Turning sketches into vector art with Illustrator’s pen tool

Sketching is convenient. You can do it anywhere, at any time… which is great for designers “ah ha!” moments. Not only is it convenient, it’s an extremely important and beneficial stage of the design process.

Okay, sketching… got it! But what do you do once you’ve created a solid drawing?

One of the most important, basic tools in the Adobe suite is the pen tool. By using the pen tool (and maybe some color fills), you can create a solid design.

Check out this video tutorial on how to create vector art using Illustrator’s pen tool. You can also find a step-by-step guide written below.

The brainstorming stage

Often times, your initial concepts are obvious ones — so don’t settle for the first ideas. Explore them!

Brainstorming Thumbnails

You might be thinking, “But I can’t draw!” Learning to draw is like learning any other skill — it takes time and practice. If you are really serious about learning to draw then take a few classes because the key is to practice, practice, PRACTICE.

Regardless of your skills, you should not skip the brainstorming stage. The first step is to get your ideas flowing by sketching dozens of thumbnails even if only you understand them. This stage should be relaxing and fun. So just let go and draw whatever comes to your mind no matter how “out of the box” it might seem.

Brainstorming can also include writing out a list of words that relate to the client’s industry. Again, write down any word regardless of how irrelevant it might seem.

Brainstorming List

Finalizing the sketch

When you have chosen a concept start sketching it loosely. You want to draw exaggerated characteristics of the images because it will create a more original design. Get a feel for the composition as a whole by getting a few basic shapes down. Don’t worry about how it looks:

Rough sketch

Once you have a pretty loose composition, it’s time to add or take out details. If it’s a logo sketch then take out unnecessary elements — really try to make it readable if it’s scaled down.

If your illustration needs details then the sketching stage is when you should add it. It’s easier to add detail in this stage than the vector stage. If a section of your drawing looks wrong, rework it on a separate sheet of paper until you get it right.

Detailed Sketch

Once you have a pretty tight sketch — scan your composition into the computer. Your drawing should be scanned at 300 dpi (dots per inch) or higher because you will need to zoom closely to the image while you vectorize it.

Turn your sketch into vector art

I will use Adobe Illustrator to demonstrate how to create vector lines using the pen tool.

In this example, I will use the sketch of the penguin graphic for Yummie’s Ice Cream. First, open and name a new document… then click File > Place to place the 300 dpi scanned image into Illustrator.

Everyone works differently and you will discover what works the best for you. Personally, I like to work with layers. I will place my penguin drawing on the bottom layer and LOCK it so it can’t move while I work. I will add a new top layer for the vector lines that will be created using the pen tool.

Illustrator

During this stage, keep in mind the weight of each line. The more weight variations the vector lines include, the more character your final product will have. Make lines thicker when you want an object to look closer to the viewer and thinner to make them look further away. For example, if your background incorporates trees and hills they should have thinner lines.

For this particular logo, I am going to keep the lines simple.

Pen tool in Illustrator

The pen tool is one of the most commonly used drawing tools in Illustrator. Learning to use this tool effectively (or a similar one in your program) can really benefit your designs.

Determine your starting point then click with the pen tool to start your line path. If you want to create a straight line then click to create the second point. If you need to curve your line then click to create the second point AND drag to create Bezier curves — smooth curves that can be scaled indefinitely.

You will notice Bezier handles are shown on both sides of the point. You can move the handles to adjust the curve’s shape and direction.

Bezier Handle

Before you continue, remove the Bezier handle so your next path is straight. Press SHIFT then click on the point to remove the Bezier handle.

Remove Bezier Handle

Move on to your next point. Again, press SHIFT then click to remove the Bezier handle.

Pen Tool

You want to use as few points as possible in your design. If you need to add or delete a point, you can change the pen tool by clicking down on the pen tool icon. You will be given the option of changing to the ADD or DELETE Anchor Point Tool.

As you continue to outline the rest of your graphic use black and white. Remember, if your design looks good in black and white it will look even better in color.

Vectorizing

Vector programs are great because there are numerous design tools that can really push your drawings. The pen tool is just one of the many great tools design programs, like Illustrator, have. It is important to learn your design programs as effectively as possible so that you can bring your sketches to life. Play around with the color fills and gradients.

The best part of combining the loose lines of a sketch with the polished lines of vector art is the final result — a truly unique design.

Yummie's Ice Cream

Have any tips or questions about the pen tool? Don’t hesistate to ask.

Related Articles:
10 habits to help you master graphic design
Design an End Of The World poster using Photoshop and Illustrator
Create a cartoon character using Adobe Illustrator
9 reasons clients don’t want to work with you (and what to do about it)

Based in San Francisco, Allison (Alli) Stuart works as Community Manager at 99designs. When she's not writing blogs and communicating with designers, she is working on her Children's Book. She also enjoys extreme sports, like sky diving and traveling to new places. Alli has a Fine Arts Degree with a concentration in Graphic Design from Louisiana State University, her home. Geaux Tigers!
Allison Stuart
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52 Comments

  1. pegatinas

    Wow, really nice. I wish I could freehand draw. :-) I have always wanted to know how they did this. Thanks for the article.

    Reply September 21, 2011 at 6:19 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      You’re welcome Pegatinas and you CAN freehand draw! Like I stated in my post… it just takes practice, practice, and more practice.

      I look forward to seeing your drawings ;)

      Alli

      Reply September 21, 2011 at 9:54 pm
  2. Syed Maaz

    thanks this one is really helpful and its works :)

    Reply September 21, 2011 at 6:40 pm
  3. aiman j

    thanks a lot i really really love your posts and i think this one is the best , very essential stuff and well explained ……. great job Alli ……………Time to Sketch :)

    Reply September 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      Hi Aiman,

      Thanks for the feedback… I am glad that you enjoy my post — they are here to help as well as inspire.

      I am double glad that it motivated you to go sketch ;) If only we could all get the Inkling Pen from Wacom.

      Cheers,

      Alli

      Reply September 21, 2011 at 9:52 pm
      • Deepesh

        Inkling Pen from Wacom sure is the thing I’m saving up for.

        Reply September 23, 2011 at 11:16 am
  4. red creative

    good tips and yes i think sketch is the important part in brainstorming

    Reply September 21, 2011 at 8:22 pm
  5. Twenty Nine

    This is a very very very very very very useful article! Super!!
    Thanks a lot! :D

    Reply September 22, 2011 at 12:24 am
  6. jaa

    thats good

    Reply September 22, 2011 at 3:09 am
  7. bigpenguin

    great ..thisis what im looking for ..thanks

    Reply September 22, 2011 at 6:54 am
  8. gembel

    wacom intuos4 is the answer

    Reply September 23, 2011 at 4:51 am
    • Twenty Nine

      Wacom Inkling Pen is quite enough

      Reply September 23, 2011 at 10:14 am
  9. Sachin c.v

    Looking for good perfection and very nice to see

    Reply September 23, 2011 at 5:50 am
  10. EatPrayLove

    This article is very helpful. Thank you so much.

    Reply September 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm
  11. johnny

    great article! the only thing is that i can draw better than i can work on the computer… but i am trying to get them in balance…:D

    Reply September 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      Learning design programs is similar to learning to draw… it just takes practice and MANY tutorials. If you can draw then you are off to a great start. Good luck, Johnny! :)

      Reply September 26, 2011 at 2:08 pm
  12. andre

    nice, very helpful for a newbie

    Reply September 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm
  13. tommi lamanepa

    very good tutorial thanks for sharing

    Reply September 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm
    • Allison Stuart

      Glad you enjoyed! You’re welcome :)

      Reply September 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm
  14. Maciej @ 36creative

    Whenver you can render a company logo from a handheld sketch it really is a beautiful thing. So many designers these days do not remember what a piece of paper and a pencil even look like.

    Reply September 26, 2011 at 11:27 am
    • Allison Stuart

      I agree! Hopefully we can set good examples that make them realize the benefits of sketching.

      Cheers,

      Alli

      Reply September 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm
  15. Nasim Howlader

    very good tutorial thanks for It.

    Reply September 28, 2011 at 1:10 am
  16. Lee

    Great tut, I have been working with Photoshop Cs5 & have mastered how it works, But now its time to master Illustrator cs5 it seems like it is easy to find tons of videos on youtube for Ps but i can’t seem to find any great ones on Illustrator, Do you think you can help me out with this, Like some kind of site the breaks it down for beginners?? This would help me out so much & I thank you for life..lOl. Once I get this Illustrator cs5 down I will be on my way I did pay good $$$ for it so I would like to use it, Thanks so much for your time & help! Have a great day!!!

    Reply September 28, 2011 at 8:54 pm
  17. amila

    nice article. hmm would you like to teach me drawing? hehe.

    Reply December 2, 2011 at 8:42 pm
  18. Antoniv

    Ms. Allison, can you share more tutorials that are free. I can’t afford payments. I don’t have dollars or any accounts.Thank you so much. Your words are very helpful,A LOT!

    Cheers,

    ant0niv:)

    Reply December 9, 2011 at 6:29 am
    • Allison Stuart

      Hi Antoniv,

      YES… I definitely will! Feel free to give me any specific requests on what you’d like to learn as well :)

      Reply December 9, 2011 at 9:57 am
  19. Dean-Michael

    This is an excellent article Allison. You have truly inspired me to practice drawing and start to come up with creative designs. It’s hard to make a name for yourself here in Jamaica and the world at large, but you have given me hope.

    Reply December 29, 2011 at 9:17 am
  20. yusida

    Got it, . . I have learn much from this article. .
    thanks

    Reply December 30, 2011 at 6:19 pm
  21. Juan Bertolami

    Yeah! Excellent piece, continue to keep up the terrific work.

    Reply January 24, 2012 at 7:08 pm
  22. Kyle

    Thank you so much for this! I generally design flyers/invitations for clients in Photoshop, but have always wanted to make the jump into logo design and the like.

    I’ve also been looking into the bamboo tablet. Which would you recommend as far as starting a logo from scratch to finished product? I heard that some tablets have a window where you slip in your paper and trace it into Illustrator, etc.

    Reply November 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm
  23. hendra

    Thanks to share this post Ali, so really help to learn adobe illustrator

    Reply January 19, 2013 at 12:43 am
  24. empireplush

    Dear Allison, it is a very useful article from many point of view. It gives more freedom in drawing. Similarly to other people I thought I didn’t have a REAL freehand graphic vein, but you gave us faith it can be learnt. Thanks for the great tutorial article!

    Reply January 19, 2013 at 2:46 am
  25. Toni

    This is an awesome tutorial. :) Very hepful

    Reply January 19, 2013 at 7:21 am
  26. amine elgrifti

    thank you for this tutorial :)

    Reply January 20, 2013 at 3:55 am
  27. banger

    fine

    Reply January 21, 2013 at 6:49 am
  28. banger

    really it is right tutorial

    Reply January 21, 2013 at 6:51 am
  29. Michael

    Hey Alli,

    Thanks for the tutorial. I’m so afraid of Illustrator that I almost never use it, but this tutorial is going to help me with one of the projects I have – thanks!

    Reply January 21, 2013 at 8:54 am
  30. tinker22

    I live in the midwest in a small market, and because I’m unwilling to move.I’ve some what given up on a design career, so I can provide for my family. I’ve had many industrial jobs, graduated with an assiciates in, 2006. 99 designs looks like a great outlet for my creative side. I don’t know what the best place to buy even an older version of Illustrator (10), or what a fair price is. I did have a pirated version (please don’t hang me) I used for personal, or nonprofite, friends, family designs. Any Ideas? Thanks for listening to my life story, just wanted for you to see my angle (perspective)

    Reply January 21, 2013 at 1:25 pm
  31. udarapagi

    I love this tutorial. thanks Allison S.

    Reply January 22, 2013 at 6:17 pm
  32. Kiernan Holland

    There are many different ways of drawing, no one way is the correct way, each individual is unique, so their method will be different.. Those who think they can’t draw, do it in the computer, and use undo until it satisfies yoru eye.. Or do like Van Gogh and see how few lines you can draw to get the concept of a man reading a news paper in a cafe. I think he did it in 15 lines..

    Reply January 23, 2013 at 12:43 am
  33. Colleen Lanchester-Raynie (poppins)

    Very cool. This is what I’m doing already. So wonderful to know that I’m actually doing it right! LOL

    Reply January 24, 2013 at 9:32 pm
  34. Stamen

    Nice tutorial, thank you!
    I made the exact same logo for practice and I did well except that I don’t have the font for the text ;)
    Can I ask you when I’m done in what format should I save the project?

    Reply January 25, 2013 at 8:03 am
  35. Colleen Lanchester-Raynie (poppins)

    I’ve been using Illustrator for some time, but have now found myself using it in different ways, and thank you for the insights. I actually did a lot of this last week before even seeing this tutorial, but it’s always reassuring to know that one is doing something correctly! : )

    Reply January 27, 2013 at 2:17 am
  36. kdraval

    Nice tutorial, thanks lot…

    Reply January 29, 2013 at 11:32 am
  37. moonair

    i like drawing, but i can’t make a vector art from a sketch before,
    thank’ for tutorial
    :D

    Reply February 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm
  38. free shoutcast streaming

    This is a topic that’s near to my heart… Take care!
    Exactly where are your contact details though?

    Reply June 16, 2014 at 4:22 am
  39. Ashish Goswami

    Thanks for the post,it really helped me a lot

    Reply July 17, 2014 at 10:16 pm
  40. Ivan

    Really, simple and clear tutorial for beginners.

    Reply July 28, 2014 at 10:32 am

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