bezier-final

So What’s the Big Deal with Horizontal & Vertical Bezier Handles Anyway?

April 17th, 2014 By Category: Tagged:
17 Apr

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:

Fig. 01

Fig. 01

Here’s an outline preview ( ⌘Y) in Illustrator:

Fig. 02

Fig. 02

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.

Fig. 03

Fig. 03

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.

Node placement

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. 04

Fig. 04

Fig. 05 highlights this in more detail, and shows the optimum spot on the red curve for your node to set up camp.

Fig. 05

Fig. 05

You’ll know when you’ve laid a point wrong when you get the following problem:

Fig. 06

Fig. 06 – Moving the red circled node over to the left and up (as shown by the arrow) will fix up that curve nicely.

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.

Fig. 07

Fig. 07

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:

Fig. 08

Fig. 08 – This will often happen at stroke terminals such as the top of the ‘s’ in ‘Beziers’.

Not to worry, it’s all part of the fun. Zooming in nice and close will help you nail the finer details, as below.

Fig. 09

Fig. 09

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.

And you get to look like you know something your other designer friends don’t when you post your process shots to Dribbble and your handles look like Monica from F.R.I.E.N.D.S got to them.

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:

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

Fig. 11

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Fig. 12

…and others.

Fig. 13

Fig. 13 Okay Type (who has some lovely work)

Fig. 14

Fig. 14 Neil Secretario (incredible letterer)

Fig. 15

Fig. 15 Luke Dorny

Fig. 16

Fig. 16 Alexandr Ivanov

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.

Peace!

We Got a Stamp (The Modern Designer's Rite of Passage)
Remembering Oliver Coleman
  • http://topher.tv Chris Williams

    Great stuff guys. Beziers have always been a daunting task for me so I can really appreciate the insight on this. I’ll be trying it out for future projects!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks dude – yeah beziers can suck the life out of the best of us. Let us know how it goes!

  • Spencer Vaughn

    People have obviously never done calculus. “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.”

    • Shen

      My God, the horror!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      If only I’d listened harder in maths.

  • http://melissagin.com Melissa Ginsiorsky

    Really great read, guys! Designers all over are tippin’ their hats to you on this one.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks Melissa, glad you dug it!

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  • http://www.marcvila.net Marc Vila

    This is an amazing article, and a pretty deep read on Beziers.
    Thanks guys, this will help a lot on future projects for sure.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      So glad it’s going to help. Keep us posted on how those projects go, keen to see those HVBH’s in action! http://twitter.com/theagsc

  • Lauren

    I think there’s a name for that: OCD. But no denying it pays off and looks spectacularly flawless.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Haha thanks Lauren. Can’t imagine how much more anal you’d have to be to create a whole typeface.

  • Nuria Vega Bariani

    I’ve been vectorizing this way for a while, not knowing exactly if it was by instinct or just a organizational whim. I’m happy to find out it was the first option.

  • http://www.liquisdesign.com/ Liquis Design

    This is a great article! I do lots of hand-lettering and often have a rough time vectoring them, I’m planning on implementing this technique for my next project. Thank you very much!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks @liquisdesign:disqus! All the best with your upcoming projects.

  • Scannerlicker!

    Hey, Dave! Beautiful tutorial!

    Curious enough, I wrote a tutorial about bezier curves in type design the day before! :D How odd is that?
    You can have a look here: http://learn.scannerlicker.net/2014/04/16/bezier-curves-and-type-design-a-tutorial/

    And I believe that these two articles (yours and mine) can complement each other very well!

    Cheers!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Oh dude, that was a fascinating read. Absolutely fantastic points (haha pun intended). Sister articles for sure. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind us posting up a link to your tutorial on our blog? We’d love our community to read this.

      • http://www.scannerlicker.net Scannerlicker!

        I don’t mind at all, knowledge is for sharing! :D
        I added this article to mine, in the references sections, it’s worth the read and it covers what I just touched the surface! Cheers, Dave!

  • ElliotGeno

    I think the main purpose of this was to keep designers thinking about using less points. Less points equals smaller file size and smoother curves. By constraining the designers drawing method, it pushes them to be conservative on their use of vertices. But CC introduces a new ability that would likely make this whole practice moot. Path Segment Reshape. It allows you to quickly draw the vertices then push and pull the segment to reshape to a fit a curve to a path. (The functionality is borrowed from much older macromedia products.) The benefit of this is you end up with vertices only at the extreme edges of your curve! Quickly use the pen tool to click on each sharp edge around the shape of your image. Then go in afterwards and push and pull your segments to align to your path. http://tv.adobe.com/watch/learn-illustrator-cc/path-segment-reshape-in-adobe-illustrator-cc/

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks for the in-depth information, Elliot! Agreed, you could absolutely place down the necessary points and use Path Segment Reshape to get the curves you need—but I daresay you’d still benefit from placing those points at the ‘extrema’ of your sketch’s curves to yield the smoothest vector curves. I would have to play around a little more with Reshape to get a better idea of how it works though.

      Thanks again for the insight, looking forward to checking that out more, and we’ll update the article if we find it helps.

      • ElliotGeno

        Check out this twitter bird that I traced…

        https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1256960/TwitterBird.ai

        The black version is with the method I suggest and the white one is the horizontal/vertical method. Notice areas around the bottom of the beak where it is almost impossible to accurately describe that curve with only horizontal and vertical lines. Whereas I can describe the entire logo with only vertices at the changes of direction.

        I am not sure that a cubic curve would draw better if it’s control points are only on horizontal and vertical axes. I have never seen any documentation about it. It seems like a subjective preference or perhaps a challenge. Quite fun either way! (Almost like vector drag racing!)

        For an interactive example I created this demo in Flash to teach some colleagues exactly how cubic curves are interpolated for animation…

        https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1256960/%20Research/AS3/Curves/CubicCurve.html

        Drag the points to reposition them. Mouse left and right to project a point along the curve based on percentage. (Used for demonstrating the percentage of time that had passed in an animation.)

        As you mouse left to right, notice how each segment is subdivided by the same percentage. That is how bezier curves work!

        • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

          Oh wow that interactive demo is neat—I wish I was nearly that handy in Flash! Respect. I’m even more glad we wrote this tutorial now, as it’s given us the opportunity to learn so much from folks like you and @scannerlicker:disqus (his tutorial on beziers is where I was first introduced to the way beziers work, as your demo also describes. http://learn.scannerlicker.net/2014/04/16/bezier-curves-and-type-design-a-tutorial/).

          Thanks so much for sharing that.

          On the Twitter example, I totally agree that to stick strictly to only horizontal and vertical handles would be silly; you’ll notice we stressed it’s not about being a nazi, just getting the best design out. I think there’s areas on the black twitter bird that could have benefited from H&V, and areas on the white bird that called for the method you’re describing. Y’know what I mean?

          I reckon a healthy blend of the two would yield the best results :)

          • ElliotGeno

            For sure! Go ahead and use it! I have another on quadratic curves here:

            https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/1256960/%20Research/AS3/Curves/QuadraticCurve.html

            The important take away between the two examples is that quadratic curves are a bit simpler to construct. Therefore cubic splines are slightly harder to compute. That is why many animation programs will opt for quadratic curves. (Flash defaults to them although they have the ability to draw cubic curves programmatically) Illustrator is more geared towards presentation, so it rightfully sacrifices efficiency to get precision.

            And yes, whatever produces the best curve is what is most important in terms of design.

        • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

          P.s. we are considering posting a follow-up article based on what we’ve learnt, would you be cool with us sharing a link to your interactive demo (obviously with full credit to your good self)? We think it’s brilliant.

  • Sa,

    Going to share this with everyone at work – done a great job putting it into words!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks! Hope they enjoy it too :)

  • Vectorgeek

    Such great info. This made me smack my forehead. I’ll be working like this from now on.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks Vectorgeek, glad it’s helped.

  • josue

    what´s the name on the program that´s represented in fig 11 ?

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  • Alizia Vence

    wow! that’s very revealing! i never managed to make my curves look so smooth, and it really reduces de number of nodes needed! I used to place the anchor points randomly and ended up with weird corners, i secretly thought there had to be a better way.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Yeah that was so us, Alizia—feeling like point placement was so arbitrary, and sub-consciously going, “This is silly!” And the less nodes, the less crap you have to move around if you want to tweak a shape.

      Glad it’s helped!

  • Dawn Pennacchia

    YGR! (You guys rock!) I appreciate the great tutorial on HVBH! As a fellow graphic designer/illustrator they have always seemed a mystery to me- until now! Thanks!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Overjoyed that it’s proved useful Dawn, thanks for the kind words :)

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  • William Brennan

    Any tips for how to keep the width between two different strokes uniform when tracing?

  • William Brennan

    Any tips on how to keep the width uniform when creating thin lines as shown in the example image?

  • Michał Jarosz

    Great tutorial! I like this kind of stuff!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      So glad! Thanks.

  • Isabel

    I just love this post! Beautiful! Thanks a lot! :D

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      No worries :)

  • http://joshuabenedikt.com/ Joshua Benedikt

    Really great read! I will be cleaning up my illustrator game on my next project

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Nice!

  • Evan

    Man. What a post! Another name for HVBH’s is “extremums” (pronounced “ex-STREAM-ums.” But that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you use em!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks Evan, haha yeah as we sat down writing this, we racked our brains trying to think of what it was called… and of course we finally found out after posting. We might post a followup, we’ve learnt a lot from people’s comments. Thanks dude.

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  • Sis Berry

    Really helpful! Thanks!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Pleasure :)

  • Kyle

    This is brilliant. Even as a fairly experienced pen tool user, this immediately improved and expedited my work.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Oh, sweet—thanks Kyle!

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  • sQuar3

    Never thought to use the pen tool this way. I’m really excited to experiment this new technique!

    • http://www.sleepysky.com.ar Mx

      this it’s not a new technique, it’s how we have to use beizer tool. I’s been here since dinamics graphics were invented.

      • Sonya M

        @Mx, pretty sure he meant “new to me”. And while we’re being open and critical, it not how we have to use the beizer tool. But it is one effective way.

        @sQuar3:disqus, I’m always excited when I find new techniques too!

        • http://www.sleepysky.com.ar Mx

          that’s right!

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  • http://egypt.urnash.com Egypt Urnash

    I’ve been using Illustrator as my main medium since 2000, to the point where I’m currently drawing a graphic novel directly in Illustrator and I don’t do this. I do, however, have some rules of thumb that work great for me:

    1. Never turn more than 90º between two control points.

    2. Pull curve handles out to about 1/3 of the arc they control.

    3. Avoid S-curves between two control points.

    I can trace a sketch pretty quickly by applying these rules, and have curves that respond nicely to pulling them around when I need to edit them.

    That said these days most of my paths are drawn with the pencil tool; if you double-click on it to get its semi-hidden options and turn on “fill new pencils strokes” and “edit selected paths”, and turn off “keep selected”, you can whip out lots of solid shapes at high speed. If I draw and undo a path two times then I know I need to switch to the pen tool to get it Just Right.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks for the insights into your process, @egypturnash:disqus. Great tips!

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  • Matteo Cellucci

    This definitely increases my skills! Thanks!

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  • http://756designs.com Brian Kikendall

    Nice article! Very insightful.

  • http://i-mummy.com/ Andy P.

    Excellent! Thank you for sharing this approach. I’ll have to give it try in future projects as well.

  • ids

    Great article. I’ve been an avid Illustrator user going on 20+ years (Illustrator 2.0) and early on figured out this method on my own and use it quite extensively. It’s become so second nature to me that I do it without thinking anymore. Constraining to 0/45/90 degree angles makes things much more simpler, easier to control, and gives fantastic results. Nice to see the technique validated by another. Great work and keep spreading the word!!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks @ids!

  • Nethawk

    Wow, I learned more about bezier curves in your article, than in my last 5 years by just using them…

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Glad to hear it!

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  • Dave Foster

    Thanks for the mention. Another note worth adding on the handles is that the corner points do best with a handle coming out of them as well as both handles being as equal in length as possible, and matching the length of the previous handle for the smoothest blend. If that makes sense.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      It does, thanks Dave!

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  • http://www.shugahdesign.com Rich Savill

    I’ve had my own way of creating ‘perfect’ curves which I like, but this will be fun to try out on my next lettering project!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      All the best, hope it helps!

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  • Adamandia Kapsalis

    What if you want your lettering to retain the hand drawn look and not have such mechanical smooth curves?

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Hey Adamandia!

      Unfortunately poorly placed vector points aren’t (in my opinion) going to give you a nice hand drawn look. It depends how hand drawn you’re going for, but perhaps vectorising isn’t right for the project if the lettering needs to retain it’s hand generated feel. Scanning may be a better option, or perhaps vectorising and then working a little texture and warmth back in (in Photoshop) to pull back on the ‘mechanical’ or sterile nature of vector artwork. This article gives some insight into this option: http://theagsc.com/community/tutorials/simple-stamp-effect

      Hope this helps :)

      D.

      • Adamandia Kapsalis

        Thanks for responding and the info. :)

  • http://www.dani-kelley.com/ Dani Kelley

    I’ve been trying to do this more with my lettering lately, but felt like I was stumbling in the dark. Thanks so much for this article! Can’t wait to fiddle more with it on the couple projects I have going now!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Oh so glad it was of some use—all the best with your projects Dani!

  • Maciej Sawa Urbanek

    You might find this blog interesting as well: http://typies.blogspot.com/,
    and the spanish version with more content: http://letritas.blogspot.com/

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Thanks for sharing, Maciej.

  • AliNoorani

    Amazing post!
    Thanks

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Cheers!

  • Lucas goes random

    amazing, just came across you guys and immediately subscribed!
    just tried this out, and it’s a very nice tutorial for me, as a beginner graphic design student! keep the tutorials coming!
    any feedback on my quick test? :)
    greets from Belgium!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Hallo Lucas,

      Thanks for the kind words :) This is coming along nicely, however there are a few curves that still need some work; the top and bowel of the ‘a’, and the shoulder of the ‘n’ just need some love still—and perhaps the terminals down the bottom of both letters. Do you have a sketch you’re working over the top of? Remember to refer back to that constantly to make sure you’re keeping the integrity of the letters you originally drew.

      Hope that helps, and congrats on the great work. All the best,

      Dave.

  • Guest

    forgot the attachment :)

  • http://www.darren-reay.com/ Darren Peter Reay

    It’s one of those things in design, once someone shows you a particular way to do something you can’t contemplate doing it any other way.

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Hope it serves your lettering well. All the best!

  • Melvin Leidelmeijer

    Very helpful tutorial! Also surprising to see that a letter can be made of multiple pieces, I always thought that Illustrator artwork like this had to be made as one piece. Thanks and keep up the good work!

    • http://www.theagsc.com/ Dave Coleman

      Glad it helped, Melvin :) Thanks to you too!

  • Enoc Na Va

    THANKS man, I’ve tried it and it speeds up my workflow, but the best part of all its that the letters look, way better. great info

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