As a lettering artist or typographer, the ability to vectorise your work is a great skill to have. Having your typeface or artwork in a vector format makes it cleaner and allows you to scale it infinitely, meaning that you could have it small on the side of a pencil, or huge on the side of a building and the quality will remain the same. Using the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator is a whole new world, but I’ve got a few tips to help make it easier to get started!
Start on Paper
The worst thing you can do when starting out with the pen tool, is attempt to create a design without first having a plan to work from. The first thing you should do is create an analogue drawing using a real life pen or pencil on real life paper. This will give you a design to work from as you start using the digital pen tool. I will scan, photograph or send my drawing to my computer and open it in Illustrator, lock the layer so that I can’t accidentally move it around, then work directly on top of the drawing. This doesn’t mean that I can’t make any changes as I work digitally, it just forms a solid foundation and helps you to work almost like a dot-to-dot over the drawing. This will really help you to get the digital drawing right and make it a bit less daunting as you trace around your artwork.
When vectorising letterforms, guides are your best friends. You can use them to mark the edges of the letters, the baseline of the word, and the area of your entire artwork. As you’re working with the pen tool, your anchor points can snap to the guides you’ve set up to easily plot them on the right points. This will make your work consistent and strong as it all lines up and there is a clear underlying structure to the letterforms and the words.
The aim with the pen tool, is to use as few anchor points as you can get away with. You should really only plot your anchor points on corners or the outermost parts of each letter. Break the letters down into shapes and try use two or three points to create each shape. This will make the curves and shapes of your letters smooth, clean and consistent throughout.
Stick to 90 degrees
When working on the curves in your letters, you’re going to be moving the handles of the anchor point around to achieve the perfect curves. These handles should (almost) always be at a 90 degree angle to create the smooth vector paths that you’re after. The two handles of an anchor point should either go up and down, or right and left. As a general guideline, if you’re working on a horizontal path, the handles will go left and right, and if the path is vertical, the handles will go up and down. If it really isn’t working, you can also use 45 degree angles in some circumstances. This takes a while to get used to but it’s best practice and the more you give it a go, the more you’ll get used to it and the better your work will look.
Take it slow
I know that when you get started it can be tempting to get super excited and try to create a huge, full on piece straight away and do it super quick. It is exciting, but just start small and take your time. Maybe try one letter to start with and see how you go with that. It might take a bit to get the hang of, so taking it slow and steady will ease the frustration and help you improve one step at a time!
I hope these quick tips are helpful! You can watch me play with vectorising letters in my latest video below, and subscribe so that you don’t miss my upcoming lettering videos! Please comment below or tweet me if you have any handy tips for digital lettering, or if there are any questions you have for me and I’ll talk to you again soon!