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From The City to The CD: How to Illustrate City Scenes for Album Sleeve Artwork

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I work predominantly for advertising and editorial clients, however I'm also lucky to get involved with some real creative spirits on some great collaborative projects, like the New Jersey based electropop band "The Title."

Nick Esposito from the band had seen my artwork before and when they were looking for an artist to design their sleeve artwork he got in touch. I loved their music and felt a real match between what they create and what I create, so we got started.

We had to ensure that we were all working together on one whole perfect package, every element of the sleeve design had to buddy up with the all important music. I don't remember how the subject matter got decided, but I think we all must have agreed that with the album called "Making A Scene" and their music being so exciting, it really had to be a city scene, this tutorial will run you through the process I took to make it.

You can find the source files in the directory labeled "source" that came in the files that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.

Step 1

First things first, for me that always comes down to a pencil drawing, it's sketching in pencil that my ideas come and where I can create a scene with the right levels of realism and character. You could of course start with a photo, but I find that more often than not the real world doesn't always give me exactly what I want! So, once I know what kind of angle I want to view the scene from, I simply start building blocks and adding details.

To make a place appear especially exciting, vibrant and varied, try not to draw each and every building exactly the same, give them different shapes and sizes, different architectural styles, different windows, doors, signage, fixtures and fittings. To really characterize buildings I find it's good to first go from a good angle (ensuring you can pull off the perspective effects) and also to keep all the lines a little naturally curved, rather than too rigid and straight.

It's generally at this first stage that I also add other line work like clouds, rainbows, bubbles, smoke. I don't always add all text at this point, since I also like to use proper fonts in Illustrator, not just trace hand-drawn type.

Step 2

Drawing complete (and shared with the clients/boys in the band, just to make sure I'm heading in the right direction) and it's straight into Adobe Illustrator to get the vectors going. First, I'll always do a basic, exact trace using the Pen tool, beginners often struggle with the bezier curve functions, but you really must conquer them to make the best of Illustrator. It took me a while to get to grips with it, but the focus paid off and my illustration work has escalated so much since learning all the bezier curve/Pen tool functions a few years ago.

For those readers not yet perfect with bezier curves, here's a brief starter lesson... The Pen tool works by plotting Anchor Points, and adjusting the curves in between each point (rather than the Pencil or Paintbrush tools, where you freely draw the curves by hand) so every time you touch down your Wacom Pen or click your mouse you will plot a point.

If, when you touch down your point, you hold it down and drag it in any direction, you will be able to manipulate the curve. The further you drag the pen (the tool you are controlling is called a Bezier handle) the more extreme the curve will be. If you lift up your pen, and then touch down elsewhere, the curve in-between will be automatically created. However, if you lift up your pen, then re-click the anchor point you just placed (making it inactive), then the previous curve will be finished, and your next anchor point will be joined by a straight line.

To start creating a new curve, deselect the previous line. I could go on forever advising on Bezier curves and the Pen tool, but we'd best move on with our city scene!

Step 3

Don't ever be afraid to make use of Illustrator's shape tools, no matter how hand-created you want your illustration to be, the shapes can make life a lot easier and your illustration work can move along much more efficiently. For these small hanging streetlight details, I used the star tool, it ensures some realism being a perfect shape and also adds a lovely small detail for anyone looking close-up.

Step 4

It's important to have realistic elements, they can be slightly twisted if you like, but for a city scene to be believable, streetlights, traffic lights, signposts, and more are priceless. If
you are looking for an air of realism, it is a great idea to view things at an angle, not try and create a scene facing everything straight-on.

When creating album sleeve artwork, it's always worth remembering that you might be designing a full package, not just the single cover illustration. When I was creating these traffic lights, I knew I wanted to use them elsewhere in the package, more about them later.

Step 5

You'll see in the finished illustration that there is a rainbow of smoke flowing around the foreground. To re-create a rainbow ribbon effect, start off with one curved line that plots the flow. In the layers panel, duplicate the line, then lock the lower version of the line and use the anchor points of the other line to make a new, almost parallel line. If you want all the lines to
stem from one point, simply leave the first anchor point in place. Duplicate this second line, lock the two lower lines (in the layers panel) and repeat as you wish, as seen in diagram A.

Once you have your rainbow looking correct as linework, you'll need one more step before you
can fill it with color. Again in the layers panel, duplicate every line, except the highest and lowest lines on your artboard, so all the lines that are on the inside of your rainbow have two copies. Now, with every other line locked, select the end-points of the two bottom lines and join them (Command + J), making them into one object, which is the bottom stripe of your rainbow. Now lock that shape and unlock the next two lines, select their end-points and join them. Eventually you will have a series of perfect stripes making up your rainbow ribbon!

Step 6

Sometimes it takes longer than I'd like, but finishing off all the line-work is always a great moment, you know then you're not too far away from playing with color. Make sure you build up your scene with all the layers sitting correctly in order from back to front. I also find it helps to line each building in a different color, so you can see where one building ends and another begins, otherwise city scenes can get a little confusing!

Step 7

Line work done, it's all about adding flat color next. This is such a crucial factor in any illustration, your basic colors define the atmosphere, the place, the time of day and the overall feel that people are going to get from seeing the artwork. For a city, although it is great to have buildings of different colors, if there are a lot of buildings, they don't all have to be a different color. A regular city is built out of a selection of materials, but those same materials will appear and re-appear on different buildings, so having a fairly limited choice of building colors can again ensure a little reality.

Think also where your focus is, and make sure that is the most striking color, so here I want people to focus on the central building which holds the album's title on it's wall, so the other buildings surrounding it and the sky are in oranges, reds and purples, the building behind is slightly darker, and then the main building is a strong, clashing cyan. Your eyes can't help but focus on the one stand-out color.

I've also had a good play with some mini color selections on the signposts (especially on the tall building on the right) and the shelters over the windows on the left building. Sky colors can really set a mood, more than a lot of artists realize. The sky, naturally, can be orange, pink, black, blue, yellow, purple or even slightly green, depending on the timing and weather, so take those colors from nature and put them in your artwork.

Step 8

For the digital screen effect, I wanted to make it look a little retro and pixelated, however it is being viewed from a distance, so you wouldn't see the individuals pixels within this scene. So, simply create a block of repeated circles, I used ovals here to add to the angle we're viewing the screen at, but you could be more precise with perfect circles or squares.

Freehand, I then drew out my shapes using the Lasso Selection tool, so I was selecting the areas I wanted to remain. I then inversed my selection, so only the circles outside of my shapes were selected, and hit delete. You can take this basic technique into some much more complex effects, I frequently use it to create graphic groups of leaves in tree scenes.

Step 9

The mask functions in Illustrator are absolutely priceless and can add so much to your artwork. For example I wanted some tidy stripes wrapping around the blimp here, so a Clipping Mask was called for.
Create your original shape, and any other elements (here it was the tail pieces). In the Layers panel, duplicate the main shape and be sure not to move it on the artboard, it must stay in exactly in
place. Remove all it's color, fill, and outline.

Now create your stripes (or other artwork/pattern to be cropped). Place the duplicated body shape above the stripes in the Layers panel and select all three objects. Now click Object > Clipping Mask. Make use of the body shape as a mask and clip off the area of the stripes that you don't want to be seen.

Step 10

For the album title, I really wanted a simple fluorescent lighting effect. I traced my hand-drawn type, using the Pen tool, then giving it a thicker line stroke, converted it into an object, meaning it is no longer a line, but actually a filled object, (select your line, then click Object > Path > Outline Stroke).

I then gave that object it's own outlines. With the fill color (the inside line as we see it) in a bright, electric color and the outlines in a fuller, toned-down color, we have a very quick and effective fluoro bulb effect. I then duplicated this text, and dropped it beneath the wire grid, all in a darker tone of the wall color, to add a simple shadow.

Step 11

With the main colors done, it's then a case of running through every object, every wall and every single element and adding any shading, gradients, effects or transparencies to make the whole scene work together.

I'd always planned on having the sky area also used for the band name, and I was thinking of using my favorite font, Cooper Black, but once it came to pasting it in there, it just didn't appear striking enough, it didn't feel enough like it was from a hot, buzzing, electropop band coming out of New Jersey!

Step 12

So it was back to the font library to find a new one. I was looking for something angular, clean-cut and fresh, I found myself playing with Lubalin Graph, and ended up using it with a neat effect to give it a great cutting outline. Type out your desired words, then change your type into outlines (click Type > Create Outlines in the main menu), then duplicate the type in the Layers panel.

Make the top layer of type into your chosen color, it should be just a fill color. Then change the lower layered duplicate into just outline strokes, and take the line thickness right up to 10 or 20pt, in a different color to the main type, you should get a nice big frame. Due to the nature of outlines, you also get some quirks, where angles can shoot out where not expected, this added the edginess I wanted, and paved the way for the rest of the type on the sleeve package.

Step 13

You can see here that I used the same effect on the inside sleeve, but with the inner type in the same color as the plain background, so all you're actually reading is the outlines.

Step 14

I used the same type effect again on the back cover, but duplicating a few layers, and adding an electric color palette. All the sharp edges were created by Illustrator (unaware of it's own creativity!) by changing the type into objects and then thickening the outlines to an extreme. On this panel, the back of the CD case, I also added a flowing bubbly smoke trail, to blend it in nicely with the cover, accentuating the package design as a whole. Also, a little tip I have learnt in designing CD sleeves...pink, yellow and orange side panels always stand out most on a shelf!

Step 15

This is the inside of the CD booklet, the band wanted all the lyrics in, which I was happy to do, but with such a great amount of words, I had to get creative with fitting it all in. I also wanted a bit of refreshment from the hot oranges and pinks that cover the outside of the sleeve packaging. I used Lubalin Graph again for the font, but just in white sitting on the cyan blue, with magenta song
titles, I really felt that this was a great striking point for anyone browsing the sleeve artwork.

Step 16

Those traffic lights I mentioned earlier, since I was so pleased with them, all I could do was to give them their own space on the panel that sits behind the CD itself. This echoes the band's quirkiness and humor, the front cover is an explosion of creativity, fresh and bubbling, then inside, hiding away, is a simple, clean, refreshing smile.

Final Image

Album sleeve artwork has always been a great medium for artists, designing visuals to work alongside music and appeal to the right people. It can be a collaborative gem, working with a band or
musician to create a package full of sound and vision.

I strongly recommend more artists approach bands to work together on album artwork, you can start anywhere, with your local DJs or young bands, or with the major record labels. Also, if you're working with a band who are fresh, exciting and of the moment, then Adobe Illustrator is perfect to get creative with your design, illustrations, typography, icons, pretty much every element of the whole package!

To see more of my work check out BenTheIllustrator.com and Speakerdog.com, plus there's BuyBenTheIllustrator.com to get hold of prints and posters! To hear music by The Title, buy the album or read more about the band check out myspace.com/thetitlenj. The final image is below. You can view the large version here.

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