Converting hand-drawn graphics into vector files

By Bob Sauls

Posted on Friday, March 3rd, 2023

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At the core of my zeal for traditional sign making methods is drawing. In today’s landscape of sign sameness the hand-drawn and hand-lettered stand out as something unique and snappy. When we can translate some of this vitality into CAD layouts, everybody wins.

I found my way into this craft because it was a practical way to earn a living with my talents. If there is a more direct way of using drawing in a practical sense, I remain contently unaware. Drawing pictures was always more fun than the accepted disciplines of drawing typography.

But we cannot be sign makers without the words, can we? One of my mentors was Oral “Orbie” Ledbetter. He would get a maniacal glint in his eye, as he would proclaim, “If you can draw a perfect uppercase roman S you can draw anything!”

Eventually, with practice and inspiration gleaned from early SignCraft heroes, I became enamored with letters and their beauty as well. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but we know that even the words themselves are art. In this chart below you will see the traditional sign making method as well as the CAD method.

If you are willing to use your head and talents, you will notice several points in which you can bridge the established routes. I have found that bailing out of the CAD method before the output can do wonders for you on occasion. I encourage you to develop traditional skills while becoming as efficient as possible with CAD and its advantages—you’ll be able to use them rather than be enslaved to them.

Vectorizing our own artwork

There are two basic modes of turning artwork into a usable form for CAD manipulation. The first are bitmapped images such as digital photos and scanned artwork. These bitmapped images are millions of pieces of data, each holding an assigned place for arranged pixels.

Bitmapped images have a numerical component that must always be kept in mind. The term for that numerical component is pixels per (square) inch, or PPI. Bitmapped art is altered and/or created in wonderful programs like Adobe Photoshop and others.

Vectored art is an arrangement of lines or paths creating closed shapes. These contained areas are assigned color fills. Vectored art also has a mathematical component, but it is more like a proportional recipe that the software program keeps track of on our behalf. Vector art is not resolution dependent. It is completely scalable. Typically, vectored art can be saved in much smaller-sized files and many of these files are importable from one design program into another. It is also similar in form to the art that we need for projecting and plotting.

Many see the Shape and Pathfinder tools as simplistic and a means to an end for complex vectoring. But as you can see with the Green Earth logo after a simple thumbnail drawing, I was able to sit down and complete this graphic using only the rectangle and ellipse Shape tools. Then pathfinding tools were used to weld rectangles and clip-away the unused parts of the ellipses—beautifully framing out this piece.

These days, many sign making programs now have scanning and vectoring capabilities built right in. This has not always been the case. Many of us have learned—by necessity—to work in one program to create one part of the design and then use a vectoring program such as CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator to create artwork which would then be seamlessly (stop laughing, please) imported into our sign design program for layout and plotting.

Many of you are familiar with what I call the “the Program Tango”: We have learned to dance and while we are glad to have mastered it, the Tango is difficult. I have recently purchased FlexiSIGN 8.6. I had asked several of my fellow soldiers at Creative SignMakers of America about my upcoming purchase.

Many were overly concerned about its price tag. Again, I am reminded of learning to Tango. It does not take a lot of money to do the Tango, but you can sure lose a lot of time dancing back and forth. There is a difference between price and cost.

I still use Adobe Illustrator in conjunction with FlexiSIGN. Some of Illustrator’s features are just better. Illustrator is top-drawer in its color and layering capabilities, while Flexi’s vector editing tools and welds are incredible and seem to be designed with us as the end user in mind. So far both programs have worked seamlessly together, and I’m laughing now.

Calling in the big guns

After my articles, The Wonderful Quick On-site Sketch and 10 Steps to Improving Your Quick On-site Sketches ran in SignCraft, we heard from readers who had questions about how to turn their beautiful living art into bits and bytes. My experience is limited to the techniques and programs that I’m familiar with, so I decided to confer with some pros in the field of vectoring art. Each had his own take on the vectoring process.

I contacted David Butler of Butler Design Agency, Mike Jackson of Golden Studios, Bob Parsons author of, Simply Draw With Bob Parsons, and Chuck Davis of LetterheadFonts. They definitely gave me a lot to think about and changed a few of my prejudices.

Mike Jackson was sort of like the crusty uncle who really had my best interest at heart but cared little about giving me the answers I wished to hear. He brought me back to real sign shop operations and stressed the importance of only going through the trouble of vectoring art if the job really required it—and stressed that the time spent must be compensated.

Some of those requirements are turning the design into camera-ready art for print or for multiples. I cannot disagree, but a working drawing of some sort is nearly always required. And the alignment and other editing tools within many vectoring programs can be very helpful in creating art that must be symmetrical. We may only be building partial or working art for printing a transparency, for projecting or for a pen plot for a pounce pattern. We must keep the endgame before us.

The one subject that had always vexed me, and the true reason I assembled this esteemed think tank was this: For some reason, after a hand-drawn design is vectored, it seems to lose some of its vigor. Are there any tricks or techniques to avoid this phenomenon?

David Butler and Bob Parsons had also noticed this but had differing ideas on the subject. David, when asked if imperfectly vectoring the hand-drawn art might restore some of the humanity to the design, frowned upon the idea and suggested we always do our best to achieve clean paths. He also advocated drawing, scanning, vectoring and then printing out and re-drawing specific parts before repeating the process until we are satisfied.

Bob Parsons, who incorporates many illustrations into his signs, is a fan of using Adobe Illustrator’s Live Trace and Live Paint functions to retain his unique cartoon style. He then went on to explain that more and more of his pieces are for digital output—which makes perfect sense.

On a personal note, I have used Live Trace on some projects with great success. But on some art, a great deal of point editing is required after the trace. Frankly, I’d rather place the points where I wish for them to be to begin with.

Both of these icons did agree that using as much hand drawing in the process as possible is a worthy goal. That’s exactly what I had expected: Even if vectored hand-drawn art is somewhat homogenized in appearance, it is still more correct than the computer-altered.

The canned look that afflicts CAD can largely be attributed to mathematical distortion. Either by stretching or squeezing text and other formulated effects, we can warp a word into a predefined area of our layout using a programmed effect—but a lettering artist would not get the same result. He would be sure that any horizontal strokes were in harmony with one another in placement and stroke width, and none of his serifs would vary, either.

The best computer to use, as they say, is the one between our ears. With it we can study the characteristics of a font and interpret it to fit our needs while paying homage to its basic integrity. We can also use our finely-tuned judgment to move specific points and nodes in our vectoring programs to achieve our distortions on selective parts of a character, thereby showing due respect to the letterforms we wish to alter.

A careful eye for proportions, line value and other sound design principles must underlay our vectoring if it is to remain viable. And while this may not completely free us from homogenized computer output, there is no doubt that putting more drawing into the process is always better than less.

Talking with Chuck Davis caused me to rethink my question entirely. Much of what I have been calling “deadening” a design is actually the result of morphing one thing into another. A soft pencil drawing is not the same thing as a perfectly inked drawing or, in our case, vectored shape. Its edges will be harder. While we may miss some of the vagueness of our sketch, we are gaining refinement.

I had let my affection for the process taint my reasoning. After all, it is for a finished appearance that our customers have sought us out. I am guessing that by now Uncle Mike has stopped chuckling and is pleased that we are finding our way.

Combining the use of the Pen tools and auto-tracing a posterized photo helped me get the job done here. The client wanted a sign that tourists would photograph themselves in front of. The budget was $2000 [2010]. A full 3-D version would eat up the budget too fast and not leave room for a bells-and-whistles design, so my approach was a multi-paneled hand-painted sign on overlaid plywood. The hand-drawn conceptual rough was scanned and followed as my vectoring guide.

As you can see the graphic was to be symmetrical, yet my hand-drawn rough was not. My solution was to lock my sketch in place and work in halves. Simply set a vertical center guide and created the vector shapes by halves using the Pen tool. I duplicated and mirrored the penned semi-paths and then join them into a completed whole.

You’ll notice that I have added pelicans to the completed graphic. After a visit to the riverwalk, I had noticed the air was full of them. I hesitantly used a poor quality, low-resolution image of a pelican in flight. But after applying a posterization filter, reducing the hues to just a few and a quick auto-trace, I had the effect I wanted, which was adequate for what I needed—a pounce pattern for hand lettering.

Nine hints for successfully hand vectoring your own art

  1. When you scan your drawing, use the scanner’s program to select grayscale (typically) as the mode and assign a resolution in pixels per inch at your targeted size. I would say that for most tasks 150 to 180 PPI is satisfactory. As for the output dimensions of the guide-image that the scanner will create, it should not be larger than a half sheet of letter-size paper. For most logos the size of a business card works fine. Our goal is to get an image on the monitor that is not extremely stair-stepped due to too few pixels.
  2. Place or import your scanned guide-image onto a document in your vectoring or sign-making program with vectoring capabilities. Most of these programs have similar tools and features. I have worked with Adobe Illustrator, Alpha Sign, CorelDRAW and FlexiSIGN.
  3. I fade out the scanned guide-image, which we’ll vector over, making our paths easier to see. This can be accomplished in several ways. In Illustrator you can adjust the opacity within the transparency palette. In other programs you will have to adjust the brightness in the image/bitmaps menus. Go ahead and lock your image in the layers palette or object menu. This will keep you from accidentally moving your guide as you vector over it.
  4. If your program has a Layers function, this will make things simpler. Think of your document as several panes of glass stacked one on top of the other. You can see through them all and you can draw on each layer separately, giving you greater flexibility to work one layer while leaving a completed layer alone. Your guide-image should remain on the bottom layer; vector over your guide while working on the separate layers above. If your program does not have layering, you will have to rely heavily upon Bring to Front/Bring to Back modes under the Objects>Arrange menu. If your paths are becoming complicated, you may enjoy another function in the Layers palette—the little “eye” icon in Illustrator, when selected, can turn a layer invisible. Your work is still there, but this tool cuts out some clutter as you continue to work on other portions of the design.
  5. Another thing I find helpful is selecting Transparent as the color fill for our vectored shapes. I prefer to place a very thin stroke to my paths as I am vectoring so that I can see them clearly. I remove the stroke when all vectoring is complete.
  6. I’ll bet you find the Pen tool a bit clumsy at the start. Left Click on a starting point then Click another location and a straight line should appear. To create a curve, Left Click and Drag. You’ll be surprised how few Bezier curves you actually need to make beautiful curved shapes. The most important thing I must stress is that we are creating closed paths. You must end your path on your beginning point. These programs will give you a subtle prompt letting you know when you are on target in closing the path. Most of these programs have point or node editing for fine-tuning. In Illustrator it is the white Selection arrow, which activates the individual points for manipulation. These tools are a must for whipping those Bezier curves into shape. This sounds so smug, but tinkering around with the programs and learning by doing is simpler than reading about it. Flexi has so many cool editing tools it will blow your mind.
  7. You can stack path upon path indefinitely, but you’ll quickly discover the need to group and combine some of these paths. Grouping will let you bring some order to paths of similar color or at specific levels. Combining or compound paths are linking two paths together allowing you to see through a portion of a shape, like the small inner triangle of a capital A. You will want these holes in your art or you will constantly be re-adjusting colored stacks of shapes. This function is found in Objects>Paths menu.
  8. Welds or the Pathfinding functions are very useful as well. Obviously they can join multiple paths into one closed shape but they can also remove cut-outs of one path from another or even create a path from the area that is overlapped by two paths.
  9. Finally, don’t neglect to use the Shapes tool function as you are vectoring your hand-drawn art. These tools which create rectangles, ovals and polygons (just to rattle off a few) quickly, are more advantageous than point-by-point creation. In the programs I use, the Control key when pressed in conjunction with these tools creates a proportioned shape, as opposed to a more free-formed distortion. For example, a circle rather than an oval or a square instead of a rectangle.

Bob Sauls’s shop, Sauls Signs & Designs, is in Tallahassee, Florida.

 This article appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of SignCraft.

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Duncan Wilkie
Duncan Wilkie
1 year ago

Hiya Bob,
What a terrific article. I skimmed it for now, and look forward to reading it in detail. Good job!
Duncan (signdog)

Sonny Franks
Sonny Franks
1 year ago

There’s a lot of good stuff here – especially the details and shortcuts to produce a vector graphic. The only problem is developing the skills to draw such an incredible design. That’s killer, Bob.

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