Create a Surreal Vexel Illustration in Photoshop


Vexel illustrations are created using a mix of vector and raster techniques. While a vexel may look like a vector illustration, it is not. In this tutorial, we will explain how to create a surreal vexel illustration in Photoshop. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.

Before We Begin

This tutorial was a collaboration with my good friend Jolobai Andrei. Before we go into explaining the steps of the illustration you need to understand first the idea behind the illustration. When we first started working on the composition we had in mind a gloomy/sad scene but we wanted to maintain a colorful effect. You will notice that even if the composition has very light and colorful shades, the message it transmits is straightforward.

Step 1 - Setting up the scene

Start off by creating a new document of 3427 x 5499 and 300 DPI. Also make sure it is CMYK so that you will be able to print it later on. Keep in mind that working on this resolution you might need a stronger computer as Photoshop tends to take out quite a bit of memory when you work on big documents such as this one. Fill in the background color with #b1c6e7.

Next you need to add the Model image in the document. This image represents the base of the whole composition.

Using the Levels Adjustments panels you need to bring more depth to the image.

Step 2 - Prepare the portrait for tracing

To make it easier on you when you start tracing the image to create the vexel shapes you will need to navigate to Adjustments and apply a Posterize effect of level 8.

Next using the Pen Tool (P) you will need to create all the shades of the face tracing all the shadows, lights and different color areas. Keep in mind that the more shapes you create, the more detailed your final result will be.

Do not worry about making the traces perfect as this is more of a representation of a character and we are not trying to put in too much detail into the portrait.

Choosing colors is very important that is why you need to choose carefully. Choose colors that are complementary to each other.

And finally work on the detailing of the eyes. There are so many details you can work on the eyes as they are very powerful and expressive but in this case again do not put too much work into them. You need to just trace the shape of them at the moment.

These are the color codes used to create the face:

#dbd3dd, #baaebc, #dfe0de, #d34a7a, #d29dc7, #9d8e9a, #411014, #523033, #d4b8d7, #fadfea, #f9c4db, #54708b, #90a5d5, #9a465c.

Step 3 - Tracing the hair

Tracing the hair will require basically the same system as above but because the main idea of the composition here is the struggling hair and creating every strip of hair is not easy this step will take longer than the one above.

Using the Pen Tool start off by tracing the shape of the hair like below.

Next you need to trace the animal silhouette using the Pen Tool and again inserting it into the hair using the same color to fill the selections.

Step 4 - Creating the hair lines

You will need to use the Pen Tool (P) for this next step and create the hair lines. Make sure you use a solid brush before stroking the path's and make sure you have the simulate pressure activated to obtain the good looking strokes like in the images below.

Continue adding the stroke lines but this time lower the size of the brush as you will need to continue creating thinner hair lines.

Use lower grey shades to create shadows and lighter grey shades to create the normal hair lines.

Step 5 - Add gradients to define hair shapes more

In this step you will need to finish the hair strokes and then you will need to add a few gradients from white to black set to Soft Light. These gradients will provide more depth to the hair as well as shadows and lights.

Step 6 - Start working on the background

First off start by creating a pink circle placed on the back of the main character like in the image below. Use the color code #f9c4db. Also double click the circle layer to edit the Blending Options. Add a white stroke of 20px size.

Step 7 - Adding textures

Apply the Texture 1 over the circle and make sure it is masked so that it effects only the circle. Set the texture to Color Burn and the Fill to 70%.

Add Texture 2 on top of all the background elements and set the texture to Fill 9%.

Step 8 - Creating the abstract wood shapes

Using the Pen Tool (P) you need to create a few abstract shapes that we will later transform into wood objects floating around the character. When you fill up the shapes created make sure you use the color code #6e4325.

Now it is time to provide a bit of dimension to the shapes. Create some more extra shapes using the Pen Tool (P) but this time place the layers behind the first wood shapes and also make sure you fill the selections with the color code #96692e. These new shapes will have to give the impression that the wood shapes will have a certain width as we do not want them to look flat.

Make a selection of one of the main wood layers than create a new layer on top of that. Make sure your foreground is set to the same brown color as above and the background to white. Now apply a Noise effect on top of the new layer by going to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Set the noise settings to Gaussian and make sure the Monochromatic is checked then set the Amount to 11.86%.

Now add the Motion Blur effect to the noise layer by going to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and set the Angle to -16 and Distance to 35 pixels. Keep in mind that you can set these as you want the perspective to be, you are free to experiment and chose the best setting that fits you.

Desaturate the layer by going to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. Next go to Filter > Liquify to create the actual Wood Texture from the noise layer.

Using the Liquify Tools you need to play around with the image in order to obtain that realistic wood texture look.

Set the texture layers to Overlay and repeat this process for all the wood elements. Every piece of the wood needs to have it's own texture as they all have different shapes.

You will notice in the details below that even the width of the wood elements have the textures applied to them.

Step 9 - Adding more details to the wood elements

Using the Pen Tool (P) you will need to create a few more shapes over the wood elements and fill the selections with white than set them to Soft light and a lower Opacity to make these layers give the impression of lights and provide even more depth and details.

Step 10 - Creating the suffering symbol of the animals

Like it is not enough that the animals are represented by the struggling hair we will actually create some blood streams floating from the Bear and Rabbit as a symbol of their pain and suffering. Use the Pen Tool (P) again to create the shapes. Use the color code #902c2c.

Next using the same tool you need to create more shapes over the main blood stream shape and color them with black and respective white to provide the shadows and lights. You will then lower their opacity levels to what you consider them to look ok.

Step 11 - Go back and improve the background

In this step you will go back into the background and add more details and effects.

What you will basically do in this step is to just add a few circles in different areas and behind the main pink circle. You will use the colors white and pink with different Opacity levels and Overlays.

Step 12 - Creating the cables

This step will focus on the creation of the wires and USB shape. First off using the Pen Tool (P) you need to create traces as you want the wires to look in the end than stroke the path with a desired brush size.

Create a few lights and shadows on the wires by adding darker and lighter layers and editing the opacity as well as the wood texture effect created to the abstract wood elements.

Step 13 - Creating the USB graphic.

Start up by creating the shape of the USB element first using the Pen Tool (P).

After you finish the creation of the main shape you need to start adding the same wood texture and a few lights and shadows.

In the end add the shadows that the wires create over the character using black layers set to low opacity levels.

Step 14 - Creating detailed shadows and color effects

Start working some more on the horns as at the moment they look a bit flat. Use the black and white brush to insert shadows and lights to improve the depth of the horns.

Hide the wires behind the hair by adding a few brushes over them.

Step 15 - Finish the illustration

Your illustration is almost over. All you need to do now is to save your illustration as JPG and also make sure it is a RGB in order for this to work. Now using the Action file provided inside the Main file apply the action and watch your illustration transform into a more detailed and retro look.

Final Image

Keep your designs clean and detailed. Remember that details make the difference in most of the illustrations.

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