How to vectorize your lettering with the pen tool


I tried to figure out the process of vectorizing lettering with the pen tool so many times. I watched process videos, online classes, but it all came down to figuring out the minute stuff on my own. In this post, I want to share all that stuff with you so you can get better with the pen tool faster, and to lower a little bit of that pen tool frustration when just starting out. I will not be covering the pen tool itself in this post but if you need a refresher, check out this post.

Vectorizing lettering process

Let’s start at the very beginning with sketching out your idea.

I usually just sketch my ideas on a piece of paper that is closest to me. Post-it note, a regular notebook for scribbles and notes, plain paper, anything I can get my hands on. This doesn’t have to be fancy or accurate, this is just to get the idea down on the paper so it doesn’t go away.


Refining the sketch

At this stage you already have a pretty good idea of what you want to do, you just need to refine it. If I’m pressed for time I will use iPad for this stage, but if I have a little more time I would go and take my sketchbook out and start drawing lightly, adding details as I go. Your sketch really doesn’t have to be perfect. All that matters is that the piece is balanced and that you have a rough idea on how you want it to look like. 

Scanning or taking a picture 

When you are done refining, you need to get that sketch to your computer. If you used iPad you can just save the artwork as an image, and send it to your computer. If you used a sketchbook, a photo will be enough, and since we are tracing with the pen tool, the quality of the picture doesn’t matter. You don’t have to make any other adjustments to the image. Just be careful to take a picture as level as possible so it’s straight. 

Bonjour Refined Sketch

Vectorization process

You are about to start the vectorizing process! You can use any software you have that has a pen tool. I am using Affinity Designer, but you can go ahead and use anything that has a pen tool…Inkscape, Adobe Illustrator etc. I recorded the entire process for my “Bonjour” piece and made a 20-minute time-lapse video so you can see this entire process at work.  

Step 1

Set up the file – open up a new file and since we will be working with vectors, the size of the document doesn’t really matter but if you already know what size it should be, that is the size you should use. 

Step 2

Add the image – place the image on the first layer. You do not have to do any processing of your image. This step is only important if you would do a live trace but since we are using the pen tool we can skip that. 

Step 3

Adjust the opacity of the image – lower the opacity of the entire first layer to a point where you can still see it but it doesn’t bother you when working. When you are happy, lock that layer so you don’t accidentally move it.

Step 4

Draw your guides – Now you can draw out your guides on your second layer. For the guides, I also use the pen tool or shapes if needed, depending on the artwork. The important thing is that you have some measure in there to make sure that everything is approximately aligned. That doesn’t mean that you have to adhere to it like crazy. What you see is more important and if something seems off even though it’s aligned, change it. You can read about this in more detail in this post. When you have your guides drawn just lock that layer and add one more on top. 


Now it’s finally time to start working! 

Step 5

Rough trace – Go over the lettering with the pen tool keeping in mind the point placement only. If this is the first time you are doing this post can help you get started on the point placement. Keep each letter separate so you can move and adjust the spacing later. 

Step 6

Refining – Go over the entire piece and try your best to make the curves look nice. This will take some time depending on the complexity of your piece, but go slowly and make a lot of little breaks. Sometimes you see things better after you step away for a bit. 

Things to check if something doesn’t look good: 

• check if the point is in the right place (is it on the horizontal or vertical extrema?) 

• check if there are handles that are out of wack – they should never cross each other or be too long

• check the angle of the handles – they should always be at a right angle (except the diagonal or some corner ones) 

• are the thicks and thins in the right places?

• are the proportions of all the letters the same relative to the height and weight? 

• if you are working with letters on a slant, is the slant the same for all letters? (sometimes not mathematically but optically), 

• are there any points missing? (between two horizontal or two vertical points there should be a connecting point that is on approximately 45 angles) 

Additional Tips: 

• change between black and white background while you work – changing the contrast often helps in seeing some problem areas and keeps your eyes fresh

• keep navigator open so you can see the lettering in a small size at all times – it helps to have a wider view of the work so you can see the balance better or if something is standing out as wrong

• rest often! 

• duplicate layers when you are not sure about the changes so you can always go back to the previous step. That way you won’t be scared of experimenting and trying out different solutions. 

Step 7

Check spacing – now that you are happy with your traced lettering check if the spacing between the letters needs work. You can adjust the spacing while you refine as well, but to make it less overwhelming I kept this as a separate step. 

Tips on spacing:

• concentrate on three letters at a time

• squint your eyes or blur the word – sometimes that helps in seeing huge gaps or other problem areas

• turn the lettering upside down – when your mind can‘t read what it says it can concentrate better on the positive and negatives spaces. 

Step 8

Embellishments and experimentation – when you have the main lettering done and you are happy with it, you can go ahead and add embellishments, colors, textures or 3d effects. NOT BEFORE! You will make your life unnecessarily complicated if you start adding those things right away. Keep it clean and black and white until you are happy and then let the fun start! 

I would love to see how your vectorizing process is going and if you found this post helpful! Comment below or tag me on Instagram @lepunktnoir

Bonjour Final Artwork
bonjour mug mockup

(2) Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your process with us in such details! It’s always useful to see how other designers create their work and to learn from them. This was very enlightening <3

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