Do you have a sketch that you’d love to use in your digital art, but you don’t have a tablet or any fancy equipment? Maybe you’re great at drawing, but not sure how to turn that into something digital that’s endlessly customizable. This tutorial for turning a sketch into digital art requires only a paper sketch, a camera (your phone will do), and a copy of Adobe Illustrator. You can download a free trial here or sign up for Creative Cloud. Although it will be helpful if you have a basic understanding of Illustrator for this DIY, it’s not strictly necessary.
Step 1. Make a sketch.
Draw your desired shape or pattern. A plain white piece of paper with a dark pen or marker will work best, and it’ll be easier if you start with something simple. For this example, I’m using a pennant banner.
Step 2. Take a photo.
Take a photo of your sketch. There’s no need for this to look professional, but good light will help. Leave a bit of room around the edges to make sure you don’t cut off any of your sketch. Then upload your photo to your computer. Email, Dropbox—whatever’s easiest. We just need a jpeg in standard resolution. A clearer photo will result in cleaner lines, which means less work to clean it up later.
Step 3. Create a new document.
Open Illustrator and create a new document. Your settings will depend on what you want to use the file for. I’m going to create mine as a print document; if I want to use it for web I can just pull the vector into a new web document later. Under Profile: I’ll select Print; under Number of Artboards: I’ll just choose 1. I’ll keep my Size: Letter and for this demonstration I’ll use Units: Inches. You can name your file now too. I titled mine Pennant Banner.
You should have a dialog box that looks like this:
Step 4. Place your photo.
To place your photo in the document go to File>Place or use the shortcut (Command, Shift, P on Mac). Find the photo that you saved and hit Place.
Obviously the photo is way too large to work with like that, so we’re going to resize it. To zoom out so you can see the whole photo go to View>Zoom Out (Command, – on Mac). Then click on the photo and you’ll see some blue lines and boxes.
To resize the photo, hold your cursor over one of the corners, hold down Shift and drag the photo until the whole thing fits onto your artboard (the white page of your document). Holding down shift ensures that the photo retains its proportions, and you don’t just skew the photo to some weird shape. Once your photo is small enough, drag it so it’s centered on your page. At this point you can go to View>Zoom In (Command, +). Your screen will look something like this:
Step 5. Trace your image.
Now we’re going to let Illustrator do the work of tracing our image. Select your image, and you’ll see a button that says Image Trace show up in the top toolbar. Click that and then Illustrator will transform your photo.
You can see that mine has selected a weird line of black along the side. If that’s happened to you, don’t panic. We’ll fix that in a later step. In order to start working with the trace we also need to hit Expand. You can see that button up in the top toolbar where the Image Trace button was.
All those blue dots are anchor points that we’ll work with later. First we need to get rid of that weird black line. Go to Object>Ungroup (Shift, Command, G). Now we can click away from the image and click again on the part that you want to remove, and it will only select that part.
All we’re doing in this step is ungrouping all the separate lines that were created when Illustrator traced our image. This way we can manipulate each line separately, without affecting the entire graphic.
Step 8. Looking at the details.
Now we’ve successfully turned our sketch into a graphic. But, it looks a little rough. Use your shortcut to zoom in (Command, +) so you can see what you’re doing. The first thing we’re going to do is delete some of those anchor points.
When Illustrator traces your image, it detects all the variations in your drawing and adds an anchor point for each. This results in an image that’s a little rough and very difficult to work with. So before we start customizing our graphic, it’s always best to go in and delete those excess anchor points and smooth out our drawing.
In your toolbar on the side, select the pen tool. If you hold down on the pen tool you’ll see a list of options come up. Choose the third one called Delete Anchor Point Tool. You can also just select the pen and then use the shortcut (–) to switch to the Delete Anchor Point option.
Now pick a point and start clicking on those big blue dots. Keep the anchor points that form the outline of your drawing. For example, keep one or two at the end of a line, three at each corner for a triangle, and at least two on either side for a circle or oval.
You can use your discretion as to how many points you want to remove. The more you leave, the more rough your graphic will be. If you’re going for a very hand drawn look, this may be what you want.
As you’re deleting the points, you’ll notice that the shape of your drawing is changing. This is where your handles come in. Go back into your toolbar and select the white arrow or use the shortcut (A).
The white arrow (Direct Selection Tool) allows you select each anchor point individually. Now use your white arrow to select an anchor point. You’ll see two blue lines with dots at the end appear on either side of your point. These are your handles and what you’ll use to adjust the curve of your lines. When you select one of the handles and move it, you’ll see a blue line. This is where your line will end up.
When I’m working with a specific graphic, I usually start on one side and delete anchor points in one section. Then I use my white arrow to adjust the points and handles. I work in sections to ensure that I don’t lose the integrity of the original shape of the drawing.
Step 9. Resize, move, change colour. Once you’re satisfied with the overall shape of your graphic, you can resize it, move it, change the colour. That’s the beauty of creating a vector graphic—you can make it as big as you want, change its shape, or change its colour, without pixelating or distorting the image. To resize the entire graphic without distorting it, switch back to the black arrow Selection Tool or use the shortcut (V). Just hold down Shift and click on one of the corners and slide, like we did earlier. To change the colour select the entire graphic with the black arrow. You can see your current colour in 2 places. To change the colour just go to the toolbar at the top and hold down the arrow next to the black box. You can select any of the colours from there, or create a new colour by selecting the new swatch and entering the CMYK (or RGB) numbers, or sliding the arrows until you find a colour you like. Step 10. Save. You should definitely be saving your Illustrator file as you go, but now we’re going to save it so you can use it in other programs. Go to File>Export and you’ll see a dialog box like this. There are a bunch of file formats you can save it as, many of which I’m not sure how to even use. For our purposes, we’re going to use PNG. You could also save it as a JPEG, but I prefer PNG as it preserves your colours and offers the option for a transparent background. So we’ll select PNG and check the box Use Artboards. In this case you can just leave it as all, but usually I’ll select Range and then type in whichever artboard I’d like to use. When you hit Export a dialog box will show up. This is where you’ll have options to customize the type of file you’re saving. For Resolution select according to the final purpose of your file. Since I’m using mine for print, I’ll select High (300 ppi), but if you’re using it for web you’ll want to select Screen (72 ppi). For Background Color I usually select Transparent. This means I can use my graphic on top of a photo, and there won’t be any background. You can also select white, black or any other colour. I leave all the other options as they are. Hit OK and you’re done. Now you have a custom graphic that you can use anywhere, for anything. Place it on top of a photo, pull it into another Illustrator file to add to your logo (in this case just use the AI file), or send it to the printer. Now that was a ton of steps, but to help you out I’ve created a checklist that you can download. Check off each step as you go, so you don’t get lost in the middle somewhere and can’t remember what you’re supposed to do next.
I would love it if you could let me know what you thought of this tutorial. Was it too hard? Too easy? Not something you’re interested in? If you’d love to see more tutorials like this, just let me know. Or if there’s something specific you’d like to learn, share in the comments.