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Paper to pixels with the pen tool

— An article about: - Digital - Techniques

Pen(cil) and paper make it easy to explore ideas, or even to get a pretty clean artwork. However, most projects need to go digital at some point, to prepare artworks for printing or create the logo files clients will be able to embed in their communications. There are a couple of different ways to do it, depending on the end result. One of them is tracing the image with a vector drawing software to create a vector image.

Vector images & the pen tool

Deep inside, vector images rely on maths. They define shapes & curves through lists of coordinates and then assign colors to fill or outline them (to simplify). This gives them this great advantage of scaling up and down nicely without getting blurry. Perfect choice for a logo, for example. Vector images are also perfect to get super clean curves. The maths don’t wiggle the pen while tracing the lines. Counterpart of that is that drawing something with more handmade and textured lines is trickier, though. Other techniques might be more suited if it’s the look aimed for.

Coordinates deep inside doesn’t mean we have to input them by hand, of course. Vector drawing software feature a pen tool to lets you trace the shapes. Illustrator is the industry standard, but solid contenders have appeared these past years: Sketch and Affinity designer. And there’s always the free Inkscape. The tool works in a similar way in each of them.

After importing a scan or straight picture in the background of your document, let’s see how the pen tool will help.

Click! a point

The pen tool works by placing the points of the shape every time you click. Click, a point. Click, a line. Click, the line continues… Until you get back to the start to close the shape. If you misplace a point, no worries. They can always be selected and moved individually later.

Pen tool example - Drawing straight lines

Great for angular letters made of straight lines, but that won’t help much when it comes to tracing smooth & curvy script letters.

Curvy shapes

Fortunately, the pen tool doesn’t just do straight lines and angles. If you click and drag the mouse while keeping the button down, the line will turn into a curve. The added point defines where the curve goes through. And new handles appear to control the curvature of the shape.

They’ll start in line with each other and of equal size. But the size of each can be adjusted separately to get finer control. And the angle between them two can also be changed, allowing to create sharp points when needed.

Pen tool example - Drawing a curvy shape

At first, it’s tempting to add plenty of points along the curve. But actually the less points the better. The maths will always create a smoother curve than manually placing the points and their tangents. It also means fewer handles to adjust when needing to tweak the shapes.

Drawing the line

When the stroke’s width of each letter is the same, tracing the contours of each letter is counterproductive, though. Getting that width just right throughout each letter would take ages. For these, it’s faster to just trace a line along the letter shapes. Vector shapes are not limited to being filled with colors. They can have their outlines drawn, with control over how thick they are.

Pen tool example - Drawing a line

In the end, it all comes to placing the points in the right place, with the handles of the right size. It takes a bit of practice, but I find it quite a relaxing part of the process, a bit meditative. It’s not just about “blindly” tracing over the sketch, though. This step is also one occasion to make adjustments to details that weren’t just quite right in the sketch. Let me know what you think of this method, and if you have any question, feel free to contact me.