Get Under the Hood with Vector Wire Frames: All About Outline Mode

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
Typically, when working in Adobe Illustrator, artwork is created and edited in Preview Mode (Control-Y), where full color, gradients, effects, and more are not only in full view but are repeatedly rendered every time changes or additions are made. The alternative to Preview Mode is a handy method of viewing artwork known as Outline Mode (Control-Y), previously called Artwork Mode. It's essentially a path-only, wire frame view of vector work.
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It can look like a crazy jumbled mess of lines, depending on the style of vector work you create, or be a beautiful alternative to the colorful lines seen within a final, exported image. Regardless of what your wire frames look like, I find them to be wonderfully interesting. Let's take some time to break down most everything we can about wire frames within vector graphics.
This part is fairly simple. When working with a document in Adobe Illustrator, hit Control-Y to toggle the default Preview Mode to Outline Mode. You'll be treated with that path-only view, seeing past the design you may have created with a variety of shapes, effects, gradients, or meshes. Interestingly, this mode can be saved, but not easily exported.
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Often, users must use a screenshot as their means of sharing wire frame views of artwork, or download a plug-in for the program that allows for exporting the file in Outline Mode as a PNG, JPG, or other file format.
When working with a gradient or effect-heavy vector design, each change made takes time and virtual memory to render again and again. To minimize the time it takes for simple changes that may not need to be seen in Preview Mode (moving layers or objects, for example), making such edits in Outline Mode is surely the way to go.
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Wire frames are useful for understanding how much of your design is pure vector versus being rendered or even rasterized. Knowing what's “under the hood”, so to speak, of your vector work allows for complete control (as well as knowing how a document will print or look at other resolutions; if it's scalable, it'll be versatile). Additionally, users can see what components are stroked paths (perhaps a pattern or scatter brush), which paths are closed or left open, and if there are extraneous anchor points or bits of paths.
Let's take a gander at a no-frills design created without gradients or effects. Note the simplicity of the artwork the wire frame. Even while working in Preview Mode, you know exactly what the underlying structure of the vector artwork is.
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In the case of gradient-laden artwork, it resembles simple, flat vector when viewed in Outline Mode. While any edits or additions won't inform the user of the color, gradient type, gradient angle, levels of opacity, etc., it can allow the user to focus on what the shape of each object actually is (similar to working with a simple sketch) versus the lighting, depth, or modeling that gradients can create.
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Gradient meshes, however are a different story. While many colors and various attributes can be applied to the mesh, the lines that define the object shape (and then some) are easily seen in Outline Mode.
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In this case, I find it educational, as mesh objects often look like raster paintings versus vector graphics. Not only can seeing the outline help a user sort out objects within their document, but easily seeing each mesh's paths make reproducing the look of an illustration or technique that much easier.
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Brushes in Illustrator are highly customizable tools allowing the user to apply patterns, stamp-like designs, or rendered brush effects to stroked paths. As such, the look of the outlines for brush-heavy designs will often be a single path or be comprised of a few paths, hiding the complexity of the final design.
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Working in this manner (with brushes) allows the user to have smaller file sizes (within reason, as some pattern brushes can be RAM-intense) or to quickly alter to movement of a brush’s path without it being a series of individual objects that have to be altered.
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In the case of effects (such as Drop Shadow or various Warp effects), the outline of the shape that it has been applied to will be all that shows in Outline Mode. Now, it’s quite true that if you have other objects within your design they will show up too.
Take for instance this kiwi design. It shows up as a single ellipse versus the complex design that it really is. Everything within the design is set up as a stroke, fill, or effect within the Appearance panel (a rather powerful panel in case you’re unfamiliar).
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Another design with a similar idea (low object count, high complexity within the design) is this avocado vector piece. The outline shows the basic avocado shape, but other aspects of the design are applied in the Appearance panel. Both of these tutorial pieces show the versatility of Illustrator when it comes to creating vector designs and how their wire frames can differ greatly from the exported or printed product.
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Finally, we're on to the most deceptive style of vector artwork: clipping masks. When you view the artwork in Preview Mode, the lines, background, or frame of such work seem very clean and organized. When viewing in Outline Mode, however, it’s the complete opposite.
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Textures show up, or shapes piled on top of each other, or a whole world of design that is hidden by the mask (“clipped” if you will). The difference shown in the wire frame versus final artwork not only gives a user full control over their work, but also can show students or curious artists (or whomever you may be) more insight into the process of design and illustration.
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Now that we've toggled our viewing modes and checked out various vector types from clean-cut objects to meshes and clipping masks, you should have a good idea how useful, beautiful, and downright informative looking at a vector’s wire frame can be. As such, we're interested in seeing your wire frames as well. Head on over to the community project Melody Nieves has set up and let’s deconstruct vector art and show off your work.


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