The Selection Tools in Adobe Illustrator

Learn all the differences between Selection Tools in Adobe Illustrator. From the Black and White arrows, to the Outline Mode

The Selection Tools in Adobe Illustrator

I n this post we will study the Selection Tools in Adobe Illustrator, and we will learn what is the difference between the Selection Tool (Black Arrow) and the Direct Selection Tool (White Arrow)

Next, we will find out all about the incredible Outline Mode, that will allow us to see, edit, clean and organize all the vector strokes in our drawing!



As we draw in Illustrator, the vector strokes and shapes we make, get organized in the workspace by means of superposition. This option can at first look rather bothersome, but it is actually a great advantage, since it allows every object to remain independent from the rest, and to be editable at any given time. This also supposes a big difference between Paint Software (such as Photoshop), and Drawing Software (such as Illustrator).

In a Paint Software, the pixels in the canvas mix and overlap each other as we paint; making it impossible to edit or recover the strokes that got underneath. However, in a Drawing Software, because the elements superpose each other and remain independent, we can always edit even the lowest of the vector elements in the stack.

Because of this particularity, Drawing Software such as Illustrator need to make use of Selection Tools, that will allow us not only to select each vector stroke or shape independently (making use of the Selection Tool – a.k.a Black Arrow), but also allowing us to select the vector sub-objects that form them, such as nodes, handles and Bézier Points (by using the Direct Selection Tool – a.k.a White Arrow)

In the text below, we will explore these two tools, learn how to use them, and point out what are their main differences.



The Selection Tool, as its name might suggest, it’s used for selecting the vector objects in the workspace, by simply clicking on them with the mouse. Once we click on an object, it will become selected, regardless of its order in the vector stack, or the Layer where it’s being kept.

We will know an object has been selected, because once it’s been clicked on, it will become outlined in a particular color. The color of the outline will match the color of the Layer that holds said object. So, if for example the object is set in Layer 1, and this layer has a blue color assigned to it, we will see the object outlined in blue. [1]

The Selection Tool (black arrow) in Adobe Illustrator is used to select the individual vector shapes and their groups.

The Selection Tool (black arrow) in Adobe Illustrator is used to select the individual vector shapes and their groups.

If the object we wish to select is located underneath another object–that covers it partially or completely; we would have to select it by opening the Layer Panel and select said object by clicking in the circle icon (Click to target) located right next to the object’s name (in this example <Path>) [2]

(See Outline Mode below for other hidden object’s selection techniques with the Selection Tool.)

With the Selection Tool, we can also select more than one object at once; by clicking and dragging the mouse across the workspace. This will generate a selection marquee. All the objects that are touched by the marquee will be selected.

To modify an object selection; adding or removing new objects to the selection, we must click on said new objects while pressing the Cntrl Key (for adding) or the Alt Key (for removing).



The Direct Selection Tool (White Arrow) can easily be mistaken with the Selection Tool (Black Arrow), but the truth is, it’s use is very different!

While the “Black Arrow” is used to select whole vector objects; the “White Arrow” is used to select the smaller parts–or sub-objects–that compose our vector shapes and strokes. These sub-objects are the nodes, anchors, control points and handles that form the structure of any given vector object.

Because of this particular feature, the Direct Selection Tool will become very handy when it comes to editing our vector shapes and strokes. We just have to click on the desired object, and it will automatically reveal the nodes and handles that are forming it [1]

The Direct Selection Tool (white arrow) in Adobe Illustrator is used to select and edit the smaller parts that form our vector strokes.

The Direct Selection Tool (white arrow) in Adobe Illustrator is used to select and edit the smaller parts that form our vector strokes.

Once the nodes become visible, we can select them independently. This expand the node’s controllers, will allow us to modify the angle of the Bézier curve by rotating the handles up or down; or to modify the position of the curve’s anchor in the workspace [2]

We can also use this tool to delete any vertex, anchor or handle, by selecting it and pressing the Delete Key.



A great way of selecting hidden objects in Illustrator, is by turning the canvas or workspace to an Outline Mode. We can do this either through the View Menu – Outline, or by pressing Cntrl+Y in our keyboard [3]

To access the Outline Mode in Adobe Illustrator, we can simply type Cntrl+Y

To access the Outline Mode in Adobe Illustrator, we can simply type Cntrl+Y

The Outline Mode shows the full scene simplified, by stripping the vectors of any decorations such as borders, fills, gradients, etc… and displaying them as simple outlines.

This type of view mode is very convenient to be able to check the integrity of the shapes and strokes that form our illustration. It also allow us to easily select any hidden object, regardless of their position in the stack, as well as finding any errors in the construction of the strokes, such as floating vertices, abnormal nodes, etc…

We can also find the center of our vector shapes (that will be very useful, for example, when trying to check an alignment, scale or rotate an object from it’s center). In the Outline Mode, the centers appear marked as a small x.

To exit the Outline Mode, we must type again Cntr+Y and we’ll return to the default view.



The following video explores the two Selection Tools, using them on a group of sample vector shapes. It is easy to see how both Selection Tools are so similar and yet so different! Unfortunately, the audio is only available in Spanish. But if you feel up to it, you can give it a try! Just sayin'...




In the following post we will take a look at the Layer Panel in Illustrator, and the best way of using it to achieve professional results.

Check it out!



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Sara Martull

I am a 3D artist. I like making 3D illustrations, modeling and rigging characters and watching hundreds of movies and TV shows.

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