Creating the 'Samurai Werewolf' Poster


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During this tutorial, I'll walk you through my creative process and share some of my favorite Adobe Illustrator tips and tools as I create a poster for that one and only moon-cursed Japanese lycanthrope - the "Samurai Werewolf!"

You can find the source files in the directory labeled "source" that came in the files that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.


  1. Mechanical pencil + sketchbook
  2. Adobe Illustrator CS4
  3. Adobe Photoshop CS4

Step 1

I believe the most successful posters rely on a strong initial vision coupled with good decision-making throughout the artistic process. As you'll see throughout this tutorial, the final image differs from the preliminary sketches in many ways, but it still retains the spirit and tone that i was aiming for.

After gathering a folder full of reference images (thanks, Google image search!), I began to do a few very rough thumbnails. Then, once I had my idea out on paper, I tightened it up into a more refined composition sketch. Finally, I did a tight pencil sketch of both of the major elements of the poster: the samurai werewolf head, and the werewolf vs. vampire inset.

Step 2

My next task was to set up my Adobe Illustrator document. I created a 7" by 14" artboard, and once opened, I optimized my workspace by opening and organizing frequently used palettes and toolbars. My must-have palettes? Character, Path, Layers, Swatches, Color, Transparency, Gradient, and Stroke.

Step 3

I tend to use a lot of layers in my illustrations, and this one was no exception. The first layer that I always create is a white "frame." I set it as my top most layer and it acts as a mask for all of the artwork underneath it.

That way, I can extend images on layers out past the artboard, but not worry about seeing them. I started with a rectangle the size of the artboard, then created a larger one that I placed behind it, selected them both and used the Minus Front tool in the Pathfinder palette.

Step 4

After adding a few new layers (one for a scan and one for a background color) in the Layers palette, I began to mix some custom colors. I always throw out all of the generic Illustrator colors and mix my own simple, limited scheme in CMYK.

It's also very helpful when mixing your own colors in the Color palette, to set them as "Spot Color." This allows you to double-click that color in the Swatches palette at any time, adjust the CMYK mix, and have those changes automatically applied to any instance of that color in your document. Very convenient.

This is what my swatches palette looked like once I mixed my colors and drug 'em in there. You'll find that you can do a lot with limited colors.

Step 5

After adding a solid rectangle of color to the background layer, I dropped the scan into the "scan" layer (File > Place), resized it to fit the page, and set the blending mode to Multiply using the Transparency palette. This drops all of the white out of a placed image and allows you to work on layers underneath it by seeing through it.

Step 6

Next, using the scan as a guide, I roughed in all of the major components of the image. I used the Pen Tool to draw a very quick outline of each element, each on their own labeled layer.

When finished, I hid the "scan" layer (by clicking the eye icon next to it in the Layers palette), giving myself an idea of how the color, shape, and composition were working out.

Step 7

With the composition roughed out, I turned off the layers containing the rough scan and the FPO werewolf, and dropped in the final sketch of the werewolf head.

Next, I used the Pen Tool and began to work up the details on what would become the final version of the face. I kept the werewolf's helmet on a separate layer from the actual face for ease of editing.

Step 8

I was ready to start adding some decoration to the helmet. The first detail that I added was the moon shape, created simply by overlaying a small ellipse over a larger one. I then selected them both and applied Pathfinder > Minus Front.

Next, I used the Pen Tool to draw two paths that followed the curve of the bottom of the helmet and then converted those paths to outlines (Object > Path > Outline Stroke). Then, I used the Direct Selection Tool to narrow the points on the upper end of the strokes to simulate foreshortening as they wrap around the helmet.

I drew contour lines vertically on the helmet, making sure that they got gradually closer as they went back in distance. I also gradually reduced the stroke weight of the lines from front to back.

Once I fiddled with them enough that they looked convincing, I grouped them. Next, I duplicated the shape of the helmet, brought that to front. Then with the lines and the newly duplicated helmet shape both selected, I chose Object > Clipping Mask > Make. This created a mask that visually cut off the ends of the contour lines.

To add a thin outline to the crest above the face, I duplicated the shape (Command + C), pasted it in front (Command + F) and set the fill to none and the stroke to 5 pt. Next, I went under Object > Path > Create Outlines.

I once again duplicated and pasted in front the original crest shape, and with that and the newly outlined stroke selected chose Pathfinder > Intersect. This intersection of the two shapes created a clean, uniform, thin outline along the inner edge of the crest.

Step 9

I've shown a breakdown of the process by which I built the pagoda. Working from reference, I built the layers of the pagoda up from very simple shapes, then grouped them, forming one floor of the pagoda. I duplicated, moved upwards and slightly reduced the size of the floor, creating a smaller one on top.

Note: I've shown the progression in both Outline and Preview mode. Command + Y toggles between modes.

Stacked high, (atop a freshly created mountain) the floors along with a simple, sloped roof, convincingly form the silhouette of a pagoda!

Step 10

The next step (also the most time consuming) was the creation of the inset werewolf and vampire doing battle at the lower left of the poster.

You can see that as I progressed through the creation of the werewolf and vampire, I was constantly experimenting with other elements in the composition, such as the color of the horns on the main werewolf's helmet, and the addition of a banner for the eventual type that I'd put in the upper left of the piece. Also, I switched from a white border to a tan one.

Once I was satisfied with the shapes that make up the two characters, I went in to add detail to the samurai armor. In order to get evenly spaced plates on the armor, I drew the first and last segment lines that would appear in a specific section and used the Blend Tool to fill in the intermediate steps.

By double-clicking the tool and selecting Specified Steps, you can determine the number of objects that will appear between the two items you click the blend tool on. And, once applied, the intermediate steps will redraw when the original objects move closer and farther away from each other...always with perfect spacing!

Next, you'll see the scale pattern that i created for the chest piece of the armor. It starts out simply as a single v-shaped scale that I Option-dragged to the right to duplicate. Then, I used the Blend Tool once again to fill in the intermediate steps. With that complete, I made a few new copies of the row and staggered them to create the final pattern.

All that was left to do was to rotate it to the proper angle over the werewolf and create a clipping mask to clean up the edges.

Step 11

In keeping with the traditional Asian feel that I was aiming for, I decided to add radiating lines in the background. This was achieved simply by creating a large ellipse with the same center-point as the moon, adding a huge stroke (400 pt.) and selecting Dashed Line in the Stroke palette. After a few experiments with the segment and gap numbers, I found a frequency that I liked. Finally, I set the stroke to multiply at 30%.

Step 12

You can add a degree of interest to your work by converting a photo to high contrast vector art, which you can then manipulate in many ways. In order to add some much needed detail to the moon, I decided to do just that. I dug up a stock photo and imported it by going to File > Place.

Once in the document, I selected the image, lined it up with the stand in moon I had created earlier, and chose Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options. In the ensuing dialog box, I set the mode to Black and White and set Threshold to 128 (this determines the amount of detail the final will render with), Then I clicked Trace.

Next, I selected Object > Expand. This converted the Effect of the Live Trace to editable vector art.

Finally, I used the Magic Wand tool to select all of the white in the vector moon. I deleted the selected white areas and re-colored the remaining shapes with my dark tan color. Coupled with the existing light tan circle underneath, the resulting effect is a two tone graphic moon!

Step 13

Similar to the pagoda, I created the sword handles at the bottom of the poster from a series of very simple shapes, shown here in both exploded and assembled views.

Step 14

After a few more on-the-fly design decisions (upper-left type banner now a part of the border, addition of the second pagoda), I was pleased with how the image was shaping up...but I thought that the area behind the vampire looked a little barren.

I sketched a quick Japanese-looking tree and placed a scan of it on a new layer.

Again using Live Trace, I converted the scan to vector art.

I made a simple petal shape, Copied it and Pasted the Copy in Front. With the copy selected, I took the Rotate Tool and Option-Clicked at the base of the petal. This sets the anchor point for the rotation and brings up the Rotate dialog box.

I knew I wanted a 5-petaled flower, so i entered 360/5 in the degree field. When I selected OK, the petal copy rotated 360/5 degrees, or 72 degrees. I again copied and pasted in front and then hit Command + D to duplicate the Rotate command.

I copied and rotated enough times to make 5 petals, added a small ellipse at the very center, grouped all of the pieces, and I had my 5 petaled flower!

I scaled the group down to match the size of the tree branches and made two slightly different size flowers. I drug each of them into the Symbols palette, making sure to set the Type to Graphic in the dialog box. Then, with one of the flower symbols selected, I double-clicked the Symbol Sprayer tool (the coolest looking of all of the tool icons!), set the Diameter to .2 in. and the Intensity to 5. I hit OK and began to click on my artboard to spray flowers onto the branches.

Going back and forth between the two flower sizes that I created, I finished off my graphic version of a cherry blossom tree.

Step 15

Finally ready to add type to the poster, I ran the headline ("Samurai Werewolf") and subhead ("Cursed by the Moon; Redeemed by Bushido") through a translator and dropped the resulting katakana text onto a new layer. I selected Type > Create Outlines to turn the characters into editable vectors.

I resized and re-colored the words, creating a more appealing type hierarchy and added a tiny moon icon between the lines of text.

Step 16

By placing a few key shadows to certain areas of the image, I added both depth and mood to the overall piece. I started by selecting the type banner. I copied and pasted in front (Command + C, Command + F yet again!), then, I applied a Linear Gradient (of white and my dark tan color) to the new banner shape and set the Mode to Multiply. Adjusting the position of the gradient with the Gradient tool, I created a light shadow that subtly pushes the banner behind the mountains.

I applied more shadow effects to the small mountains below the banner, as well as on key parts of the werewolf's helmet, his armor and the sky above his head.

Shown side by side with the flat color version, you can see the richness and depth that the Multiply shadows add.

Final Image

As I mentioned at the beginning, a clear vision is a necessity when illustrating a poster like this, but you needn't have all of the fine details worked out at the onset of the project. Use Adobe Illustrator's powerful editing capabilities to help you create dynamic, evolving works of your own! The final image is below. You can view the large version here.