My family does light artistic stuff for fun - almost exclusively drawn with mechanical pencil. This isn't fine art - no vine charcoal sketches of bowls of fruit, it is just for fun. We would like to transition from doing some of it for fun to generating graphics appropriate for use on sites like cafepress. But there is a huge gap between a pencil line drawing and a usable digital image.

So my very ignorant question is about taking line-artwork designed in pencil, and getting a good digital image out of as the end result, under the constraints of an extremely tight budget.

The problem points we are having include:


Scanned images always seem to suffer from the scan of the blank parts of the paper being an uneven gray with specks and a milky way of flaws instead of an even white. Scanning also suffers from highly uneven lighting (exacerbated by cheap paper probably, but likely a problem with expensive paper too) so that one can wash out actual lines as one tries to simply make the blank paper in the scan look white.

The scanner also picks up all sorts of erasure (of which we often have many) as the paper is deformed slightly and this causes the line to become visible in the scan. A section an eraser passed over can smear graphite in a way that is nearly invisible on paper, but become prominent when the contrast of the scan is increased to match the contrast of screen graphics. The low contrast of a pencil also makes it easy to fool oneself into thinking a line looks a lot cleaner that it really does.

I have photographed some papers at random in the past. This still leaves one a good distance from the perfect uniformity in the background one has in digital imagery, though it may be a better approach than scanning.

Current Route

Currently we scan the drawing. Then pull it into a layer in photoshop elements (we do have a dated copy of that) or something like inkscape and essentially recreate it painstakingly by tracing into new layers, but this is very tedious.


My question is: What is the best way to bridge the gap from a physical image to a clean looking digital image, particularly if the physical image was designed in pencil?

Pencil is our main medium, but some of us are decent at inking a drawing. I am wondering whether inking with french curves as aids might be the standard solution(??).

In the world of those who do stuff like this professionally, what are the standard approaches to this? How is it approached on an extremely restrictive budget?

P.S. An expensive tablet that can be used for drawing digitally is outside of the budget. A cheap one has so little resolution that it is useless.

  • Touching on your "budget constraints" issue; if you don't already have Photoshop, I would recommend downloading GIMP (it's free) as it will give you the tools to help you adjust the levels on your scanned images to help with the "grey" background problem.. Plus more.
    – SaturnsEye
    Apr 16, 2014 at 11:09

2 Answers 2


My #1 step to any transfer from traditional media to digital is a tight pen and ink drawing. If not the entire thing, an outline or key line to be painted/colored digitally.

Even though I may sketch in pencil, I always lay a sheet of vellum over the sketch and redraw with pen and ink. Then scan the pen and ink. This provides a much better scan and subsequent trace for painting digitally.

Whether or not to use tools like a French curve when drawing is your choice. At most, I'll use a small triangle for straight edges. But much of my stuff is taken into Illustrator to be redrawn with those tools, so curves are refined there rather than on paper.

If you are using pencil, it may be helpful to use a soft graphite, 2B - 3B, and learn to inject more contrast in the drawing phase. This would allow you to boost the white levels digitally and remove those issues with erasure strokes or the specks and hickeys which may be light and unwanted.


These is the prep work I do when I digitize a pencil or pen sketch.

  • I always scan the image to a very high resolution. I tend to scan them at 600dpi which usually is way more than I need. These huge images are easier to clean than tight small ones.

  • Scan the image as grayscale (if the scanner has the option) or turn it into grayscale/desaturate after scanned. If the image is scanned as a colour one, then there are plenty of more chances to introduce visual artifacts and uneven "white" backgrounds.

  • Play with the levels in Photoshop to try to get the background as white as possible moving the white point handle to the left. This will wash out the image a bit, so I also move the middle point handle to the right to try get the blacks a bit darker. This saves a lot of cleaning time. The ghost (erased) and guide lines, particularly, tend to disappear.

    • Now that the background is plain white, I use a not-so-soft white brush (or eraser) to try to delete the eraser specs or any offending lines.

I end up with an image that is not 100% ready but is certainly cleaner and easier to use, either to colour or trace. I either import it in Illustrator and retrace it (as described in Scott's answer) or keep it in Photoshop and continue retouching and/or colouring.

Mind you, sometimes, depending on the style I want to go after, I leave some of the guide lines and imperfections, just to give the final image a "handcrafted" look.

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