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.
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.