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Just a few short years ago, it was a long and drawn out process to take your hand-drawn artwork from paper to digital. You had to sketch out the artwork, scan it in, clean it up, and then in Illustrator, you could spend hours, even days using the pen tool to trace your own artwork, depending on how elaborate your piece was. If you needed each element on it’s own layer, you could end up with a huge file in terms of size. You could spend hours tweaking your vector tracing, and even longer coloring, adding light and shadow.

Life has been much easier since the invention of the Live Trace feature in Adobe Illustrator. While you still might have to clean up your work, or briefly bring your scanned artwork into Photoshop to increase contrast, Live Trace takes a huge amount of labor out of tracing your artwork.

I pulled out some old anatomy drawings I had done of the human skeletal system, and decided that I wanted to bring my skull rendering into Illustrator and turn it into a vector graphic. First, I used my scanner, and at a high resolution, roughly 600dpi, I scanned my sketch. Depending on the quality of your scanner, you may have to add contrast in Photoshop, or levels to ensure that your whites are white and your blacks are black just as they are supposed to be. Save your scan as a jpeg file at a decent resolution. Depending on your purposes, you save your image at 300dpi.


Open a new document in Illustrator, making sure that the size will correspond with the size of your scanned drawing. Go to File>Place and choose your scanned jpeg image. This will bring your image into Illustrator and place it on the current artboard. Size it how you like, and you will notice that once it is selected, in the bar at the top of your screen, you will see options such as Embed, Edit Original, Live Trace and Mask. Live Trace is the feature that we will be focusing on for this tutorial.

If you just click on live trace, it will create a flat, black and white trace of what it could determine are the light and dark areas of your scanned image. With doing this, you really don’t have the control that you need in order to get the look that you want.


To the right of the Live Trace button is a downward arrow. If you click on that arrow, a menu will appear, giving you several presets for Live Trace mode. Some of those options include Simple Trace, which will give you the same results as the Live Trace button by itself, Six Color, which defines six shades in your image and applies different colors to each one, Grayscale, which creates a vector grayscale rendering of your sketch, and more.


You will notice at the bottom of this menu, there is one last option, called Tracing Options. If you click on that, a large dialog box opens up, with many different settings and options. This is where you can really fine-tune your Live Trace options to get the results that you want.


One thing that you want to be sure to do is to make sure the preview checkbox is checked. This will allow you to see the effects of your settings as you are working, so you won’t have to go back and forth multiple times. You will notice that the same presets from earlier are still available. The best part is that now there are refinement settings that you can adjust to get better results. Sometimes a slight change, especially in the Threshold setting, can make the difference between a good Live Trace and an ugly one.

The output to swatches setting takes the colors that make up your live trace, and automatically exports them to your swatches panel, which is handy when you want to reuse those colors in the rest of your design.

Since my image is drawn in pencil, it doesn’t matter what color mode we are in, as long as it is color or grayscale. Black and white will devoid your image of any gradation. Max colors allows you determine how many different levels of color your image will be broken down into. I like 6 for the purpose of my skull drawing. It delivers nice results. Blur will blur the boundaries between one color and the next. I really don’t like this setting in general, but if I use it, I don’t set it very high.

One last setting that is very important is your Path Fitting. This determines how closely Illustrator follows your line, and how much room Illustrator has to be away from one shade to the next. I usually set this to 2px so that it doesn’t stray too much. Minimum Area tells Illustrator how many pixels of a color or shade have to be preset before Illustrator separates it and gives that portion its own shade. I usually set this to around 20px. Here are the results that I ended up with:


Now a new option appears, called Expand, which you will want to use. It will break down your artwork into individual vector shapes, where you can edit each piece independently. You will want to ungroup your artwork because everything is grouped together by default. Now you can select each piece and color it individually.


With Live Trace, you can turn your sketches into vector graphics in minutes. You can use them in your artwork or designs to give them a rugged, organic look. Knowing the right settings can make the process almost effortless, and give you results that you can be proud of.