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Live Trace or Pen Tool?

| By: Flavia Mayer (Illustrator / design support @ Briefbox)

Which one is better, easier, more effective? It depends. In this tutorial we’re going to quickly see when is it best to use one or the other, and how to get the best results.

Live Trace

This tool can be a lot more than a lazy designer’s shortcut. If you know how to use it, you can get nice results and find a way to preserve some of the natural details from your sketches. The first thing you need to know is: it isn’t only pressing a button and “voilá”, it’s done. It actually can be as time consuming as pen tooling sometimes.

For the sake of this tutorial, let’s say, for example, that you’re sketching some logo ideas. Let’s say, as well, you wanna give a “rough” style to this logo, something that will express your client’s company’s personality.

1. So, first of all, dedicate some time to the sketch. Choose one of your best ideas and make a clean sketch from it. A lot of times I make a first pencil sketch and then trace it over with ink pen on tracing paper. Unless you’re trying to get a spontaneous brush trace, in which case there’s no way of reproducing it. The important thing is to have all the lines and shapes very defined, so it will be as accurate as possible when you live trace it.


2. Scan or photograph your sketch, making sure there’s a high contrast between the paper and the lines. In Illustrator, place the image and click on ‘Image Trace’. Now, before you expand it to transform it into a vector, there are some features you can control to get closer to what you want. Open the ‘image trace’ panel on your top left and click on ‘advanced’. Make sure ‘preview ‘s selected while you change the presets, so you can see the results – it’s kind of a lucky guess, change it to see if it get closer to what you want.

– Treshold will make thing either lighter or darker (as in more white or more black), same as Photoshop. So find the most accurate point.

– Paths is related to the number of anchor points, so the higher it is, the more detailed it gets, and the lower it is, the more abstract it gets.

– Corners and noise don’t have such a strong effect on live tracing, but are also related to the quantity of details you want on your vector.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 15.47.11

3. If you’re happy with how it’s looking, click on expand to make it a vector. But no, our job is not done here. Even though we worked to make it as close as possible to the original sketch, there’s always some unwanted lines and points we need to refine. So use the white arrow (Direct Selection Tool) and the Pen Tool to tweak and clean some of the anchor points and make it neat. This is what differs you from the lazy desginer who clicks on live trace and think this is it.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 15.54.42

Feel free to add a rough texture or some colour to give it the final touch.


Pen Tool

Our good and old friend, the Pen Tool can be very handy when you want a cleaner and more accurate translation from your sketch to the software. On this other tutorial, we talked about using the pen tool to create a flat vector illustration. Let’s keep using the logo as an example here. Let’s say you have an second concept which won’t look so nice in a rough style as the first one.

1. Your sketch doesn’t need to be so clean this time, as long as you understand exactly which lines you are going to follow.


2. Scan or photograph it, put the sketch in one layer, with a low transparency, and lock it, so it won’t be in the way. Create another layer above, select the pen tool and go for it! Remember that when you hold shif you can make symmetric curves and exact angles. Trust your original sketch: sometimes we think our original trace is not quite right and we start making things too different, but it doesn’t work. Don’t forget, the more basic shapes you can use (circles, squares, triangles), the faster it goes.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 16.02.14

3. After you finish all the lines, you can tweak everything a little bit, so it sits together. Lastly, play with colours and textures to finalize your piece. If you want to give it a bit of roughness, you can either use a think brush stroke or use the rough effect from Illustrator – you’ll get a much more controled result than with Image Trace.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 16.04.04

Be it Live Trace or Pen Tool, rough or clean, it is always important to pay attention to the details and make it as neat as possible. This is definitely what makes the difference!



Leave a Reply

1 response

  1. Quite interesting article and clear distinction between the two. Thank you for sharing this insight :)!

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