Turn your sketch into vector art with Illustrator’s pen tool

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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 turning your sketch into vector art with the pen tool? Don’t hesitate to ask!

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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!