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Create a Conceptual Mixed Media Illustration

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You can often create unique pieces of art using several types of media. In this tutorial we will combine hand-drawn sketches, stock photography, and Photoshop to create a mixed media illustration. Let's get started!


Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.


Step 1

To begin this illustration we need to start with an idea. The concept for my illustration came from a quote I found in a wonderful book called All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. The quote goes, ""For me the world has always been more of a puppet show. But when one looks behind the curtain and traces the strings upward he finds they terminate in the hands of yet other puppets, themselves with their own strings which trace upward in turn, and so on."

A good tip to help develop and keep track of ideas is to keep a small notebook or journal. It's always very frustrating when I have a great idea for something I would like to create, but then forget what it is when I actually go to work on it.

Once you have your basic concept, it is important to make numerous sketches to try to work out the composition of your piece. Keep in mind rules of composition such as the rule of thirds (your focal should not be in the center, rather along a line of 1/3 of the canvas), and to overlap with at least three sides of the canvas.After doing this, I refined my numerous small sketches into a sort of rough draft for the piece. That can be seen here.



Step 2

I'll begin the actual creation of the piece by opening a photo that I've taken which fits the desired composition.


I will then create a new document at 300 DPI. It is important that it is near to this size, as those are the dimensions of the typical piece of printing paper. DPI stands for Dot per Inch, and making it a higher number (250+) will ensure that the printing quality is very high. I then dragged the photo onto this canvas, and resized the image to fit.


Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + U to desaturate the image. We will use this shortcut numerous other times throughout the tutorial. It is a good one to remember.


Then press Command/Ctrl + L to bring up the levels menu. This too is an important shortcut to have in mind. Adjust the triangles below the chart until you see a contrast that you like. The drawing process is easier with a slightly higher contrasted photo, but don't overdo it.


To finish this stage of the project, I erased out a majority of the unimportant parts of the picture. I did this only to save ink when I print. It is not a crucial step, but is an easy way to be more resourceful.


After this, I opened up the photo I took of my hands, which is the other main part of this piece. Follow the exact steps taken with the first photo with this one. I then printed both the pictures on my home printer.



Step 3

Once we have the images printed off, we need to grid them. I typically go on a 2 + to + 1 scale of the source image. This means that the final drawing is twice the size of the picture we just printed. I'm going to draw the hands and the portrait on two different pieces of paper, then combine them in Photoshop later. To begin this process, first take a ruler and make a small mark every half inch all around the edge of the printed photo. Once that is done, use the ruler to carefully connect the marks with the ones straight across from them. When this is completed, there will be a grid of
.5" squares all over the photo. Then, set the photo aside and take out a larger sheet of drawing paper. I find it much easier to do the drawing on a larger sheet of paper as it allows me to get a greater level of detail in the work. You can buy a piece of drawing paper at any art store for relatively cheap. Once you have your paper, repeat the same process, except this time make the marks 1" apart. When this is completed there will be a grid of 1" squares covering the blank paper. This step can be somewhat complicated in measuring everything out perfectly. Just be careful, take your time, and you'll be fine. Make sure that the lines you draw across the paper are very light. You want to be able to erase them later, and don't want them to leave indents in the paper. I prefer to use just a mechanical pencil for this, as it makes a clear but light line. I like to number each row and column on both the photo and the drawing. This helps to keep you on track while drawing.


A helpful tip is to tape a piece of paper towel to your hand where it tends to touch the paper. This may look silly, but it is a lifesaver in preventing you from smudging your drawing with your hand.

Once you have everything gridded out, it's time to start drawing. I like to start with the nose simply because it is in the center of the face. Just match up the square on the photo with the one on the drawing and lightly outline what you see. It is important as you go about this to change your mindset about what you are drawing. For example, don't try to draw a nose, instead simply look at the hard lines you see in the photo, and translate those onto your paper. Look for where a defining feature touches the edge of a box, is the nostril in the photo above or below half of the box? How does that line transition through the boxes next to it? Go about this process carefully, and make sure you just follow the lines you see in the photo. It is likely that your picture will look a little funny with just outlines. On mine, the girl's bottom lip looked huge, but you need to trust your drawing and know that once you shade in the lines, it will look right. If you just follow the grid, everything will work perfectly. Here is my progression through this step.


Now that the portrait is fully outlined, we have to begin the shading. To do this we first have to get our materials in order. Pencils are graded for the softness of their graphite. Pencils with an H are hard graphite, these make sharp, stiff lines. Pencils with a B are soft, and are perfect for smooth shading. There is also a number that corresponds to how soft or hard it is. I shaded my whole picture with a 6B pencil, but you may want to try out a few to see what works best for you.


To begin the shading, I'm going to start at the left eye. I began by defining the darkest parts of the eye with the graphite. When shading, instead of pressing harder in all the darker spots, try to focus on layering more and more graphite on top of one spot to darken. This also helps to save the white spots, which is crucial. The very bright areas of the drawing are just as important as the darks spots in accurately drawing a face. This will make your shading more smooth. Erase the grid as you move across the face. Pay close attention to the detail in the source photo. Look for the creases above the eyes, the way the skin moves at the corners, and indents and cracks beneath the eye. Notice whether the eyeball is fully white, or if it needs shading as well. Look at the way the eyelashes point out of the lid, are they even noticeable? It is crucial to go about the drawing with intense focus and care. This extra effort is what makes a drawing great. Once I completed a large part of the eye, I moved over to the cheek. My strategy for drawing faces is to deal with all the dark or detailed places first, then to fill in between them.


I then moved onto the nose, mouth, and worked to expand on the cheek. Notice how the drawing starts as just a light coat of graphite, then gets layered to create highs and lows. Be sure to bring the same intensity towards detail on all of the crucial facial features. Look for the way the nostril folds beneath the nose, the cleft above the lip, and the glimmers and highlights on the lip.


I then went across the face to finish the other eye. Now that I have all the main facial features defined, it is time to connect the flesh between them. I laid down a soft layer of graphite, then added more layers in parts that were darker. Your photo may have more true white spots in it than mine, so be careful to save those.


I continued on to color the hair. The hair in my photo was almost entirely black, but it is likely that it will not be in yours. Just follow the same steps as in shading the face. Look for the bright strands of hair that really stand out, also look for the dark areas to give the hair depth.


Now I moved onto the shirt. It's the same process, except easier because there is less detail. The main thing to keep in mind here is to look for the highs and lows of value. Defining those will make the shirt look very real and give it depth. As you can see, I again started with a light layer, then went over it to build the contrast of values.


Continue the same process across the arm. Look for cracks, creases and wrinkles in the skin.


I'm not going to outline everything for the pair of hands in my piece. For all I know, you'll be using just one photo, so to elaborate would be a waste of your time. I followed the exact same steps of defining the dark and detailed areas, then filling in the gaps. I did these hands on a smaller sheet of paper, which is why the look more grainy in the final outcome.



Step 4

Now it's time to bring the drawing alive in Photoshop. I begin this by opening the photos I took of the drawings. You want to photograph your art in strong light. However, try to avoid direct light as that will shine off the graphite and look bad. Make a huge canvas (mine was 20"x30" at 300DPI for printing reasons) and drop the photos in there.


I aligned the photos in the way that I wanted them, then pressed M to take out the Marque tool. Make sure that it is a square, then highlight the size you want for the canvas. Then go to Image + Crop.


I then merged the photos into one layer by selecting the top one and pressing Command/Ctrl + E. Then press P to take out the Pen Tool. Make sure that it is in the Paths setting in the upper left. Then click and drag the lines to outline the entire drawing.




Once you have a closed path going all the way around your drawing, both the hands and the portrait, right click and go to Make Selection. A window will pop up, make sure the feather is set to 0, and then click okay. This will make a selection all around your drawing. Right click, and go to Select Inverse, then press delete. You should see the outside of your drawing all disappear.






Press Command/Ctrl + L and run a levels adjustment. You want to have a good amount of contrast in your piece. I had to run separate levels adjustments on both the portrait and the hands.



Now, you should have your photos on one layer. This should be the only layer besides the background. Go to the photo layer, and press Command/Ctrl + J. This will duplicate the layer. On this new layer, take out the Burn tool by pressing O. Make sure that your brush size is fairly large, and that the intensity is set to about 25%. Begin stroking over the dark areas of the drawing. This will just help correct some of the errors in contrast that were made while drawing and photographing. I darkened around the edges of the face, the creases of the eye, the hair, and in the nose. Then switch the tool over to Dodge and do the same thing over the light areas. Don't go too overboard with this. If you feel that you went too far, you can lower the opacity of this duplicate layer. When you are done with this, merge the layers back together.




At this point you should have your fully edited photo layer, and your background. Now, duplicate the photo layer again by selecting it then pressing Command/Ctrl + J. Go back down to the first photo layer. Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + N to make a new layer in between the two photo layers. Press Command/Ctrl + Alt + G to "apply" this new layer to the first photo layer. Fill this new layer with light brown. Right above this layer should be the duplicate of the photo layer. Go to this, and set the mode to multiply. Leave the opacity at 100%.



Make a new layer above what we already have. On this layer, make some very large brush strokes that just slightly overlap with the drawing. Set this layer to Overlay and reduce the opacity to about 60%.



Now go back down to the layer that we filled with light brown. This layer is applied to the drawing below it meaning that anything we do on this layer is constrained to the shape of the portrait beneath. on this brown layer, take out the burn tool again by pressing O. Similarly to how we did this over the portrait, stroke across the brown in the areas that should be darker. Then repeat the process with the Dodge tool. This will give the coloring more depth instead of looking completely flat.


I then repeated all these steps with the hands. Press Command/Ctrl + G to create a new group. drag all the layers pertaining to the girl into one group. Then create another one, and do the same with the hands layers. Name one group Hands, and the other Girl.



At this point I have my empty background layer, a group with all my layers for the girl, and a group with all the layers for the hands. Make a new layer above all of these. Name it strings guide. I took out my pen tablet, and drew rough lines coming from the hands down around the girl. I found this easier to do with a tablet on the computer, but if you don't have a tablet you could either use a mouse, or skip this step altogether and try going at without guides. I found that they just made it easier.


Once I had all my guides drawn, I made a new document at 8.5"x11". Press Command/Ctrl + U and in this menu move the saturation all the way down to + 100, then raise the lightness by about 10. then print it. I split the drawing into two different pieces of paper due to its shape.


Take the printed image and, using the guides we made, draw in strings with a fine point pen.


Photograph this drawing, and bring it into Photoshop. Resize it carefully so that it matches up with the picture in Photoshop. Lower the opacity to about 50% so that you can see both images.



Make a new layer over everything. Take out the Pen tool. Use it in the Paths mode to outline every string. Don't worry yet about the middles of the string. Once you have them all outlined, right click and go to fill path. Make sure that it fills with black.


You should now have a layer with solid black lines covering all the strings. Now take out the pen tool again, and make a path hollowing out the strings. Once you have this accomplished, right click and go to Make selection, click okay, and then press delete. This will empty out all the strings, leaving just a nice crisp outline. You could do this other ways that would be easier, but I think that the Pentooled lines look the best. Just be patient and careful with this step.





When I did this, I ended up leaving the outlines open in some areas. To fix this, I simply took a smaller hard brush, and closed off any gaps. This is important to making the next steps work.


Now, press W to take out the Magic Wand tool. Click anywhere outside of the stings. This will make a large selection on the image. Right click on the picture, and go to Select Inverse. Now the selection line should be surrounding only the strings. On the top toolbar, go to Select > Modify > Contract. Put in about 5px, then click okay. Now the selesctoin line will be going right through the black line of the string. If your's contracted too far, just undo and try again with a smaller number. Make a new layer, and move it directly under the string layer. Make sure that the selection we just made is still active, then on this new layer, take out the paint bucket tool, and fill the selection with light red. Use something less vibrant than I did in this screenshot, I ended up changing it a bit later on.


Now for the strings we should have the guide layer, which can be deleted. The photo + guide, which can be deleted. The black outline, and the red coloring. Only the last two of these four layers are still needed. Go to the red coloring layer, and shade the red with the burn and dodge tools just like we did the other times. Try to decide which direction you want your lighting to be coming from, then burn along one edge of the string and dodge along the other. This will begin to give the strings some depth.
(ignore the background color in this screenshot, just observe how the red of the strings is shaded.) when this is done, make a new group by pressing Command/Ctrl + G, name it strings, and drag any string layers into this group.


Now we have just our background, a group called girl, a group called hands, and a group called strings. Go to the background and fill it with a very light brown. Then make a new layer above this. I used my tablet here and, using a medium sized hard brush, painted in some cloud shapes in a color just slightly darker than the background. As you do this, think about the flow that you want to have in your image. Now make another layer, pick a slightly darker color, and repeat the process, moving closer to the edges of the canvas. I did this about 5 times until I had an amount of depth and detail that I liked.




Hide the layers until you have just the background and first cloud layer showing. take out the Burn and Dodge tools, and brush over the layers to give the clouds some depth. I focused on burning the edges, then dodging on the tops. Move on to repeat this process on every cloud layer as well as the background. Do NOT merge the clouds into one layer.



Now, I opened a photo I took of a crumpled piece of paper. I dragged this into the picture, resized it to fit, and Desaturated it by pressing Command/Ctrl + U and dragging the slider down to + 100. I also raised the lightness by 18. Move it directly over the background (so that it is below all of the clouds), set its blending mode to Overlay, and lower the opacity to about 80%.






I brought a new paper texture into the canvas, applied the same adjustments as the last, then put this one right over the first cloud layer. Press Command/Ctrl + Alt + G to apply the texture to the cloud. Set the layer to Overlay, and the Opacity to about 80%. Then duplicate the texture layer by pressing Command/Ctrl + J. This will keep the applied texture, but then also make a new one right above it. Drag this new texture layer above the second clouds, and go to Edit + Transform + Flip Horizontally. Press Command/Ctrl + Alt + G to apply this texture to the second cloud. Continue to duplicate, flip, then apply the texture to all of your cloud layers. Adjust the Opacity for each has you see fit. Mine ranged from about 60% to 80%. It will blend differently depending on the color intensity of the clouds.



All my clouds now have some nice paper texture to them. I want to add in some graphite textures as well. to do this I'm going to open a photo I took of a quick spiral drawn on a piece of paper. I Dragged this into my Photoshop canvas and set the layer to Multiply. The Multiply blending mode gets rid of all white, but as you can see, this texture was too dark. To fix this, press Command/Ctrl + L to open up the Levels adjustment panel. Slide the triangles toward the center until the outside of the spiral disappears. Move the spiral layer right below the 3rd cloud layer. I did this so that it would overlap some of the clouds, but not all, which will give more depth. Take out a large, soft eraser, and get rid of anything around the edge so that only the spiral is left. I Duplicated this spiral layer a few times, and moved it around the canvas in different sizes. Then Merge all the Spiral layers down into one single layer.







I repeated this same process with another scribble graphite texture that I created. I placed this one over all of the clouds.



I brought in another large graphite texture. Open up the strings group, and drag this one above the string coloring layer. Press Command/Ctrl + Alt + G to apply this texture to that coloring layer. Set the blending mode to Overlay, and adjust the opacity as needed.


Now that my string has some texture on it, I am going to merge the string outline, the texture, and the string coloring all into one layer. Do this by clicking each while holding down Command/Ctrl, then press Command/Ctrl + E. Take out a medium sized hard eraser at 100% opacity. Look for a few places where the strings overlaps a transition with a cloud. Erase the string so that it looks like it is going behind the cloud.


Go to the places where the string has been erased. On the edge where the string goes "behind" the cloud (it is actually just erased) take out the burn tool and darken that spot. This will enhance the effect.


Once you have accomplished this, close the strings group again. Go into the girl group, and make sure that the portrait is all merged down to a single layer. (highlight all, and press Command/Ctrl + E). Now, Pick a spot where your portrait overlaps with a cloud. Follow the same steps as with the string of erasing and then burning to make it look as if the portrait is behind the cloud. I did this in the lower right corner.


Now, create a new layer above everything else by pressing Command/Ctrl + Shift + N. On this new layer, press Command/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E. This will fill the new layer with exactly what you see in the canvas. This is called Applying the image. Now on this layer, take out the burn tool again by pressing O. Make sure the intensity is at about 25%, then with a medium sized soft brush paint in some shadows from the strings. You can see on the arms and hands I darkened in lines to create the effect that the strings are casting shadows on the girl. Try to be consistent in which direction you cast the shadow.


Make a new layer above this and use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill the whole layer with black. Set this layer to Linear Dodge. Take out a dark brown color, and brush in the canvas to create some dynamic lighting. This works a bit differently with every piece, just experiment with what color intensity, opacity, and brush size works best for your image. Don't overdo it too much.


Make another new layer above this. Take out the splatter brushes that were linked to in this tutorial. Put in some black and some white splatters. Avoid covering the face with splatters. try to keep the effect subtle. If this is taken overboard it can very easily make the piece look too messy. Set the layer to Soft light at about 50% opacity.


Make another new layer above this. Take out a very small hard brush. Click on the little folder icon in the upper right to bring out the Brush Settings Panel. Go to the shape dynamics tab, and move the Size Jitter all the way up. Go back to your new layer and click in places to add some little black dots. Again, try not to over do this. It just adds a little bit of detail and flow to the piece. Leave this layer on Normal, 100% opacity.


Make another new layer above this. Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + G again to apply the image to this new layer. Take out the burn tool once more. Set the brush size to quite large, and brush around the edges of the canvas. This will create a very subtle vineatte around the picture. Lower the opacity of this image if it looks too dark. I put mine to about 80%.


Another New layer. Take out the Gradient Tool and make sure that it is on the Radial Gradient setting. Make your colors black and white. Start the gradient over the focal point of your image, mine is the girls face, then stretch it out past the farthest edge of the canvas. You should have the white in the middle of the gradient. If yours is backwards just press Command/Ctrl + I to invert the layer. Set this layer to about 20% opacity, and on the Soft light blending mode. This will help to even out the lighting.


Now, on the upper toolbar go to Layer + New Adjustment Layer + Gradient map. Click the arrow next to the gradient, and go to the Blue/red/yellow default gradient. Set this layer to Pin Light, and lower the opacity to about 12%.


Create another gradient map layer. Make this one black and white. Set the blending mode to Luminosity and the opacity to about 65%.


Make one more black and white gradient layer. Leave the blending mode of this one on Normal, but lower the opacity to about 20%. These gradient maps help to give consistent coloring and contrast throughout the picture.


Create a new layer. Go back to your radial gradient tool. this time select the rainbow colored gradient. Again, start in the middle and drag it out to the edge. Set this layer to Hue at about 5% opacity. This should be very subtle, almost unnoticeable, but it does give the piece a nice diversity of color so that it doesn't look too monochromatic. Plus it's fun to use rainbow gradients.
(my screenshot has the layer set to 100% still. Yours will be much less transparent after being lowered to 5%)


At this point I wanted a bit stronger lighting. I made another new layer and filled it with black. Set the layer to Linear Dodge, and again do some light brushing to add some light.


And then we're done!



Final Image