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How to Design a Folky Gig Poster in Adobe Illustrator

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to use Adobe Illustrator and Wacom Intuos Pro tablet to design and illustrate a poster for a folk music and poetry show.

I'll take you through a couple of interesting and useful techniques; including setting up swatch groups, setting up pressure sensitive brushes that take advantage of the tablet's capabilities, stretching letterforms, and using Adobe Illustrator's effects to roughen and grunge up your poster.

1. Sketches

I like to sketch out a few rough thumbnails of ideas and different layouts until I find something that will work well. I have a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet (size medium) that I use to sketch directly into Illustrator.

By using a tablet, you avoid the need to scan in a traditional sketch, and can take full advantage of the power of Illustrator's different brush sizes and pressure sensitivity. It's a huge time saver for me.

Some sketches of possible ideas

2. Preparing Your Document

Create a new document (File > New), and choose A3 as the document size. Make sure the colour mode is set to CMYK under the Advanced section.

Since we'll be adding a coloured background, and we want colour printed right up to the edges of the poster, it's important that our document has bleed.

Give your document a bleed of 5mm (or 1/8 of an inch, the usual standard in the USA) in all directions.

New Document Settings
Create your new document with the settings shown above.

It's not absolutely necessary, but it will be easier to follow along with this tutorial if you set your Workspace to Painting with Window > Workspace > Painting.

Window  Workspace  Painting
Window > Workspace > Painting

Setting up the Sketch Layer

Open up your sketch document, and copy (Command-C) the sketch you want to use as a base. Go back to the poster document and paste (Command-V) the sketch.

I drew all of my sketches quite a bit smaller than the final poster, and if you did the same, just scale your sketch up to the right size.

Preparing the sketch layer

Select your sketch, and change its Opacity to 20%.

Sketch at 20 Opacity

Now, lock Layer 1 by going to the Layer panel and clicking the empty square next to the eye icon.

How to lock a layer in Adobe Illustrator

Rename Layer 1 to "Sketch".

Choose a Colour Palette, Set Up Swatches

There are a bunch of different ways to choose a colour palette. Personally, I tend to just choose colours as I go, but a lot of designers like to start out with a set of swatches.

Before you can create a group of swatches in the Swatches panel, you need to have objects on your Artboard filled with your colors.

The colours I'll be using for the poster are:

  • #a6d6e5
  • #42637a
  • #ffe4b3
  • #f48478
  • #ffcd3b
  • #f0492d

You can create a set of squares with the Rectangle Tool (M), each filled with a different color.

Select all of your coloured squares and click the folder icon at the bottom of the Swatches panel to create a new Color Group.

How to create a new Color Group in Adobe Illustrator

Hit OK. You'll now have a folder containing your new swatches.

Add a Background Color

We want the poster to be dark, so that the bright fire has a nice contrast and really pops off the page.

Create a new Layer named "Background" underneath the Sketch layer.

Using the Rectangle Tool (M), drag out a rectangle to cover your entire Artboard. Make sure that it reaches out to the red bleed line.

How to drag out a rectangle to cover your entire Artboard gif

With your newly created rectangle selected, click on the darkest blue in your swatch group to apply that swatch to the rectangle.

Lock the Background layer.

3. Laying Out Text

Now we're ready to start adding in the type. Create a new layer and name it "Type".

Your Layers panel should look like this:

Adobe Illustrator Layers Panel

Creating the Main Text

Select the Type Tool (T), and pick a font. We want to use a nice strong condensed sans serif. League Gothic fits the bill well.

Set the font size to 280pt, and make sure the Paragraph is set to Align Center.

Click (don't drag) on the Artboard at the middle bottom of the document, and type out your text. At this point, your document should look something like this:

Poster with text

Creating the Secondary Text

For the secondary text, we need a font that's not as condensed as League Gothic, because it needs to fill up more horizontal space. I'll use Maven Pro Black.

Set the font size to 50pt, making sure that the Paragraph is set to Align Center.

With the Type Tool (T), click on the Artboard, this time below the text you just made. Type out your text.

Now, click on the blue Character link in the toolbar, to bring up the Character Settings panel:

Character Settings Panel

Set the tracking of the secondary text to 90, or until it lines up with the edges of the primary text.

Set the tracking of your text

Select your newly created text, and choose another of your swatch colours for it.

The poster should be at this stage now:

Poster design in progress

Creating the Date and Place Information

This would be a pretty ineffectual poster if it didn't tell you when or where the show is, so we need to add in the date and place information. We'll use a really cool slanting text effect that takes advantage of the natural slant of italics.

With the Type Tool, set your font to League Gothic Italic. Set the Paragraph to Align Left and reset the tracking to 0. Set leading to 40pt, and leave the font size at 50pt.

How to set your font settings

Type out your text, and choose a colour for it from your swatches.

Adding text in Adobe Illustrator

Now, rotate your new text until the italics' vertical lines are completely straight.

Rotating text in Adobe Illustrator gif

Copy (Command-C) and Paste in Place (Command-Shift-V) the text. Hold shift (this locks the object to a single axis of movement), and drag it horizontally.

Select the both of the new text objects, and move them to the vertical center of the article.

You should have something like this:

Creating a poster in Adobe Illustrator

Double-click on the second text object to edit it. Put a few spaces before the top word to make room for another text object containing "at the".

Copy (Command-C) and Paste in Place (Command-Shift-V) the text, and change the new text object to read "at the". With your new text selected, set the paragraph to Align Right.

Scale down your "at the" and place it in the space you made earlier.

Scaling text in Adobe Illustrator

Adjust Kerning and Placement

Now is a great time to adjust the kerning and placement of the text—before we move on to illustrating the fire.

A few problem areas I identified were the spaces between the letter A and Y in "Saturday", as well as between L and Y in "July".

You can adjust kerning using the Character Settings Panel.

Adjusting kerning with the Character Settings Panel

After making some adjustments to kerning and placement, this is how your text should look:

Adding text to poster in Adobe Illustrator

Illustrating the Camp Fire

I'll be using a Wacom Intuos Pro Medium tablet to illustrate the campfire.

You can complete this section of the tutorial using a mouse, but a Wacom tablet will seriously speed up your workflow and make your life much easier.

First, we need to set up some pressure sensitive brushes so that we can take full advantage of the control the tablet gives us.

Setting up Pressure Sensitive Brushes

Create a new layer and name it "Campfire". I've also hidden my sketch layer to clear up the workspace. If it helps you to keep the sketch visible, go for it!

In the Brushes panel, create a new brush by clicking the New Brush icon.

In the dialogue that appears, select Calligraphic Brush, and OK.

Calligraphic Brush Settings

Another dialogue will open. From here, we'll adjust the settings of the brush to use different kinds of input from the tablet to give us more control over how the brush stroke appears.

  1. Set Angle to 90°, choose Rotation from the dropdown, and set the Variation to 90°.
  2. Set Roundness to 60%, choose Tilt from the dropdown, and set the Variation to 90°.
  3. Set Size to 14pt, choose Pressure from the dropdown, and set the Variation to 10pt.

Click OK.

New Brush Dialogue

Now, we need to duplicate our brush. Click on the new brush in the Brushes panel and select 'Duplicate' from the panel dropdown.

How to duplicate a brush in Adobe Illustrator

Double click on the duplicated brush to bring up the Brush Options dialogue again, and change the Size to 5pt, and the size Variation to 3pt. Click OK.

Duplicate brush settings

Now we have two brushes, one for broad strokes, the other for fine details. Both brushes are pressure sensitive, so the harder you press with the tablet pen, the thicker the line will be. The adjustments on Angle and Roundness mean that subtle changes in how you hold the pen on the tablet will give your brushstrokes a bit of extra character.

Drawing the Fire

Fire has a few levels of colour, working inwards from the cooler red to hot white (and sometimes blue).

Select the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B), and click on the larger of the two new brushes in the Brushes panel.

In the Color Panel, set the Fill to None, and the Stroke to a deep red from your swatches.

Adjusting the blob brush settings

Begin by drawing the outline of the first level of flame. Keep your strokes loose. The brush controls we set up earlier and the natural movement of your hand will give your illustration lots of character.

Drawing the outline in Adobe Illustrator

Fill in the flame by drawing with the blob brush tool. By filling in the flame this way, you'll be left with a bunch of nice little imperfections.

Drawing a flame in Adobe Illustrator

Repeat this process with each consecutive level of flame colour, going from light red all the way into light yellow/white.

To help you get some idea of how to approach using the pressure sensitive brushes and a loose hand drawn feeling, here's a video at 3x speed of me illustrating the fire using a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet. I've set the ExpressKeys on the side to map to some of my most used keyboard shortcuts (like Undo).

Once your fire is all done, it should look something like this:

Finished drawing of a fire with multicolored flames

Drawing the Logs of Wood

Create a new layer and move it underneath the Campfire layer in the Layers panel. Name it "Wood". I'd also suggest locking the campfire layer, so that if you use the eraser end of your tablet pen, it doesn't erase any of the fire.

Rather than fill in the logs like we did with the flame, we'll just give them an outline and some texture. This should create a great contrast between the flame and the logs.

Using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) again, select our smaller pressure sensitive brush, and draw out the logs using a pale yellow. 

Drawing the logs in Adobe Illustrator

Now, take our slightly darker yellow and add a few highlights along the logs. I've also used a light blue to add a bit more colour and detail.

Adding detail to the illustration

To see the full process of drawing the logs, watch this short video (sped up) of me illustrating them—and the shadows from the next step—using a Wacom tablet.

Adding Shadows

Create a New Layer underneath the "Wood" Layer, and name it "Shadow". Lock the Wood layer.

Using the Blob Brush Tool (Shift-B) and the larger pressure sensitive brush, roughly draw out some shadows underneath the logs. Don't worry too much about the shadow bleeding through into the inside of the logs. Just flip your tablet pen over, or use the Eraser Tool (Shift-E) and erase any parts of the shadow you don't want.

At this stage, your poster should be looking something like this:

Fireside folk music and poetry poster design

5. Modifying the Lettering

We want to give the type on our poster a little bit of visual interest, and help the poster mesh together better as a whole. To do this, we'll be stretching out some of the letters.

Before we can edit the type, we need to convert it to a fully editable vector object.

Convert the Type to Outlines

Lock your Shadow layer, and make sure your Campfire and Wood layers are both still locked. Unlock the Type layer.

Select all of your type, and go to Type > Create Outlines (Command-Shift-O). Now we can adjust each anchor point of the letters individually.

How to find the Create Outlines option

Stretch the F and E

If you remember the original sketch for this poster, the word "Fireside" had its letters stretch up to make an inverted triangle. To make sure that everything is lined up right, we'll work from the outside of the word inwards.

Working from a sketch

Taking the Direct Selection Tool (A), click and drag to select the anchor points at the top half of the "F".

With those anchor points still selected, hold Shift, and drag to select the top half of the "E".

Using the Adobe Illustrator Direct Selection Tool

Now, drag upwards to move all of the anchor points you've selected.

Stretching letters for a typographic poster design

At the moment, the letters look a little unbalanced. We need to move the middle bars of the E and F to the center of the letterform.

Still with the Direct Selection Tool (A), click and drag to select the anchor points on the middle bars of the F. Hold Shift, and do the same with the E.

Now, drag the anchor points to the center of the letters.

Adjusting the letterforms in Adobe Illustrator

Stretch the I and D

Since the D has a curvy edge, we need to add some anchor points to ensure that we don't end up with a distorted letter.

First, select the D with the Direct Selection Tool (A). Then, using the Add Anchor Point Tool (+), add four new anchor points to the curve of the D.

Adding anchor points to a letter in Adobe Illustrator

Now, select the top half of the I and D using the same method as before. Be sure to select only the two new anchor points we created on the top half of the D.

Drag the points upward to stretch the letters.

Stretching letters to create a typographic poster design

Stretch the R and I

As with the D, our R has a curvy side that will be distorted if we try and stretch it upward. Use the same method that we used to add new anchor points.

How to add new anchor points in Adobe Illustrator gif

Grab the anchor points of the top half of the R and I, and drag upward.

Your type should now look something like this:

Folk music poster design in process

6. Adding Lines and Ornaments Around the Type

The text still looks a bit disconnected from the illustration, so we're going to add in some borders and ornaments to liven up the type.

Draw Borders Around the Secondary Text

Using the Line Segment Tool (\), select a bright yellow from your swatches and set it as the Stroke Color. Set the Stroke Weight to 3pt.

Click and drag, holding shift to lock the line to a single axis, across the top of your secondary text.

Lock the line to a single axis and create a border

Select your new line with the Selection Tool (V), and copy (Command-C) and Paste in Place (Command-Shift-V). Now hold shift while hitting the down arrow on your keyboard to move the line downwards 10 units at a time until it's directly below the secondary text.

How to add a border to text in Adobe Illustrator

Add Hand-Drawn Ornamentation

We'll now draw in some texture and ornamental lines. This is the sort of thing that is much easier when you have a lot of levels of pressure sensitivity to work with on your tablet. When you want to easily and quickly draw in lots of little pieces of texture, using that sensitivity rather than changing brush size means your workflow isn't interrupted.

Create a new layer, and name it "Ornaments".

Take the smaller of the our pressure sensitive brushes, and draw out lines on the top and bottom of the date and place text. Start the line thin at one end, and press harder as you draw to make it thicken toward the other end.

Drawing the ornamental lines in Adobe Illustrator

I've added in some crosses on either side of the date and place text, as well as a bunch of little flecks around the bottom half of the poster.

Follow along in this video to see how I drew the flecks and other details:

7. Layout Adjustments and Roughening

Now that all the elements are on the poster, the layout needs to be reconfigured slightly to keep everything harmonious and balanced.

All I've done is scaled my fire down a touch, and moved the primary and secondary text up, giving everything a little bit more room to breathe.

Layout Adjustments the poster so far

Rounding the Corners of the Type

Select the primary text, and go to Effect > Stylize > Round Corners. I've set my radius to 2.5mm.

How to round the corners of the type

Select the secondary text, and do the same. This time, because the text is smaller, set the radius to a lesser value. I've used 1mm.

Roughening Text and Illustrations

This is a great way to give your otherwise clean vectors some character.

Unlock all all of your layers, except for Background and Sketch. Select everything on the Artboard (Command-A), and go to Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen.

How to create a roughened text effect

The settings I've used in the Roughen dialogue are:

  • Size to 0.3mm, Absolute
  • Detail to 20/in
  • Points to Smooth

Experiment with different settings and see what works best for you. It's helpful to check the preview box so you can see your changes in realtime.

Here's how our poster should look now:

Our poster design is coming together

8. Final Touches

To tie the composition together, I've added a thick dark border. I roughened and rounded the border using the same technique as we used above.

Creating a stylish poster design final product

With that, we're done! 

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