Creating stunning, detailed typography with Illustrator

This is not a step by step tutorial on how to create typography. This will help you much more than that.  Upon finishing my latest experiment with type, I’d like to share a few of the important aspects of the creation process. The project took me a good 14 hours to have it completed, but it paid off in the end and I learned some lessons along the way.

What did I learn that you can utilize when creating typographic designs?

  • Dedication in your work is the key to achieving the best results
  • Refer to artists you like more than step-by-step tutorials. This way you can incorporate ideas and add your own touch of creativity
  • Trust yourself
  • Practice, practice, practice. I created this two years ago now, and I’m constantly improving. So can you!

People are often afraid of spending too much time in a project in event that it’s a flop. They often doubt their full potential, but embracing it will take you long ways. What is more important: the chance of having a solid-grounded piece, or having something that’s mediocre?

Here’s the results I obtained for the illustration I made, titled “Justice” and created with a fineliner, Illustrator, and Photoshop.

Justice type illustration full

1. Have Influence

Do you have a favorite artist? If not, go find one. Do it now. Find people that use similar art styles as you and incorporate new ideas to help you brainstorm. Sumeco is an excellent graphic artist that creates high-detail images. His typographic style is very detailed, organic, and often uses 3d renders to assist the visual appearance of the type. The Behance Network (add me!) and Fecal Face are excellent sites that provide artwork in different mediums to explore artists. If you would like an invite to become a part of the Behance Network so you can share your own inspiration and projects, comment on this post and ask for an invite and I’ll send one to you.

Sumeco’s infamous “Empire”

2. Understanding Contrast, Negative Space, and Positive Space

When drawing on paper to scan into Illustrator, it’s helpful to use a strong contrast between what is positive and negative. Colors and shading is easiest to add in Illustrator, so be sure to make the outlines significantly darker than any shading you may have in the sketches for visualization purposes (unless you choose to trace by hand).

Negative space can be defined as non-drawn area, any area on the paper, canvas, or screen that hasn’t been touched whether it be inside or outside any shapes. Positive space is any area that is filled in with whatever you use to draw. This is something that can heavily alter the way people see your image. A piece with 90% negative space will be seen as minimalistic, especially if the positive space is grouped together to a single area of the canvas, screen, or paper. Conversely, something with 50% negative and 50% positive space will be seen as more complex, detailed lettering. This is what I aim for when creating type.

3. Draw it out

Sketching out what you want is a great way to plan your image and apply your ideas to a solidified platform. Especially when working with Illustrator, you have the ability to scan an image in and trace over it, or use the Live Trace feature (will go over that later) to do it for you. I began by sketching a single letter a page, starting with the “J” using a black Pilot Fineliner, a liquid based marker / pen that has excellent control on the paper, and ideal for those who choose to use Illustrator’s Live Trace because of the smoothness of curves you can make. Drawing out letters provides an organic, humanistic feel to spark your work with more originality. Even if you’re not comfortable as a hand-drawn artist, sketching it will give you practice for the future and allow you to express your style on paper. Besides, it’s just a rough idea for when you scan it into Illustrator.

Lettering by hand is only one option, and certainly typography is a field that exists in the digital world and the paper world alike, so don’t hesitate to have a preference. Use what suits you. There are also free hand drawn fonts for those who prefer a completely digital platform but still want an organic feel.

Draw it big. Really, this is crucial. Make it as big as the scanner glass will let you. I drew a letter per page. The smaller it is, the less detail you can squeeze in. It will drastically enhance the quality of a Live Trace in Illustrator if you make it big.

Justice on paper
The “U” in Justice dans le papier. Yields a strong amount of positive space and drawn large for maximum detail

A closeup of the letter “J”

4. Scanning / Tracing

Now, no need to let you know how to use your scanner. Put it in, and save as a TIFF image for best quality. If you can’t, no worries, it’s only the draft anyway. Open up the file in Illustrator and decide which method you would like to use for tracing:

1. Live Trace
Advantage: Infinitely faster than tracing your image by hand, and will allow you to adjust the lines afterward if the tracing isn’t perfect.
Disadvantage: It’s automated and doesn’t produce the ‘perfect’ result as if you hand traced it.
Live Trace Tutorial

2. Hand Tracing (Pen Tool Tracing)
Advantage: Get a more personal feel by hand tracing the image in Illustrator. This is the method that allows you to focus the most on your work and make every line perfect.
Disadvantages: It takes loads of time if your work is detailed, round up your coffee bill and you have a plethora of layers if you want the maximum flexibility. Those inexperienced with the pen tool may find it difficult to use.
Simple Hand Tracing Tutorial

3. Tablet Tracing
Advantages: The most personalized tracing method and doesn’t take as long as hand tracing.
Disadvantages: Difficult to get used to if you’re new to using a tablet.

4. Adding Color

Color can drastically enhance or degrade your image depending how it is used. For those who choose to use color, it’s good to start with two or three colors to begin with and add more if you feel it’s necessary. Try to aim for two colors that contrast each other noticeably to the naked eye. An easy way to add color to your detailed type is by using Illustrator’s Live Paint. You can add highlights, backgrounds, effects, and fine details after completing it in Illustrator.add-color

A shade of brown meets the letters and beige is applied to the “J”. A solid gray background
allows better visualization for the parts of the letters that will remain white.

add-color2The beige is completed

5. Make the background shine
Bringing your illustration into Photoshop afterward gives you the flexibility to brush beautiful subtle detail into your work. Using the soft round brush at 10% opacity can produce great results to give the text a “smokey” glow around the edges and brings focus to the type more than the rest of the background. Using gradients and seamless textures can make your background more interesting than just leaving it bland, but keep in mind that since most of the focus should be on the text itself, it’s not good to make the background too detailed. @ava7patterns has a great website for downloading free textures, there’s over 1000 of them. With any texture, keep in mind you can use layer mask gradients, opacity, and you can desaturate them to remove the color and allow just the texture to remain. I added “swatches” to my background and a desaturated multicolor glow to mine.


6. Watermark it!
…so people can appreciate your work, but not steal it! It’s not always necessary, especially if your image is low-resolution and you have the high-res version. I added my corporate name using a Helvetica font, and placed it fashionably so it doesn’t harm the visual experience of the image.

Justice closeup 2Closeup of “S”, color swatches in background, and vertical watermark

Justice type illustration fullFinal result


7. Conclusion
Remember, dedication is the key. Use your own typographic style that you feel the most comfortable with to achieve the best results. Is there anything that I missed that you would like to see? If so don’t hesitate to mention it in the comments and I’ll add it to the tutorial and give you credit for it.
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to Stumble this post or Retweet it if you enjoyed it!

Posted Under: Design by Robin
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The drawing is awesome but the type is not quite understandable!

love the detail of the font but not too happy about the background, also your pen works is amazing but still if you look a it from a distance and against that background looks like pasta on asphalt, still props on the detail of the artwork and the dedication.

Awesome walk through, Maybe this will give me more of a reason to practice drawing, I tend to stick to PS but wish I'd utilize Illus more often.

Nice work the Justice piece is really cool.

This is a great tutorial, it has helped me create an organic feeling to my type that I haven't been able to produce on my own! I would like to become a member of The Behance Network!

Thank you!

its really amazing great and superior work man!!
one favor can u send me some of the tutorial of yours to my mail thanks for the link man take care

that's all? i thought im going to see a step by step procedure of your work! +)

Hey Jay, thanks for the comment. Keep up the typography practice, it's very handy!

That really came out incredible. I have experimented with creating some types, but you shown some amazing skills here.

Amazing work... I used to work in a graphic design/advertising/promotions agency (tech support/networking). Miss those days...

I cant believe how detailed and intricate these designs are. It looks great

Really great drawings! I love using the live trace feature myself.

It really very good drawings

Great post - and I think a lot of this advice is suitable for people in other creative fields, particularly the idea of dedication and finding others in the field who you can respect and observe their efforts.

darkened jade’s last blog post..Write For Keeps

Fresh type man, makes me wish I could draw and use illustrator... still stuck in Photoshop mode over here.


  1. Sabsinthe» Justice Prevails says:

    [...] addictive habit created by our busy busy lives not feeling like there’s time for art. The tutorial on creating the Justice illustration walks through the multi-step process of this piece. If there’s no time for creativity, why [...]

  2. “Justice” detailed Typography | Design You Trust. World's Most Provocative Social Inspiration. says:

    [...] can see more artwork by Ocularharmony, and view the walkthrough of creating Justice here Posted under: Art, Design Articles, Illustrations, Tutorials Tagged with: design • [...]

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