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Create a Retro Sign from Scratch Using Advanced Techniques in Photoshop

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In this tutorial, we will push Photoshop to its limits to produce a realistic neon sign.
We will use several techniques, ranging from simple to advanced, to help us create and texture a neon sign within Photoshop. We will explore how to use Smart Objects, create custom textures, manipulate Layer Styles and create custom brushes. Let's get started!


Tutorial Assets

To complete the tutorial you will need the following assets:



1. Create the Sign's Shape

Step 1

Create a new document (File > New) at 4300 px by 3000 px.

Step 2

On a new layer, use the Rectangle Tool to draw a rectangle in the middle of the canvas. Make sure the Tool Mode is set to Shape and the Fill to any color other than white, such as # C4C4C4. Name this layer Metal Face.

Step 3

Go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object. We can tell this layer is now a Smart Object by the icon on the thumbnail. By using Smart Objects, we can transform the shape and make non-destructive adjustment with no loss to the quality.

Step 4

Next, Transform (Edit > Transform > Free Transform) the Smart Object layer so that it appears to be in perspective. This will be the perspective we'll work in.

Step 5

To create the inside face of the sign, right-click the Metal Face layer and select New Smart Object Via Copy. This allows us to create a separate Smart Object that is not linked to the original Metal Face Smart Object. Rename this new Smart Object Inside Face.

Step 6

Next, double click the thumbnail of the Inside Face Smart Object to access the contents of that Smart Object. Use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill the canvas with a different color, such as #51881a. Save (Command/Ctrl +S) and close this document. The changes we just made will automatically update in our working document.

Step 7

Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) the Inside Face Smart Object so that it appears slightly smaller than the Metal Face Smart Object. The result should be two different colored rectangles that appear to make a frame.

Step 8

To make the sides of the sign, select the Rectangle Tool and draw out a rectangle as shown. Make sure to set the Tool Mode to Shape and the Fill to # 444d6e. Since the visible sides of our sign are going to be in the shadows, I have selected a dark-blue color.

Step 9

Just as we did earlier, right-click this layer and select Convert to Smart Object.

Step 10

Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) this shape so that it makes up one of the sides of the sign. Name this layer Side Edge.

Step 11

Make a copy of this Smart Object (Command/Ctrl + J) and Transform it (Command/Ctrl +T) to make up the sign's bottom. Name this layer Bottom Edge. Remember, since we are using Smart Objects, we can manipulate the shapes without losing quality.


2. Add the Sign's Shadows

Step 1

Make a copy of the Bottom Edge Smart Object and Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) the layer so it appears to follow the shape of (what would be) the backside of the sign. Rename this layer Base Shadow.

Step 2

To create the illusion that this sign is sitting on a wall, add a Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) with a Radius of 11.4 px. Set this layer's Blending Mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 70%.

Step 3

Copy this Base Shadow Smart Object (Command/Ctrl + J) and rename it Ambient Shadow. Notice that the Ambient Shadow Smart Object retained the effects and smart filters. Double-click the Gaussian Blur smart filter that is listed under the Ambient Shadow Smart Object. This will allow us to change the settings. Set the Radius to 175 px.

Step 4

Lastly, make another copy of the Base Shadow layer and change the Gaussian Blur to a Radius of 3 px. Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) this Smart Object so that it appears to be the shadow of the sign casted by the sun. Rename this layer Casted Shadow.

Step 5

To organize the layers panel, select the three shadow layers and press Command/Ctrl + G to group them. Name this group Shadows.


3. Add the Envato Logo

Step 1

Place (File > Place) the envatok.png file into our scene. This will automatically import the file as a Smart Object with the Transform handles active. Press Enter to commit the import. Rename this layer Flat Logo.

Step 2

Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) this layer so that is appears to sit in the center of the sign

Step 3

Double click the Flat Logo Smart Object to open the Layer Styles panel. Add the following layers styles to create the backing for the neon tubes:


4. Create the Neon Tubes

Step 1

Since neon tube letters are generally created as one tube, creating a believable tube can be complicated. It helps to create a temporary sketch to help us decide how to bend the tubes. On a new layer, use the Paint Brush Tool and draw each letter as a single line the follows the center to the letter form. This line will be the template for our neon tubes.

Step 2

Keep in mind that each line should be continuous. On complicated letters like "n" and "t", consider how the neon tube will overlap itself, while staying in the perspective we've established.

Step 3

Complete each letter

Step 4

Use the Move Tool to move this layer up and to the left so that the sketching appears to be set off from the sign. Go back to the ends of each line and draw an additional piece that dies back into the face of the sign. Remember to keep perspective.

Step 5

Now, use the Pen Tool to trace our sketching, making sure to set the Mode to Path. Remember that Command/Ctrl-clicking in open space will end a path

Step 6

In order to create the actual tubes, we will borrow the same technique used to create the spiral (spring) cord in my tutorial Create a Spiral Telephone Cord From Scratch With Photoshop. On a new layer, use the Ellipse Tool to draw a circle. This circle should be roughly the diameter we want the final neon tube to be. Fill this circle with a gradient.

Step 7

Place copies of the circle swatch at the beginning of each path. The location of these swatches is important as it will determine how the tubes overlap each other—this is particularly important on the letters 'n' and 't'.

Step 8

Before completing the technique, we need to set up the Smudge Tool. Select the Smudge Tool and adjust the settings as shown.

Step 9

Create a new layer and hide the template layer we drew. Next, go to the Paths Panel and right-click the path layer that contains all of our letter paths. Select Stroke Path and select the Smudge Tool.

Step 10

Did it work? Chances are some of the neon tubes didn't show up correctly. This is because the technique works only if the paths "start" at the same place as the color swatches. Go ahead and delete the contents of this layer. To make sure all paths start at the same point as the color swatch, switch to the Pen Tool and click the end point of an unselected path. This will force the "direction" of the path to end on the last point clicked. Do this for all necessary paths.

Step 11

Repeat the steps to Stroke Path with the Smudge Tool. The results should produce the effect of neon tubes.



5. Create the Hardware—The Stoppers

Step 1

Neon Signs typically have some sort of transition piece where the neon tube dies off into the sign. We will create these hardware pieces. Directly below the Neon Tubes layer, create a new layer group and name it Neon Stoppers. Inside this folder, create a new layer and use the Ellipse Tool to create a circle with the fill color as #76746c.

Step 2

Right-click this layer and select Convert to Smart Object.

Step 3

Next, Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) the shape so that it appears to follow the perspective of the sign.

Step 4

Add the following layers styles.

Step 5

Make a copy (Command/Ctrl + J) of this layer and replace the layer styles with the following

Step 6

Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) this layer so it sits completely inside of the other ellipse. The effect should be a type of stopper for our neon tubes.

Step 7

Select both Ellipse layers, right-click, and select Covert to Smart Object. Rename to Stopper.

Step 8

Position copies of the stoppers at the starting and ending points of each tube.



6. Create the Hardware—The Holders

Step 1

Neon signs sometimes have additional hardware to help support the tubes. We will create these metal holders. Directly above the Neon Stoppers group, create a new group called Neon Holders. On a new layer, use the Rectangle Tool to draw a small rectangle with a fill color of #76746c.

Step 2

Right-click this layer and select Convert to Smart Object.

Step 3

Rename this layer Base Plate and Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) the shape so that it appears to follow the perspective of the sign.

Step 4

Add a Bevel and Emboss Layer Style to the shape.

Step 5

Next, use the Polygon Tool, set to 5 sides, and draw a small pentagon using that same fill color as the rectangle. Name this layer Bolt.

Step 6

Convert this layer to a Smart Object and Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) it to follow the same perspective as the rectangle.

Step 7

Add the following layer styles to give the bolt some depth. Remember this bolt as we will come back to it later.

Step 8

Next, we will create a cylinder piece. On a new layer, use the Ellipse Tool to draw a small circle.

Step 9

Convert this layer to a Smart Object and Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) it to follow the same perspective as the rectangle.

Step 10

Make a copy of the ellipse (Command/Ctrl + J) and position it just above the original, following the perspective of the scene.

Step 11

On a new layer in between the two shapes, use the Brush Tool set with the color #76746c to paint in the appearance of a complete cylinder.

Step 12

Merge (Command/Ctrl + E) the bottom ellipse with the new layer and add the Gradient Overlay layer style.

Step 13

Next, add the following layer styles to the top cylinder.

Step 14

Assemble the pieces as shown.

Step 15

Use the Brush Tool to paint in a thin wire that follows the perspective of our scene. Use the color #73757b.

Step 16

Create two new layers named Shadow. Place one below the two Ellipse layers and the other below the Base Plate layer. Use the Brush Tool, set to a Hardness of 0%, to add some small shadows as shown. Use the color #475073.

Step 17

Select all the layers that make up the neon holders and Convert to Smart Object. Place copies of the holder at various intervals under each letter.

Step 18

Now that we have the sign holders in place, we can see that we are missing the wire pieces that wrap around the tubes. To finish these top parts of the sign holders, create a new layer directly above the Neon Tubes group. Use the Brush Tool set to a Size of 1 px and draw a wire around the neon tube. Do this for every instance of a neon holder. Be sure to follow the contours of the tube.

Step 19

Lastly, add the Drop Shadow layer style. This will make the wire appears as if it is actually resting against the tube.



7. Add Shadows to Neon Tubes.

Step 1

Looking back at the final image, we can see that our scene appears to be lit by direct sunlight. This requires the addition of hard shadows to the scene. Go back to the Neon Tubes layer and double-click to open the layer styles. Add the following layer styles. This will add some depth to the tubes.

Step 2

Next, we'll add a layer style to the Neon Tubes layer group. Add a Drop Shadow layer style to the group.

Step 3

It's obvious that the drop shadow effect is not an accurate shadow and needs some editing. To make the drop shadow effect into an editable layer, right-click the layer group and select Create Layer. This will extract the drop shadow effect to its own layer

Step 4

Using the Brush Tool and the Eraser Tool, re-work the ends of the drop shadow so that they come off the neon tubes correctly.

Step 5

Next, we'll create a harsher shadow on the neon tubes. Go back to the Neon Tube group and add an Inner Shadow layer style.

Step 6

Just like we did with the Drop Shadow layer style, right-click and Create Layer to extract the Inner Shadow layer style.

Step 7

Looking close up at some of the letters, we can see that the Inner Shadow needs some touchup work. Use the Brush Tool and the Eraser Tool to clean up these shadows.



8. Add Paneling to Sign

Step 1

Notice the green backing of our sign. As it's designed now, it appears to be one solid piece. If this sign existed in the real world, it would more likely be divided up into panels. To create the illusion of paneling, find the Inside Face layer and make a copy of it (Command/Ctrl + J). Apply the Color Overlay layer style.

Step 2

Alt-click the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers Panel to add a reversed mask. This should hide the Color Overlay we just applied.

Step 3

Click the mask's thumbnail to activate it and, with a small brush, draw straight lines down the face of the sign and regular intervals. It may help to create a temporary template to identify where you want to make these lines.



9. Add Detail to the Metal Frame.

Step 1

The metal frame appears very plain. There are a few things we can do to add more detail. To add corner creases to the metal frame, first find the Metal Face layer and add a layer mask. Use the Brush Tool set to Size of 1 px, and add a line at each of the four corners of the sign.

Step 2

To add some depth to the metal frame, we need to add some layers styles. Start with the Metal Face layer and add the following layer styles:

Step 3

Next, find the Side Edge layer and apply the following layer styles

Step 4

Now, find the Bottom Edge layer and apply the following layer styles.

Step 5

Take a look at the top, right edge of our sign. Currently, it appears as a perfect edge, which rarely exists in the real world. We will build out a lip from the top edge of our sign to resemble actual construction techniques. Start by transforming (Command/Ctrl + T) the Side Edge layer to bring down the top edge a small amount.

Step 6

Next, make a copy of the Side Edge layer and move it behind the original Side Edge layer. Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) it so that it becomes the top edge of our sign.

Step 7

To give this piece some depth, adjust the existing layer styles to the following.

Step 8

You may notice that the edges of our sign still have perfect, sharp points. To round these out, go through each of the metal frame layers and add a layer mask to hide these sharp corners.

Step 9

To give the metal framework some additional depth, make a copy of the Inside Face layer and reduce the Opacity to 0%. Next, add the Inner Shadow layer style.

Step 10

Now, remember those bolts that we created for the sign holders in Section 6? We are going to use those bolts around the metal frame of our sign. In order to extract them, find the Neon Tube Holder Smart Object and double-click to open.

Step 11

Click and drag the Bolt Smart Object to our working document

Step 12

Place copies of the bolt around the sides of the metal frame. It may be necessary to Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) or adjust the Drop Shadow layer style to make them follow the perspective.



10. Add Basic Weathering Effects

Step 1

It's now time to start weathering the sign. Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer as a clipping layer to the Inside Face layer. The goal is to neutralize the colors a little.

Step 2

The next part of this step requires us to create a custom brush. Start with the Chalk 60 px brush and make the following adjustment in the Brush Panel. Save this brush.

Step 3

Create a new layer named Wear and add the Inner Shadow layer style. This will add some dimensions to the chipped paint effect that we are about to add.

Step 4

Before we paint, it may help to add a new layer mask to the Wear layer. To do this, find the layers that make up the general shape of the sign and Command/Ctrl-click the layer's thumbnail to make a selection. Moving to another layer, Command/Ctrl + Shift + Click the layer's thumbnail to add to the selection. Do this for the remaining sign layers until the selection encompasses the entire sign. Use this selection when adding a layer mask.

Step 5

Now, with the new brush we just created, paints spots of white around the edges of each letter, up and down each panel separation, and around the corners of the sign. The effect should resemble areas of chipped paint.

Step 6

On a new layer named Water Damage, use the same custom brush, set to a smaller size, and paint in streaks of water damage down from each letter.

Step 7

Set the Blend Mode to Screen and the Opacity to 20%.

Step 8

On a new layer positioned directly below the Neon Stoppers, with the same custom brush, paint in streaks of rust using the color #714c34. Reduce the Opacity to 72%.



11. Edit the Smart Object

Step 1

The rest of the step will be devoted to building up texture on our sign. We will start of the green sign face. Currently, it's a smooth green color. Our goal is to roughen up this texture. Find the Inside Face layer and double-click the thumbnail to edit the Smart Object.

Step 2

Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer to tone back the color.

Step 3

Next, we will add some custom texture through a series of steps. Create a new layer and use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill with white. Next, make sure your Foreground and Background Colors are set to black and white, then add the Clouds filter (Filter > Render > Clouds) and the Noise filter (Filter > Noise > Add Noise). The amount doesn't matter, just as long as we get a really noisy cloud pattern.

Step 4

Now, add a Motion Blur (Filter > Blur > Motion Blur) with a Radius of 90 degrees and a Distance of 1000px. Scale (Command/Ctrl + T) the layer up at least 250%.

Step 5

Add a Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) to soften everything up. Change this Blending Mode to Overlay and the Opacity to 75%

Step 6

As an optional step, you can add another layer with a black-to-white gradient. To add some additional texture to the gradient, apply the Noise filter and the Gaussian Blur filter. Set the Blending Mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 18%

Step 7

Finally, Save (Command/Ctrl + S) the Smart Object and close the document. When you return to the working document, you should see that the Inside Face layer has updated to reflect the changes.



12. Add Texture to the Sign Face

Step 1

Now that we've built up some texture on the Smart Object, we can start to add more texture to the sign's face. Working on a new layer group below the Wear and Water Damage texturing effects, create a new layer filled with 50% Gray.

Step 2

Add the Noise filter (Filter > Noise > Add Noise) with an Amount of 17%.

Step 3

Add Motion Blur (Filter > Blur > Motion Blur) with a Radius of 90 degrees and a Distance of 40px.

Step 4

Lastly, add the Emboss filter (Filter > Stylize > Emboss) with an Angle of 35 degrees, a Height of 2 px and an Amount of 35%.

Step 5

Transform (Command/Ctrl + T) this layer so the grain follows the perspective of the sign. Set the Blending Mode to Overlay

Step 6

Create a new layer, and with the Foreground and Background colors set to Black and White, add the Clouds filter (Filter > Render > Clouds).

Step 7

Add the Noise filter (Filter > Noise > Add Noise) with an Amount of 26%.

Step 8

Add Motion Blur (Filter > Blur > Motion Blur) with a Radius of 6 degrees and a Distance of 750px

Step 9

Next, add a Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) with a Radius of 2 px to soften everything.

Step 10

Next, double-click this layer to access the Layer Styles. Adjust the Blend If sliders so both textures interact with each other. Below are the settings I used—this will vary on your file.

Step 11

Add one more layer and fill with a rusty color, such as #43260c. Make this layer a clipping layer to the one directly below. The resulting effect should make our sign appear more weathered.

Step 12

The last thing we need to do is add a layer mask so only the green sign is affected by the weathering effects. Find the Inside Face layer and Command/Ctrl-click the thumbnail to make a selection. With the selection active, go back and select the Sign Texture group. Click the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel to create a new layer mask using the selection.



13. Add Rust Chipping

Step 1

To give our sign additional weathering effects, we can included areas of rust and cracking. To create spots of rust, we must first create some organic shapes in another document. Create a New Document (File > New) at 4300 px by 3000 px and add the Clouds filter (Filter > Render > Clouds).

Step 2

Go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold and adjust the Threshold Level to around 80.

Step 3

Next, go to the Channels Panel and Command/Ctrl-click the RGB channel's thumbnail. This will select everything white.

Step 4

Since we want only the black areas to be selected go to Select > Inverse.

Step 5

Next, create a new layer and use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill the selection with 50% gray.

Step 6

Hide the Background layer so we can see the organic shapes on a transparent background.

Step 7

Use the Lasso Tool to select a shape and Copy (Command/Ctrl + C) and Paste (Command/Ctrl + V) the shape into our working document. Make sure to place this layer somewhere below the Inside Face copy layer (the one with the Inner Shadow layer style) and move the shape so that it sits under one of the letters

Step 8

Now, place this layer inside a new layer group called Rust. Apply the following layer styles to the group.

Step 9

Continue to go back to our rust shapes document and Copy and Paste random shapes into our working scene, placing them inside the Rust layer group folder. Additionally, it helps to add a layer mask to the Rust group using the Inside Face layer.



14. Add Cracking to the Rust

Step 1

Typically, you will find cracking and chipping around the edges of rust spots. To create this effect, we must first create a new layer below our Rust group (for organization sake, I am placing this layer inside a layer group).

Step 2

Fill this layer with any color, then add a Pattern Overlay layer style with the following settings. Make sure to select the Blistered Paint pattern.

Step 3

Right-click this layer and select Rasterize Layer Style.

Step 4

Next, go to Image > Adjustments > Invert to invert the colors.

Step 5

Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and adjust the Levels to sharpen up the lines

Step 6

Now, before we complete the next step, we are going to move this layer. Go ahead and move this layer to the top of the layer stack.

Step 7

Next, go to the Channels Panel and Command/Ctrl-click the RGB channel's thumbnail. This will select the white lines.

Step 8

Delete this layer and create a new layer in the Cracking layer group we created earlier. Use the Pain Bucket Tool to fill the selection with a dark brown color, such as #261808. Hide the other layer. Make sure to deselect (Command/Ctrl + D) the cracks to see the results.

Step 9

Set the Blend Mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 57%.

Step 10

Select the Cracking layer group and hold down Alt while clicking the Add Layer Mask icon. This will create a new mask pre-filled with black which will hide the cracking.

Step 11

Go throughout the scene and, using white, paint in areas around the rust patches to reveal the cracking. I've also added some cracking to the paneling lines.



15. Texture the Metal Frame

Step 1

We will now focus on adding some textures to the metal frame. Find the Metal Frame group and add the Levels Adjustment Layer as a clipping layer to darken the frame slightly.

Step 2

Next, find the Metal Face layer and double-click the thumbnail to edit the Smart Object.

Step 3

Use the Gradient Tool to add a linear gradient with the colors #cfd1b8 to #989a99

Step 4

Add the Noise filter (Filter > Noise > Add Noise) with an Amount of4%.

Step 5

Go to Filter > Blur > Blur More to soften the noise.

Step 6

Save (Command/Ctrl + S) the Smart Object and return to the working document to see the changes.

Step 7

Next, select the Side Edge, Top Edge and Bottom Edge layers and group them (Command/Ctrl + G).

Step 8

Create a new clipping layer to this group and fill with black. Name this layer Noise.

Step 9

Add the Noise filter (Filter > Noise > Add Noise) with an Amount of 26%.

Step 10

Add the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) with a Radius of 0.7 px.

Step 11

Set the Blend Mode to Darker Color and the Opacity to 12%.



16. Roughen Up the Metal Frame

Step 1

Create a new layer called Dents anywhere above the Metal Frame group. Set the Blend Mode to Dissolve and the Fill to 0%.

Step 2

Add the Bevel and Emboss layer style.

Step 3

So far nothing has happened since there is no content on this layer. Use the same custom brush we created for the rust and set it to a small size. Paint around the metal frame to see small dents instantly appear.

Step 4

Continue to add dents around the metal frame. You may notice that some of the dents show up outside the frame. We'll fix this next.

Step 5

To constrain the dents to the metal frame only, use the Metal Face, Side Edge, Top Edge and Bottom Edge layers to help make a selection. Command/Ctrl-click one of the thumbnails to make an initial selection, then Command/Ctrl + Shift + Click the other thumbnails to add to the selection. The result should be a selection around the entire sign.

Step 6

Next, Command/Ctrl + Alt + Click the Inside Face layer to deselect the interior of the sign. The result should be a selection around the metal frame only, excluding the Inside Face.

Step 7

With the Dents layer selected, click the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers Panel to create a new layer mask from the selection.

Step 8

As an optional step, you can add a second layer of larger dents. Experiment with the Opacity and different brush sizes.



17. Finish Texturing the Sign

Step 1

The next thing to do is to go back through our scene and paint in some additional rust using the same techniques we used in Section 10. Use the custom brush to add streaks of rust coming off the rust patches

Step 2

Next, adds some rust around the bolts and edges of the metal frame.

Step 3

Add another layer of rust streaks. This time, use a much larger brush set to a much lower Opacity. Consider where the water might build up; under existing rust spots, under each letter, down each panel separation, etc. The effect should be subtle.

Step 4

On a layer above the Flat Logo layer, paint in larger, subtle rust streaks coming off each stopper and sign holder.



18. Add Reflections to the Metal Frame.

Step 1

The last thing we can do to our scene is to add some bounce light on the metal frame. Start by creating a new layer placed above all of the texturing effects. Use the Brush Tool—set to a large size and a 0% Hardness—to paint in random dots over the side edge of the metal frame.

Step 2

Since we started with the side of the metal frame, find the corresponding layer, Side Edge, and Command/Ctrl-click its thumbnail to make a selection.

Step 3

Navigate back to the Side reflection layer and click the Apply layer Mask icon on the layers panel.

Step 4

Next, double-click this layer to open the layer styles. Adjust the Blend If sliders until the highlight appears to become more specular. Your settings may vary.

Step 5

Repeat this effect to the bottom edge of our frame.


Conclusion

This tutorial has been an elaborate demonstration of several advanced techniques to create a realistic scene that doesn’t exist in real-life. We've learned how to effectively use Smart Object to retain quality, use and extract Layer Styles to add custom edits as well create custom brushes and elaborate textures, all within the confines of Photoshop. As you can see, you don't have to use photographs or be a talented digital painter to produce realistic artwork. The final image should resemble the following.