10 January 2012

Digital Mixed-media techniques


From sketching the initial concept all the way through to final piece, here you will follow the creation of an editorial illustration that mixes rich textures and flowing vector curves.
The artwork featured is Simon Brader’s The Donor Trail. It was commissioned by the Radio Times for a feature on a Radio 4 play about the emotional journey of a donor heart, as seen from the perspective of the donor’s and the recipient’s families.
Simon says the illustration, which was selected for the AOI’s Images 35 annual and exhibition, represents the dichotomy of a heart transplant: that for someone to live, someone else must die. The hourglass serves as a metaphor for their respective lives.
Simon hopes the tutorial will increase your confidence in mixing Illustrator’s bezier curves and clipping masks with Photoshop’s colour management. The tutorial should also provide an insight into the thought process that goes into creating distinctive work to a brief.
Digital Mixed-media techniques

Step 1

It’s an obvious point, but still one worth emphasising: when working to a brief, the first thing to do is make sure you really understand it. If you don’t, the most amazing image you come up with might be rejected because it doesn’t fit the application the client has in mind. Once I’ve got my head round the brief I start brainstorming, writing down key ideas which quickly turn into rough thumbnail sketches.
Click to view full size image

Step 2

Having decided which idea to pursue, take a little time to find reference material for the elements you want to include in the illustration. For this work I needed images of a hoodie and a shirt. Wherever possible I take my own photos of the elements as I want, as that gives me control over perspective and lighting and helps keep the composition exactly how I want it.

Step 3

I don’t usually scan in the rough sketch, but you can do so if you feel happier working over it. I would place the scan into Illustrator as that allows you to quickly alter the composition and colours.
If the client wants a rough, this is the stage at which I would send it. The most important thing is that the concept should be clear.

Step 4

Once the client gives you the green light, it’s then a case of nailing the composition and getting movement into the illustration. The beauty of Bezier curves is their endless adjustability, and I spend a fair amount of time tweaking them to get the image to flow. When using the Direct Selection tool (A), it is sometimes useful to hold down Shiftto constrain anchor points to move at 45-degree angles.

Step 5

Once I have a composition that I’m happy with, I play with the colours – and this also affects the feel, of course. My concern here is the reds – the blood and its background.
It’s important at this point to consider how the piece will be used. Paper quality is one factor in choosing colours: the more porous the stock, the more contrast needed between tones.

Step 6

I use textures as another element to help convey the concept, and at this point in the process I felt it was time to step away from the computer and get my hands dirty creating them. The heart’s background was sponged acrylic paint for a rich fleshy texture. For the hoodie I decided on ink, to represent the donor’s fading life. I also chose brushed paint for the shirt and ink wash for background.

Step 7

I scan in my textures at 300dpi and save them as JPEGs – perfectly adequate for most print jobs unless there is the possibility of needing to enlarge the scanned image at a later stage.

Step 8

I use a variety of processes to work on the textures in Photoshop, using basic adjustments of Levels (Cmd/Ctrl + L), Hue/Saturation (Cmd/Ctrl + U) and Color Balance (Cmd/Ctrl + B).
In the background, I want the area around the ink wash to show some of the details beneath, so having adjusted the Levels, I go to Select > Color Range, select the white with the eyedropper and use the Background Eraser tool (E) to create transparent areas.

Step 9

Be sure to save your textures as PSD files. That way you retain the flexibility to link them into Illustrator files while subsequently adjusting them in Photoshop (with layers if needed).

Step 10

Having placed my texture in Illustrator, I go to the Layers panel and drag the texture layer below the shape layer it’s meant to apply to, then select the shape layer and hit the Make Clipping Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel. Now I have a masked texture whose shape is editable with the Direct Selection (A) and Pen tools (P).

Step 11

Repeat the last step until all the textures are in place. It’s now that the illustration really starts to come alive.
If you need to adjust any texture, select it and go to Edit > Edit Original to switch to Photoshop. After you save your changes, Illustrator will ask whether you want to update linked files – click Yes.

Step 12

Once I’m happy with the main layout and colours, I use the Pen tool to create highlight shapes where needed, adjusting their layers’ transparency as I see fit to integrate the shapes.

Step 13

When I’m done editing the image in Illustrator, I export it to a JPEG that will act as a template for subsequent steps. Tick the Use Artboards box to ensure the exported artwork is cropped to the size you worked to.

Step 14

Next I open the JPEG in Photoshop and copy and paste every layer from the Illustrator file into Photoshop as pixels, basically rebuilding the whole image like a theatre set. I don’t use Smart Objects at this stage because my intention is to work on the elements as rasterised artwork. This system makes it far easier to add extra shadows and highlights.

Step 15

With the Pen tool in Paths mode, I trace round areas where I want more highlights, then convert the path to a selection (right click, then choose Make Selection with a feather radius of 0). I use the Burn and Dodge tools (O) to add a little more depth to some of the textures and highlights. Here I’ve highlighted the tie’s swirls to emphasis movement.

Step 16

The last step is to do final adjustments on the separate layers before flattening, and then tweak the overall colour balance and levels.

Simon Brader

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