How to Trace in Illustrator

Tracing in Adobe Illustrator allows you to use a photo or drawing as direct inspiration for a new project. It also gives you the power to start an illustration as a pencil sketch on paper, scan it, and then translate it into a digital version. Illustrator’s Live Trace feature makes this process extremely easy, as it does most of the grunt work. Still, the program gives you complete control over tracing detail, fills, coloration, and much more. 


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Using Live Trace

  1. First, open the file that you want to trace in Illustrator. Make sure your source image is selected, and then click on the Control panel to access Tracing Presets. From there, select the Options button.  
  2. Even if you just want to use the default Live Trace mode, you still might want to tweak a few options first. In the Options window, you’ll have access to over a dozen unique settings that can affect the final trace. When you’re happy with how the preview image looks, click on Trace. 
  3. If adjusting options is unnecessary or too complex, simply click the Live Trace button in the Control panel. When the trace finishes, you’ll still have the ability to adjust the result. Just select the new image, and then click on Tracing Options Dialog in the Control panel. 

Additional Tracing Options
Here are a few of the trace settings you can change in the Options window:

  • Palette: Allows you to select a specific color or grayscale palette for the traced image.
  • Blur: This blurs the source image before performing Live Trace, in order to smooth out any rough edges.
  • Strokes: When selected, Live Trace will use the original image to create stroked paths.
  • Fills: When selected, Live Trace will use the original image to create filled areas.
  • Corner Angle: Your traced image will have a series of anchor points, and this setting allows you to adjust how sharp a corner anchor point will be.   

Using a Preset

  1. Presets add specific functionality to the tracing process. For example, the Comic Art preset is probably a great starting point for comic book artists to transfer their work into a digital medium. To access presets, click on the Control panel, then Tracing Presets, and then select the Options button.  
  2. Once in the Options window, you’ll have the ability to choose a particular preset. Most of them are self-explanatory, such as Photo High Fidelity, Hand Drawn Sketch, and One Color Logo. If you’re unhappy with how a preset has affected the tracing process, it’s easy to go back and try a different one.
  3. If you’ve come up with a custom Live Trace setting that you’d like to use in the future, it can also be saved as a preset. To do this, go back to the Tracing Options window and enter the settings you’d like to save. Then, click Save Preset. You’ll need to enter in a name for your new creation — for example, Colorful Street Art, or Epic Landscape Photography — and then click OK.
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