July 25, 2013

Calligraphy to Vector

I had been quite unsatisfied with having to trace over the calligraphy work I had been doing, so I decided to sit down today and figure out an way to use Live Trace but still keep it looking good.  Here's what I came up with and wanted to share it with you!  These instructions are written for an intermediate beginner.  I tried to explain things I thought weren't obvious to everyone, so sorry for the over explanation for you professionals.  Let me know if you have an questions about this tutorial.  It was written using CS6.  It seems as though Adobe changed some minor things around so hopefully you can figure it out if you are using CS5 or below.

SIDE NOTE:  This isn't for the lazy person.  There is no one-button to press to make your calligraphy perfectly vectorized without imperfection.  You have to work for what you want.

  • You should erase all pencil work from the page before scanning it in to keep it as clean as possible. The image should be scanned in at least 300dpi, preferably at grayscale, and make sure no adjustments are made to the contrast or brightness.

    • Make an adjustment layer for Levels. It's the little half black/half transparent icon at the bottom of your layers window. Now, drag the black notch to the right so they ink starts to look a solid black, then drag the white notch to the left so the paper texture disappears and turns white.

    Left: Original image.  Right: Image with Adjustment Layer: Levels

    merge all your layers.
    • Clean up any imperfections on your document with a white solid brush.
    I do this next step to make the edges of the calligraphy slightly smoother and to make it a teensy bit thicker so when I take it into Illustrator it turns into less clean up.
    • Click the Magic Wand tool, set your Tolerance to 5 and have the Contiguous unchecked. Select everything that isn't an ink stroke. Zoom in to make sure you are selecting everything you want. Get as close to the stroke as possible, then inverse the selection (Shift + Command + I) and hit Refine Edge. Change Smooth to 1 and Shift Edge to -30. Hit OK. Create a new layer and fill it with black. Now you'll want a solid white layer directly underneath that.
    • Merge all layers and save. Do not save over your original scan just in case you want to go back.


    select image
    • In the top bar you'll notice an Image Trace option appears. Click that. Then the top bar options will change. Click the little icon to the left of View. Once that window pops up, choose Sketched Art from the Preset drop-down. Play with the numbers in the Threshold. I have found I always go up from the default number. Sometimes you will need to go pretty high, other times the default looks just fine. It's okay if everything looks squiggly. The next steps will clean everything up.
    hit Expand then ungroup everything
    • Click & drag the black arrow over the edge of your artboard so you select the unfilled background. Then go to Select > Same > Fill Color. Delete everything that has been selected.
    • I typically do this next step one word at a time. If you do decide to try multiple words at once, make sure they are the same style. Zoom into the word that you want to clean up so it almost fills your screen. Go to Object > Path > Simplify and change the Curve Precision to 99% and make sure the Preview box is checked so you can see the progress. Hit OK.
    • You can do the Simplify trick a few more times until everything starts looking smoother. You'll notice that where lines overlap there's a undesirable shape forming, then sometimes in the counters these little "nuggets" appear. Don't worry about those yet, just focus on smoothing out the curves.

    This is a before & after GIF of the Simplify tool. You can see the nuggets appearing. I use the hollow arrow tool and the pen minus tool to get rid of those.
    • Once you are happy with that, it's time to do the tedious stuff. Let's clean up the crossed lines. Select the word, your arrow tool, and zoom in. When you hover over the path, a little plus sign appears next to the pen. Click on the path with the plus sign then hit Option (without moving your pen) and click down on that new point. This will get rid of the curve and turn it into a nice sharp angle. You'll have to use the hollow arrow tool to move the point around and sometimes you'll notice Simplify doesn't get rid of every point you didn't need so use the pen minus tool to get rid of those.

    All of these steps might seem overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of them it should take you a few minutes for each major step. I was able to take my original scans and turn them into this poster in less than two hours.


    1. I LOVE THIS! Wow, your work and your fiance's are inspirational. Especially as a fellow aspiring FEMALE Graphic designer.


    2. wow, what useful knowledge! thank you so much for sharing! your blog is divine.

    3. thank you so much for this helpful tutorial. Even a beginner like me could figure it out!! :) :) I do have one question - how were you able to change the color of the text? It wouldn't let me!

    4. Hi! Thank you so much for posting this tutorial! I got through the Photoshop part ok, but this is my first time to use Adobe Illustrator, so I'm stuck. Could you explain how to get rid of the nuggets using the hollow arrow tool and the pen minus tool?

      I'm wondering if we're having a bit of miscommunication because I'm using a PC and so I don't have stuff like the Option key. Although google says it's the same as the Alt key? I'm not so sure it's doing what it's supposed to do. Please help! Thank you so much and you have a great site!

      1. Your option and command keys are switched around on PCs. I remember making the PC to Mac transition and kept hitting option/alt P to try to print when it's command P on a Mac =P

        The key command for the hollow arrow tool should just be A, no need for option or command so it should be the same on both PC & Mac. The easiest way to get rid of those nuggets is to zoom into the area, take the hollow arrow tool and click directly on the line of the curve, hit delete, then deselect your word. Even though you probably have a few bits in that nugget to get rid of, you still need to deselect the word. Repeat those steps over again until you've deleted each curve in the nugget.

        Hope this helps! =)

    5. Thank you so, so much for posting this! I've been wanting to use Live Trace more but could never get it quite right. Everything you've instructed has worked wonderfully! The only thing I'm hopelessly stuck on is getting rid of the nuggets and achieving those sharp corners :(. If you have any more detail on this step, or could point me in the direction of a more detailed blog post or something, I'd really appreciate it! :)

    6. Do you have any recommendations for scanners?

    7. Thank you for posting this even though I'm responding about a hundred years later. I'd figured out some of this but having it all laid out here really helped a ton!