How to vectorize your hand lettering

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Creating your own handlettered phrase or word is all the rage right now but to transfer it to the computer takes a different approach. In this tutorial we’ll work on vectorizing handlettering with the pen tool, one of the most valuable tools that illustrator has to offer!

Step 1

Let’s start by making a quick sketch, it doesn’t have to be perfectly aligned and neat. Remember that while working on this design we'll only use the sketch as reference material, so we're able to change the curves, thickness, balance etc. later on. As a beginner it will take a bit of time to get used to the pen tool but you’ll soon feel like you can't do without it!

Place the reference on a separate layer, double-click on the layer and tick the template checkbox to make the layer 50% transparent and lock it.


Step 2

It’s important to define the anchor points; anchor points are used to define a path, whenever a path is closed a shape is created. If you’re tracing your own sketch make sure that these points are placed at the extremes of each letter, that means at the top/ bottom and furthest left/right, placing them at these points will ensure the shapes to come out as ’clean’ as possible. Try to use the least amount of anchor points possible to make everything look smoother.

A couple of pointers before we really start of:

There are different ways of creating a certain shape; here below I'll give you a couple of pointers to make it easier for you. If you follow these pointers you'll probably have a better result. But as with everything, it takes practice to create the perfect shape.


The best option is to outline every letter, or part of it, separately (if possible) because later in the process you can merge them. This way it’s easier to adjust any mistakes without it having an effect on other letters.


We're mainly going to work with horizontal and vertical point handles because this will ensure the cleanest outcome; if this is a bit too complicated than it’s better to practice with the right anchor points first. It’s best to have the anchor points placed correctly than having the handles perfectly aligned.

There are different ways of vectorizing, it depends on the typography and the shapes you would like to use, in this case we'll use the Pen tool but if your shapes are very rectangular and/or round you can use the Rectangle or the Ellipse tool as well;  this way you’ll save yourself some time.


To use these basic shapes, use shortcut L for the Ellipse tool, hold Shift (for a perfect circle) and click and drag until you’ve got the right size. To adjust the width press SHIFT+W and click on one of the anchor points you would like to adjust. Click and drag to make the line thicker or thinner.


To use the rectangle tool press shortcut M, click and drag until you’ve got the desired shape. Click on the anchor points to adjust the shape if necessary. To turn an object, click and hover above an anchor point until you see a curved arrow, and turn.


Step 3

Open a new layer and select the Pen tool by pressing shortcut P or click on the Pen tool in the sidebar to the left. Place the Pen tool on where you want to start and click and drag while holding Shift to define the first anchor point. The Sfhift key makes sure you’re working with vertical or horizontal handles. The further you stretch the handles, the bigger the curves are going to be.

You’ll see the path you’re creating when you click on the second anchor point. To switch between letters press V for the Selection tool and press P again to select the Pen tool. If you want to delete an anchor point, press - on your keyboard or click on the Pen tool in the sidebar and you’ll see a submenu pop up with 4 options, the third one is the Delete anchor point tool. To adjust the handlebars separately, press A for the Direct selection tool and click on the anchor point, click and drag the handle while holding Shift. But keep in mind that for now it’s important to outline the letters without trying to create the perfect shape.


Step 4

So you can see what you’re doing more clearly, we're going to give everything a fill color. For this we can use random colors (with a bit of contrast is the best); this way we’re able see better what we have to touch up.

Select the letters with the selection tool and in the left sidebar double click on Fill color in the ’empty box’ (if you click on the other box, you’re adjusting the color of the outline). You’ll see a pop-up screen with the color picker. Here you can click to select the color you would like to use and press ok.


If you prefer to have a background color press M for the Rectangle tool, click and drag until you’ve got the right size. Select the box and adjust the color of the box in the same way as with the typography. You’ll notice that when you want to place the box behind the typography it will be placed on top instead. To change this: select the box, right click >Arrange > Send to back; now the box is placed behind your typography.


Step 5

Now it’s time to adjust the shapes so that everything is exactly as you want it to be, this might take some time just to get everything right (note that I prefer to work without a fill color and only the outline). We'll do this by adjusting the handlebars and making use of the Shift key. Select A on your keyboard for the Direct selection tool, click on the anchor point you would like to adjust, hold Shift and stretch the handlebar in whichever direction you need. Now is the time to tweak, if you want to stretch some letters or you want to align, etc.


Step 6

We'll join together the overlapping paths by using the Pathfinder. In this example you can see that the letter R exists out of two shapes, we're going to join these into one shape. Open Pathfinder in Window > Pathfinder, and the following menu tool should appear. Select the shapes you want to merge (both shapes need to have overlapping paths to merge) and click on Unite (the first icon onthe left).


Step 7

Now we’re almost finished! I chose to change the colors and add shadow to the lettering but you can do whatever you want. To create this shadow, I copied the layer by selecting the whole object (without the background) and pressing Cmd+C and Cmd+V to paste. Change the color of the object and go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Transform, in the upper panel.

Tick the preview box and play around with horizontal and vertical move, in this case I used 0,5 for both and 7 copies. But it all depends on your own taste and what you prefer. Then click on the recently created ’shadow typography' and send it to the back by right clicking on the selected object >Arrange > Send to back. Then it's all about adjusting the little details and you’re finished!


If you want you could add some elements in the background, play with colors, add texture etc. the possibilities are endless. There are so many options and it’s up to you to create something you like, keep trying and exploring and you might discover some interesting outcomes.

Now you can show the world what you have learned.

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