Welcome to Lesson 6 of Lettering Studio! ? I hope you’re having fun with your new lettering skills and have made some awesome lettering pieces using the techniques we’ve covered thus far.
In Lesson 5 I walked you through one of the quickest ways to turn your traditional brush lettering into a digital piece, and we got some really cool results. What we’re going to cover today isn’t as fast or simple (sorry! ?), however, it gives much greater levels of control and output options.
We’re going to explore the Pen Tool *cue ominous music*
Before we get into some exercises though, we need to understand the fundamental difference between Photoshop and Illustrator.
Photoshop images are entirely raster/bitmap-based. This means each image is made up of tiny squares of determined sizes, called pixels. This is why an image gets blurry if you zoom in too far – you’ve zoomed in enough times that you can see the squares (pixels) that make up the image.
It’s like you’re looking at a collage or a mosaic from a great distance. From afar you see a complete image, but up close you can see it’s made from lots of tiny coloured squares. This makes it perfect for photos, illustrations, graphics, and anything that looks photo-realistic, as every pixel can carry slightly different colour data, meaning you get a huge range of colours in your image.
The downside is that you have a limited size for the image – zoom in too far and it gets blurry and jagged!
Instead of using bitmap images made up of pixels, Illustrator images are based on something called vectors. Vectors use mathematical constructs to plot and create their images (maths? In art and design? Who knew, right?!) – so a line is composed of a starting point, an ending point, and an algorithm that defines the line in between. Illustrator is interpreting mathematical instructions to construct the image, rather than ‘painting’ it with pixels.
This has a huge advantage; vector images can be ANY size without losing their clarity! Because your image is made up of an algorithm, and not pixels carrying colour data, Illustrator will just render the image based on the same algorithm whether you’re zoomed out incredibly far, or magnified in as close as you can possibly go.
However, because you plot each path and colour individually in vector graphics, you’re working with more limited colours than Photoshop. So vector graphics are more suited for logos, type, flat illustrations, and…lettering work!
To make these vector lines, we’re going to be using the bread and butter of Illustrator and vectors – the Pen Tool.
The pen tool works by plotting points and then manipulating the line between them. That’s all there is to it! But it’s getting that line to behave the way we want it to that’s the challenge.
Note: The Pen Tool, Illustrator, and vector graphics comprises a huge field of design, much greater than we can explore in this lesson alone, so I’m going to walk you through the basic concepts today and see if we can apply them to a single letter. I’d like to extend this course into a full module exploring just vectors and Illustrator, so hopefully we can go into more depth in the future!
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To start, I’ve opened illustrator, have set up a blank new document, and have selected the Pen Tool (either click the Pen Tool icon in the left menu, or press ‘P’ on your keyboard:
Let’s see how this little guy behaves! With your Pen Tool selected, click anywhere on your canvas, and then move your mouse. You’ll notice a trailing line! Wherever you click next will be your ending point for this section of your line. However, instead of clicking, click and hold, and move your cursor while continuing to hold down.
Ah-ha! We’re now seeing our line bend! This is how you manipulate and control the line between your two points, and it’s how we’re going to build our lettering works using vector shapes!
Let’s go ahead and create a shape by plotting a few points, and then connecting our last point with our first point. It doesn’t matter what type of shape we make, we just want to see how we can change the colour once we have a finished shape. Check it out here:
Woohoo! We’ve made a blob! Okay, see those two coloured squares on the left-hand side of your screen? With your new blob selected click on the filled-in square and choose a colour. You’ve just coloured in your new vector shape!
We don’t actually want an outline here, just the filled-in colour you’ve just made, so to remove the outline click once on the other coloured square (the one without a coloured centre) and click the tiny white square with a red line going through it below. This will tell Illustrator you don’t want any outline on this shape.
And that’s it! You have a coloured blob! ? This might not seem like much, but it’s the entire theory behind us vectorising our lettering.
Nice job! There’s one final thing we need to know about how these paths behave before we move on to vectorising a letter.
You see those little arms that appear on either side of a point when you click and hold? Those are called anchor points, and the way they point determines how your new line is going to look.
The number 1 secret to creating natural, smooth, professional looking vector letters is to make sure these anchor points are either horizontal, vertical, or at exactly a 45-degree angle. If your anchor points point in other directions your piece will lose its cohesive look and start to look like it’s missing that natural element.
The good news is there’s an easy way to make sure your anchor points stay horizontal, vertical or 45-degrees! Just hold the ‘shift’ key as you click and hold, and you’ll only be able to move the anchor points to one of these three orientations!
Here’s what I mean. Also, don’t stress if you’re a bit fuzzy on this part right now, it will make sense once we move on to the next section and start vectorising a letter ?
If you’d like to read more about anchor points check out the Adobe help article here.
I know we’ve just covered a huge amount of info, so make sure you re-read it and ask any questions in the comments below, but you’re probably wondering how this all relates to lettering!
So! Let’s use everything we now know about using the Pen Tool to create a vector version of the letter ‘n’!
I’ve already drawn and taken a photo of the letter ‘n’, so I’m going to click File > Place, and select the photo on my computer. Click and drag to tell Illustrator where you’d like to place the image, and you’re good to go!
I’m also going to turn off my fill colour temporarily, as it’s going to get in the way until we’ve finished drawing our shapes.
Turning a hand lettered piece into vector art is basically just tracing! We’re going to build a vector shape, using what we’ve learned about the Pen Tool and anchor points, by tracing what we’ve drawn with our brush pens.
Sounds much more doable now, right? Let’s get to it!
The general rule with this tracing is to use as few points as possible! The more points, the less smooth our vector image will look, and we want a nice, smooth, natural looking shape.
So! The rule is: only place points on the extremities of your shape. What does that mean? Imagine you drew a square around your letter, with the edges of the square touching the edges of the letter. Where they touch is where you place your points! These are the furthest-reaching extremities of your letter ?
We’re actually going to treat each stroke of the letter ‘n’ as an individual shape, rather that draw the whole letter in one go. This lets us have much greater control over the letter, simplifies the shapes we create, and means we can tweak the letter once it’s finished ?
Let’s start! With your Pen Tool selected, click and drag to create your first point whilst holding ‘shift‘ to ensure your anchor points stay vertical, placing it on the outermost extremity of the first stroke of your letter. Extend the line upwards and place your second point on a 45-degree angle at the top of this first stroke.
Clicking and dragging allows you to adjust where your line is placed, so make sure you drag as much or as little is needed to trace as closely as you can!
Note: I’ve made my path line bright red so that you can see it clearly, but there’s no need for you to do this.
Don’t worry if your new shape isn’t matching up exactly to the letter you’ve drawn – I’ll show you how to tweak this once we’ve completed our first shape. Continue placing points until you’ve closed the shape and created your first vectorised stroke.
You may be worried about knowing whether to use a vertical, horizontal, or 45-degree anchor point. Unfortunately, knowing this really just comes with practice.
The easiest thing to do if unsure is try each and see which one results in the most natural looking shape. Remember, this is art, and rules are made to be broken!
Now I’m sure you can see a glaring problem here. The right-hand side of my shape doesn’t match my letter! That’s totally fine, it will happen during almost every letter you trace. I’ll walk you through how to fix it now.
Because we’re working with vector shapes, we can tweak and change each shape even after we’ve created it. We use the Direct Selection Tool for this. You’ll find it in the top of the left-hand menu bar (it’s the white, filled-in arrow), or by pressing ‘A’ on your keyboard.
Once you’ve selected the Direct Selection Tool click on the point nearest to the out of place line and you’ll see its anchor points appear. Perfect! Now we just do what we’ve been doing this whole time; hold ‘shift‘ and drag the anchor point out until the shape looks the way it should. Sorted ?
The last thing to do is to double-click on the coloured square (the one with the filled in centre remember!) to fill your new shape with colour, just like you did with your blob.
Good news! That’s the whole theory behind vectorising your lettering! You now know enough to complete the rest of the letter ‘n’!
Treat each stroke as a separate shape, including the thin upstroke, and use what you’ve just learnt to trace, sticking to horizontal, vertical, and 45-degree angles by holding your shift key.
If you can’t see the outermost extremity of a certain part of a letter (e.g. the thin upstroke’s edges are hidden behind the downstroke) use your best judgement and place your points where the edges would be if you could see them.
Here’s my finished ‘n’, showing first the 4 different shapes it’s made up of…
…and the filled-in final ‘n’:
Now, with the Selection tool active (the filled-in black arrow in the left-hand toolbar, or pressing ‘V’ on your keyboard) click your background photo, press the delete key, and you’re left with a lovely smooooth letter ‘n’! Woohoo!
This technique requires practice, it can get quite fiddly, so make sure you invest the time into experimenting and playing with these exercises!
Once you feel comfortable vectorising single letters move on to complete words – the technique is exactly the same! Here’s an example:
PHEW! Get yourself a cup of tea after that! That was a HUGE lesson! Your homework is to re-read this until you feel comfortable with the concepts, and then practice practice practice! Let me know how you go in the comments below ?
I’ll be seeing you in two days for your final lesson!