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Create an Inspirational Vector Political Poster

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This tutorial is inspired by Sheppard Fairey's famous political poster series for the Obama campaign in the US. We'll be showing you how to create this style of design. We'll start with basic image editing techniques in Adobe Photoshop to get our guide layers setup, and then we'll jump into Adobe Illustrator. You don't need any fancy equipment to do this. I used an older mouse that still has the rubber ball.

Editor's Note: Vectortuts+ does not endorse any particular political belief in the publishing of this tutorial. Rather, this tutorial is focused on demonstrating a workflow for creating this interesting aesthetic effect.


1. Crop and Modify Your Stock Image

Step 1

For this effect it is best to have a portrait style picture, preferably of a subject that appears to be thinking, or looking off into the distance. I used this photo from iStockphoto.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 2

Once you have your image, you need to Open it in Photoshop and Crop it appropriately. The top of the image should be cropped to the top of your subject's head, and the bottom should be a bit higher than chest height. The crop should have about a 2:1 ratio.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 3

Now we need to Posterize the image. Go to Image > Adjustments > Posterize. An appropriate posterization level for the look we are going for is 5.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 4

Now we're going to create our guide layers for use in Illustrator. Start by duplicating your posterized layer, and name this new layer "Pattern Guide." Then go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold. We're going to slide our Point until we get something similar to below. We want it fairly dark, but still with a small amount of detail. Also, when using Threshold, it is best to use the Peaks that you see.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 5

Save this newly created layer as "patternguide.psd," or something similar, as you'll need it for Illustrator.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 6

We need to repeat Step 4 and Step 5 three more times. Each time apply a lower threshold, and save each new layer. Below are the settings I used, again notice the peaks.

Political Poster Tutorial

2. Setup Your Document and Palettes

Step 1

Before we start to outline our layers, we need to create the horizontal blue line pattern. To do this create a new Illustrator document. Give it a Height and Width of 4px. Then create a rectangle filled with our light blue color (#4F919F), and cover the top half of the canvas.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 2

Cover the bottom half with a rectangle filled with beige. Then Select All (Control + A), and drag this over to our Swatches panel. Congratulations you've made a pattern!

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 3

Now we have to save this Swatch set so we can use it in our poster we're about to make. In the bottom left corner of our Swatches panel we'll select Save Swatches from the Swatches Library Menu. Name it anything you want, I used "pattern." You can now close this document, as we won't need it anymore.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 4

Here is the color palette we'll be using for this tutorial. There are four colors and a pattern. We'll be using a mix of beige and light blue colors.

Political Poster Tutorial

3. Create Your Portrait

Step 1

Now that we have our reference images and pattern created, it is time to create a New document in Illustrator. I used a canvas size of 700 x 850px.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 2

We're going to start with our darkest guide layer, this will be our pattern layer. We're going to outline the layer using the Pen Tool (P). So to start we're going to go to File > Place and select our first reference layer into Illustrator. If you've been following verbatim, this file to place is called "patternguide.psd".

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 3

Let's stop for a moment and discuss the proper use of the Pen Tool (P) in Illustrator. This is one area where Illustrator handedly trumps Photoshop, but only if you use it correctly.

For any curve you basically have three clicks; two are anchor points, and the other is your curve point. You place your curve point at the highest point of your curve. You place the anchors at where the curve starts and ends.

One click is all that is needed when you are creating a curve. You can then change the curve points to curves after you have done the entire shape. To convert them use the Direct Selection Tool (A) and click on the Convert Selected Anchor Points to Smooth icon.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 4

Before we can outline our first layer, we need to load our pattern into the Swatches Library. To do this select Other Library from the Swatches Library menu in the Swatches panel.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 5

Okay, so back to outlining our first layer. Create New Layer below the file you just placed into Illustrator. This layer will hold our outline. We place it below because it is easier to see what we're outlining that way.

Now we grab our Pen Tool (P), give it a stroke of null, and a fill of our pattern. Then start outlining all the black areas with the Pen Tool (P). The key is to average it out, don't follow too closely to the guide layer. Just roughly outline, and don't worry about our curves, as we'll fix that after we create our outline.

Note: This is the most tedious part of the process.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 6

You might have noticed that there are portions in the middle that are lighter that we just went right over with outlines. Well we're going to fix that by outlining those using the same process. Fill those with our beige color, as shown below. We'll do this on a new layer just above the pattern layer. After you've done that, you should have something similar to the following.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 7

Now we smooth out the shapes we just created. We want most of our points to be smooth, but I find it looks better if you leave a few the way they are. View the effect below from smoothing both the pattern and beige layer.

Note: I made this image out of order and the pattern was wrong, don't worry about the color difference.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 8

Now we just do this same thing for each layer. Roughly outlining it, then outlining the highlights with the color immediately below it, and then smoothing out our outlines. The next layer should have solid light blue, followed by red, and then finally our dark blue.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 9

Okay, you should have something like the following. The tedious part is over. Now to make it look like a poster. First we'll put a beige filled rectangle below all these layers, this will serve as our background.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 10

Now we'll need to put our red and light blue halves in. We're going to do this just above the beige rectangle layer. Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to place the two rectangles.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 11

Our poster is looking pretty good. Let's create the space needed to add the inspiring text at the bottom. You'll probably have to enlarge your canvas area. To do this go to File > Document Setup. I added 300px onto mine.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 12

Now extend you beige rectangle so that it covers the new length of your canvas. Then create a new rectangle filled with our dark blue color. It should be a quarter the size of main subject.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 13

Time to add our inspiring word. We'll use light blue for the font color, and we want to change the text settings so that the word fills most of the dark blue rectangle. To change the spacing between the characters, use the Character panel. This is available to us when we are using the Text Tool (T). I used the font "Myriad Pro".

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 14

Almost finished, we need to clean up our borders a little bit. First, select every layer, but your beige layer. Then create a Group (Control + G). Then Vertically and Horizontally Align them to the artboard.

Political Poster Tutorial

Step 15

Now we're going to clean up the edges of our poster. Cover the layers that we grouped in a rectangle of any color. Then use the Pathfinder panel, and select Subtract Shape From Area.

Political Poster Tutorial

Awesome Work! You're Now Finished!

Way to go, we're done! We managed to create a really awesome effect without needing a whole lot of artistic ability. We also learned how to efficiently use the Pen Tool, and a nice way to use Photoshop and Illustrator in tandem. This is my first tutorial, so I'm sure there will be questions. Feel free to ask in the comments, and I'll try and answer as quickly as I can. Thanks!

Political Poster Tutorial
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