Have you ever seen Illustrator progress shots from your favourite designers and wondered how and why their bezier handles are so obsessively arranged? We’re hoping to shed a little light on this seemingly unnecessary process. Note: this tutorial assumes a solid grasp of Illustrator & the pen tool.
Until recently, I definitely belonged to the What’s the point of that? club—and perhaps secretly the How did they do that? club. However I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and it turns out that keeping those handles perpendicular saves you a whole lot of time and effort.
Here’s a piece of lettering we created to play around with for this tutorial:
Here’s an outline preview (
⌘Y) in Illustrator:
Note: To preview your own beziers like this you may need to turn on the “Show handles…” option highlighted below in Illustrators’ Preferences (
⌘K). This reveals your beziers’ handles when you’ve got your artwork selected.
Notice all the bezier handles (save for a few strays; we’ll get to those later) are neatly locked to the horizontal or vertical plane. Let’s chat about why this is such a good practice.
It reduces your node placement options
That may kinda sound like a bad thing, but it’s really handy. Ever gone to a restaurant with a menu so long and exhaustive it practically needs its own ISBN? I hate that. Sometimes bezier node (or point) placement can feel as daunting as looking at that menu. Your sketch is sitting in Illustrator ready to be traced, your pen tool is hovering over the first curve like your finger over that fat menu; where do you begin? I don’t know about you, but more often than not I just choose the meal of the day–or in this case, the curves’ outermost point. Let’s talk about that.
That’s the secret sauce right there. The only way to keep those handles producing gorgeous shapes at 0° and 90° is to place your nodes strategically. This method may sound a little complex, but once it sinks in, it’s super easy. Hint: Hold
Shift when dragging out your handles to snap them horizontally & vertically.
See an overly simplified diagram below in Fig. 04. The red circles represent horizontal nodes, and the blues are vertical. See how each node rests on the outermost point of each curve.
Fig. 05 highlights this in more detail, and shows the optimum spot on the red curve for your node to set up camp.
You’ll know when you’ve laid a point wrong when you get the following problem:
Now we know that node placement doesn’t have to be random. In fact it shouldn’t be. Limiting ourselves to the placement technique described above allows you to ‘think’ a little less whilst vectoring, and pass some of the heavy lifting from your brain to your muscle memory.
Now let’s talk about bezier handles.
Getting sweet curves with bezier handles
You’ve never felt more at home with nodes. Now it’s time to give some love to our handles. Check out the GIF below.
If you have ever vectorised a piece of lettering or an illustration etc, then the above is an all-too-familiar sight. You will spend most of your time grasping for those tiny circles on the ends of the handles, and coaxing them into producing the perfect curve. There are no magic bullets here, the more you practice the more natural it will become.
The fantastic thing about HVBH’s ( Horizontal & Vertical Bezier Handles) is—again—the limitation factor. Your pinky should never come off the
Shift key whilst choosing optimal horizontal or vertical positioning for your handles. Restricting your options to one linear plane is very refreshing—I literally find myself feeling less overwhelmed now when approaching vector projects.
So what’s the catch?
So this is all sounding lovely, but there are a few things to watch out for when using HVBH’s.
Sometimes you can’t find the outermost point on a curve.
Sometimes a line ends before it reaches that sweet spot shown earlier in Fig. 05. It’s totally fine to let go of
Shift and just angle the handle however looks best. It’s not about being a bezier Nazi, just about your design looking as good as possible.
You gotta keep your nodes on a tight leash.
This method is much less forgiving than random node placement. If your nodes start going astray, your curves are going to get a lot less Monroe and a lot more Elephant Man. If a curve just isn’t working (see Fig. 07), try nudging the node around instead.
Placement can feel cramped or awkward
Sometimes the ‘outermost point’ (let’s say OP) that we keep clanging on about is smack dab next to another OP. Take a look at the fine mess below:
Not to worry, it’s all part of the fun. Zooming in nice and close will help you nail the finer details, as below.
It really is worth some extra time in sections like these when you consider the overall benefits of HVBH’ing.
In summary, here’s why we at The AGSC will be using HVBH’s in future projects.
We’ve talked about keeping it simple with node placement. If it saves you time, as a freelancer; what’s not to love. HVBH also cuts down on unnecessary node counts, which only clog up your artwork and add [gasp!] superfluous bytes to your file size. Not only that, done right, your curves will be smoother. And finally, because there is less guesswork, the whole vectorising process feels that little bit more automated; leaving you more time to pick up your real pens and draw more letters.
And to be honest, it’s kinda fun.
We’ll leave you with a few examples of HVBH’s being used by some awesome designers.
Most notably, fellow Aussie and incredible designer Dave Foster:
In closing, here is a great article for further reading on bezier handles and the Pen Tool in general. Hope you’ve enjoyed exploring HVBH’s (p.s. feel free to use that acronym liberally amongst your friends and family).
Any questions? Need a hand? Holler in the comments below. We will get back to you as soon as we can. If you think people would find this tut useful, you know what to do with those share buttons below. If you want to keep posted on more tutorials like the one above, or be a part of the shaping of this community and its content, subscribe here.