When I first started out, I tried to figure out the process of vectorising lettering with the Pen Tool so many times. I watched process videos and online classes, but I found that it all came down to figuring out the minute stuff on my own. In this post, I want to share all that stuff with you so you can get better with the Pen Tool faster, and to lower a little bit of that Pen Tool frustration you might experience at first.
Let’s start at the very beginning with sketching out your idea. I usually just sketch my ideas on a piece of paper that is closest to me. A Post-it note, regular notebook for scribbles and notes, plain paper—anything I can get my hands on. This doesn’t have to be fancy or accurate, this is just to get the idea down on paper so it doesn’t go away.
Refining the sketch
At this stage you already have a pretty good idea of what you want to do, you just need to refine it. If I’m pressed for time, I will use the iPad for this stage, but if I have a little more time I would go and take my sketchbook out and start drawing lightly, adding details as I go. Your sketch really doesn’t have to be perfect. All that matters is that the piece is balanced and that you have a rough idea of how you want it to look.
Scanning or taking a picture
When you are done refining, you need to get that sketch into your computer. If you used iPad, you can just save the artwork as an image and send it to your computer. If you used a sketchbook, a photo will be enough, and since we are tracing with the Pen Tool, the quality of the picture doesn’t matter. You don’t have to make any other adjustments to the image. Just be careful to take a picture as level as possible so it’s straight.
Vectorising the letters
You are about to start the vectorising process! I have used Affinity Designer, but you can go ahead and use anything that has a Pen Tool. I recorded the entire process for my “Bonjour” piece and made a time-lapse video so you can see this entire process at work.
Step 1: Set up the file
Set up the file by opening up a New Document and setting the size accordingly. But since we will be working with vectors, the size of the document doesn’t really matter.
Step 2: Add your image
Add your image to the first layer. You do not have to do any processing of your image. This step is only important if you do a live trace but as we are using the Pen Tool, we can skip that!
Step 3: Adjust opacity
Lower the opacity of the entire first layer to a point where you can still see it but it doesn’t bother you when working. When you are happy, lock that layer so you don’t accidentally move it.
Step 4: Draw your guides
Now you can draw out your guides on a second layer. For the guides, I also use the Pen Tool or shapes if needed, depending on the artwork. The important thing is that you have some kind of measure in there to make sure that everything is approximately aligned. That doesn’t mean that you have to adhere to it like crazy. What you see is more important and if something seems off even though it’s aligned, change it. When you have your guides drawn, lock that layer and add one more on top.
Now it’s finally time to start working!
Step 5: Do a rough trace
Draw over the lettering with the Pen Tool keeping in mind the point placement only. Keep each letter separate so you can move and adjust the spacing later.
Step 6: Refine your work
Go over the entire piece and try your best to make the curves look nice. This will take some time depending on the complexity of your piece, but go slowly and take a lot of little breaks. Sometimes you see things better after you step away for a bit.
“Change between black and white background while you work—changing the contrast often helps in seeing some problem areas and keeps your eyes fresh.”
Things to check if something doesn’t look good:
- Check if the point is in the right place—is it on the horizontal or vertical extrema?
- Check if there are handles that are out of wack—they should never cross each other or be too long.
- Check the angle of the handles—they should always be at a right angle (except the diagonal or some corner ones).
- Are the thicks and thins in the right places?
- Are the proportions of all the letters the same relative to the height and weight?
- If you are working with letters on a slant, is the slant the same for all letters? (Sometimes not mathematically but optically).
- Are there any points missing? (Between two horizontal or two vertical points there should be a connecting point that is on approximately 45 angles).
- Change between black and white background while you work—changing the contrast often helps in seeing some problem areas and keeps your eyes fresh.
- Keep the navigator open so you can see the lettering in a small size at all times—it helps to have a wider view of the work so you can see the balance better or if something is standing out as wrong.
- Take regular breaks!
- Duplicate layers when you are not sure about the changes so you can always go back to the previous step. That way you won’t be scared of experimenting and trying out different solutions.
Step 7: Check your spacing
Now that you are happy with your traced lettering check if the spacing between the letters needs work. You can adjust the spacing while you refine as well, but to make it less overwhelming I kept this as a separate step.
“Turn the lettering upside down—when your mind can’t read what it says it can concentrate better on the positive and negatives spaces. ”
Tips on spacing:
- Concentrate on three letters at a time.
- Squint your eyes or blur the word—sometimes that helps in seeing huge gaps or other problem areas.
- Turn the lettering upside down—when your mind can’t read what it says it can concentrate better on the positive and negatives spaces.
Step 8: Embellishments
When you have the main lettering done and you are happy with it, you can go ahead and add embellishments, colours, textures or 3D effects. NOT BEFORE! You will make your life unnecessarily complicated if you start adding those things right away. Keep it clean and black and white until you are happy and then let the fun start!
Le Punkt Noir (meaning ‘black dot’ in a mix of French and German) is the studio of Ivana Marić, a freelance lettering artist and designer with a passion for crisp vector lettering. An Affinity Designer convert, Ivana is fuelled by a big cup of coffee and a desire to create the perfect lettering for every unique design.
For more lettering insights from Ivana check out her Spotlight article Trick of the eye: how to draw better letters using optical corrections or visit her blog where she provides various posts about lettering techniques, hints and tips.