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Creating a Surrealistic Hand-Drawn Illustration

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Read Time: 16 mins

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to create a surrealistic illustration using fine liners, marker, an economic all in one printer, Illustrator and Photoshop.

I'm going to explain how to draw the figures that we need even without having great drawing skills. Then vectorize the drawings in Illustrator where we do the most part of positioning and coloring the illustration. After we'll import into Photoshop to apply a texture, some filters, india ink splashes and some tonal adjustments. This is a great way to create illustrations with a hand-drawn feel!


In order to create this illustration you'll need some photos from Stock Exchange. I would like to thank all the photographers for the images they created: Bird, Tree, Desert tree, Sunflower and Skull.

Then you need some brushes, a marker, some pigment liners pens, china ink and an economic all in one printer.

Step 1

First of all prepare all the things you need to draw and keep them handy.

Step 2

Let's prepare all the images needed to create a library of hand-drawn useful vectors for the illustration. Let's begin with the skull image, your aim is to boost up the contrast while preserving details. Open it in Photoshop, and go to Image > Adjustment > Black and White.

From the Preset menu choose High Contrast Blue Filter. Now open the Level menu (Command + L), and drag the input levels arrows toward the center to boost up the contrast, like in the image below.

Step 3

Then you have to repeat the previous step for all the images. Open up the spring robin image and use the Crop Tool (C) to delete the unwanted portion of the image for the printout version (there is no need to waste ink and color printing the entire images). This time the Green Filter will do the job, apply Image > Adjustments > Black and White, then from Preset menu choose Green Filter.

Step 4

Open the desert tree image and after Crop (C) it like in the previous step, use the maximum white Preset this time from Image > Adjustments > Black and White.

Step 5

Repeat the previous operation for the sunflower image, this time the yellow preset with a little tweak does the job. See the image below for the values. Once finished save all those edited images into a folder.

Step 6

Print each image on a single A4 sheet of paper in black and white. The printout should be as big as possible. Take each printout and put a sheet of tracing paper on the top with some tape or some glue-stick for paper. Now, grab your pens and marker and let's begin to draw.

Step 7

While drawing, use the print as a guide, try to see the image divided into shadows, lights and midtones. With the black marker trace the thicker lines and create some solid black areas where needed, try to choose where those solid black areas should be and draw them. For the shadows create thick to thin parallel lines until the lighter point.

Experiment, using various pens and your style of linework and don't be limited by the printout below your tracing paper, just draw freely! You should have something like this, but feel free to experiment.

Step 8

Continue with this method until you have traced all the printout. Keep experimenting using different combination of pens, markers and felt pens to give personality to your drawings. Try to varying angles within your lines and create irregular stroke but don't over do with black areas. There should be a balance between lights and shadows. Your final drawings should be something like this.

Step 9

You notice that in the previous picture there are two images that don't have a photo reference, the heart on the left, and the other flower in the center. This is because I drew them tracing on two of my old sketches. If you want, you can try to produce your own sketches and than use the same technique of the previous steps for inking your drawings, or use those provided in the tutorial files.

Step 10

The next task is to take each sheet of tracing paper drawn and scan them into Photoshop at a resolution of 600 dpi or 300 dpi at least, in grayscale mode.

In order to do this go to File > Import > your printer model Twain... once finished you use Levels to brighten up the whites and darken the blacks. Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and bring the arrows toward the center. Your aim is to enhance your blacks and whites and remove any gray smudges.

Notice how the images below are only in black and white, without grays. Do it for all the images except for the big tree one, and save them in TIFF format.

Step 11

Now you need to create the tree, so open the big tree image in Photoshop. You need only about half of the tree. Use a guide to help you, and place it in the image as shown.

Duplicate or unlock the background. Use the Rectangular Marque Tool (M) to make a rectangular selection on the guide, then hit Command + J to duplicate the selection into a new layer.

Duplicate this layer too, then use Command + T and go to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal to flip the last layer and drag it from the left to the right with the Selection Tool (V) until you recreate a new entire tree.

Step 12

With a selection exclude the unwanted part of the image, such as soil and trees in the background. Don't worry about the sky for the moment. Use the tool you feel most comfortable with, I used the Pen Tool (P) for example.

Once finished click on the Add Vector Mask button at the bottom of the layer Palette to generate a mask from the selection. Target the mask thumbnail, and with a small brush adjust the tree. If you need, switch between black and white for hiding and revealing part of the image within the mask. Don't be too precise for the lower part because it will be hidden later.

Step 13

Your next aim is to remove midtones from the image, without losing too many details. Create two adjustment layers, respectively, Black and White then Levels and insert the values reported in the image below.

Once finished, flatten the image via Layer > Flatten Image and save as "tree.tiff." Put it in the same folder as the other finished images. Your result should be similar to mine.

Step 14

Now we'll work for a while with Illustrator, vectorizing one by one the drawings we've created. So let's open Illustrator, create a new document and place an image in, for example the skull one. Go to File > Place and navigate to the folder where you saved your "skull.tiff."

After the image appears, make sure it's selected, and go to Object > Live Trace > Tracing Option and here choose Detailed Illustration from the Preset menu. Leave the default option and click Trace. If the result is a little too dark, set the Threshold to 138. Once finished go to Object > Expand in order to end this phase. Name this layer "lineswork." Now you have your lines, but you could also have the fill. Let's create it!.

Step 15

In order to easily create a base fill color, it is important not to have gaps in the outline area but it is solid black. In order to get it, hit Command + A to select all the "lineswork," then create another layer below called fill. target this layer and hit Command + F to paste in the same position.

Now target the little circle in the fill layer just created, and with the selection active apply to Object > Compound Path> Release. In the Pathfinder Palette, Click on Unite. Now you have a solid shape area below your lines, change the color to a light gray to see it under your lines.

Step 16

Repeat the action performed for Step 15 for all the images until you reach a vector version of all the drawings, vectorize the big tree done in Step 13 too, and save all of them as EPS or AI files and put all the stuff in a folder called "vector" for example. For convenience you can enter all the drawings in a single file.

Step 17

Create a new file in Illustrator, I personally created a vertical A2, because I 'm going to print a big canvas, but feel free to choose your own dimensions. Import the big tree vector file, and place it in the center of the document.

Now change the colors to a bright yellow for the "fill" area, and a purple for the "line" area (feel free to use your own colors). Then, with the selection still active on both the fills and the lines, change their shape to match approximately the one shown below.

Step 18

Then, begin to create the branches, since this design is a false symmetry, it is important that the elements that compose it, appear symmetrical at first sight. Indeed there is a way to get a similar effect, that is to compose only half the image and flip it horizontally, but the result is much less spontaneous, (you'll never find a symmetric tree in nature).

So import the "desert tree" vector into another layer above (remember for each drawing to group the fill and lines). Place it on the left, change its color, than duplicate ti by hitting Command + C followed by Command + F to paste in front. Select the copied version and go to Object > Transform > Reflect, then in the pop-up choose Vertical > 90 Degrees. Repeat this step four times until your tree is similar to the mine below.

Step 19

The next step is to add the four skulls, like before. Import the skull vector drawing, use the same purple for the fills and a light yellow for the lines, then repeat the actions performed on step 18 to scale and place the four objects properly.

Notice that this is one of the focus points of the entire image. To scale easily use the Scale Tool (S) on one of the skulls, adjust it to the desired size, duplicate until you have four skulls like below.

Step 20

Import the vector bird too, duplicate it and place it in separate layers, immediately below the branches created in Step 18, refer to the image below for positioning. Now create another series of branches placing them in a layer at the base of your stack in the layer palette. Reflect and place them as you have already done in Step 18.

Step 21

For the colors of the bird, choose a dark purple for the lines, a dark yellow for the fill, than use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a closed path, that should have a further third orange color placed between the lines and fill.
Choose the colors you prefer.

Create a background for the illustration, add a gradient at the base of the layer hierarchy like the ones below. Give an 18% Opacity to the white and yellow tabs respectively.

Step 22

It's time to add some flowers, so grab your vector sunflower and place it into the document. Now choose for its fill the same purple of the tree, and for the lines the yellow used for the skulls. Scale and placed like below. Add another flower, inverting both the fill and line colors, among the skulls.

Now begin to add some elements to the background to create depth, duplicate one of the flowers, delete its lines and leave the fill. Give it a 1 px or 2 px yellow stroke and no fill. Begin to place them like in the image below, never mind if the artboard size exceeds, you'll not notice that on the final image.

Step 23

Using only the filled part of the sunflower, continue to add flowers to the composition, placing the branches where you like, changing and combining colors too. Experiment and create your own decoration and flower too, if you like.

Create another level below the others and place into it some concentric circles as shown. The circles are simply made using the Ellipse Tool (E). Create one, while its selected hit the Scale Tool (S), then set it 80% Uniform and Copy. Now hit Command + D to repeat the last action and create about seven or eight circles.

Step 24

Now you have to create the leaves, you can use the Pen Tool (P) or Pencil (N) to create a single leaf, then change it into a symbol. Begin to create the fill, then add the veins with the Pencil (P). I Used a bright green for the fill, a white for the veins, and for the stroke the same purple as the birds lines.

When the first leaf is completed, group it and drag to the Symbols Palette. Now in the pop-up select Graphic. Begin to populate the tree with the leaves, then you can modify all the leaves anytime, also the ones from the Symbols Palette, double-clicking its thumbnail. You can place leaves on the left half of the tree, then select them and reflect them, as you did for the branches.

Step 25

Place the two white flowers, and the heart, at the end of the tree. Import the white flower and place it in a layer above the sunflowers. Duplicate, scale and place it as shown. Create another layer and import it into the heart vector drawing. Create another color to add depth to the drawing, like you did for the bird. Always remember to save the file!

Step 26

The Illustrator part is almost finished, but you still need to create the arteries of the heart. Now you have to create a bunch of little circles that would make the arteries. Now begin to draw them with the Ellipse Tool (L), little elliptical circles, and position them
one to one as below. They have to be a little irregular, the series goes from big to small.

You can help yourself by doing sequences with the Blend Tool (W) by going to
Object > Blend > Blend Options, then in the pop-up choose Specified Steps (experiment with number of steps). Now go to Object > Expand, and leave all ticked as shown.

Anyway, you should move and resize the circles. Once you finally complete a relevant series of circles like below, you can expand them. Duplicate this section and use it to stretch or create other segments. Distort with the Direct Selection (A) where needed. Then, stand up and go to have a coffee before continuing.

Step 27

To finish the Illustrator part of the tutorial, create a layer at the bottom of the layer stack and create some bubbles like in the figure using the Ellipse Tool (L). Take only the yellow lines of one of the sunflowers and bring it into the Symbols Palette. With this symbol instance create the splashes of flowers that come out from the arteries like below. The vector image is complete!

Step 28

Go back to Photoshop and open the Illustrator file you just completed in Photoshop. Select the Crop Box from the Crop menu and insert your file dimension and a resolution of 300 dpi. I entered 420 for the width and 594 for the height, (A2 size) at 300 dpi.

Now begin to give a subtle aged look to your illustration. Scan a sheet of aged paper (or download one from the internet), and place it below your illustration layer. I used a light yellow paper texture. Target your illustration layer and set it to Multiply.

Step 29

If you want to reduce the opacity of only some areas of the texture, you have to add a mask to the texture and brush some areas too reduce the opacity. Use a big, soft brush set to low Opacity (about 20%). I brushed the lower part of the texture a little.

Step 30

Convert the illustration layer for Smart Filter, choosing Filter > Convert for Smart Filter. Once converted, select Noise > Add Noise with an Amount of 1,5 Gaussian. With the smart filter you have the possibility to change those values anytime you want.

Step 31

Now you need some splashes of china ink washed. To produce them by yourself, put a few drops of china ink into a little cup of water - two or three drops are enough. Then take a brush and a sheet of bristol and create some paintings randomly, let a few drops fall on the sheet. Then let them dry. Take these random textures and scan them into Photoshop in grayscale at 300 dpi at least. Once digitalized, adjust them with Levels how you did in the early steps of the tutorial.

Step 32

In order to use your ink textures comfortably, you need to extract them from the background. To do this in the Channel Palette, target the gray Channel and Command-click its thumbnail. Then invert the selection via Command + Shift + I. Create another layer and fill the selection with black. Do this for all the splashes you want to use. Be sure to save and keep them handy.

Step 33

Begin to place your ink textures randomly on the drawing, this phase is up to you, so experiment! The only thing you need to do is change the color of the ink splashes, then experiment with various blending modes (I used above all Burn, Darker Color, and Lighten, but it's very up to you).

To change the color of the splashes simply change the Foreground color with the desired one, then lock the transparent pixels hitting the little button at the top-left of the Layer palette. Now hit Alt + Backspace to fill the none transparent pixels.

Step 34

Once finished with the ink splashes, you can perform a tonal tweak to enhance contrast. Create a New Fill or Adjustment Layer > Curves and refer to the image below. Make your own adjustment, if you want. Below is my result up to this point.

Step 35

Now select all and choose Edit > Copy Merged followed by Filter > Other > High Pass. Insert a value from 1,5 to 3,5. Set the blending mode of this layer to Hard Light to let the bright yellow linework come out.

Final Step

Finally, add a new Fill or Adjustment Layer > Selective Colors and use the values that look right to you. If some areas appear too bright, add a mask and brush some areas to reduce opacity (refer to step 29).

I have also added some other texture in the lower part of the image, but feel free to use your own. I took some pictures of an old blank canvas, but whatever worn texture do the job. Import them into the document, mask them and brush some areas into this layer too, as we did before. Save the file.

Congratulations you have finished your illustration!

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