About layers

When creating complex artwork, it’s a challenge to keep track of all the items in your document window. Small items get hidden under larger items, and selecting artwork becomes difficult. Layers provide a way to manage all the items that make up your artwork. Think of layers as clear folders that contain artwork. If you reshuffle the folders, you change the stacking order of the items in your artwork. You can move items between folders and create subfolders within folders.

The structure of layers in your document can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. By default, all items are organized in a single, parent layer. However, you can create new layers and move items into them, or move elements from one layer to another at any time. The Layers panel provides an easy way to select, hide, lock, and change the appearance attributes of artwork. You can even create template layers, which you can use to trace artwork, and exchange layers with Photoshop.

For a video about keeping your artwork flexible and organized by using layers in your document, see Organize artwork with layers.

Layers panel overview

You use the Layers panel (Window > Layers) to list, organize, and edit the objects in a document. By default, every new document contains one layer, and each object you create is listed under that layer. However, you can create new layers and rearrange items to best suit your needs.

By default, Illustrator assigns a unique color (up to nine colors) to each layer in the Layers panel. The color displays next to the layer name in the panel. The same color displays in the illustration window in the bounding box, path, anchor points, and center point of a selected object. You can use this color to quickly locate an object’s corresponding layer in the Layers panel, and you can change the layer color to suit your needs.

When an item in the Layers panel contains other items, a triangle appears to the left of the item’s name. Click the triangle to show or hide the contents. If no triangle appears, the item contains no additional items.

Layers panel
Layers panel

A. Visibility column B. Edit column C. Target column D. Selection column 

The Layers panel provides columns to the left and right of the listings. Click in a column to control the following characteristics:

Visibility column

Indicates whether items in the layers are visible   or hidden (blank space), or whether they are template  layers or outline  layers.

Edit column

Indicates whether items are locked or unlocked. The lock icon  indicates that the item is locked and cannot be edited; a blank space indicates that the item is unlocked and can be edited.

Target column

Indicates whether items are targeted for application of effects and edit attributes in the Appearance panel. When the target button appears as a double ring icon (either  or ), the item is targeted; a single ring icon indicates that the item is not targeted.

Selection column

Indicates whether items are selected. A color box appears when an item is selected. If an item, such as a layer or group, contains some objects that are selected and other objects that are unselected, a smaller selection color box appears next to the parent item. If all of the objects within the parent item are selected, the selection color boxes are the same size as the marks that appear next to selected objects.

You can use the Layers panel to display some items as outlines and other items as they will appear in the final artwork. You also can dim linked images and bitmap objects to make it easier to edit artwork on top of the image. This is especially useful when tracing a bitmap image.

Display options for layered artwork
Display options for layered artwork

A. Object displayed in Outline view B. Bitmap object dimmed to 50% C. Selected object displayed in Preview view 

Change the display of the Layers panel

  1. Choose panel Options from the Layers panel menu.

  2. Select Show Layers Only to hide paths, groups, and collective elements in the Layers panel.

  3. For Row Size, select an option to specify the height of rows. (To specify a custom size, enter a value between 12 and 100.)

  4. For Thumbnails, select a combination of layers, groups, and objects for which to display thumbnail previews.

    Note:

    Displaying thumbnails in the Layers panel may result in slow performance when you are working with complex files. Turn off layer thumbnails to improve performance.

Set layer and sublayer options

  1. Do one of the following:

    • Double-click the item name in the Layers panel.

    • Click the item name and choose Options For <item name> from the Layers panel menu.

    • Choose New Layer or New Sublayer from the Layers panel menu.

  2. Specify any of the following:

    Name

    Specifies the name of the item as it appears in the Layers panel.

    Color

    Specifies the layer’s color setting. You can either choose a color from the menu or double-click the color swatch to select a color.

    Template

    Makes the layer a template layer.

    Lock

    Prevents changes to the item.

    Show

    Displays all artwork contained in the layer on the artboard.

    Print

    Makes the artwork contained in the layer printable.

    Preview

    Displays the artwork contained in the layer in color instead of as outlines.

    Dim Images

    Reduces the intensity of linked images and bitmap images contained in the layer to the specified percentage.

Create a layer

  1. In the Layers panel, click the name of the layer above which (or in which) you want to add the new layer.

  2. Do one of the following:

    • To add a new layer above the selected layer, click the Create New Layer button  in the Layers panel.

    • To create a new sublayer inside the selected layer, click the Create New Sublayer button  in the Layers panel.

      Tip: To set options when you create a new layer, choose New Layer or New Sublayer from the Layers panel menu.

    For different drawing modes, Illustrator provides several options, which include:

    • The Draw Behind mode automatically creates an active new layer behind the active layer.

    • In draw behind mode, artwork is drawn behind all artwork on a selected layer if no artwork is selected.

Move an object to a different layer

  1. Select the object.

  2. Do one of the following:

    • Click the name of the desired layer in the Layers panel. Then choose Object > Arrange > Send To Current Layer.

    • Drag the selected-art indicator , located at the right of the layer in the Layers panel, to the layer you want.

      Tip: You can move objects or layers into a new layer by selecting them and choosing Collect In New Layer from the Layers panel menu. Hold down Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac OS) to select nonadjacent items; hold down Shift to select adjacent items.

Release items to separate layers

The Release To Layers command redistributes all of the items in a layer into individual layers and can build new objects in each layer based on the object’s stacking order. You can use this feature to prepare files for web animation work.

  1. In the Layers panel, click the name of a layer or group.

  2. Do one of the following:

    • To release each item to a new layer, choose Release To Layers (Sequence) from the Layers panel menu.

    • To release items into layers and duplicate objects to create a cumulative sequence, choose Release To Layers (Build) from the Layers panel menu. The bottommost object appears in each of the new layers, and the topmost object only appears in the topmost layer. For example, assume Layer 1 contains a circle (bottommost object), a square, and a triangle (topmost object). This command creates three layers—one with a circle, square, and triangle; one with a circle and square; and one with just a circle. This is useful for creating cumulative animation sequences.

    Release To Layers (Build) command creates new layers
    Release To Layers (Build) command creates new layers

Consolidate layers and groups

Merging and flattening layers are similar in that they both let you consolidate objects, groups, and sublayers into a single layer or group. With merging, you can select which items you want to consolidate; with flattening, all visible items in the artwork are consolidated in a single layer. With either option, the stacking order of the artwork remains the same, but other layer-level attributes, such as clipping masks, aren’t preserved.

  • To merge items into a single layer or group, hold down Ctrl (Windows) or Command (Mac OS) and click the names of the layers or groups that you want to merge. Alternatively, hold down Shift to select all listings in between the layer or group names you click. Then, select Merge Selected from the Layers panel menu. Note that items will be merged into the layer or group that you selected last.

    Layers can only merge with other layers that are on the same hierarchical level in the Layers panel. Likewise, sublayers can only merge with other sublayers that are within the same layer and at the same hierarchical level. Objects can’t be merged with other objects.

  • To flatten layers, click the name of the layer into which you want to consolidate the artwork. Then select Flatten Artwork from the Layers panel menu.

Locate an item in the Layers panel

When you select an item in your document window, you can quickly locate the corresponding item in the Layers panel using the Locate Object command. This command is especially helpful for locating items in collapsed layers.

  1. Select an object in the document window. If you select more than one object, the frontmost object in the stacking order will be located.

  2. Choose Locate Object from the Layers panel menu. This command changes to Locate Layer if the Show Layers Only panel option is selected.

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