I’m going to take you behind the scenes and show you how to digitize hand lettering using Image Trace. This video starts off in Photoshop for some initial prep work to clean up your lettering and then we take it to Illustrator for vectoring.

If you like this video, it’s a very small sampling of the 50 other lessons you’ll find in the Learn Lettering Master Class. Hope you enjoy!

Raw Transcript

Hey, it’s Sean McCabe with Learn Lettering and I was just about to digitize this hand lettering design and I thought, “You know what? I might as well be recording so I can show you guys my process.” I was just about to digitize this, get it ready to send off to the printer (because we’re going to get some letterpress coasters made), and I just want to show you how I go about doing that.

So first of all, this is just a photo that I took with my iPhone. You don’t even have to have a scanner. Just take a photo of your lettering. I did this with micron and it syncs right over iCloud so you’ve got your photo, just open it up in Photoshop. Really easy. Unlock the background layer—it’s going to be locked at first. Just double-click it and hit OK. Since this isn’t scanned, it may not be perfectly straight. It may be kind of skewed.

So the first thing you want to do is set a couple guides and make sure it’s aligned before we go in Illustrator. Because we’re going to use Illustrator to Live Trace this design. Real quick here: if you haven’t seen it before, this is LearnLettering.com. I’ve got a bunch of courses and you can get over eight hours of courses here. There’s 50 lessons. I mean, a ton of good stuff. I going to depth on the digitizing process—not just Live Trace like we’re going to look at today, but using the Pen Tool to create precise vectors. So there’s a lot of great stuff here. LearnLettering.com. Be sure to check that out.

But today we’re going to be talking about using Live Trace to digitize hand lettering. The reason I like Live Trace—or actually, I think they call it Image Trace now that it’s a newer version of Illustrator. I’m so used calling it Live Trace. We’re going to go into Image Trace for this hand lettering design. The reason I like it is it preserves that the organic character of the hand-drawn letters. When you use precise vectors, it doesn’t really have that same feel. Sometimes you might want to do that for a custom type logo but for something that’s going to be printed (screenprinted or letterpress), I really like that organic feel.

So I’m going to show you how to use Image Trace to digitize your hand lettering designs. If you don’t have your rulers open, you can press Command or Control + R on your keyboard. I’m going to say “Command” a lot throughout this video because I’m on a Mac, so you can just interchange that for the word “Control” if you’re on a PC.

So bring up your rulers… we’re going to drag it down. Just click on the ruler and drag down. We’re going to set a horizontal ruler here. You can see that it’s a little bit slanted. This photo isn’t exactly perfectly straight. So what we’re going to do is bring it down a little bit. Command + T: we’re going to transform this. Now we could rotate it we could just come up to the corner here and tilt it a little bit, but look what happens: if I bring over a vertical rule now that “T” is starting to get out of line. So we don’t actually want to rotate it. I’m going to Undo. What we want to do is we actually want to skew this. So Command + T first, then right click on the image and select “Skew.” If you grab this little handle on the right, you can drag it down and that’s just going to skew the right hand side. You can also grab the top corner and drag that down if you kind of want to pinch it.

We’re just looking at that horizontal rule. We want it to be nice and aligned there. Starting to get wonky. You want to make sure to hold Shift and it’ll keep it nice and straight up and down. That looks pretty good. Just hit Enter to apply that. Now at this stage, if you’ve got some imperfections or some little details that you want to correct, you can make a new layer: Command + N. Grab your brush tool, and what I’ll do often is I’ll come in with just a white color and maybe clean up some spots that I might be afraid will get turned in… oops. I’ve got to put my Opacity at full. I’m going to take some of the hardness up. Anything that I’m afraid of coming in as black within Illustrator I’ll just come in and clean up.

I’m just giving an example here—not too worried about this point. But if you have any imperfections are things that you definitely don’t want to come in later, it might be easier to clean that up a little bit in Photoshop. It’s up to you. So I don’t do too much in Photoshop here really we’re just trying to straighten it. I find that a lot easier here than in Illustrator. Maybe clean up a few details, but some of that we can fix in the vector stage so I’m not going to worry too much.

Maybe right here—clean this up a little bit. You can click once and hold Shift—that will draw straight line between those two points so that can be kind of handy. I’m gonna make sure this gets rounded off. Okay, now for those of you that are looking at this and saying, “Well Sean, how do I get such a cool lettering piece to start with?” That’s going to take practice, but believe it or not, you don’t have to have to have this epic composition right off the bat.

I’ll show you just a quick behind-the-scenes of how I came up with this: I really just start with some very, very rough compositions. You can see these are not fancy at all. I’m just using a brush pen and really roughly kind of trying out some different ideas and combinations. You’ll notice that I’ve got this extended “L” here, kind of making like an underline almost, and kind of like an overline here with the crossbar on the “t”. That didn’t exactly end up making it but you can kind of see some of that in the final composition here. The “L” and the top of the “T” kind of make this nice, little straight line that underlines the word “letterpress.” But I just start with these rough compositions, and kind of get a feel for how you want things to look. You can see I’m trying out a lowercase “l,” some capital script “L”, and ultimately something like this one here ended up making it all the way into the final composition.

So what I’ll do is I’ll start with some rough concepts, use a brush pen, and then I’ll start sketching in the composition. You can’t really tell here—I’m going to zoom in a little bit—because this looks really nice, right? But you wouldn’t really notice that that’s not how I totally started. I started with a lighter lead, very, very rough here. Just very roughly sketching in where I want the letterforms to go, and then I come back with a darker led.

So I start with an HB lead and then come back with the 2B led and go over that just to get the details. You can see I’m just, sketching in here. Start really, really light and then come back over it with something darker. So I just started with the word “letterpress”—that’s all I had. Then I started very lightly… here. Here’s a good example: you can see this is the lighter lead. This is HB led. This is 2B led. So I start off just with some HB going in and making just the rough skeletons of the letters. We’re not even trying to get the final version, I’m just trying to fit the words in here. Okay, I want there to be a space so you can tell these are two different words. So I’ve got about this much room to fit four letters so you might split that evenly a few times. Then just come in here and rough out the letters—make sure it fits to the composition and this is starting to come together.

So after this, I go in on those skeletons and I start creating the letterforms around those skeletons. I know where the letters are going to be—you can see this skeleton right here and the crossbar of the “A”—I just start forming the letters around those. After I do the sketch, I go and outline it (it looks so much cooler in the sketch version, doesn’t it?) I outline that with a Micron. I think I was using an 03 Micron here. Notice I’m not worrying too much about the little details. I’m going to come back and fill this in in the next step. So I start with something relatively fine—this is about a four-inch composition. So I can use something like an 03 Micron, you may want to use an 01. It depends on how big or small your composition. But first I just outline it and then I come back with a Graphic 1. This is our original photo. I just use a Graphic 1 to come in and fill the insides the composition.

So once you’ve got this… remember we set the rules… these guidelines here… try and keep it nice and straight (skew it if you need to)… once you’ve got that, grab your Marquee tool (that’s M on the keyboard), and we’re just going to select this and we’re going to Copy Merged because we do want to include these corrective white brushstrokes that we did. Command + Shift + C will Copy Merged. Now we’re going to go over to Illustrator. So I’ve got something set up already, this is about 2000 pixels square. We’re going to mess with this some more later so don’t worry about that too much. I’ve got it on my clipboard so Command + V to paste and I’m going to hit F to change the view—get rid of that top bar.

So this is a little bit nicer. If you don’t want to see the Art Board, Command + Shift + H will hide that. Sometimes it’s nice, sometimes it’s not. Okay, so what we know is we want this to be a 4-inch coaster. Right now I’m not to worry about the exact dimensions. Right now we’re just going to worry about digitizing this and then fitting it to the composition size that we want. So first of all, we’re going to select this—make sure you have the image selected. You might be tempted to come up and just hit Image Trace. The problem with that is this doesn’t give you any control over the settings of Image Trace. If I click this, it’s just going to do its own thing and it’s going to go with some default settings. Now that doesn’t look bad but it doesn’t look great and we want great. So I’m going to undo that change. What you want to do is come up to Window and then select Image Trace.

This is going to bring up your Image Trace panel over here. This gives you a lot more control and you might have this Advanced section closed by default—you want to click the little triangle and expand that. Once you’ve expanded that, let’s go ahead and go through each of these options. You should be in Black and White mode. If not, set it to Black and White. The Threshold is just going to decide which pixels are going to end up being white and which pixels are going to end up being dark. So if you had the Threshold at a certain point where it was picking up grays, you would see a lot of these pencil marks. So if you have a high enough contrast photo—which I would suggest using Micron on white paper if you want this to work really well. You can do pencil sketches and it’ll come up with a different style—maybe you like that, maybe you don’t—but if you want the best trace you want to have a lot of contrast. So that’s why I like Microns: it’s just nice, crisp, black and white. For that reason, I like a Threshold of 128 because the top is 255 so 128’s right in the middle. I’ll show you what happens if we come up here: it’s going to start picking up… oops… turn on Preview. Check the little box here. It’s going to start picking up some of the gray details and this looks really ugly.

If we come too low then it’s going to start to get weakened. It’s going to start not picking up everything. If it’s not pure black, then it’s going to show up white if the threshold is too low. So I like to keep this at 128 right in the middle, which you should be fine with if you’ve got white paper and black ink like a Micron. Now within Advanced, this is the important part. The first one here is Paths. This is just a threshold you can slide it from low to high. That’s just the Path Fitting. So the higher you have this number, the tighter it’s going to be to your letters. It’s going to follow the tiny little details. So if we go all the way up to 100%, it’s going to be very true to the details in your composition. Obviously the higher the resolution, the more detail it’s going to have. I would say for general hand lettering, a photo with your iPhone is going to be fine. If you really want a lot more detail, you could use a scanner to get a higher resolution image, but honestly I don’t even use it for any of my my prints or products. I just use an iPhone photo.

So 100% is going to be really, really detailed. If I come in closer you’ll see… a lot of little details. I actually like to come back a little bit from that. If I came down to 80%, you can kind of see what this looks like. It definitely smooths this out. That’s actually a pretty nice look. A little bit of roughness, but it’s still quite smooth. Honestly, I like the roughness because I think it feels a little more organic. It feels a little more handmade. So I like to get pretty close to 100% but not quite all the way there. Maybe 96%… 98%… see how that looks. You’re starting to get a little bit of that detail. I’m going to go as high as 98%. Yeah, I definitely like that.

We’re going to make sure that… well, okay. Let’s go to Corners next. We’ve got Corners and Noise just before we expand this. I usually don’t mess with these too much but I want to show you what they do so you have an idea. Let’s find a good example. Notice these sharp points here: those are examples of where your corners are. So if we have Corners up all the way up to 100%, you’re going to see it’s going to get a lot sharper here. That was subtle. I’m going to see if I can come in and show you. Right here: watch just these few points. I’m going to come back down… see how it got rounded off? Then I’ll go all the way back up. Sharp points. I don’t really like those sharp points. I like to kind of keep it a little soft—a little rounded. You don’t want it to look super jagged. Maybe somewhere around 65%? Because if you go too low then it’s going to look floppy.

So we’re going to go with 65%. I think that looks decent. Noise—this last little parameter. Let’s say you’ve got a got a bunch of speckles on your design that you didn’t clean up in Photoshop. Maybe you erased some of the pencil lines and there’s little pieces of the eraser and you’ve got little specks. This Noise threshold will actually clean up some of those for you. So if you didn’t clean them up in Photoshop yourself you can play with this threshold bar and it might get some of the those little isolated details for you. So if you had a little speck here and the area of that speck was something like 10 pixels, then you want to set this to 10 pixels or higher and it’s going to remove it for you.

If you have overlapping paths, then you can switch these. You can either have it combined as one shape or create overlapping stacked paths. It’s kind of hard—I don’t have a good example here with this one but if you have overlapping paths you might want to try out both of those see to which one you need. We’re going to create fills—we don’t want to create strokes. Ignore White: this is important. If we don’t check this box then we’re going to get all of these white shapes. So it’s not just going to be these letterform shapes but even these inside counter white shapes are going to be individual shapes. Maybe you want that, maybe you don’t. In most cases, I’d say you don’t. Otherwise, you’re going to have to come in here and click all of them and get rid of them. Typically you want to Ignore White, so we’re going to go ahead and set that. You’ll notice that I can’t actually apply this Trace until I turn off the Preview. So we’re going to turn off the Preview, hit Trace, and it seems like nothing happened!

What’s going on here? It’s just one big image. Well, you actually want to Expand this. You can go up to Object > Expand. For me, it’s Commad + E. That will bring up our Expand and just hit Enter. Now we have the individual shapes. That’s what we want. Now what we don’t want is for this to move all about as one. We want to be able to control the individual letterforms so we need Ungroup this. Go up to Object > Ungroup (or Command + Shift + G). Sometimes you need to do that a couple times. Usually I’ll just hit it twice. Command + Shift + G—hit it a couple times just to make sure it fully ungroups. And then… see what I mean? I guess I didn’t do enough it enough. Do it a few times. There we go. Then you can control the individual letters.

So at this point, we’re going to go ahead and design our coaster. This is going to be a circle coaster. So what we want to do is grab our Ellipse Tool with L on your keyboard. I’m just going to click… let’s do this first: let’s select this, and we’re going to bring up Transform just to see how large this is. Ok, 1915px. We’re going to make a circle that’s the same size (1915px) as our lettering composition. There’s our circle. Bring up your Align window. If you don’t have it, go up to Window > Align. We’re going to align it on the horizontal axis and the vertical axis. Now Shift + X will invert these colors. It’ll switch the fill to a stroke which is what we want. Otherwise, you could get rid of the fill and add the stroke, but I like to use Shift + X. Then I’m just going to grab my Move tool (V), Right Click on this and say “make Guides.” So now we have a circular guide. You can create guides from any path—any shape, rather, that you create. Now I’m just going to grab all this and we’re just going to nudge this over until it fits pretty well within our circle guide. It’s not going to be perfect because it was hand-drawn, so it wasn’t exactly perfect when I drew it, but we’re going to fix that.

So that looks pretty good. It’s fitting pretty well in most places but where it’s not, we’re just going to come in and adjust that. So first of all, typically you don’t want to stretch letters because that’s going to make it look really bad, but when it’s hand-drawn, it’s a little bit rough and if you’re just doing it a tiny bit, you can get away with it. That doesn’t look bad at all. You can’t even really tell. You could stretch it a little bit… that goes too far. At this point, I would grab our Direct Select tool which you come over here and get from your Tools but the keyboard shortcut is A. We’re just going to draw a box around this and it’s only grabbing these points. So if we use our arrow keys, or we click and drag, we can bring those down within the circle composition.

Now over here, rather than stretching this E, we’re just going to do the same thing. A for our Direct Select tool, drag a selection… let’s go… we’re looking for a point here just where it’s mostly straight where we’re not going to have up a bunch of little anchor points bunched up. So select all of these—and I’m just going to use the arrow key to nudge that up until it fits pretty well with the circle. Now it doesn’t have to be perfect because we’re going to give this a little bit of a buffer from the actual edge of the coaster, but you want to get it pretty close. Now I’m noticing down here that the bottom part of this E is pretty thick, especially when you compare it to the K over here. So I’m just going to grab the Direct Select tool and we’re just going to select these points specifically and nudge them down a little bit. You can come in and get really detailed here—you see that slanting over. I’m going to grab these points… you can even really go as detailed as you want. I like to keep it pretty rough just so it feels natural. I’m going to hold shift to constrain proportions. As long as I keep it relatively small, these stretching or expanding transforms, then it won’t make it too thick and make it look abnormal.

So this “T”… notice that it’s not really going along with the circle right there. Rather than grab our Direct Select tool, which is only going to allow us to make a box—which we don’t want to grab these down here so that’s kind of difficult—if you hit Q it gives you this Lasso tool. You can grab these specific points right here and just drag those up a little bit. Not too bad. Same thing over here: let’s do that for this A. I’m going to grab the Lasso tool. Come down until it’s fitting pretty well. This part’s fitting pretty well, I just want to grab the parts that aren’t. That looks pretty decent.

Okay, so another thing I like to do is some of the bumps that may be a little bit unsightly or some artifacts from maybe pixelation in the Image Trace: I’ll grab my… what is it called? Delete Anchor Point, yeah. So the – key… I know all the keyboard shortcuts I don’t know the exact names. Minus key on your keyboard will grab that. Then you can just hover over any point and click it and it’ll get rid of it. That can come of smooth out some of these bumps. What you don’t want to do is if you have your Direct Select tool selected and you pick one of these points and you delete it now you just broke the path! These two points are not actually connected anymore and that’s bad. That’s going to create some problems later on so I’m going to Undo that.

What you want to do here is grab your Delete Anchor Point tool (-) and just click that. That’s going to be a lot better. So you you can get as detailed as you want here. Maybe introduce some natural roughness here just to cover that up. So I’ll just come through here and… You know, you don’t want to get rid of all the character, but maybe some things when you’re zoomed in close or you’re zoomed out far are a little bit distracting… like right here: it looks like this isn’t properly connecting to the “p”, so I’m just going to get rid of those so it doesn’t have a little bump. Then Shift + C is the Anchor Point Conversion tool. It converts a corner anchor point into something with bezier handles. So in this case, I drag out (which gives me handles) and then if I press… I’m still holding it, I’ve got my mouse clicked down… if I press and hold Space, it allows me to move this anchor point. So I’m just going to move it right here and just adjust this a little bit to make that look nice and natural. I’m going to bring this… now I’m starting to nit pick here. This is what happens.

Let’s go with that. That looks pretty good. Okay. Now I’m going to go to my Rulers (Command + R just like in Photoshop), and drag down the guide here just to the top of this “T”. Now notice this “C” doesn’t quite come up to that point, so we’re going to fix that. Let’s bring it up a little bit. This nice thing is it also fixed this issue where it was coming outside of the circle a little bit. The “A”… this could come down. We can cheat that by stretching it just a little bit. That’s a bit much on this part, so we’ll get our Lasso tool and just sneak it up a little bit. If you get bunched up anchor points by doing that just, again, grab your Delete Anchor Point tool and clean it up.

This is starting to look pretty good. At this point, if you’re happy with your composition and your lettering—it’s cleaned up, its straight, you have all the details in place—at this point, I would select all of this and we’re going to go ahead and copy it. Let’s make a new document. Command + N and we’re going to change the units to inches. This is the document that we’re going to send to the printer. We’re going to say, this is 4” x 4”—that’s the coaster we want to do. If your artwork has any bleed, you could set this to 0.125. That’s the typical bleed. Make sure it’s CMYK—or actually, we’re going to use Pantone so it probably doesn’t matter. Definitely 300ppi. It’s all vector, but if you had anything raster, definitely 300ppi.

So here we go. This is 4 inches. Now to get our guide, we’re going to grab our Ellipse tool, create a circle that is 4” x 4”, and with our Align window, put that in the center. Just right-click on this and select Make Guides. So this is 4 inches. Now if we paste—remember we have our lettering on the clipboard—if we paste that, it’s going to be huge. This was based on pixels before. Once we have all of this, it’s all pasted in here and selected, we’re going to use the Transform to make this the right size. So if we make this, let’s say 4 inches—I’m just going to type 4… notice that we have inches as the units… make sure that the constrained proportions link icon is checked otherwise it’ll make it 26 inches high and 4 wide. We don’t want to distort it. So make sure that’s checked. Hit Enter. That looks really nice. However, we don’t want our artwork to go to the very edge of the coaster—unless you do. If you have something with full bleed, like we have here—like I showed you—that’s fine.

In my case, I want a little bit of a buffer, some padding around there. So I’m actually going to do… let’s do 3.65 inches just to give it a little bit of extra room. I kind of like how that looks. If you want to get a better idea… let’s do this: we’re going to make another 4-inch circle, put that in the center, Eyedropper tool—make that white. Grab out Move tool, select this, Command + X will cut it, Command + A will select everything, now Command + B to paste that white circle behind (which you can’t see yet, but bear with).

M tool grabs the Rectangle. We’re just going to make a square. Go to our colors, make this a dark gray. We’re going to cut that (Command + X), then Command + A to select everything and Command + B to paste behind. I’m going to go ahead and lock that down within our layers so we don’t move it. Now you have a good example of what this is starting to look like. What actually I want to do here is copy this, paste in front with Command + F, and then transform that to the size of our composition:3.65 inches. Rick Click > Make Guides. So now we can see that this isn’t quite where we want it to be. Here’s an example of how to select everything that’s the same color. I want to select all of this but if I grab all of it with a selection like this, it’s going to move all of our circles. You don’t want to do that, so if you’ve got one item selected—one object selected—you come up to Select > Same Fill Color. Now we’ve got everything that’s black all selected and if you want to, you can come over to your Pathfinder and unite all of that.

That way, you can move it around all at once. Looking at the top here: just a little bit out of bounds… I think that looks pretty good. Maybe nudge it back up again. Let’s grab this circle. I’m going to lock that down so we don’t move that. There we go. That’s what we want. Now at this point if you wanted your artwork to be different colors (or different parts of it to be different colors), you could Ungroup it (Command + Shift + G) that’s going to allow you to select individual things. Now here’s what I would do: I would just grab my Move tool, select an entire word—all the pieces of this word—and then Unite it in the Pathfinder window. The same for this other stuff. I’m holding shift as I select. Make sure to get all of the pieces that you want and Unite that.

Now we have two individual shapes that we can move around and change the colors of. So you could come into your swatches and just set some simple colors here, but this is still not exactly what you’re going to see when something gets printed. Because the the colors on your monitor are very different from the colors that the printer uses and in order to tell the printer exactly what you want to use, I recommend using Pantone. If you don’t have a Pantone swatch book, definitely get it if you’re interested in doing a lot more printing because you can refer to a specific Pantone swatch and tell your printer the exact color that you want. There’s no room left for interpretation. It’s not, “Hey what do you think this looks like on the computer? What’s the closest Pantone?” There’s no guesswork. You have your book, they have their book, and it’s going to come out exactly like you want it to.

If you don’t have a Pantone book, what you can do is select this… actually, let’s select both. Come up to Edit > Edit Colors and we’re going to re-color with a preset. We’re going to do a 2 color job because it’s two colors. But you could use re-color artwork if it’s more.

Now the library we’re going to choose here from this drop-down is Pantone Solid Uncoated. That’s personally what I like to use. Maybe your printer suggests that you use coated—that’s going to make it a little more shiny. I like uncoated. So we’re just going to hit OK and that’s going to do its best job of guessing the closest Pantone to what you have. Notice it changed a little bit here but even what you see on the screen here isn’t going to be exactly like what comes out. But I just want to point out that if you double-click right here, now look at this: we get all of these Pantone options. Tons of them! Now for me personally, I was actually looking at my book before I started here. I kind of like 292 U for the lighter part and 293 U for the darker part. It still looks kind of weird on the computer but in the book, in my actual Pantone book, it looks kind of nice. So I don’t know. I would say if you really want to be serious, get a Pantone book. You might be able to guess a little bit but just realize that it’s not going to look exactly like this when you send it to the printer and they actually print it. But the nice thing is if you do re-color the artwork and over here in our Color panel you’ll notice that this says Pantone 294 U. Your printer’s going to see that.

When you send them this file they’re going to see that and they’re going to use that exact swatch. They’re going to refer to that exact swatch and mix their colors according to their book. So that’s something that’s really helpful when you send this off to a printer. No guesswork. It’s definitely worth the investment. Those books are cheap, but I would say definitely go ahead and get it. So just a reminder… hopefully found this interesting, I’ve got a lot more videos here at LearnLettering.com. There’s a lot of good stuff, so check it out: LearnLettering.com. Tons of courses, I think you’re going to get a lot out of it. I hope this video was helpful to you and be sure to subscribe!

This is a free lesson from the Learn Lettering Master Class (50 total lessons).

Learn Lettering


Lettering Process Photos