Authentic, retro looking T-shirt designs are all the rage these days – so in today's tutorial we'll take a heavy dose of inspiration from the 70s and create a cool, surf-style graphic with tons of retro appeal.
This tutorial will also demonstrate how to incorporate an aged and distressed look to replicate washing machine wear and tear.
We all know that screen printing four-color artwork is expensive and more suited to large quantities – so in the final part you'll see how easy it is to print your designs onto special iron-on transfer paper and apply it to a T-shirt, which is an ideal solution if you just need a handful for your local club or friends. Surf's up, so let's hit it!
You’ll find some files in the "source" folder. You’ll also need the following stock photography and font to complete this tutorial.
- Tropical Island
- Palm Tree One
- Palm Tree Two
- The medium version of the Surfer
- Flower One
- Flower Two
- Flower Three
- Flower Four
- Crumpled Paper
- Unicorn Font
Before We Start
Before attempting to recreate any graphic style, it's important to spend some time researching your subject matter. A quick Google search should provide you with enough information to get your creative juices flowing. Screen printing in the 70s was not as advanced as it is today. UV inks were not introduced until the late 70s and at that time very few printers had the equipment to cure the inks. It wasn't until the mid-80s that UV inks were being used and accepted by a large number of screen printers. It's also worth noting that T-shirt designs from the 70s usually had the main design on the reverse and a smaller logo, or graphic applied to the front pocket area.
We'll eventually print our design on an and A4 sheet, so create a corresponding, RGB Photoshop document at 300 dpi with the Background Contents set to White.
Note: If you've lucky and got an A3 printer, by all means set your artwork up in proportion, but be sure your design is not too large for your garment!
Go to View > New Guide, then check the Vertical button and enter 10.5. cm in the Position field. Now press Shift + Command/Ctrl + semicolon to Lock Guides.
Use the fly-out menu situated top right on the Swatches palette to navigate and load the "Retro_swatches.aco" from the "source" folder, then set your Foreground color to "Mid blue" (use the fly-out menu to select List if you need to). Select the Shape Tool (U) and highlight the Shape Layers, Create new shape layer and Ellipse icons on the Options bar. Now click the Geometry options arrow, then select Fixed size and enter 15.5. cm for the width and 17.5 for the height, also check the From Center option. Next, click to add the shape, position at the top of your canvas and snap it to the centre guide. Rename the layer "Ellipse".
Now select the Subtract from shape area icon and add another ellipse slightly smaller than the first one (15 cm x 17 cm). Don't worry if it's slightly off centre – we'll fix that next.
Grab the Path Selection Tool (A) and Shift-click to activate both paths (you'll now notice the Vector mask thumbnail is highlighted), then click both the Align vertical and Align horizontal icons in the Options bar.
To make the blue rim marginally thicker, select your inner path, then hit Command/Ctrl + T to activate Transform, then select the middle square in the Reference point location box and enter 99% in both the width and height fields. Keep the path active for the next step.
Snap a horizontal guide to the selected path. Set your Foreground to white and add a smaller new shape layer below the "Ellipse". Use the Path Selection Tool (A) to snap it to your guides, then rename it "Clipping mask". Place this layer within a group folder called "ILLUSTRATION".
Add a new layer at the top within the folder and label it "Sky grad". Change your Foreground color to "Mid blue" again, then set the Gradient Tool (G) to Foreground to Transparent and Shift-drag a Linear Gradient from the top of your canvas as shown. Next, Option-click your cursor between this layer and the "Clipping mask" layer thumbnails to clip the gradient.
Set your Foreground color to "Pale yellow" and add a new shape layer and position as shown. Name this layer "Sun" and use the same technique to clip it to the "Sky grad" layer.
Command/Ctrl-click the "Sun" layer thumbnail to load it as a selection. Add a conventional layer above it and label it "Sun grad". Set your Foreground color to "Pale orange" and Shift-drag a 45 degree Linear Gradient (G) within the selection – again with the Foreground to Transparent preset. This layer can now also be clipped.
Let's move onto extracting the elements to create the illustration. As each image is different, we'll use a combination of techniques. Open the tropical island image and Crop (C) as shown. Switch to the Channels tab and cycle through each channel in turn to see which one holds the most contrast between the land and sky – in this case it's the Blue channel. Drag the thumbnail over the Create new channel icon at the foot of the palette to duplicate it. Now hit Command/Ctrl + L to access the Levels dialogue box and set the Input sliders as shown.
By default, white acts as selective channel areas, so hit Command/Ctrl + I to Invert the channel to negative.
Command/Ctrl-click the channel thumbnail to load it as a selection. Activate the top RGB composite channel and return to the Layers tab. Double-click the layer to release its transparency. Now Press D to restore your Foreground/Background colors to black/white, then hit Option + Delete/Backspace to fill with the selection with black. Next, press Shift + Command/Ctrl + I to Inverse the selection and hit delete. Deselect and choose Image > Adjustments > Threshold and enter the maximum value of 255.
Now grab a medium-sized hard brush and remove any remaining while holes.
Drag the layer thumbnail into your working file at the top of the stack within the "ILLUSTRATION" folder and resize/position as shown.
Crop the first palm tree and apply a Threshold setting of 150 directly to the image. Now use a medium-sized hard brush to remove any remaining background. Next, release the layer transparency, then set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to a Tolerance of 5 and Contiguous unchecked in the Option bar. Now select the white background and hit Delete.
Place as a new layer within the same folder, Flip Horizontal and resize/position as shown.
Crop the second palm tree and repeat the channel masking process to isolate the tree from the background.
Import it as a new layer within the same folder and resize/position as shown.
Shift-click to highlight these three layer thumbnails and hit Command/Ctrl + E to Merge Layers. Now clip the resulting layer and rename it "Palms".
Load the layer as a selection, then fill with "Mid blue". Keep the selection active, set your Foreground to "Dark blue" and use a large, soft-edged brush to darken the top and right side.
Open the birds, set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to a Tolerance of 50 and uncheck Contiguous. Now select the background. Inverse the selection, then go to Select > Modify > Contract and enter 3 px.
Fill the selection with "Mid blue", then Copy > Paste as a new layer within the same folder. Name this layer "Birds" and clip it to the layer below.
Open the surfer and grab the Pen Tool (P). Ensure the Paths and Add to path area options are checked, then draw a closed path just inside the surfer's skin as indicated in red. Double-click the path thumbnail and name it "Path 1".
Note: You can fine-tune your path at any time by pressing Command/Ctrl to access the Direct Selection Tool (A) to adjust individual direction/anchor points as required.
Click the Create new path icon at the foot of the palette and label it "Path 2", then plot a path around the surfboard.
Now apply a Threshold setting of 114 to eliminate the tonal range.
Release the layer's transparency and name it "Surfer". Set the Magic Wand (W) to a Tolerance of 1 and uncheck the Contiguous option. Now select the black areas and fill with "Mid blue". Inverse the selection and hit delete to remove the white.
Command/Ctrl-click your "Path 1" thumbnail to load it as a selection, then add a new layer below the "Surfer" and fill with "Pale yellow". Name this layer "Surfer fill".
Add another lower layer and fill a selection from "Path 2" with "Pale orange". Label this one "Surfboard".
Highlight all three layer thumbnails and drag them onto the "ILLUSTRATION" folder. For clarity, temporarily reduce the "Surfer" layer's Opacity to around 50%, then with all three layers active, enlarge and rotate clockwise to cover the ellipse.
When you're happy with the positioning, set the "Surfer" layer back to 100% Opacity and clip all three layers.
Next, we need to introduce some white spray. Add a mask to the "Surfer" layer, then remove areas with medium-sized hard brush. Next, use a layer-based selection from the "Palms" layer to hide the overlap and finally paint within a selection from the "Surfer" layer on the lower right. My mask is shown in isolation at the bottom of the screengrab.
Add a mask to the "Surfer fill" layer. Now load the "Spray_brushes.abr" brushes from the "source" folder and use the them in a stamping fashion to hide parts. If you overdo this part, simply use a white spray brush to reinstate the mask.
Repeat the previous step on the "Surfboard" layer.
Clip a new layer above the "Birds" and name it "Spray". Now add some white spray on the lip of the wave and around the surfer.
Clip a new layer above the "Surfer" and label it "Light tones". Generate a layer-based selection from the "Surfer", then paint within the selection using a soft-edged brush with "Pale blue" on the areas shown; if you go too far, mask as required. Name this layer "Light tones"
Note: If you find the "marching ants" annoying, hit Command/Ctrl + H to hide the visibility of the selection – just remember to deselect when you're done.
Repeat the previous step on another clipped layer called "Dark tones" with "Dark blue". Any dark halos, can now be removed on the "Surfer" mask.
To tidy things up, place the "Ellipse" layer at the top of the stack within the group folder. Add another upper layer and name it "Ring grad". Set your Foreground color to "Dark blue" and Shift-drag a Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradient (G) down from the top.
The illustration is just about finished, so check it over and carry out any adjustments; if you decide to reposition any layer content, unlink their masks beforehand. As a final modification, apply a Median and Unsharp Mask filters directly to the "Spray" layer, as well as the "Surfboard" and "Surfer fill" masks.
In the next part we'll use Illustrator to create the type, but first we need to export the swatches to an Illustrator-friendly format. Use the fly-out menu (at the top of the Swatches panel to select Save Swatches for Exchange.
In the next dialogue box, label them "Retro_swatches.ase", then navigate and save them to your Illustrator Swatches folder (Applications > Illustrator > Presets > en_US > Swatches).
Launch Illustrator and create a new RGB, A4 document. Grab the Type Tool (T) and add two staggered lines of black text set in this font. Copy the character formating as shown below, then place your type cursor between the top words and tighten the kerning to -400.
Select both lines of text and press Shift + Command/Ctrl + O to Create Outlines. Now choose Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Warp (Option + Shift + Command/Ctrl + W), copy these settings and hit OK.
Use the same menu to choose Expand (Object > Envelope Distort > Expand). Apply another Warp style and Expand once more.
Now use the Selection Tool (V) to squash down the text to approximately 100 mm.
Select the Ellipse Tool (L) and add a black circle, then place some white centered text in a different font, I've used a system font called Cooper Black. Now select both objects and click the Horizontal Align Centre button in the Control palette to centre both objects, then vertically centre the text by eye.
Next, we'll create the small white decorations. Highlight the Ellipse Tool (L), click on your Artboard and enter these dimensions.
Grab the Pen Tool (P), press Shift + C, release the keys and click the bottom anchor point to make a corner point. Now place a vertical centre guide and squash the shape to resemble a flower's petal.
Select the Rotate Tool (R), then Option-click to move the object's rotation point to its base. In the next window set the Angle to 45 degrees and hit Copy.
Keep pressing Command/Ctrl + D to repeat the rotation command until you have a complete flower shape.
Select all the petal shapes and choose Make Compound Shape, then press the Expand button in the Pathfinder palette.
Add a central horizontal guide, then use the Rectangle Tool (M) to place place a solid black shape over the bottom half.
Select both shapes, then click the Minus Front button in the Pathfinder palette.
Color the shape white, resize and centre it over the top of your type. Duplicate, rotate and place at the bottom as shown. Next, we'll add some color and apply a white stroke.
Use the fly-out menu on the Swatches palette to locate your "Retro_swatches.ase" that you saved in step 19.
Select the black areas, including the circle and choose Object > Compound Path > Make (Command/Ctrl + 8).
Use your "Dark blue" and "Mid blue" swatches to make a Gradient fill. Apply the fill to the Compound path, then use the Gradient Tool (G) to modify the gradient's annotator bar as shown.
With the Compound path still selected, go to Object > Path > Offset Path and enter the following settings.
Now fill the Offset path with white. Select All (Command/Ctrl + A) and Copy to the Clipboard.
Switch back to your Photoshop project file and Paste above the group folder. In the next window check the Smart Object option, place centrally as shown and hit Return to accept the command.
No surf design is complete without some tropical hibiscus flowers, so open the first flower and duplicate the Red channel (most contrast).
Apply a Levels adjustment to the duplicate channel and copy these settings.
Now use a small, hard-edged brush to remove any remaining background detail as indicated by the white keyline.
Note: To make this step easier, toggle the visibility of the top RGB composite channel as you work – just be sure the "Red copy" is the target (highlighted) channel before painting.
Load the channel as a selection, then choose Select > Modify > Contract and enter 2 px. Now hit Command/Ctrl + J to copy the selection to a new layer. You can now delete the original layer.
Rename the layer "Flower detail", then apply a Threshold setting of 196.
Create a layer-based selection, add a layer at the bottom and fill with "Mid yellow" for the moment. Name this layer "Flower fill".
Set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to a Tolerance of 1 and uncheck Contiguous. Target the top layer, select the black and fill with "Pale orange". Keep the selection active for the next step.
Inverse the selection and hit Delete. You should now have a two-toned flower like this.
Place both layers within a folder and name it "FLOWER 1". To keep the file tidy, go to Image > Trim and remove the excess transparent background. Keep this file to one side until step XX.
Because the second flower has a greater contrast over the background, we'll use a simpler extraction technique. Set the Quick Selection Tool (W) to Add to selection, enable Auto-Enhance and select the flower.
Contract the selection by 4 px, then copy to a new layer and delete the original and apply a Threshold setting of 182.
Repeat the latter part of the previous step to create another two-toned flower.
Drag all four flower folders into your working file below the "Logo" layer. Target each folder thumbnail in turn and transform/position as shown, also feel free to flip and rotate as required. You can now add masks to any folders that need overlaps hidden.
Expand your first flower folder and load a selection from the "Flower detail" layer. Place a new layer above it and use "Red" from the swatches to drag some Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradients within the selection. Name this layer "Flower grad".
Continue to add gradient fills on separate layers in your remaining flower folders.
Duplicate and Transform your flower folders a few times, then rearrange their stacking order until you're happy with the composition.
It's now time to carry out any last minute adjustments. I felt sun needed more intensity, so repeat the latter part of step 4 and clip a "Red" gradient layer to the "Sun grad" and label it "Sun Grad 2".
Next, we'll add a subtle halftone effect to replicate the four-color screen print process. Place an empty layer above all your group folders and label it "Merged halftone". Now choose Image > Apply Image, check the Blending is set to Normal and hit OK to create a composite layer. Place this layer within a new group folder called "WORN PRINT FX".
Select Filter > Pixelate > Color Halftone, enter a Radius of 4 px, but keep the remaining fields as default. Now change the layers Blend Mode to Soft Light and reduce its Opacity to 70%.
To give a colors a slightly faded look, Option-click the Hue/Saturation icon in the Adjustments panel. In the following window uncheck the Clipping Mask option, then copy the following settings. Because this Adjustment layer is not clipped to a specific layer, it will affect all the underlying ones.
Open the crumpled paper photo and choose Image > Image Rotation > 90% CW, then Flip Canvas Horizontal. Select All and Copy to the Clipboard. Switch to the Channels tab in your working file and click the Create new channel icon at the foot of the palette. Now Paste your selection into the channel and enlarge to fill the canvas. Next, apply Levels adjustment to the channel and set the Input sliders as below.
Command/Ctrl-click the channel to load the white areas as a selection, then switch off its visibility, target the top RGB composite channel and return to the Layers tab. Add a new layer at the top within the "WORN PRINT FX" folder and name it "Distress 1". Go to Select > Modify > Expand > 2 px, then fill the selection with white.
Change the Blend Mode to Soft Light, add a mask, then use a large, soft-edged brush to hide areas you don't want. Duplicate this layer and rename it "Distress 2", then drop its Opacity to 43% to reduce the effect.
Next, we'll create the small front pocket logo. Revisit your Illustrator text and resize a copy of the original lettering to approximately 80 mm wide and Copy > Paste (accepting the Clipboard Preset) into a new Photoshop document. Next, apply the same halftone effect as explained in step 33, then drag across the "Hue/Saturation", "Distress 1" and "Distress 2" layers from your main project file and modify the two distress masks accordingly.
To save on transfer paper, import a flattened version of the logo onto an A4 canvas, then duplicate and space evenly with the align buttons in the Options bar.
It's always good practice to produce a mock-up from your finished designs to indicate size and placement before wasting transfer paper – here's my visual.
Now for the fun part! Grab yourself some good quality transfer paper and a plain white cotton shirt (the iron-on process is only compatible with pale colored fabrics). Set your designs to the maximum resolution in the print dialogue window; also ensure you select the "Transfer Paper," or "Mirror Image" options, then print them out.
Use a pair of scissors or a craft knife to carefully trim both designs leaving a 5 mm border, then refer to your transfer paper instructions regarding ironing time and temperature settings etc.
When cool, carefully peel off the backing paper to reveal the end result.
Conclusion and Scope
I hope this tutorial got you stoked, as well as inspiring you to pay homage to those cool retro T-shirts of yesteryear!