How to Convert a Drawing to Vector Like a Ninja Wizard

UPDATE (4/5/11) ~ See an updated VIDEO tutorial here.

Recently I was searching for a good/easy/fast tutorial on the best way to make my sketches into nice vectors and I just couldn’t find one on the innerwebs. I know the BEST method is to hand-trace, but that takes too long (and is sorta lame).
Being a rather logical girl, it felt to me like there still had to be a better way that was GOOD ENOUGH, utilize my robot friend (computer), and still kept that sketchy look that I like. Well, here’s what I came up with for a hard & fast, yet effective way, to vectorize my sketchies. And I just thought I’d share. :) Because I <3 you.


This tutorial assumes a pretty-much professional understanding of Adobe Photoshop + Illustrator. And will be utilizing aforementioned graphical programs. Instructions follow illustrations…
1) Firstly, it’s best to work with a sketch that’s pretty clean and defined. I don’t get fussy tho. Scan your image in. I usually go with 600 dpi – seems to render the best result. Bring your image into Photoshop. Then I do a really basic clean up. Like, see that garbage up in the upper left? Yeah, I’d just erase that.
2) Then I have this Photoshop Action that I’m like “GO! GO! GO!” on. Here it is, if you want to download the Action. This cleans up the scan, refines the edges and makes it look slick, like above. The layers will look like the image below. It will create 2 layers of groovy color fills, just magically!
3) Then I do more clean up of the bitmap – even things out, make it look less “blobby”, and open up any areas that got filled in. (No image for this, in case you were wondering.)
4) Tighten up the edges by sharpening: Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen
(I do this because usually in the previous step, depending on what erasing method I use, the edges get too blurry. Tight, sharp edges are best for tracing in Illustrator and that’s what we’re doing in Photoshop – preparing them for tracing.)
5) I just Preview the image and then play with the dials. Usually 200% @ a Radius of 5 helps enough.
6) Save the psd – which I hope you’ve been doing anyways!
7) Open Illustrator and make a new Illustrator file, any size as long as it fits on the artboard. It doesn’t matter. Place the cleaned-up psd file in there.
8) While the placed object is selected, go to your Tracing Options: Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options
9) Play with the options to suit your artwork. I have a Preset that I usually start with – aptly named “sketches to vector” and then I tweak from that by clicking on the “Preview” box. Above is a screenshot of the settings I’ve used. I apparently can’t save out this preset to share with you so you’ll have to set it for yourself, if you want it at all. :)
10) Expand the trace! Heave-ho! I leave OBJECT and FILL checked. TRACED, voila!
11) See all the pretty vectors above? Then I usually have a few “boogers” to clean up once it’s traced – cute little stray points that are easier to see if you do CTRL-Y (View > Outline – as seen above)
12) Sometimes my results give me a whole heckuva lot of points, which isn’t great if you plan on using this art repeated or something. More points translate to a bigger file. YUCK. Best to SIMPLIFY with this handy trick called “simplifying”. Object > Path > Simplify

13) Above isn’t the result you want. Yay! :( But I thought I’d show it to you so you can see how less “Curve Precision” makes it all wonky and gross. Could be kinda neat. If you were blind.
14) I find that if I just tweak that Curve Precision to 98% or 99% I save a bunch of pts. See – it even tells you how much you’ve saved! (You have to check “Preview”.)
YIPPEE! woot! YAY! You just easily vectorized your hand-drawn stuff. Now you can make it huge and put it on things like mugs and #$@#%….
Oh, Expletive! mug


If you appreciated this tutorial, lemme know – post a comment! I wanted to document it somehow and thought bloglovin’ would be a good place to record it for myself + also share it. Also, please let me know if any clarification is needed.