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Inking and scanning lettering artworks

— An article about: - Digital - Process - Techniques

The pen tool is not the only way to turn a sketched artwork into a digital image. Especially, if you mean to keep a handmade feel and the texture of the letters over the paper, the smooth curves it makes work against you. In this situation, inking your artwork, scanning it and processing it in Photoshop or Illustrator will be much better to retain those tiny details.


To make processing easy, I’ll need something with a clear contrast between the design elements and the background. Pencil usually doesn’t go dark enough, which is why the first step is inking the design.

A lot of work has been put into drawing everything right in the sketch. It would be terrible to lose all that because of an accidentally misplaced stroke of ink. So the inking is always done on a separate piece of paper: white paper, using a light-table to see the sketch, or just tracing paper, stuck in place with some painting tape or washi tape.

Actually, more often than not, inking needs to be done on multiple separate pieces of paper. Once on the computer, each part of the design will need to be isolated to be painted in a specific color. Inking on separate sheets help that process, making sure overlapping or close elements are easy to pick and color differently if needed (eg. letters on one sheet, decorations on the other).

Big dreams need big sleep - Inking steps
Inking a design on separate sheets

For the inking itself, the sketch should be refined enough so it’s “just” a matter of tracing over it. Small fixes can still be made, but ink isn’t really forgiving, so best be super sure of what to change.

The tough part is obviously not going “all over the place wiggly” when tracing. Speed is an important factor: too fast and you lose control, but too slow and the pen has plenty of time to wiggle to the sides of the line. For this, a lot of focus and most of all practice is the only way to build up the precision & control of the pen… as well as not giving in to the temptation to rush it, especially when it gets towards the end.

Inking a design on separate sheets

Ink takes some time to dry, which means a risk of smudges. Going left to right, top to bottom is a good way to prevent them. This ensures your hand is always on an undrawn part (at least for right handed people, not quite sure how it’d work for a leftie, sorry). Protecting the paper from your drawing hand with another piece of paper is also effective when you had to ink stuff at the bottom or the right because of a super tall letter.

Best if there are no smudges, of course, but they’re not necessarily the end of the world. As the artwork is meant to be processed digitally, small smudges might be able to be erased. For bigger ones, redrawing is the only way. Luckily, going digital afterward means only the damaged part has to be redrawn.

Speaking of digital, that’s the next step: bringing each inked sheet onto the computer.


Most of the magic is done by the scanner here, but there are a few things to take into consideration there:

  • size matters: If you intend to retain a handmade feel, and scan a large artwork to be displayed super small, bye bye texture details. Equally, if you scan something tiny to be printed at a large size, scaling up the design will look poor quality. So make sure the inked piece is appropriate for the size the final design will be used (I should probably have mentioned that before the inking).
  • scan at high resolution: the aim is to retain the handmade feel and ink on paper texture, so the more detailed a scan the better. In any case, if the final design is intended for print, providing an image with at least 300dpi (pixels per inch of paper you want to print) is best. So scanning resolution should at least match that.
  • scan in a lossless format: JPEG compression might introduce artifacts (blurry weird pixels). Best avoid them by scanning in a lossless format like TIFF. Bigger file size, but it makes sure everything is preserved.

The processing will rely on a black and white scan of the inkings. I prefer leaving that to Photoshop as it gives more control over how pixels are turned to greyscale, but it’s worth experimenting with your scanner Black & White option if it has one.

Last, if you’re on the go and have no scanner, your phone might be able to save the day. If it has a decent camera, an app like CamScanner will be able to digitize your inked design at a good enough resolution (I managed to get an A4 300dpi image for this artwork). That said, deformations might occur when it straightens your image, so I usually prefer waiting to get back to a scanner (especially if multiple inked sheets need to align for the final design).

The inked artworks are now in the computer, ready to be worked on digitally. But that’s a topic of it’s own, which will get its own article soon. In the meantime, I’d be happy to hear if you have any questions regarding this article, or lettering altother. Drop me a mail 🙂