Digitizing Hand-drawn Letters (A Tutorial)

Digitizing your hand lettering is a cool way to make your art versatile. There are many methods out there and a lot of it comes down to preference and personal style. This particular tutorial focuses on tracing the outlines of your sketches using the Pen Tool.


  1. Create a new document in Illustrator. If you’re working with a specific size document, you can either select a template or enter the dimensions manually. For this tutorial I’m using a landscape letter size because I prefer a wider working space.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-10-57-10-am
  2. Start with a sketch. The more detailed the drawing, the easier it will be to make design decisions when working on the computer. But it’s all a matter of preference and personal work flow. Place the photo or scan of the sketch in the document by pressing (Shift) + (Command) + (P). Select your image and hit Place. Click and drag to size your image. screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-11-58-14-am
  3. With the image selected, change the opacity to 50%.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-12-14-39-pm
  4. Open the Layers window on the right, double click where it says “Layer 1”, and rename it “Sketch.”screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-11-59-53-am
  5. Now click on the small square in the bottom corner that has a folded corner to create a new layer. Label this one “digital drawing.”screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-12-06-09-pm
  6. Select the layer titled “Sketch,” and then click just to the right of the eye. A small padlock should appear. The sketch is now locked in place so you can work without it moving. Make sure to re-select the layer labeled “digital drawing” before continuing to work.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-12-08-33-pm
  7. Select a bright color for drawing with in the color window, and zoom into the section where you want to start by pressing (Command) + (Plus). Usually I would treat cursive letterforms as one shape, but for the purpose of this tutorial I will be focusing on the E.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-12-18-01-pm
  8. Open the Pen Tool by pressing (P). Remember to only place points where there is a change in direction, not on the curves themselves.
  9. Choose a starting point on your letterform and begin to work your way around to get the general shape of your letter, ignoring open counters. If you are not familiar with how to use the Pen Tool you may find it helpful to practice on this website or have this shortcut list at hand.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-15-14-pm
  10. There are several ways to do this. I am choosing to focus only on placing the points and not worry about making curves the first time ar0und. The more you get used to the Pen Tool, the easier it will be to place these points. screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-16-53-pm
  11. The second time around, using the Convert Anchor Point Tool (Shift-C), you can begin to form the shape of the letter by clicking on the lines and dragging them into curves.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-20-18-pm
  12. Still using the Convert Anchor Point Tool, begin manipulating individual points by dragging the handles.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-21-27-pm
  13. One of the problems with this method is uneven curves that result from unlocked handles. To fix this, simply click on the anchor point you wish to smooth and drag.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-21-27-pm
  14. To move a point to a new position use the Direct Selection Tool (A). You may also need to add or remove points which you can do with the Add Anchor Point Tool (+) and the Delete Anchor Point tool (-).screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-38-47-pm
  15. Now we return to the counters. Repeat the process focusing on these smaller shapes and working in another color with the opacity turned down.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-44-42-pm
  16. Once you’re satisfied with the shape of the letter and the counters, press (v) to go back to the selection tool and select all of the objects.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-51-49-pm
  17. In the Pathfinder window click Exclude Overlapping Shape Areas button.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-1-52-04-pm
  18. You now have your first letter! Continue for the rest of the letters. Once you’re finished you can group them together and adjust size, color, texture or more.screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-2-03-06-pm

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