This tutorial makes the assumption that you have at least a working knowledge of using the Pen tool to manipulate Paths. Also, if you’re planning to play along at home, you’ll need to be able to scan your signature (or take a photo of it) and bring it into Photoshop.
The first step in this process is of course to get your signature from the paper into Photoshop. I recommend signing your name on a fresh sheet of white paper with a black fine point marker like the Sharpie Ultra Fine Point, this will lay down a line dark enough to make the job ahead easier, and because it’s a marker tip, you’ll get line thickness variations that will make the final result even cooler. Although you could use a blue marker and convert it to grayscale later, you’ll get a better starting point if you use black.
Using the highest resolution your scanner can capture, scan your signature into your computer and save it someplace where you’ll know where to find it, then open that new file in Photoshop. I scanned mine at 1200ppi to a .TIFF file.
Scans are never perfect, and marker isn’t absolutely consistent, so now we’ll take a few steps to ensure that the signature is as solid as possible.
Duplicate the layer with your signature layer (which I renamed Signature) by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). With the duplicate layer now selected by default, lets call up the Levels dialog and increase the contrast between the black and white areas of the image. Press Command-L (PC: Ctrl-L) to bring up the Levels dialog and grab the black point slider at the bottom left of the histogram and drag it to the right until sufficient contrast has been achieved.
(*note: If your Layers palette isn’t visible, simple choose Window>Layers from the Main menu.)
Lets also change the blend mode of the Signature copy layer to Multiply in the Layers palette, this will add the layer below to the mix, completing our darkening process.
Now that we’ve got a good dark signature, we need to convert the writing to a selection. Now you could try to select it with the magic wand tool, or by selecting a color range, but I’ve got a much better and more accurate to do this with black and white documents.
Press Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to Select All, then choose Edit>Copy Merged from the main menu, as it’s name suggests, this function will copy the document as you see it and not just what’s on the current layer. Go ahead and deselect when you’re done copying by pressing Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D).
(*note: The keyboard shortcut to Copy Merged is Command-Shift-C (PC: Ctrl-Shift-C) incase you’re as shortcut addicted as I am.)
Now that we’ve copied the canvas to the clipboard, lets switch over to the Channels palette (if yours isn’t visible, choose Window>Channels from the main menu). At the bottom of the Channels palette select the Create New Channel icon to create a new Alpha Channel. By default the new channel will automatically be selected, so lets go ahead and paste the image we just copied right into the new channel by pressing Command-V (PC: Ctrl-V).
Before we continue, lets also invert the colors in this new Alpha Channel by pressing Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I) or by choosing Image>Adjustments>Invert from the Main Menu.
Now we can easily select the signature by simply holding down the Command (PC: Ctrl) key and clicking on the thumbnail of our new Alpha Channel in the Channels palette.
Once the selection is made, click on the top channel (called RGB) to restore the document to standard view and switch back to the Layers palette. Once you’re back to the Layers palette, go ahead and turn off the visibility of the Signature and Signature copy layers by clicking on the little eye icons to the left of each layer thumbnail in the Layers palette. This will make it much easier to see our selection and will help us as we work through the next few steps.
Switch to the Marquee tool by pressing the M key, then Control-Click (PC: Right-Click) anywhere along the "marching ants" of the selection on the stage and choose Make Work Path from the menu that comes up. The Tolerance dialog box will then appear asking how many pixels we wish to use as tolerance for our path, in other words, how exactly the path should follow the selection. I find that a tolerance of 2-3 pixels usually renders a result that doesn’t require a ton of tweaking after the conversion. Click OK to turn the selection we just created into a Path that we can now manipulate and then convert to our Custom Shape.
Now it’s time to work with our path. This tweaking can be done using the Pen tool or the Direct Selection tool. I favor leaving the small waves and inconsistencies that give the signature character but I’ll still use the pen tool to straighten out a few lines and remove extraneous points along my paths. If needed, you can also turn on one of the Signature layers if you need a little reference.
Once you’ve gotten your paths modified to your liking and with either the Pen tool, Direct Selection tool or Path Selection Tool active, Control-Click (PC: Right-Click) anywhere along the path and choose Define Custom Shape from the menu that appears.
Your custom shape has now been saved and will appear at the bottom of the Custom Shape picker, but lets go one step further and save the signature as a Custom Shape Set for safe keeping because if you were to select Reset Shapes from the Custom Shapes menu right now you’d loose all your hard work.
From the main menu choose Edit>Preset Manager. When the Preset Manager appears, choose Custom Shapes from the drop-down menu at the top of the box, then navigate to the end of the thumbnail samples to find the shape you just created (new shapes are always added to the end of the list). Click on your new shape to select it, then click the Save Set button at the right of the dialog box. Give your signature a name you’ll remember, pick a location to save to and click OK and you’re all set.
(*note: Be sure to backup the custom shapes you’ve created so if you ever change computers or have to re-load Photoshop you don’t loose them. You can learn about alternate saving methods for custom Photoshop objects in my Installing And Managing Brushes And Other Presets tutorial.)
Now it’s time to use your Custom Shape Signature! Open a photo or other document you’d like to sign. I’ll be using this photo I took in San Francisco last year.
Switch to the Custom Shape tool by pressing the U key and make sure that you’ve got the tool set to Pixels and Custom Shape (ie. the blob) in the options bar at the top of Photoshop and of course, choose your new signature custom shape from the Shape Picker.
Create a new layer above your photo for your signature to live on by clicking the Add New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette, make sure you’ve set your foreground color to the one you want your signature to be (I chose white) and then click and drag your signature onto the stage making sure to hold down the Shift key to constrain it’s proportions.
And there you have it, your own signature as a vector Custom Shape perfect for signing photos, adding copyright watermarks, forging your wife’s name on your new motorcycle purchase, whatever your little heart desires!
(*note: Since I used my own signature here, no download is available for this lesson… not that you should need one anyway.)
Lesson Files + Additional Resources
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