With the emergence of the new HTML5 specifications on to the web development scene, the Web is not the same anymore. We can do things now that were only a dream in the past.
One of these things is the ability to draw images directly in our browsers, which is now possible with the Canvas API. It is easy to understand and quick to learn. But, there’s one problem. It can take a long time (sometimes hugely long) to draw something fairly simple.
Moreover, you need to perform lots of calculations for each stroke you draw. This sounds a little bit discouraging, especially for those of us who don’t like math.
Fortunately, in this article I will tell you about an easy and simple solution. Ai->Canvas is a handy little Adobe Illustrator plug-in, created by Mike Swanson, which allows you to convert any created or imported vector and bitmap artwork into a valid canvas drawing.
It provides drawing, animation and events coding so that you can easily build interactive canvas-based web apps.
What Ai->Canvas Can Do
With Ai->Canvas plug-in you can, in fact, do lots of things. Firstly, it can export almost any Illustrator artwork to a HTML5 canvas element – complex shapes, gradients, transparencies, drop shadows and all kinds of things. Where canvas lacks support for a specific feature, Ai->Canvas automatically rasterizes the artwork to a bitmap and properly positions the image on the canvas.
Also, you can easily add animations to your Illustrator drawings. These include rotation, scaling, fading, easing, and movement along a path. For more advanced animations, you can add triggers that start one animation when another animation completes, respond to user interactions such as mouse click and so on.
To get started with Ai->Canvas you need to download a version for Windows or OS X, and extract the plug-in file to your Adobe Illustrator Plug-ins folder. For a default installation of Adobe Illustrator CS5, this should be something like – C:Program FilesAdobeAdobe Illustrator CS5Plug-ins. On a Mac, it should be something like – /Applications/Adobe Illustrator CS5/Plug-ins.
Once the plug-in is installed you’ill need to re-launch Illustrator if it’s already running. Now, you should be able to pull down the File menu, select Export…, and see “<canvas> (*.HTML)” as an option under Save as type drop-down list. And this is all you need to do. Easy, huh?
The above is valid for users with Illustrator CS3 to CS5. For those of you who have the latest version of Illustrator, please see Illustrator to HTML5 Canvas Plug-In Updated for CS6, where Mike Swanson explains how to get a working version of the plug-in for AI CS6, and how to install it.
How it Works
It’s time to see the plug-in in action. In order to do that, you need to build your assets in Adobe Illustrator. These may include things such as existing drawings and/or images, or even creating new drawing to be exported.
So, first create a new document in Illustrator. The size is not important, because the exported canvas gets the overall size of the shapes and not the AI artboard.
Now create some simple shapes – circle, rectangle. Then simply select Export on the File menu and choose “<canvas> (*.HTML)”. This will create the appropriate code for you and any additional files you will need.
You can edit these as you wish for your application. Load the file(s) in a browser that supports canvas and you’ll be able to view your illustration along with any animation you may have created.
A little trick – if you want to create canvas with specific size simply create a rectangle with desired dimensions, for example 550×400, and call it “canvas”. Then draw everything you need inside this shape. Note: to get the exact size make the rectangle without stroke border.
Is it Good Enough?
When we explore some new web development tool, the following three factors are the most important for the final score: speed, simplicity and quality. Let’s see how Ai->Canvas fits to these in the next three sections.
Speed of Creation
How fast you can create a canvas drawing? For a single or several objects the answer is not such a big deal, but when we talk about hundreds or even thousands of objects the answer is critical. To see the difference just undertake the following experiment. Create a new document and in the Symbol panel choose the Nature library, and then place the Foliage 2 symbol onto the artboard.
Now export to canvas, open the file and take a look at the source code.
Yes, that’s right. More than 2,500 lines of code created on-the-fly in just a matter of seconds! So, how fast you can do this by hand?
As you can see, the usefulness of the plug-in increases with the complexity of the drawing. The more complex a drawing is, the more time is saved for you.
Ease of Use
When you read or hear word “drawing”, what do yoyu picture in your mind? I bet it’s not coordinate systems and math calculations. But that is how Canvas API works.
And this is really bad. Just imagine an artist who is forced to do math calculations every time when he or she needs to draw a simple stroke. This will kill creativity for sure.
Fortunately, with the Ai->Canvas plug-in you not only draw easily and naturally but you can include animations and interactions in your drawings in the same simple manner. Even a novice can create cool drawings and animations in no time, and with minimal efforts.
Quality of Code
Let’s face it. It doesn’t matter how fast and easily you can create something if you end up with bloated, low-quality output.
There are many “cool” tools that produce auto-generated code, but in most cases it means “spaghetti” code. Luckily the code generated with Ai->Canvas is surprisingly well-ordered and understandable. Let’s see what I mean.
As you already know, Illustrator documents are hierarchical tree structures that can grow to be relatively complex. So, how you do locate a specific element in the rendered HTML/JS? Thhe plug-in outputs a path/breadcrumb comment line for each rendered element. For example, // Layer Name/Group Name/Art Name. You can find any element simply by using Find function in your favorite code editor. When there is a known feature that isn’t supported other comments will be exported too.
All artwork names are “cleaned-up” so that they include only valid HTML/JS characters. Redundant commands have been eliminated where possible. Also, when a drawing is split among multiple functions, a single render function draws everything in the correct order. At the end you get well-structured code which you can tweak and extend with ease.
As you can see, Ai->Canvas passed all three requirements quite well. Of course, as with everything else in this world, the plug-in is not perfect and you will probably need to edit and customize the exported code. But given all the goodies the plug-in provides, it can dramatically accelerate and simplify your development process the next time when you are dealing with Canvas API.
This article merely scratches the surface of what you can do with Ai->Canvas plug-in.
As a next step I suggest you to go through the Solar System tutorial in order to get a sense how the plug-in can be used in a real application. Then if you want to learn even more you can download extended documentation where you will find useful information how to use the plug-in, plus some nice examples.
That’s it. I hope that this handy tool will save you lots of precious time and boring math calculations when you start your next canvas drawing/application.
Ivaylo Gerchev is a self-taught web developer/designer. He loves to play with HTML, CSS, jQuery, PHP, and WordPress, as well as Photoshop and Illustrator. Ivaylo's motto is "Minimum effort for maximum effect!"
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