How to digitize hand lettering with the pen tool in Illustrator

I've published a few hand lettering tutorials lately, and while my favorite is still using Image Trace in Illustrator, using the pen tool is a close second.

pen-tool-title.jpg

By using the pen tool, you can create polished lettering pieces that can be translated into logos or can be blown up to any size imaginable

without losing quality. A "polished piece" means crisp edges, sharp corners, and uniform thicks and thins. It means parallel lines, regulated sizes. Working with the pen tool can create a variety of effects, some of which look more hand drawn than others, but usually the level of perfection is much higher when using this technique.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how I use the pen tool in Illustrator to digitize hand lettering projects and take a quick doodle to a finished piece:

Original pen and paper sketch with Tombow markers to turn into digital hand lettering vector - How to Digitize Hand Lettering with the Pen Tool in Illustrator on HelloBrio.com
Original pen and paper sketch with Tombow markers to turn into digital hand lettering vector - How to Digitize Hand Lettering with the Pen Tool in Illustrator on HelloBrio.com

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Final Hand Lettering Piece in Illustrator with Pen Tool - Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Final Hand Lettering Piece in Illustrator with Pen Tool - Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

A Quick Demo

A while back, I published this video to show how I use the pen tool in Illustrator, but super sped up.

While it's a very quick video (I think it's at 20x speed), it can be helpful to watch before and after reading this tutorial, as some of the things you're seeing will make more sense after you read the logic and methods in this post.

You can see how using the pen tool captures the essence of the hand lettering project but adds more polish and allows for you to push and pull the lines as you please, and you can play with color (and other effects, which I’ll get to in another post).

Demonstration of hand lettering digitized by using the Pen Tool in Illustrator - Lettering design tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Demonstration of hand lettering digitized by using the Pen Tool in Illustrator - Lettering design tutorial on HelloBrio.com

Step 1: Import Your Photo

Take a photo of your hand lettering piece that you wish to digitize. It doesn't have to be a great picture; it can just be taken with your smartphone and imported into Illustrator.

I've created a new document at 800x600px so it's Dribbble-friendly.

When you Place your image in Illustrator, go to File > Place… and make sure to uncheck the Link button so that the image gets embedded in your AI document. This makes it so your AI file can stand alone and you can delete or move the original photo without losing the link.

Uncheck the Link option when Placing your Image into Illustrator so the AI file stands alone - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Uncheck the Link option when Placing your Image into Illustrator so the AI file stands alone - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

If you need to doctor it up in Photoshop so it's easier to see, use Steps 1 and 2 from this post.

Once your drawing is in Illustrator and is positioned and sized to your liking, set the photo to Template so it locks in the background and fades it out a little, so you'll be able to see your drawing on top of your photo more clearly. Do this by selecting the layer in the Layer Panel, then choose Template from the drop-down menu.

Set your drawing to Template mode so the layer locks and fades - Hand Lettering Tutorial in Illustrator on HelloBrio.com
Set your drawing to Template mode so the layer locks and fades - Hand Lettering Tutorial in Illustrator on HelloBrio.com

Step 2: Think About Your Project Before You Begin Tracing with the Pen Tool

There are two main tips with using the pen tool to trace your lettering:

  1. Only use an anchor point at the topmost, rightmost, leftmost, and bottommost points of any curve.
  2. Only use horizontal and vertical handles.

You can see this method in another project I worked on in Dribbble.

Minimal anchor points and horizontal and vertical handles only - How to digitize hand lettering with the Pen Tool in Illustrator - Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Minimal anchor points and horizontal and vertical handles only - How to digitize hand lettering with the Pen Tool in Illustrator - Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

Take a look at your word and see where the natural break points are.

You may end up with a better result if you draw a letter in two or more pieces. These natural break points usually occur where you would pick up your pen when working on paper.

For example with the B, I will break it up into four parts: the main stem, the two bowls, and the ear.

Look at your lettering project and figure out where the natural breakpoints are. These will each be separate objects when tracing with the Pen Tool in Illustrator - Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Look at your lettering project and figure out where the natural breakpoints are. These will each be separate objects when tracing with the Pen Tool in Illustrator - Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

Step 3: Trace the Outlines of Your Letters with the Pen Tool

Choose a bright stroke color and set the fill color to transparent, so it's easier for you to see the edges of the original work. (Make sure to add a new layer on top of your Template layer so you can draw.)

Trace one section at a time. When you click to place an anchor point, hold down shift to drag out the handles at perfect horizontal or vertical angles. Don't worry too much about perfecting your handles as you go; you can fix them after you have the entire shape drawn and the loop is closed.

(To prove to you how you don't have to worry about handles right off the bat, here's my first stab at the B before fixing the handles)

Get your anchor points in place first at the topmost, bottommost, leftmost and rightmost points of each shape, then you can fix your handles later - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Get your anchor points in place first at the topmost, bottommost, leftmost and rightmost points of each shape, then you can fix your handles later - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

After you've drawn each letter, pause to adjust the handles with the Direct Selection Tool (A).

Now it's looking a little better. (Remember to hold down shift so your handles stay perpendicular.)

Continue tracing the borders of each letter following the anchor and handle rules until you're finished.

All letters traced using Pen Tool in Illustrator - HelloBrio.com
All letters traced using Pen Tool in Illustrator - HelloBrio.com

Step 4: Solid Fill and Adjust Your Letters

Now you can change your drawing to a solid fill and hide the background so you can see your work by itself.

I recommend setting the fill to black, stroke to transparent so you can see your work in a clean environment after you've hidden your Template layer.

Seeing your lettering in black and white allows you to see where you need to fix mistakes - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Seeing your lettering in black and white allows you to see where you need to fix mistakes - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

There are quite a few things here that I'm going to fix.

Once you switch to fill color, you can start to see the mistakes you need to fix - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Once you switch to fill color, you can start to see the mistakes you need to fix - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

Most of these fixes are just adjusting the anchor placement or handlebars.

For the punch outs needed on the R and the O, simply draw the desired punch out with the pen tool on top of your layer. Then, with the Selection Tool (V) select both the letter and the punch out.

Creating punch outs in Illustrator using Minus Front in the Pathfinder window - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Creating punch outs in Illustrator using Minus Front in the Pathfinder window - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

From there, open the Pathfinder window from the Window menu, and then select the Minus Front button. The punch out will disappear, leaving you with your loop that you can edit further by tweaking the handles and anchor points.

Use the Minus Front tool in the Pathfinder Window Menu in Illustrator to create cut outs in objects - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Use the Minus Front tool in the Pathfinder Window Menu in Illustrator to create cut outs in objects - Hand Lettering Tutorial on HelloBrio.com

Step 5: Keep Playing Until You're Content

As you'll quickly find out, playing with the handles and anchor points can turn into an obsessive game of push and pull. But the more you practice, the faster you'll get.

Here's a final look at the adjustments made between Step 3 and Step 4. Not the most drastic change I've experienced but still different.

Changes made between hand lettering editing in Illustrator with Pen Tool - Hand Lettering tutorial on HelloBrio.com
Changes made between hand lettering editing in Illustrator with Pen Tool - Hand Lettering tutorial on HelloBrio.com

You're Done!

Paper to Digital Hand Lettering Design with the Pen tool in Illustrator
Paper to Digital Hand Lettering Design with the Pen tool in Illustrator

Thanks for reading! Comment below with any questions.

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