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How to Create a Contemporary Style Illustration Without Drawing Skills

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There are many ways to illustrate and be creative even if you can't draw so well. If you've got an imagination and some Photoshop skills, then you can create illustrations that are bang on trend.

I'll take you through the necessary steps to get you on your way to creating artworks of your own. The aim of this tutorial though, is not to teach you how to rip off the style, but to show you how to create illustrations without needing to outdraw Da Vinvi. The hope is that you'll follow and use these techniques to work within your own style!

Final Image Preview

Take a look at the image we'll be creating. 

Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Photoshop CS2
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 1-2 hours
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Video Tutorial

Our video editor Gavin Steele has created this video tutorial to compliment this text + image tutorial.

Assets

Here are the assets you'll need for this tutorial:

Step 1

Create a new canvas. For all the settings outlined in the tutorial to be accurate you should create a canvas at 300dpi and at roughly the same size.

Step 2

Open the Dinosaur image and drag it into your working document. Use the Free Transform Tool to resize (holding the Shift key will constrain the aspect ratio) the Dinosaur image to about 150% of its original size. Then go to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal. Then desaturate the image by going to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.

Step 3

Select the Polygonal Lasso Tool and roughly draw around the Dinosaurs head. Copy the head and then press delete with the selection still active so it removes the head from the Dinosaur layer. Paste the head and use the Free Transform Tool to rotate the head -22 degrees and resize to 135%. Use the Eraser Tool to remove any areas where the background overlaps the Dinosaur layer.

Select both layers in the Layers Palette and merge them (Layer > Merge Layers). Rename the layer "DINOSAUR." At this point it's worth mentioning that I deleted most of the background on "DINOSAUR" using the Polygonal Lasso Tool, but you don't have to do a particularly good job.

Step 4

Drop the "DINOSAUR" layer Opacity down to 50%. Then select the Pen Tool and set it to Shape Layers in the Options bar (Window > Options will bring it up if it's not already visible). Select any color at this stage and start to draw a smooth shape around the head. Once you've plotted your first couple of points, go to the Layers Palette and drop the Fill value to 0% so that you can see the underlying layer.

Some of the Anchor Points require splitting, which enables moving the Point Handles independently of each other. To do this, draw the point and then hold the Alt key whilst clicking the point with the Pen Tool and drawing out from it.
Once you've closed the Path, put the Fill back up to 100% and rename the layer "DINO_HEAD."

Step 5

Use the Pen Tool (set to Shape Layers) to draw in the rest of the limbs minus the tail. Simplify the shapes of things and be creative while doing this. I elongated the fingers for example.

Step 6

Draw in a big fat body, The overall shape of the Dinosaur should be cartoon-like. Change the Layer order in the Layers palette as shown. You should be renaming Layers as you go along, this is good practice and will cut down the wasted minutes trawling through umpteen unnamed Layers looking for something specific.

Step 7

Change the color of the Shape Layers to #7e9221 by double-clicking the color thumbnail next to the corresponding Shape Layer. Draw in the tail, it's best to draw in a basic tail shape, then add the spikes to the same Shape Layer. Do this by selecting your Shape Layer and clicking Add To Shape Area in the Options Bar.

Step 8

Move "DINOSAUR" to the top of Layers Palette, change it's Layer Blend mode to Multiply and it's Opacity to 100% if it's not already. Run a Smart Sharpen filter (Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen)as in screen grab and then adjust the Levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels).

Unlink the "DINOSAUR" Layer Mask by clicking the chain-link icon in between the Layer thumbnail and the Layer Mask thumbnail, then select the image thumbnail to edit and or transform. I used the Free Transform Tool to resize and rotate the Dinosaur image to fit it better within its Mask. I then used the Brush Tool loaded with black to fill in any parts of the texture I wasn't happy with. The Red arrows on the 3rd screen grab indicates where those points were,

Step 9

Open the Fish image and desaturate it. Use the same Smart Sharpen settings as in Step 8 to sharpen and use the same Levels as well. Copy and paste (I used the Elliptical Marquee Tool) the Fish's eye into the working document. Use the Free Transform Tool to resize the eye to fit the face.

Step 10

Make a selection from the eye by Command-clicking its Layer Thumbnail, then delete the selection from "DINO_HEAD" texture mask by selecting the Mask and pressing delete. Turn the "EYE" Blend mode to Multiply. Create a selection from the "EYE" layer, create a new layer and fill it with yellow. You may need to adjust the levels of the "EYE" to match with the dino texture. Rename "DINOSAUR" to "TEXTURE_HEAD."

Step 11

Go back to the edited fish image (the original that you sharpened and tweaked the levels, etc.) and use the Magic Wand Tool to select the white background, inverse the selection (Select > Inverse) and copy and paste it into the working document. Put it into the layer hierarchy as shown.

Set the Blend mode to Multiply. Use the Free Transform Tool to rotate it -112.3 degrees, then (without applying the transform) go to Edit > Transform Warp and manipulate the grid to fit the body shape. Rename this "TEXTURE_BODY," create a selection from "BODY" by Command-clicking its Layer Thumbnail, and use the selection to create a Layer Mask for "TEXTURE_BODY."

Again, unlink the Mask, resize, rotate and/or warp if you need to, or use the Brush Tool to draw any missing bits in. It should now look like the last image below.

Step 12

Duplicate "TEXTURE_HEAD" and delete the Mask. Then use the Polygonal Lasso Tool to systematically select, cut and paste each limb. You can be fairly rough with this. Rename the new layers accordingly.

Starting with "TEXTURE_RLEG" turn all new layers to Multiply and position them both over their relative Shape Layers on the canvas and in the Layers Palette. Create Layer masks for each as you did for the head and body, then use the Warp Grid to manipulate so they fill the space. You'll need to Smart Sharpen the "TEXTURE" layers as the Warp Grid softens the pixels. You may also need to draw in some bits using the Brush Tool.

Step 13

Copy "TEXTURE_BODY" and delete its Layer Mask. Rotate, resize, and Warp as before, then paint in any details with the Brush. This obviously works best with a Graphics Tablet. Rename this layer "TEXTURE_TAIL."

Step 14

Select color #f4f2ad as your Foreground color and use the Pen Tool set to Shape Layers to draw in some teeth. Group all the teeth layers and call the group "TEETH." Drawing in the "TEETH" has thrown up some minor changes I want to make to the mouth. Select the "TEXTURE_HEAD" layer (not it's Mask) and use the Brush Tool to draw a black (#1f1f1f) line around the teeth so they don't border any green.

Step 15

Open the Red Car image and cut it out by drawing a path around it or using the Magic Wand Tool. Copy and paste it into the working document. Desaturate the car and then adjust the Levels as shown below. Run a Smart Sharpen filter (with the same settings as in Step 8) and then use the Free Transform Tool to rotate and resize it to fit in the Dinosaurs hand.

Create a selection from the car by Command-clicking its layer thumbnail, then create a new layer directly below it and fill with #d23e3e. Set the "RED_CAR" layer to Multiply. Create another layer between the "RED" and the "RED_CAR" layers and use the Brush Tool to draw in some lighter parts with the color #d9d9d9.

Finally, select all three car layers and go to Layer > Group Layers. Call the Group "CAR" and give it a final tweak with the Free Transform Tool. To get the car to fit in with the Dinosaur you'll need to do some creative reshuffling of the Layers in the Layers palette. Check out the final screen grab to see how the top of your Layers Palette should look.

Step 16

The following step might be pretty tricky to follow. Remember these selection shortcuts and you should do alright though. To make a selection from any layer containing pixels you simply Command-click the layer thumbnail. In order to create a selection from one of your Shape Layers you must Command-click the Path thumbnail next to the color thumbnail.

You don't need to have this layer selected to create a selection from it. In order to create multiple selections you must hold SHIFT + Command-click. This will add to the current selection, to then subtract you must hold Alt + Command-click. Look at the image below to see what happens when I make a selection from "BODY" and then subtract the "RIGHT_ARM," "DINO_HEAD," "RIGHT_LEG," and "CAR."

Step 17

Create a new layer called "SHADOWS" and set it to Multiply. Set the foreground color to #4d5622 and select the Brush Tool. Set the Brush options to 100% Opacity, 25% Flow, 0% Hardness and between 25-200 pixels depending on which area you're working on.

Now paint onto "SHADOWS" with the selection loaded. Think about the areas which would realistically have shadows if it were a genuine 3-dimensional beastie. We'll do the left-hand-side limbs next so create a selection from "LEFT_ARM" and "LEFT_LEG." Then subtract "BODY" and draw on "SHADOWS" as before. Once you've done this, take each body part in turn. It shouldn't take that long once you've figured out which selections to add and subtract from.

Step 18

Create another layer directly above the "TEETH" layers this time. Call it "TEETH_SHADOWS." Select the color #4a4936 as your foreground color and do the shadows in the same way, but creating selections from the teeth. Turn the "TEETH_SHADOWS" Layer Blend Mode to Multiply.

Step 19

Select color #c82323 as your foreground color. Then select the Pen Tool and set it to Shape Layers. Draw in a basic, cartoony flame-shape. You'll need to split the points as you draw the outward curves to a point. Once you've drawn the main shape, click Add To Shape Area within the Options bar and draw in the secondary flames.

Once the red flames are done, select color #d67722 and click Create New Shape Layer (next to Add o Shape Area) and draw an inner flame. The flames look a little clean so create a layer directly above the "FLAME" layers and use your favorite grunge brushes to dirty it up a bit. I headed over to Misprintedtype.com and downloaded some of his brushes. The Dino is now finished. Phew!

Step 20

Fill the Background layer with color #f0e0c4. Then create a new layer and call it "SKY." Select the Brush Tool and from the Option bar, load Photoshop's standard Wet Media brushes. Scroll down to "Watercolor Fat Tip" (third from the bottom) and resize it to 675 pixels. Set the Opacity to 70% and the Flow to 30%. Set the color to #52baaf, as your foreground color, and start to paint in the background, if you have a Graphics Tablet then now's the time to use it.

Select a darker color, #317a72 should do it, and draw over the uppermost parts of the sky. Don't just drag the Brush around though, try short drags to keep building up the transparent paint. You want an uneven effect.

Finally, use the Polygonal Lasso Tool to select the top part of the canvas making a diagonal line straight across the lower middle. Revert back to color #52baaf and draw in some bottom bits. You might want to blend the top section a bit as well by using the lighter color to paint over where the darker color meets the lighter color.

Step 21

Create a new layer and call it "FLOOR." Invert the selection (Select > Inverse) and then fill it with color #8b9c95. Select the Brush you had been using and the color #626f6a to draw in a gradient.

Step 22

Open up the Paper Texture from Bittbox ("paper_2.jpg" is good). Desaturate it, apply a Smart Sharpen and then boost the levels as shown. Copy and paste the paper into your working document and position it at the top of the Layers Palette. Use the Free Transform Tool to resize it as shown.

Step 23

Load up the Channels palette and Command-click on the RGB channel thumbnail to make a selection from it. Click back on the Layer palette and select "SKY." Then create a Layer Mask from the selection. Hold the Alt key and drag the Layer Mask over to the "FLOOR." This will duplicate the Layer Mask. Finally, select the "PAPER" layer and rotate it 90 degrees. Set the Layer Blending Mode to Color Burn and reduce the Layer Opacity to around 50-60%.

Conclusion

We're done with this tutorial. There is more you could add to this image though following similar techniques. Adding a group of fleeing people would fit the theme well. Have fun creating your own illustrations and developing your unique style.

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