HOW TO: Digitize Your Lettering Using Illustrator

DISCLAIMER: This is an INTERMEDIATE LEVEL TUTORIAL! Some basic knowledge of Illustrator is required for this method! As much as I wish I could start from scratch for all you beginners out there, the devil is in the details when it comes to Illustrator. In the future, I hope to do a YouTube video of this process from start to finish that will be much more inclusive and extra helpful for all levels! I'm not saying you can't learn from this tutorial as a beginner, but you could very well be left with more questions and curse words (speaking from experience) than results!

With that being said....if you're here, it's because you're ready to take your hand-lettering to the next level. You are a master at your brush pen, Sharpie, or Micron, whipping up all kinds of sassy quotes with ease, but you want to overlay these beautiful works on stock photos for your blog or personal photos for all uses! But, how do you do it? 

Today, I'm going to show you the one that works best for me. I've explored various avenues of digitizing, from external online programs, to Photoshop, to scanning and attempting to digitally cut letters out. The process I am about to show you, though tricky at first, is the method that gives me the results that fit my style the best. I like the clean, illustrated look I get from using the Image Trace tool, and the ease in which I can rearrange and transform my letters using the Selection Tool. This process is not an exact tutorial shown to me by anyone else. In the beginning of my hand-lettering practice, I was already somewhat familiar with Illustrator and had watched many, many tutorials on Image trace. There are quite a few steps, but I promise...once you get acquainted with this method, you will absolutely ZOOM through the digitizing process. 

For this tutorial, you will need:

  • Your normal lettering tools (preferably in black ink)
  • A camera or phone with camera function
  • Adobe Illustrator 
  • Some patience to bear with me through my first ever Adobe Illustrator tutorial!

STEP 1: Write your letters! 

I used a black Tombow Dual Brush Pen to write the title of this blog post. I love digitizing because I can write my letters as many times as I need, in what ever order I doesn't matter! They're all going into Illustrator where I can arrange them any way I please!

STEP 2: Snap a photo, email or airdrop them to yourself, download and save them to your computer or editing device.

You will see below, in Step 4, that my photos are not professional! I use my iPhone camera, generally in whatever light I have available to me at the time. It's nowhere near perfect, but that's okay, because they WILL be perfect by the end of this blog post!

STEP 3: Create a New Document and set it up to work best for your project! (Click image to see enlarged version)

Start by clicking File > New 

1. Title (Optional): I always include a title because I will end up having 3-5 different projects open at the same time! I am a partial to organized chaos.

2. Units and Orientation: Since this is a digital project, only to be used on the web, I am working in pixels. If this is something I plan to print,  there is a whole other process! For the sake of this blog post, let's stick to digital only!

3. Size: Because I am going to overlay this digital text on a photo, I took the actual size of the photo I'm using, scaled it down by half (it was waaaay too large for the program to work efficiently) and that is what I'll be working with. Although you don't have to start with an artboard that is the exact size of your finished piece, I like to do this to keep everything in perspective, and see how things will look at the ultimate size I want to have.

Press OK

Step 4: Set up Initial Layers, Place photo (Click image to see enlarged version)

1. Layers: Now that my artboard is correctly sized for my project, I am going to set up my layers. I am going to work with two for this project. The bottom layer is my PHOTO. Right now, I have it hidden from view because I don't need it just yet. My top layer is my TEXT. This is the layer I will work in for editing my written letters. You must make sure to lock your individual layers when you aren't using them. 

2. Place Photo: Now, I'm ready to place my image(s) on my artboard by clicking File > Place. When you click place, you are able to select a photo from your computer. Since I took 3 separate photos of my project, I am going to repeat this process 3 times, arranging all photos onto the artboard where I can see them individually and work on them individually.

This is what my artboard looks like after I've placed all 3 photos.

STEP 4: IMAGE TRACE! (Click image to see enlarged version)

This is where it gets hard for me to explain thoroughly using text only, so bear with me! It really is very simple!

1. Click Selection Tool, Select Photo: Most likely, this tool will already be selected in your toolbox. But, just in case it's not, CLICK IT! Then, click the photo you are going to image trace first.

2. Click Image Trace at the top of your artboard. If it is not there, you can access it by clicking Window > Image Trace. When you click Image Trace, a box will pop up, telling you the process may proceed slowly. Simply click ok, and watch the magic happen. Another note: My Image Trace is set to trace it as "Sketched Art." You can select "Sketched Art" by clicking the dropdown arrow directly to the right of the Image Trace button. 

STEP 5: EXPAND, UNGROUP, DELETE EXCESS (Click image to see enlarged version)

1. EXPAND: Simply select your traced image, if it isn't already selected, then click the Expand button. All the tiny path anchors tracing the edge of your letters will appear (as seen below).

2. Ungroup: Select the image again, right click on it, then click Ungroup. This will separate all the separate elements of your photo so you can delete the excess, and be left with only what you want to use.

3. DELETE EXCESS: If you hover your mouse around the invisible edge of the traced image, you will see there's still a box surrounding the image. Click this box, then press your delete key. Now you have free range to select the individual traced elements of your photo. I'm going to delete the excess traced elements I won't be using by selecting them individually and pressing my delete key. The second photo is what I am left with when I have deleted everything I don't need :) 

Because I have three individual photos to work with, I am going to repeat this entire Image Trace process for each one. Below is what I am left with! 

STEP 6: ADD PHOTO AND ARRANGE! (Click image to see enlarged version)

ADD PHOTO: Now is when I like to add in my photo so I can see everything all together. I moved all my lettered elements to the top of the page by lasso selecting them (basically, what you do when you draw a big box around all the elements with your mouse). I then locked the text layer, unlocked my photo layer, then added my photo to it by clicking File > Place > Select. Now, as you can see, there is still some white left inside some of our letters. You can easily delete these elements by clicking the edge of the white sections, and hitting the delete key. For faster deleting, hold down your shift key while individually clicking all the white sections. Hit delete. GROUP DELETE IS AWESOME!

ARRANGE: Arranging, rotating, and resizing is SO simple. You can manipulate these letters just like you would any other vector element in Illustrator. Rotate, enlarge, shrink, colorize, use a clipping mask...whatever your heart and create eye desires!


Saving is simple! Click File > Save for Web. This screen pops up. I always save it as a JPEG (upper right corner)! If you are not putting a photo beneath your digitized letters, you would save your finished product as a .PNG file. Saving it as a .PNG would allow you to place your letters over any photo in professional programs like Photoshop or free online programs like Picmonkey.

Ok! So, that is it. In my next Illustrator tutorial, I'm going to show you how to to edit your letters in several different ways to not only perfect them, but to create unique textures and show your creative side through your digital lettering. 

Please comment below or contact me if you have any questions about this process! I would be more than happy to share some of my favorite YouTube tutorials with you that helped me get comfortable with Illustrator!