‘You know that really excellent thing that Illustrator does? Yeah, that. Take that out’.
Like many artists who create lettering, I’ve used Adobe’s Trace facility for many years to turn scanned ink on paper into vector art. This might be because the client needs it to be enlarged on a huge scale, or because they’re dropping the lettering over a photo, it’s being animated, or appearing on an iPhone screen, or because they don’t know what to do with any other file type (I’ve had all these reasons and more over the years). For whatever reason, I have to vectorise things a lot - an increasing amount, in fact, as my work’s being used for more and more moving and interactive things.
I started out a long time ago with Streamline, which as you might remember was a standalone application which became incorporated into Illustrator as Live Trace. For users this was a 'god-send', as it meant having one package to do the lot with no exporting. And it worked beautifully. Arriving with a ‘Lettering' preset built in which could create highly sensitive vector art from the finest and curliest of lines, preserving every ebb and flow of the ink and remaining faithful to one’s careful nib moves, the preset could also be adapted to create different looks depending on your desired final outcome. If you wanted a more plastic look, with your bumps and tidemarks smoothed off, you could do it. In addition, the ‘Black & White Logo’ preset was brilliant at doing exactly what it said - turning your hand-drawn black ink creation into something which looked exactly like the polished shiny logo on the side of a sleek new van, or screened onto a posh store’s window.
Here it is. Hello old friend!
But if you didn’t want that slightly plastic look, Live Trace would work with you to get you what you wanted:
See look - the beautiful ‘Lettering’ preset! (and the Comic Art one, an absolute must for many Trace users as I later discovered):
We worked like that for years, Live Trace and I, and I relied on our quiet, mutually respectful partnership until one day an upgrade presented me, in CS5, with something called Image Trace, hailed as a Great New Thing.
Without going into the entire history of my struggles, I’ve spent unquantifiable hours - usually night-time ones with saucer eyes and gritted teeth - trying to get Image Trace to create the same outcome as my CS3’s Live Trace (come on, keep up). For a start, the ‘Lettering' preset has been removed - and although the panel presents you with a generous set of sliding tools with which you can determine the sensitivity of otherwise of the tracing, no combination on earth appears to achieve it.
Here’s the default tracing setting in Illustrator CC, and you can see that just like Live Trace you theoretically have control over just about everything - how straightened your curved lines become, how many pixels is too few to bother with, whether you apply a stroke or not, whether to factor in the white background, and how ‘fat’ the line is; whether your resultant paths are stacked on top or next to each other:
I saved all my test presets on my desktop until they reached about 23 in number, none of which worked very well, at which point I began to think something wasn’t right.
To demonstrate my troubles, since we are discussing pictures and I’m doing a lot of talking, here’s a section of a piece drawn in ink and taken through some Image Tracings.
Here’s a scan of a bit of the original:
As you can see, a variety of fat and skinny lines are present, as is the usual style for this particular client (for whom I’ve done over 50 illustrations now).
Here is the same section run through the Default Image Trace setting, no tweaks:
- which looks like this. Helpfully (I think) it tells you how many points and anchors you’ll end up with if you choose this combination of settings, at the bottom:
See how I’m losing that heading, the edges of the clock and those weird spiked letters on the wedding invite?
And the way everything looks a bit…lumpen?
Well, for the next Trace, I’ve ramped up the amount of pixels the Tracing takes into account, asked it to create Strokes as well as Fills (in the interests of demonstrating the differences), and clicked off ‘Snap Curves to Lies’,* so that it faithfully sticks to what I’VE decided should be curvy, thank you very much:
*typo, but I left it in as it seems apt. And I was mardy.
And here is the blobsome outcome. Ugly eh?
Now I’ve switched off the ‘Strokes’ - just fills, please:
If I take those settings back down, to reduce line weight and not have them run one into the other like so many black-clad Sumo wrestlers, this is what happens:
Yeay! Cause THAT worked!
I began to think that maybe Image Trace didn’t have enough information to go on, so began scanning at 600dpi…then 1200dpi…then enlarging the ‘Placed’ file massively with the Scale tool to, y’know, make sure Image Trace could ‘see’ what it was vectorising really clearly.
I even came across someone advising on the Adobe forum (an actual Adobian) who claimed you had to REDUCE the resolution, not increase it, and anti-alias the original image. She also suggested that images with a little blur around the lines worked best, because ‘Live Trace is better at guessing’ where it needed to place a path (I wasn’t sure about that). So I tried both of those things, one at a time, and certainly although reducing the original image from 1200 to 600 to 300dpi SEEMED to improve the accuracy of the trace a little, it didn’t make enough of a difference.
So, by now I've written myself a little manual of Trace Rules to follow, so it couldn’t go wrong. But just when I thought I’d got a nice result, I’d apply those settings to another piece, and the result would be…weird, at best, horrid and unusable at worst. And the manual went in the Trash.
Here are some of my more successful settings, saved as Presets - if you to test any out I’ll screen grab the settings for you. They represent not a 'perfect result', but ‘the best I can mange’ for different styles of work - which isn’t really what you want to be sending to a client who’s used to receiving perfectly-vectorised, clear work which, above all else, LOOKS LIKE my work, not some terrible rounded-off vac-formed version with rounded-off edges and bits missing.
As you can see, even Graham had a crack at a preset:
Obviously, I could post the many more screen shots of the potentially hundreds of outcomes over the last eighteen months or so, but I’m not sure your eyes could cope. (And some might work for you - you never know. Just make sure you test them on the widest variety of line work that you can before committing.)
Breaking point came when the lack of a satisfactory Trace for a piece I’d drawn up in plenty of time made it late arriving with the client by a frustrating 24 hours. I’d begun to put out Facebook calls by this time, to see if anyone else had noticed or solved the problem, but it seemed no-one had (to be frank, I think people run away and pretend they can’t hear me when I gasp out any technical pleas.)
I just kept thinking…’y’know Mole, you can be impatient; I know it’s been months, but keep persevering! You’ll crack it. You just haven’t APPLIED YOURSELF’.
But I started reading around a bit more, and lo, stories began to emerge of frustrated pre-Image Trace users complaining about the new version. Caricaturists, graphic novel artists, comic artists, designers, illustrators and animators were all recording exactly the same thing as me. ‘I AM NOT ALONE!’ I wept, as I read Adobe’s attempts to help on assorted forum threads leading to hands-thrown-in-the-air users sidling resignedly back in the direction of their copies of CS3.
Then I had another idea. There ARE apps out there that can do this! I thought. Yep - for about $280. There are a handful in the App Store too (you’ll need to use a variety of search terms - vector, trace, line art and so on) - but none yet proven and none with reviews positive enough to convince me. I even downloaded one, which on arrival looked for all the world like a 1999 PC thing with a perma-stressing histogram, and just froze when I asked anything of it. *couldn’t open CLEAN MY MAC fast enough*
So this is how it went down in the end.
This morning, with yet another job hovering on the border between ‘yep, right on deadline but still OK” and ‘JESUS WOMAN WHERE IS IT???’ I did this.
- Installed my boxed copy of AICS3 on our server (‘cos there’s no CD drive in the iMac).
- Dragged installed AICS3 to iMac.
- Adobe's self-sabotaging anti-piracy nonsense kicked in and froze the app.
- Phoned Adobe to ask if I could have a download link for my legacy illustrator version SINCE I OWN IT and would like to put it straight on my iMac.
After ten painful minutes of repeatedly spelling my email address and name the doing-his-best-to-be-helpful bloke sends me a link to a download page - that’s offline till about 6pm that night (it’s lunchtime and my piece is late).
- Went back to AICS3 version on the server, THAT version’s now panicking as ‘it knows it’s been moved’ so had to put in serial number in again and re-register.
- Dumped my PSD file (my drawing) onto the server and opened AICS3, pressed ‘Live Trace’ on the ‘Lettering’ preset, hit Expand, Select all white + Delete, and BAM, in seconds it’s DONE.
- Dragged finished beautiful vector back onto iMac and sent to the VERY patient client who, fortunately, is all too aware of the vector hassles since her company’s just installed CC versions for the first time.
- Resolved to write this blog.
To prove I’m not a whinging madwoman rocking back and forth in my office chair doing the software equivalent of Miss Haversham, compare the difference.
1) is vectorised with CC's Image Trace after hours of messing with settings,
2) is CS3’s Live Trace ‘Lettering' preset done in one click,
3) Is the completed original.
For the foreseeable future, that’s how I’m going to do it.
This blog has amusingly drawn the same conclusion as me - which is, if you’re tracing drawings and sketches in CS5 and above and want the same result as pre-CS5 tracings, ‘it can’t be done’.
If anybody should happen to read this from Adobe, I’m all ears as to the exact settings I need to use to achieve the result shown here. Please! Thanks.
‘Cause it genuinely seems that a set of small but deadly weapons were changed in the name of progress, leaving thousands of users scratching their heads, questioning their perseverance and wondering where they put their copies of CS3.