basic elements, choose Object→Expand. In the Expand dialog box, click OK to restore the defaults.

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