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Assyriologist in the digital world

How to draw copies of cuneiform tablets: Part 4: Drawing cuneiform signs with Pen Tool

By 3:35 PM , ,

In the previous post, we learned how to draw cuneiform signs with Pencil Tool. This time we are going to learn how to do the same with Pen Tool. You may ask, why bother learning another tool when the Pencil Tool is sufficient to do the job, as it was shown in a last post. There are a number of reasons: Pen Tool offers more precision than Pencil Tool, which is especially valuable in drawing cuneiform copies. Also, one needs to have a significant skill to master drawing with Pencil Tool, while Pen Tool  can be operated by anyone: in other words, you do not have to be good with hand drawing to produce perfect drawings with Pen Tool. Pen Tool is especially good for drawing curves and straight lines, exactly what is needed for drawing cuneiform signs, while Pencil Tool is better fitted for any irregular shape. One has to have a steady hand for drawing signs with Pencil Tool, or use more smoothing while any shape drawn with Pen Tool is going to be quite regular and smooth by definition. There are also downsides of using Pen Tool: the main is that Pen Tool is unintuitive because it operates differently than traditional drawing tools on paper, and, therefore, some people consider it complex and difficult. In the end, it all is a matter of preference: whether you draw with Pen Tool or Pencil Tool, but I would like to give you that choice.

Let's us go through some basics at first. Pen Tool makes paths or operates on paths in much more detailed way than Pencil Tool, therefore with a Pen Tool you have to know the underlying structure of paths in Illustrator, so anchor points and handle controls. In fact, with Pen Tool you actually create anchor points and decide about a placement of handles. Often used analogy is that drawing with Pen Tool is like connecting the dots, the problem is that the dots are just in your imagination until you place them with Pen Tool. Let's see how to draw a straight line with a Pen Tool. To create a straight line, select Pen Tool and click somewhere on your artboard: you just created the first dot (anchor point). Let go of the mouse (stylus) and click again to create another point: Pen Tool would automatically connect these points for you, making a straight line. You can click making points endlessly, creating a shape built of straight lines. When you place your Pen Tool close to the first point of the path, the small circle will appear next to the Pen Tool, meaning that you can close the path. Also, when you hold SHIFT key while operating a Pen Tool, the line you place will be placed in 45-degree angle from your starting point. And remember, you can always correct your lines with Direct Selection Tool by manipulating anchor points and handles, as I showed you last time.
Drawing straight line with Pen Tool
Drawing curved lines with Pen Tool is little more complex. When you place your point you have to hold your mouse down (or stylus), and drag it up, down or sideways. You will see that the anchor point you just placed produced handles. Drag further and you will see how it shapes the curvature of the line. When you drag upward, the line curves down, and when you draw downward, the line curves up. Let go of the mouse when you are satisfied with your segment of the line, and place another anchor point in different place, remember to hold your mouse and drag your handles to curve the line. Se video below:

You can modify the drawn lines afterward: when you hover over any of the curved anchor points, and click on it with Option key (on Mac) or Alt key (PC) held down, you will change anchor point to straight one. If this is the last anchor point you drew, and you see the handles, click and drag a handle with your Pen Tool while holding down Option/Alt key, and you will see you can modify the handle and so, the curve. By default, the anchor points made by setting Pen Tool and dragging it in any direction are made smooth, that is, handles are placed symmetrically, so the curves behave similarly on both sides of the anchor point. However, if you modify the handles with Opt/Alt key held down, you create a corner point (known also as cusp node), when handles are not symmetrical (or you get rid of handles completely by clicking on anchor point with Opt/Alt held down).

By now you may realize that Pen Tool can be very helpful with drawing cuneiform which in drawn form is basically built of straight and curved lines. In case of traditional hand drawing or drawing with Pencil Tool in Illustrator, one has to have some artistic skills to draw cuneiform. With Pen Tool, it is enough to have a knowledge of operating it to draw decent copies.

Let's try to draw actual cuneiform. First, we are going to go through the basics by drawing a generic vertical wedge, so later you can use it in practice on the actual copy: 1) First, set up a first anchor point in the place where the base of the wedge is going to be placed (just click and let go, we need a straight line, so no need to drag to produce handles); 2) Next, above it, where there is going to be a base of the wedge head, set up next anchor point, but this time hold mouse/stylus and drag slightly upward to produce handles. 3) Now, we are going to draw a wedge head: set up an anchor point slightly above and to the left to the previous one, and hold mouse/stylus and drag again slightly to the left, and do not let go mouse/stylus yet; 4) This time additionally press and hold Option key (on Mac) or Alt key (PC), and turn your mouse/stylus to the right, suggesting the direction of the top of the wedge head (alternatively, let go your mouse/stylus, and now press and hold Opt/Alt key, your tool changes into Anchor Point Tool; now drag the handle on the left and turn it to the right, and let go Opt/Alt key; now continue drawing with Pen Tool); 5) now, place the third anchor point of the wedge head to the right, repeating the same process: set up anchor point, hold mouse/stylus and drag it more to the right, do not let go the mouse/stylus yet; 6) now press and hold Opt/Alt key, turn the right handle to the left directing it to the first anchor point of the wedge head at its base, let go of the mouse/stylus (alternatively, you can modify the handle with Anchor Point Tool as above); 7) now move your mouse/stylus to the base of the wedge head, press and hold Shift key, set up the anchor point, let go of the Shift key, drag your mouse/stylus downwards to shape the curve accordingly, and let go of the mouse too (if you forget to press Shift key, your tool will change to Add Anchor Point tool or Delete Anchor Point tool, depending if you hover over the line or the anchor point respectively); 8) now, you can press and hold Cmd/Ctrl key to turn your tool to Selection Tool, or just select Selection Tool on the Tools Panel, and click somewhere outside the wedge to see it fully. The following video shows you the whole process:
Few additional tips: at any point you can press Opt/Alt to change to Anchor Point Tool to adjust handles, so your lines are curved exactly as you like it. Also, you can always switch to Direct Selection Tool (A key) to modify placement of your anchor points. Finally, if you abort the process at any point, you can continue drawing your path with Pen Tool by hovering over the last anchor point, clicking on it with Pen Tool selected, and dragging: Illustrator then places the handle in the direction of your drag, and allows you to continue drawing a path as soon as you let go, i.e., you can now place new anchor points to continue the path. As usually, you can move around your artboard at anytime by pressing and holding a spacebar, and dragging your mouse/stylus. Use also zoom in/out (Cmd/Ctrl +/- when you need): I personally prefer with very close up view.

All right, now we can draw the actual cuneiform sign on our copy. Once again, we will start with our first sign of the tablet, "50," this time drawing that with Pen Tool. The process is very similar to the one described above, but repeated several times for each of the wedges. When you are done, you can correct your drawing with Direct Selection Tool, but usually drawing with Pen Tool does not require many corrections: Pen Tool can be operated very precisely. See the following video:
Afterwords, you can join signs using Pathfinder or Shape Builder Tool, as it was explained in the previous post.

So now you should have an idea how to draw cuneiform signs with a Pen Tool. I suppose, it would require some additional training until you are comfortable with a Pen Tool, but at least this gives you yet another tool at your disposal. This concludes this part of the tutorial. Next time we are going to go through some additional tools for editing and perfecting your paths.

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  1. Very interesting article. I didn't realize that you could use Photoshop in projects like tracing cuneiform writing. Regarding Photoshop Pen Tool, it's one of the tools I've had the most trouble with. If you are like me you will find this very useful How To Draw A Line In Photoshop. It goes over lots of great techniques for tracing lines