How to Create a Hand-Lettered T-Shirt Design in Adobe Illustrator
In this tutorial, I would like to share with you the artistic process of creating a unique, personalised hand-lettering design and transforming it digitally into a ready-to-print T-shirt design. We will begin with a concept sketch and move on to learn how to vector the design in Adobe Illustrator.
Along the way, you will learn some lettering tips and techniques that will enhance your lettering skills. This tutorial is for beginners who want to start the art of hand lettering, not just for t-shirt design, but also for anything else, like a book cover, mug design, or art print.
If you want to find hand-lettering images or get inspired, please visit GraphicRiver.
1. How to Sketch & Plot the Hand Lettering
To kickstart the process, let’s whip up a quick rough sketch.
You can use a traditional pen or ink and paper to sketch and scan, or you can use your choice of digital pen and tablet. I prefer to use either Adobe Photoshop or Procreate for sketching, cleaning pencil marks, correcting, spacing, alignment, and adjusting proportions.
In celebration of Envato’s France culture week, we’re going to draw the French phrase “Fou D’amour” meaning “Crazy in Love”.
The sketch will be used just as reference material. You will be able to adjust the thickness, curves, and balance of the design later on. As a beginner, start by quickly sketching out the concept ideas through thumbnail sketches. Experiment with lettering shapes, angles, and compositions.
I played around with my natural cursive handwriting, which I will turn into a thick brush-like script.
Select one of the sketches that you think is best for your tshirt design. Replicate the concept in the thumbnail on an A4 (8.5″ x 11″) sheet of paper or digital file.
Start by placing the center alignment cross-lines, and then add the cap-height, x-height, and baseline where the text will be placed.
Afterwards, write in your own natural, simple, cursive handwriting: “Fou D’amour”.
It doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned as we want to create a personalized feel.
Next, we’re going to go over the simple hand-lettered line and build around it. At this stage, you can manipulate the lettering in any direction you want. I went towards a fluid and thick brush-like feel.
Take the time to sketch around to add weight, refine, and apply contrast to the lettering.
The idea is to sketch around the lines of the initial sketch, experimenting with thick and thin strokes, edges, and tips. Pay attention to negative spacing, kerning, and the connectors between letters.
Decorate it with some stars, drops, and hearts all around, to give it a “love-pop” effect, as I have done below.
Before we begin working on the computer, you need to trace over the sketch in order to refine the letters, making it a bit cleaner and more precise.
When you’re roughly satisfied and done with the tracing over the lettering, then you need to plot out where the vector points will be placed. Plotting is like adding guide points to simplify the vector process later. That means we add dots where the anchor points are, and a line to show the anchor handle direction.
This simple process of plotting out the placement of anchor points and horizontal and vertical anchor point handles will give you cleaner shapes and more precise letterforms, once turned into vector.
Keep in mind the following:
Plotting is usually placed on the 0°, 45° and 90° angles, or where there’s a change in the direction of a curve.
Place anchor points on the top, side, wall, and floor of letterforms. So the top and bottom and the far left and right of letters will have anchor points.
Letter edges will always have a point.
Add as few anchor points as possible to get natural-looking curves.
Knowing the placement of these anchor points and handles will save you hours of work.
You shouldn’t worry about placing them right or wrong; with time, you will get the hang of it and have better judgment.
2. How to Vectorise the Letterforms
Let’s upload our artwork into Adobe Illustrator.
Note: If you’ve sketched it out on paper, scan your hand-lettered sketch and save as JPG.
Set up a New Document (File > New or Control-N) using the following settings:
Blank Document Presets: A4
Number of Artboards: 1
Open the Advanced tab:
Color Mode: CMYK
And click Create.
Next, you need to set your layers.
Open the Layers panel (Window > Layers). Rename ‘Layer 1’ as ‘Sketch‘.
Then click the Create New Layer icon, create another layer, and rename it ‘Lettering‘. Click Place (Command-Shift-P) to add the sketch to the Artboard.
Open the Layers panel: Window > Layers. Double-click the ‘Sketch‘ layer to open the sub-menu of the Layers panel:
Dim Images to:20%
File > Save (Command-S).
Let’s get to vectoring!
First, make sure you are on the ‘Lettering’ layer.
We will begin tracing, piece by piece. I will show you how to break down the vector process, so you can go about vectoring it easily.
Select the Pen Tool (P). From the Control panel, select null Fill and black Stroke of 1 pt.
Begin by vectoring the word ‘Fou‘, starting with the stem of the ‘F‘. The letter shapes tend to guide you where to begin. I always work from left to right.
Follow the plotted sketch points, and use the Anchor Point Tool (Shift-C) to vertically and horizontally align the anchor handles equally.
Trace every piece of the lettering as if it is broken down into separate shapes. This will help you edit each piece rather than the entire text.
Don’t cross the directional handles.
Don’t pressure one anchor point to do all the curving.
Make sure the curves flow beautifully and the edges are clean.
For the ‘F‘ crossbar, make the tips pointy. Then use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select the two edge corners. This will automatically turn the anchor points to Live Corner widgets.
Click the Corners option in the Control panel (Window > Control), and set the Radius to 0.03 in.
Continue tracing the ‘ou‘ with the Pen Tool (P),and use the Anchor Point Tool (Shift-C) to adjust the handles.
Trace the crossover of the ‘o‘ loop as shown below. It’s okay if everything overlaps. Make sure to trace your letters individually so you can make space adjustments later in the process. Later we will edit and merge everything together.
Afterwards, separately trace the ‘u‘.
You will notice that some anchor points need to be added, and anchor handles need a change of direction. Plot the points and align the handles as perfectly as possible. There is a lot of trial and error, but eventually you will get the hang of it.
After vectoring the ‘Fou‘, apply the crossover technique to each vector, piece by piece, to the word ‘D’amour’. This technique helps control each letter intersection, width, and angle.
To ensure a clean result, work with horizontal and vertical point handles. It’s a bit complicated at first. You may need additional 45° angles, depending on the typography and the angle of the design.
Try to maintain the same width between connectors.
Take the Direct Selection Tool (A), select the anchor points, and drag while holding down the Shift key to equally stretch the vertical and horizontal handles. The further you stretch the handles, the longer the curves are going to be.
The last to vector are the decorative elements around the lettering.
Use the Ellipse Tool (L) to draw the ellipse, but otherwise manually eye and trace the other shapes with the Pen Tool (P) to give them an organic feel.
After you’ve vectored the whole piece, Delete the ‘Sketch‘ layer from the Layers panel.
Select All (Command-A), and Swap Fill & Stroke (Shift-X), to give the lettering a fill instead of a stroke.
So now you can view the positive and negative spaces more clearly and see where the flaws lie.
3. How to Edit & Color the Lettering
Now it’s time to adjust the shapes and edit the sizing. Take the time to tune the curves and correct the anchor handles.
First, edit each letterform by adjusting the handlebars using the Shift key.
Then tweak by transforming, rotating, aligning or stretching the letters, so they are in visual harmony.
To scale, take the Selection Tool (V) and select the Free Transform Tool (E), holding down Shift to scale proportionally.
To move, just select the letterforms using the Selection Tool (V) and align the text properly.
Afterwards, you need to analyse the negative and positive space.
The negative space is the white or empty space between the elements. The filled space is referred to as positive. The negative space basically helps define what the positive space is, and it supports readability.
To fix the space interaction, keep consistency within the element spacing, and keep your design uncluttered, readable, and clean. See what needs more kerning or more curving, alignment, etc. I made minor edits so that the text is readable and aligned.
The skill of being able to precisely convert a sketch to a vector is valuable. Being able to do that enables you to scale your lettering up without losing detail and the feel of the text
Once you are satisfied with the overall look, it’s time to join the overlapping paths.
Open the Pathfinder panel: Windows > Pathfinder. Then, for example, take the Selection Tool (V), select the elements of ‘F‘, and select the option Shape Modes: Unite.
Go on to select all the overlapping shapes you want to merge, and click on Unite from the Pathfinder panel.