Sharing what I've I've learned about lettering and illustration.

Digitizing your Artwork in Illustrator – Part 1

While it’s possible to scan—or photograph—your art and go directly to Photoshop, I sometimes prefer an intermediary step. This is a good method if I know I’ll be working with flat shapes.

One of the advantages to working with a vector based program like Illustrator, is that your art can be scaled to any size. Photoshop, being a raster based program, is much less tolerant at sizing files up. This may not be super important for displaying work on-line, but for print it can be critical.

Check out this post, that explains how to import your art. It’s important you have a nice, contrasty image to import into Illustrator.

Open up a new file in Illustrator. The size isn’t important, as the artwork can be scaled to any size.

Go to File > Place (Mac: SHIFT-CMD-P, PC: Shift-Ctrl-P), and scale your placed art to your desired size. The image will be placed on a new layer. Rename the layer, if you wish. For this example, I’ll be using the Ray’s Rusty Robot Ranch from my previous post.

Select the image, and go to Window > Image Trace. Here’s where your analog art will be converted into a vector graphic. Make sure the “Preview” box is checked. Be aware that the more complex your sketch, the longer it will take for Illustrator to build the preview.

There are only a few settings in the basic mode.

Preset: I find the “Default” setting works pretty good to start. Feel free to try out the other settings. I set the View to “Tracing Result” and the Mode to “Black & White”.

Threshold: Basically, this setting tells Illustrator which pixels will be white or black. Any pixels lighter than the Threshold value will be white, and all pixels that are darker will be black. If you move the slider to the right, you’ll see how it will include more pixels. It defaults to 128 pixels, in the middle, and I find this a good setting for most art.

The big advantage to using Image Trace comes with toggling on the “Advanced” settings. I prefer to keep most of the analog look from my sketch, so here’s where I can fine-tune the look to my liking.

Paths: This tells Illustrator how closely to map the points to the artwork. A lower number (left) will be looser, and less accurate. A higher number (right) will be more accurate, and include more points. You can see an example below. On the left, I’ve set the Paths to 20%. On the right, I’ve set it to 98%, as I find 100% introduces too much detail. It’s a personal preference, so suit to your taste.

Corners: A lower number (left) will produce rounder corners. A higher number (right) will produce sharper corners.

Noise: If your imported artwork has a few stray bits (ie. dust), adjusting this slider will eliminate them. Make sure you don’t eliminate any small bits from your art that you need. This is why I prefer to do all my clean-up in Photoshop.

Create: Make sure “Fills” is selected, as we want solid shapes, and not strokes.

Options: Select “Ignore White”. If this is turned off, the white background will also be included, and we don’t want that.

To speed things up, you can save your own preset for future use. At the top right of the Image Trace window, next to “Presets”, click on the sub-menu (the little box with the three lines) and select “Save as New Preset…” Name your file. You can see below where I’ve saved my preset for lettering.

Once you have all your settings the way you like them, deselect the “Preview” box, then click the “Trace” button.

NOTE: Illustrator won’t convert the art if the “Preview” box is selected, which is why the “Trace” button is greyed out when the preview is turned on.

All your artwork has now been converted to vector shapes.

Go to Object > Expand … and and click “Ok”. This will divide your art into multiple objects. If you don’t perform this last step, your art will remain as one, single element, and you won’t be able to edit any of the points.


Some things to keep in mind when working in Illustrator …


  1. It’s easy to change colour and move shapes.
  2. As it’s vector based, you can print at any size without any loss of quality.
  3. You can always import the Illustrator file to Photoshop, if you want to do further work.


  1. Complex shapes in Illustrator may take longer to render.
  2. Workflow can feel more mechanical compared to Photoshop.
  3. Editing points can be time consuming and fussy.


In the next post, we’ll dive into editing points, and adding some colour.


Is there something you’d like me to write about? Drop me a line and let me know what you’re struggling with.