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After experimenting with typographic illustrations, and finding myself still in the mood for something similar, I figured it was a good time to create an illustration based on lettering. With typography, you rely on a typeface that dictates the style of the illustration you want to make. The difference with lettering is that you do it yourself. It can be done with a pen tablet, so if you have one lying around, plug it in for this tutorial.
Lettering was something I was definitely interested in, but I also wanted something new and different. So I set out to make a photorealistic lettering illustration in this tutorial, rather than something purely vector, or something created through non-digital methods.
Before we begin to create the actual scene, I though I'd explain the entire process on a separate document, and in the first part of the tutorial. So in Part I, I'll teach you the technique that we'll later apply in Part II as part of the final illustration.
The form of the branch I chose for this first part should cover all, or at least most of the shapes you'll come across in the illustration: a simple curve, a loop and an S curve.
To be able to achieve the same shape, you'll need a pen tablet of some kind. As all you need is the pen pressure sensitivity feature, no fancy tablet is needed. If you don't have one, I suggest you draw it with the mouse, and then smooth it out by tracing it with the Pen Tool and creating a vector shape. Whatever you do, it shouldn't be too smooth, and don't worry about keeping it in vector format. We'll later erase parts of the edges to match the texture, so it will have to be rasterized anyway.
Let's work through the general technique first in Part I. Then we'll apply this technique to our final illustration in Part II of this tutorial.
Draw the branch with black and choose this background color: #83cdd0.
You'll now need this wood texture from iStockphoto. I chose it because it has a wide range of fibers and a few cracks. If you'd like to get a free texture instead, there is plenty to chose from on stock.xchng, to start with. No matter your choice, make sure it has a high resolution because we'll be stretching its pixels a lot.
Start by creating a new Photoshop Document in A5 format (21 x 14,8 cm) at 300 ppi. Place the photo over the branch layer, and make it a clipping mask. Duplicate it, and make the original invisible. Every duplicate you make should be of this original, and not of rotated or skewed versions that you create later. Position the copied version on the left side.
Choosing the size and angle of your texture is not easy. At first, you decide the length. The wider the angle of the branch, the longer portion of the texture you can use. When you start texturing the loop, you'll notice that you can't use as much of the texture as before. When you decide the size of the texture, you align it to the center of the portion you're working on. That way, you skew the ends and are able to skew the photo less. Aligning it to the next texture will also be easier this way.
It's difficult to explain, so there are lots of screenshots that you can use as reference. Place the first one on the left side.
Make a selection of the portion you're about to work on. When you make a selection, you cover a wider area than you see because you'll need more of the photo than you can see through the mask.
Once you made a selection, Free Transform it (Command + T), right-click on the canvas and press Warp.
Now comes the crucial, but difficult part: warping. The simple interface of the Warp Tool can become very confusing when skewing the photo heavily. You can drag the end points and the intersections of the paths. Below, I dragged the handles of the top-left end point. I warped the photo enough to make the wood fibers seem as if twisting in a spiral motion. I find it more interesting than simply aligning the fibers with the edges of the branch.
Now, i dragged the top-right end point further to the right, and dragged both the left handle very low. I positioned the right handle close to the top corner of the canvas. Once you also make the changes to the bottom-right end point, the texture should twist and bend along with the loop.
When you feel the position is correct, press Enter. Below is mine so far.
Make a duplicate of the original texture and place it above the skewed one. Rotate it (don't rescale any of the textures down or up) and place it for the next portion of the branch - the first part of the loop. Make a selection of how much you want to use. Selecting more than enough is better than not enough.
First, warp the bottom-left corner so that the texture's fibers align to the previous texture.
Now skew the top and cover as much of the loop as possible, without creating any visual damage to the texture.
Here's how it should look so far.
The many shades of brown on the texture makes it more difficult to merge ends, so we'll make a universal color range for the textures by creating a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer. Add one as a clipping mask to the branch layer (painted with black) and keep all the texture layers underneath it. Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map. Here are the colors, from left to right: #000000, #95722d, #d0ae7e, and #fdf1df.
Now zoom in to the part you want to blend together. Here are the ends of the first two textures.
Use the Dodge and Burn Tool (O) to even out the contrast between the two. Then use the Eraser Tool and erase along the fibers to blend them together. Eventually, the angles change, so don't erase too much.
Now repeat the process to cover the top of the loop. Don't forget to align the bottom to the previous texture.
Finish the left side of the loop with a fourth duplicate of the wood texture.
Finish it off with a final texture. That's it for the warping part.
We'll now apply adjustments to the whole scene, to make it more realistic. First, we'll make the wood branch look round. Double-click the branch layer and add the Layer Styles shown below. Here are the colors: Inner Shadow set to #f1e6b9 and Inner Glow set to #ffffbf.
After placing the effects, you'll also need to add some shadows, like in the center of the loop where one part of the branch covers the other. Create a new blank layer above the textures, but underneath the Gradient Map, and paint a large spot were you'd like the shadow to be with this gray: #b1b1b1. Set it's blending mode to Multiply, and erase the part where the other branch crosses over.
After placing the textures, you might need to adjust the edges of the branch so that it matches the fibers. Notice that the bottom-left of the branch is intentionally rough, so that the texture looks more realistic.
Create a few layers behind the "branch" layer, and draw a couple of bright, soft glows with the brush tool (B).
As a final touch, we'll increase the contrast of the image with a Channel Mixer. Create a new one above all the scene's layers by going to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Channel Mixer. Use the settings shown below and set the layer's blending mode to Multiply.
Well, that's the general technique we'll use to achieve the final scene and lettering.
Now that we've reviewed the general technique used in this tutorial, let's build our final illustration.
First off, let's prep the scene we'll be working in. Create a new A4 document (21 cm by 29,7 cm) at 300 ppi. Grab the Gradient Tool and create a linear gradient that is heavy on the bottom with these colors: #83cdd0 and #418184.
Create a new blank layer, and drag a white to transparent gradient across two thirds of the screen from top to bottom. Set the layer Opacity to 40%.
With a pen tablet, begin drawing a part of the first letter, which is a cursive, capitalized "L".
Finish off the letter and continue the end with a long branch.
Sketch out the basic shape of the whole word.
Add more detail, and zoom in to the edges of the outlines. Use a much smaller sized brush to soften and thicken the edges.
Add a few branches on the left side.
Add a few final touches, like the very thin branches and make sure the edges are relatively smooth.
Now we'll start adding the textures, using the same techniques as covered in Part I of this tutorial. Use the sequence of images as a reference.
After placing the first one, add the bottom part of the letter "g" loop.
Finish off the letter with a few more duplicated textures.
When working your way through the word, try to create a smooth transition through different parts of the overall texture. Using only one portion of the texture will make it less interesting.
Slowly work your way up.
Don't forget to place shadows under the loops and ends. Do this by adding a shadow color of #b1b1b1 and a layer blend mode of Multiply.
Finish the first part of the word with a few more textures.
As you reach straighter branches, feel free to use a larger surface.
Add a little contrast to the right side by using the darker part of the texture.
To keep the contrast balanced, I added an equally dark part on the other side as well.
And eventually, after an insane amount of twisting, bending, twirling, fading, erasing, and darkening, you'll finally finish applying textures. I promise...
Now create a couple of blank layers above the background and paint in the first one a very large soft glow with the Brush Tool (B) using an off-white (#f2f1c9). Set its layer Opacity to 40%. In the second, create a smaller, but more intense glow near the center with white, and an Opacity of 90%.
Now add the Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer over the whole scene, as shown at the end of Part I. You may need to adjust them, according to the new branches.
Cut out the top leaf from this sxc photo and place it in the scene. You can warp it to get just the right shape.
Add this Layer Style on the "leaf" layer.
Trim off the stem of the leaf and position it so that it rests on a dark wood fiber.
Create a new layer above the wood textures (and below the Gradient Map). Swatch colors of the texture and paint a few shadows and highlights around the stem, to make it look like it's growing out of the branch.
Place a second one above the "g" letter, but erase the part that would fall under the loop. Darken the bottom of the leaf too, by creating a new blank layer as a clipping mask and painting with this green: #429e2d. Set the layer blending mode to Multiply and play around with the Opacity.
To make the scene look more realistic, we'll add a few shadows. Here's how to make some that look realistic. Create a new blank layer above the glows, but behind the lettering. Paint a few soft shadows with a soft brush set at a color of black and 100% Opacity. There should only be about three of the darkest ones, and they align precisely to the lowest points of the branches. Then, change the brush Opacity to 50% and paint a few that cover the remaining area.
Transform them (Command + T) and skew them vertically so that they become narrow. As shadows are never completely desaturated, we'll color them. Double-click the layer and add a Color Overlay set to the color #8db5a8 and 70% Opacity.
The shadow is still a little flat and is currently cast by the lettering itself, but the larger swirling branches need a few shadows of their own too. Make a selection of the branches (Command-click on the layer icon) and fill a new blank layer with black. Skew it just like the other shadow, and erase the portions you don't want. It will be very blurred, so don't worry about being too meticulous.
Go to Blur > Lens Blur and blur it a lot, somewhere around 50. Give it a Color Overlay with the color #8db5a8 and 60% Opacity.
And finally, we're finished. It's a time-consuming technique, but well worth the effort. You can apply it to create different lettering effects, but also to design custom foliage in illustrations, or entire realistic trees and branches. I hope it's been a worthwhile read for you. Have a great day!