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Digital Cuneiform Blog

Assyriologist in the digital world

How to draw copies of cuneiform tablets: Part 2: Drawing with Pencil Tool

By 8:23 AM , ,

In this post, I am going to explain how to use Pencil Tool (accessible by pressing N) to draw the contour of a tablet. I assume that you have a command of basic concepts of Illustrator, but if not, see this tutorial for understanding what are paths in Illustrator, and how to work with them. I am going to focus on paths and editing paths in a later post as well, so you might be able to follow the tutorial without this knowledge.

Before we are going to elaborate on Pencil Tool, you should know that the Pencil Tool, as any other tool fitting to hand drawing in Illustrator (e.g., Paintbrush Tool, which we are not going to cover in this tutorial), best operates with digital stylus (pen), and requires some skill to master (essentially, you have to learn to hand draw on computer, which is different than on paper). There is a number of solutions on the market for digital styli, including computers which are equipped with those (e.g., Microsoft Surface). However, the most affordable solution is to purchase a graphic tablet (pen tablet), which can be as low as $80. I recommend Wacom brand of pen tablets, the most reliable brand on the market, which works very well with Illustrator and other graphic software on the market.

Pencil Tool is the best fitting for hand drawing, and Illustrator makes it particularly convenient. In fact, operating Pencil Tool is pretty intuitive and should be easy enough for anybody used to actual drawing. Features of Pencil Tool in Illustrator differentiate it from other vector graphics software. Let's see the options of the Pencil Tool (double click on Pencil Tool on Tools Panel to access them):
The Fidelity is the option which regulates the smoothing of the drawing: if you intend drawing regular, smooth strokes, you should use higher setting of the Fidelity. If you want to draw more irregular, nuanced strokes, then you should use lower setting of Fidelity, and lower setting is the most desirable in our case because the tablet has an irregular shape.

Two crucial settings you should leave checked are "Keep selected" and "Edit selected paths." Keep selected makes all drawn strokes automatically selected. Edit selected paths allows for correcting and redrawing the drawn stroke, as long it is selected (so it works perfectly with "Keep selected" option). This is one of the most convenient ways of drawing in Illustrator, which makes it perhaps the best tool for hand drawing on the market.

Now, we should prepare our drawing. Check that you have Photograph on locked layer, and you have a new layer (called, e.g., "Contour") on top of it. Then you can dim the layer with the photograph if you prefer: just double click on icon of the layer with the photograph on Layers panel, select "Dim Images to: 50%" (change percentage if you like), and click OK. Now the photograph is dimmed and drawing on it should be clearer.

Now we should check the properties of the stroke we are going to use for drawing. To access that you have to open Stroke panel (Window/Stroke). To read more about Stroke in Illustrator see here. In this tutorial, we are going to focus on some basic qualities of the stroke.

First, Weight, which is set up in points. For our purposes, we are going to use weight 0.5 pt, although the contour itself might be drawn with bigger weight, like 1 pt or the like. Later, you can edit weights of your strokes, so no worries, we can change it depending on the situation. You should also change caps and joints (corners) of the line: to better emulate traditional hand drawing they should be round (second option in "Cap:" and "Corner:" row). To see the difference, you may draw few lines and change their caps, corners, and weight. The change would be valid only for selected lines.

With everything set up, we can start drawing. Select Pencil Tool (N), be sure that Stroke's Weight is set as it should be, and start drawing following the contour of the tablet, as on the video below:
To move around use a spacebar, which changes the tool to Hand Tool, so you can move to different parts of the drawing (just press and hold a spacebar, click and drag your drawing with a mouse/stylus to the desired place and let go of the mouse and spacebar). To zoom in and out use Zoom Tool (Z) or keyboard combination Cmd/Ctrl +/- to zoom in/out. When you are done, remember to close the path, hold down Option or Alt key, and the Pencil Tool would show small circle to indicate that you can draw the closed path. Then release Option/Alt key. The result should look like that:

Remember to draw closed and joined paths: common mistake people do is making a contour of several unjoined segments. If you draw a contour composed of independent segments, any operation on the contour would be difficult because you will have to select each segment. To prevent that, make sure you use "Edit selected paths" option: when you stop drawing to move to another place of your artboard, resume drawing from some place already drawn, so Illustrator continues the existing path and is not drawing a new path. Look once again at the video, which shows exactly that: the path is resumed and corrected several times, but it is still one object.
This concludes this part of the tutorial. In the next part, we are going to learn how to draw wedges.

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