Taking your Sketch into Illustrator using the Tracing Tool

If you’ve been following along with the blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m a huge advocate for sketching your work before you even touch a computer. I recently received my BFA in Visual Communications with an emphasis in Graphic Design, so I have done my fair share of sketching. But what I wasn’t taught was how to use Illustrator’s tracing tool, something that has now saved me quite a bit of time AND improved the quality of my work. So if you’re curious about the feature, stick around. We’ll take a quick look at how to utilize one of Illustrator’s most powerful- but underused- tools. If you’d like to follow along, all you’ll need is a pen or pencil, sketch paper, a scanner or mobile phone camera, and Adobe Illustrator CC.


1- Sketch it Out

The first thing you’ll need to do is make a sketch of something. Make this whatever you want, but try tracing-01to resist the urge to do any major shading or 3D work. For this tutorial, we’re going to keep it simple. I like to hand-letter quite a bit, so I made a quick hand-lettering sketch featuring a quote from one of my favorite women in history, Eleanor Roosevelt. I started with pencil, then finalized the sketch with a fine felt-tip pen. You’ll notice that some of my kerning is off, but we’ll get to fix that in Illustrator so it doesn’t have to be perfect.



2- Photograph & Import

After you’ve finished your sketch, scan it or take a picture of it from a perfect ariel angle (this prevents distortion). Then, import your image into Illustrator (File > Place).


3- Trace!

You’ll see that my sketch is a bit messy. The beauty of Illustrator is that I can clean everything up digitally. To begin tracing your image and turn it into vectors, first change your Illustrator layout to “Tracing” (Window > Workspace > Tracing). This will give you all of the necessary tools in your workspace. Now we’ll start tracing!

– To begin, select the image that you sketched.Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.44.48 PM

– With the image selected, select Image Trace at the top of the screen.tracing2-03

– This will trace the image into black and white vectors. If you’d like to edit the tracing process, you can do so in the Image Trace box, located on the bottom right of your workspace.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.45.15 PM

– To make a more precise vector, I changed the Threshold slider to 110.

– Feel free to play with the settings until you are satisfied with the outcome.

– When you are satisfied with the way your vectors look, select “Expand” in the top ribbon. This created the vectors and paths so that you can edit them.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 2.45.02 PM

– Now that you’ve Expanded the image, you’ll need to un-group it. You can do that by Pressing Shift+CMD+G or selecting Object > Ungroup.

– After you’ve ungrouped the object, you can begin to select and discard the elements that you do not want to use.

– Now you’ll see that I have my quote separated into vectors and can easily move them around or change their color!


4- Make it Yours

This part of the process is for you to do anything you want with your new vectors! You can change their color, place them on a background, apply a stroke, whatever you’d like! As you can see, I tightened up the kerning and created a background behind the quote.

So there you have it, ladies and gents! Illustrator’s Tracing feature can be used on just about anything, and truly helps streamline the process from paper to pixel.

Savannah is a Graphic Design Professor at Gila Community College, and is passionate about using design to better the world around her. She believes in researched design, and is a major proponent of paper before pixel. In her spare time, she enjoys painting, designing for small businesses and non-profits, and attempting any DIY she finds on Pinterest.

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