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How to Create Create Cool Retro Graphics

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Read Time: 25 mins

I'm an illustrator and print designer from Cornwall in the UK. I've been using Photoshop since version 3. I also contribute tutorials for some of the worlds leading creative publications. Head over to my website where you can see more of my work.


Retro design is enjoying a huge modern day revival – and it's big business. Retro graphics are appearing everywhere, from T-shirts to print and web design. It seems the best way to get ahead these days is to go retro – so in this tutorial we'll draw a heavy dose of inspiration from the 70s and create a funky poster with tons of retro appeal.

As far as techniques go, I will show you how to give present day images the vintage work over. We will use Illustrator to create cool type from scratch using paths and custom brushes. This is a comprehensive tutorial that weighs in at nearly one hundred steps. So let's get started!

You'll find the Photoshop PSD file in a directory labeled "source" that came in the ZIP file that you downloaded. You may wish to look through it briefly before we begin.


I've supplied some files in the "source" folder, but you'll also need the following resources.

Before we Start

Choosing the right images is probably the most time consuming part of any illustration – so it pays off to either sketch out your ideas or create a very quick Photoshop comp beforehand. I had a pretty good idea in my head for the direction this piece was going to take, and having already chosen my source files, I created a rough layout in monotone.

At this stage I very loosely isolated the images using the Magic Wand (W) and Pen (P). These elements were then layered up – the screenshot below literally took ten minutes to assemble. I then added some quickly put together numerals for the date which were pasted from Illustrator. Finally, I added some color chips to indicate the color scheme.

Note: If you're working commercially, this can be presented for client approval.

Once I was satisfied with the basic layout and direction, I started work on the final piece, which I'll now walk you through step-by-step.

Step 1

We first need to accurately isolate the model from the background; Photoshop has many tools to achieve this, but in this instance, because the background is plain, we'll use a density or channel mask.

Switch to your Channels tab and cycle through each one in turn to determine which holds the most contrast between the model and the background; in this instance it's the blue channel. Duplicate it by dragging its thumbnail over the Create new channel icon at the foot of the palette. Now hit Command + L to access the Levels dialogue box and enter the Input settings below.

Step 2

Set the Burn Tool (O) to Midtones / 57% Exposure, then use a large brush to darken the edge of her arm.

Step 3

Switch to your Paths tab and set the Pen Tool (P) to Paths in the Option bar. Now plot a path (as shown in red) to loosely encompass the central area – you'll need to be more precise around the left-hand side of the model's neck, so toggle the visibility of the top RGB composite channel as necessary.

When you're done, Command-click your path thumbnail to generate a selection. Set your Foreground color to white and hit Delete to fill the active selection with black.

Step 4

By default, white channel areas act as selections, so hit Command + I to Invert. Your channel should now look something like this.

Step 5

Command-click your channel thumbnail to generate a selection, target the top composite channel and switch to your Layers tab. Double-click the base layer's thumbnail to unlock it, then hit Command + J to float the selection as a new layer. Trash the original layer, then move the new layer's content to the right.

Step 6

We now need to add the missing hair – although this area is cropped in the final composition, it just adds flexibility should you need to reposition the model.

Grab the Lasso Tool (L) and roughly select the area as indicated in red. Float the selection as a new layer and use the Transform menu to Flip Horizontal. Now rotate and position over the missing area.

Step 7

Select the Eraser Tool (E) and use a large, soft-edged brush to blend the hard edge. Now set the Clone Tool (S) to Current & Below and use a medium, soft-edged brush to remove the hard reflection on her glasses. When you're done, hit Command + E to Merge Down.

Step 8

Now hold down the Option key and select Black & White from the Create new fill or adjustment layer drop-down menu at the foot of the palette. In the next window, check the Clipping Mask option, then select the Green Filter preset.

Step 9

Use the same technique to clip a another adjustment layer – this time choosing Levels from the drop-down menu and use the Input settings shown below.

Step 10

Go to Select > Color Range. In the next window click on the darkest area within the image, then set the Fuziness slider to 200.

Step 11

After accepting the Color Range setting, a selection will appear. Add a new layer at the top of the stack, then select # 4c352f as your Foreground color. Now hit Option + Command + Delete to fill the selection with the new color. Next, set the layer's Blend Mode to Vivid Light to reveal some of the underlying black.

Step 12

Change your Foreground color to # fbf9cd. Switch to your Channels tab, generate a selection from the density mask and go to Select > Modify > Contract by 2 px. Back in your Layers tab add a new layer at the bottom of the stack and fill the selection with the new color.

Note: The visibility of the original layer is switched off for clarity.

Step 13

Now change the Blend Mode of your original layer to Multiply and reduce its Opacity to 50% to allow the pale yellow to show through.

Step 14

Target the bottom layer, then Shift-click the uppermost one to highlight all. Now choose New Group from Layers from the fly-out menu (situated top right on the palette). In the next window name the group "GIRL". Set this file to one side, because next we'll prepare the car image using a similar workflow.

Step 15

Because the background is fairly complex on the car, the only option to isolate it accurately is by using paths. Set the Pen Tool (P) to Paths in the Option bar, then zoom in and draw around the outer edge of the car, including the shadow (indicated in red). Now set the tool to Subtract and plot the inner sub paths (indicated in yellow).

Remember, you can fine-tune your paths at any time by holding the Command key to access the Direct Selection Tool to adjust individual direction/anchor points as required. When you're done, save your "Work Path" by double-clicking its thumbnail – this also avoids it being overwritten.

Step 16

Load the path as a selection, then add a new layer. Set the Clone Tool (S) to Current & Below and work within the selection to remove the car's aerial.

Step 17

Work on the same layer to clone out the large licence numbers. Now choose Filter > Noise > Add Noise, enter 2% and also check the Uniform and Monochromatic options. This will reduce the softness of your retouch layer and also match the graininess of the original.

Step 18

Grab the Type Tool (T) and click on your canvas and set your type in black. Use a sans-serif, condensed font, then rotate it a clockwise fractionally to match the original.

When your happy, choose Layer > Rasterize > Type. Now select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and enter a 2 px Radius, then Merge Down.

Step 19

Use a path-based selection to float the car as a new layer and delete the original layer as you did earlier with the model.

Step 20

Clip a Black & White adjustment to the layer using the Maximum Black preset.

Step 21

Now clip a Levels adjustment layer and set the Input sliders as shown.

Step 22

Target your base layer, select the Brush Tool (B) and use a black medium, hard-edged brush to remove any unnecessary highlight details on the car's fender and door.

Step 23

Perform a Color Range selection as you did with the model to select the darkest areas.

Step 24

Add a top layer and fill the selection with # 4c352f, then set the layer's Blend Mode to Vivid Light.

Step 25

Follow the same steps as you did with the model to add a base layer filled with # fbf9cd. Set the original layer's Blend Mode to Multiply and reduce its Opacity to 45%.

Now reduce the opacities of the Levels and Black & White adjustment layers to 68% and 5% respectively. Finally, place all your layers into a group folder labeled "CAR" and set the file to one side.

Step 26

The city image falls somewhere in between the previous images as how best we can isolate the architecture from the sky.

Set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to Add to selection, a Tolerance of 44, then activate the Anti-alias and Contiguous options. Click on the sky, then continue clicking, adding to the selection until the bulk areas are selected.

Step 27

Zoom in and add areas to your selection that you missed from the previous step.

Step 28

When you're done, hit Command + I to Invert the selection. Add a new channel and fill with white. You can now deselect and use a selection of black/white hard-edged brushes to clean up the channel.

Step 29

Next, clip a Black & White adjustment layer using the Infrared preset.

Step 30

Now clip a Levels adjustment layer using the Input settings as shown.

Step 31

Add a Color Range selection as a new layer and fill with # 4c352f. Now set its Blend Mode to Vivid Light and its Opacity to 67%.

Step 32

Use the same workflow as the previous images to add a base layer filled with # fbf9cd. Set the Blend Mode of the original layer to Multiply and reduce its Opacity to 40%. Finally, add all your layers to a group folder named "CITY".

Step 33

For the Palm trees image you'll need to combine some of the previous isolation techniques; switch to your Channels tab and duplicate the one which contains the most contrast (in this instance it's the Red one). Apply a Levels adjustment to this duplicate using the Input settings as shown.

Step 34

Now eliminate the remaining sky/sea areas using a combination of the Brush (B) and Dodge Tools (O). Don't worry about the foreground area – we'll fix that next.

Step 35

Create a series of closed paths around the remaining areas that need deleting (indicated in red). This step will be easier if you toggle the visibility of the composite channel as you work.

Step 36

Generate a path-based selection, hit Delete, then Invert the channel. Your modified channel should now look something like this.

Step 37

Load the channel as a selection and unlock the default layer. Float the selection as a new layer, then fill with # 470b0b. Name this layer "Palms", then trash the original layer.

Step 38

Now we'll concentrate on the main canvas onto which we'll compose these separate elements. First, set your Background color to # fffebc. Create a new RGB canvas 28 cm x 35 cm at 300 dpi and select Background Color from the Content drop-down menu.

Step 39

Set your Foreground color to # b6884a, add a new layer, then hit Option + Delete to fill the entire layer with the new color. Enable guides under the View menu (Command + semi-colon toggles them on and off). Add a horizontal and vertical guide roughly at 14 cm and 17 cm respectively. Now select Snap and Snap To Document Bounds from the View menu.

Add a layer mask, then grab the Gradient Tool (G). Select the Black to White and Radial preset in the Options bar and Shift-drag from the guides central point, out beyond your canvas. Now change the layer's Blend Mode to Multiply, reduce its Opacity to 80% and name it "Grad".

Step 40

Add another vertical guide roughly at 25 cm. Now snap a selection to the new guide and the base of your canvas using the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M). Add a new layer and fill the active selection with # e5852e. Name this layer "Orange bar".

Step 41

Now add "Paint.jpg" from the "source" folder as a new layer and label it "Base texture". Re-size/position, then change its Blend Mode to Hard Light and lower its Opacity to 44%. Snap a rectangular selection from the bottom guide and canvas bottom, then go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection. Add this layer into a group folder named "BACKGROUND TEXTURES".

Step 42

Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the "Base texture" layer using the settings shown. Now set the adjustment's Opacity to 50% to reduce the effect.

Step 43

Import "4.jpg" from these textures as a new layer within the folder. re-size/position and label it "Upper texture". We only want the top area visible, so select the base area, then add a mask (as Step 40), but use the Hide Selection option. Set this layer's Blend Mode to Overlay.

Step 44

These textures are now starting to break up the flat background colors, but the last layer looks a little over saturated. To fix this clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and change the Saturation slider to -100.

Step 45

Now drag the "GIRL" and "CAR" folder thumbnails into the project file in the stacking order as shown. To re-size and move the entire content of each folder, target the folder thumbnail and Transform/position as a regular layer.

Step 46

Add the "CITY" folder below the "CAR" and Transform/position as shown. Now apply a mask from the bottom guide to hide the lower portion.

Step 47

Duplicate the "CITY" folder by dragging it's thumbnail over the Create new layer icon at the foot of the palette. Enlarge slightly, then Move to the right of your canvas. Stack this folder beneath the original.

Step 48

Import your "Palms" below the "CAR" folder and Transform/position along the horizon line. Next, add a layer mask and hide the left tree, then softly blend the bottom hard edge.

Step 49

At this point I felt the model needed some adjustments. Set the original ("Layer 1") to 73% Opacity. Change the "Black & White" adjustment layer to Darken, then adjust the "Levels" Input and Output sliders as shown.

Next, apply a Smart Sharpen filter (Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen) to "Layer 1". Now reduce the Opacity of "Layer 2" to 76%, then hit Command +T to re-apply the Smart Sharpen filter to the same layer.

Step 50

Use a small black, soft-edged brush on the "Black & White" adjustment mask to reinstate the model's lip color. Now duplicate "Layer 2", change its Blend Mode to Overlay and its Opacity to 77%.

Step 51

Now we'll add some retro-looking sunbeams to the sky. Set the Custom Shape Tool (U) to Shape Layers and pick # 541211 as the fill color in the Options bar, then select "Registration Target 2" from the drop-down Custom Shape picker.

Step 52

Shift-drag the shape as a new layer above your "BACKGROUND TEXTURES" folder and snap it to the central guides. If you don't get it correctly aligned the first time, don't sweat – just hit Command + T to reposition and also re-size as required. Finally, set the layer's Blend Mode to Overlay and name it "Rays".

Step 53

Add a mask to the "Rays" shape layer, then select the Gradient Tool (G). Choose the Black to White preset and check the Reverse option. Now Shift-drag from the central guides out beyond your canvas as indicated in red.

Step 54

Add a new group folder at the top of the stack called "BASE STRIPES". Now use the Rectangle Tool (U) (located in the Custom Shape Tool's fly-out menu) to create a series of vertical stripes at various widths using these colors: # f7a810, # 7e2807, # ffca64, # d04e1a.

Note: All these layers should placed within in the "BASE STRIPES" folder. Also, If you need to change the color of a shape layer, simply double-click its layer thumbnail.

Step 55

Target the "BASE STRIPES" folder thumbnail, then hold Shift and Rotate 180 degrees. Now temporally drop the Opacity of the folder to make the following steps easier. Use the Transform's Perspective function to pull the bottom right handle down beyond the canvas.

Step 56

Enable your guides, then use Free Transform to Rotate again. Now use Skew and Distort transformations until the top bars align to the horizon guide.

Step 57

Finally, Skew and Distort again so the shapes match the perspective of the car.

Step 58

Position the folder beneath the "BACKGROUND TEXTURES", then set it back to 100% Opacity. Add a mask to the folder to hide the area above the horizon guide.

Now change the Blend Modes of selective shape layers to either Multiply, Screen, Overlay to reveal some of the underlying textures.

Step 59

Add a mask to the "CAR" folder, then gently blend the shadow area using a medium, soft-edged brush.

Step 60

Now we'll concentrate on creating the date graphics. We'll be using Illustrator for this part of the tutorial, simply because vector files allows greater flexibility when importing to Photoshop, also there's some neat effects we can do in Illustrator which would be difficult in Photoshop.

Launch Illustrator and create a new A4 portrait, RGB document, then select View > Show grid (Command + " toggles the grid's visibility). Now go to Illustrator > Preferences > Guides & Grid and enter the Gridline and Subdivision settings as shown.

Step 61

Open your Swatches tab (Window >Swatches), then select Open Swatch Library > Other from the fly-out menu (located top right on the palette). Now navigate to the "Retro_swatches.ai" which you'll find in the "source" folder.

Enable Snap to Grid and Snap to Point from the View menu. Now grab the Rectangle Tool (M) and add three squares (to each equal four grid sub-divisions), fill with the color swatches as shown – leaving the stroke as none. Open your Brushes palette from the View menu, select all three blocks and drag them into the Brush palette. In the following window check the New Art Brush button and hit OK.

Step 62

The next window allows further options for your custom brush. Check the Bottom to Top Direction option and enter 60% in the Width field.

Note: These settings remain live and can be altered by simply double-clicking the brush thumbnail in the palette.

Step 63

Use a combination of the Pen (P) and Ellipse Tools (L) to draw your numeral paths – which will automatically snap to the grid. You'll need to create two paths for the number "nine" – a circle and the down stroke. Now apply a 1 pt black stroke to your paths.

Note: The grid is hidden is the screenshot below for clarity.

Step 64

Now apply your custom brush to all paths. At this point, don't sweat over the over the odd looking corner points – because rounding the corners will fix this. First though, we need to do some calculations.

In Step 60 we set the Gridlines to every 50 mm, so we now need to apply divisible amounts of that number to make the corners smooth. Select numeral "one", then go to Effect > Stylize >Round Corners and set the Radius to 12.5 mm.

Step 65

Apply the same effect to numeral "seven", but use a Radius to 25 mm.

Step 66

The next few steps will go a lot smoother if we place each numeral on an independent layer. To do this, open the Layers palette and add a new layer, select your "nine" paths and drag the square icon (far right on its thumbnail) into the new layer. Now place the "zero" and "seven" onto further new layers and shuffle their stacking order as shown.

Next, deactivate the Snap to Grid option and fine-tune the alignment of the "nine" paths. To make this step easier, access the Transparency palette and temporally reduce the transparency of the down stroke path.

Step 67

When you're done, lock your remaining layers, then select both "nine" paths by clicking the circle icon (to the immediate right of its name). Now choose Object > Expand Appearance, then click the Divide button in the Pathfinder palette.

Step 68

To get rid of the unnecessary shapes produced by the Divide command, select them with the Direct Selection Tool (A) and hit Delete.

To combine separate shapes of the same color into a single path, first ensure your other layers are locked, then select a red area. Now go to Select > Same > Fill Color, then choose Make Compound Shape and hit the Expand button in the Pathfinder palette.

Finally, select all the yellow areas and repeat the Compound Shape/Expand commands.

Step 69

Work on each layer at a time (remembering to lock the others) and repeat the Object > Expand Appearance command. Now apply Compound Shape/Expand commands as the previous step.

Note: There's no need to use the Divide command on these layers because they're only single paths.

Next, add a 1.5 pt white stroke to all your shapes. If your strokes reveal any extra problematic points, simply delete/move them using the Direct Selection Tool (A), then re-apply the Compound Shape/Expand commands.

Step 70

Now we'll add the vectors to our composition; select and Copy the first numeral to the clipboard. Switch to your Project file and Paste As > Smart Object below the "Palms" layer and rename it "1".

Step 71

Continue to Copy > Paste your remaining numerals and label them accordingly. Now place them into a group folder called "DATE". You can now re-size the folder and also position layer pairs by using the Align buttons in the Options bar.

Step 72

Temporally reduce the Opacity of the group folder, then create a closed path (indicated in red) around the model's shoulder.

Step 73

Use a path-based selection to add a mask to the "DATE" folder, then paint directly on the mask with a large, hard-edged brush to hide areas to the left of the model and beneath the car.

Step 74

Target "1" layer, then add a Drop Shadow Style using the settings shown. Go to Layer > Layer Style > Copy Layer Style, then highlight your remaining numeral thumbnails and choose Paste Layer Style from the same menu.

Step 75

Set the Ellipse Tool (U) to Shape Layers, select the Add to shape area and set its color to white. Now check Circle in the Options window and create a cloud shape (which automatically creates a new layer), which you can place under the "GIRL" folder, rename it "Clouds 1" and position as shown.

Note: To move individual paths, select with the Path Selection Tool (A); to re-size, hit Command + T, then Transform.

Step 76

Add a Drop Shadow Style to the "Clouds 1" layer using the settings shown.

Step 77

Now Repeat Steps 75 – 76 to add a larger layer of clouds. Name this layer "Clouds 2" and stack it above the "GIRL" folder.

Step 78

Open the birds image and apply a Color Range selection by sampling the sky, then set the Fuzziness slider to 44.

Step 79

Invert the selection and fill with # 2d0302, float the selection as a new layer and rename it "Birds". Now unlock the original layer and trash it.

Step 80

Drag the "Birds" as a new layer at the top of the stack, then re-size and use the Transform > Flip Horizontal command.

Step 81

Open "Grunge_Paper_5.JPG" from these textures and hit Shift + Command + U to Desaturate.

Add as a new layer at the top of the stack, label it "Grunge 1" and set the Blend Mode to Soft light. Re-size to fill your canvas, then use the Clone Tool (set to Current Layer) to remove any blemishes you feel are too harsh.

Step 82

Open "Grunge_Paper_7.JPG" from same textures and hit Shift + Command + U to Desaturate. Next, choose Image > Rotate Canvas and check 90 degrees CCW, then Flip Canvas Horizontal.

Now add as final layer and label it "Grunge 2". Set the Blend Mode to Soft light and drop its Opacity to 60%. Re-size to fill your canvas, then use the Clone Tool again to remove any harsh blemishes.

Step 83

Now we'll create a trendy peeling sticker graphic. Make a new RGB document, 10 cm square at 300 dpi with a transparent background, then add central guides.

Grab the Ellipse Tool, set it to Paths and Shift-drag to add a circle. If the path is not central, switch to your Paths tab, select it with the Path Selection Tool (A) and Snap it to your guides. Now double-click the "Work Path" thumbnail and name it "Path 1".

Step 84

Generate a path-based selection and fill with white on the default layer. Double-click the layer thumbnail and rename it "White edge".

Step 85

With the selection still active go to Select > Modify > Contract and enter 30 px in the next window. Add a new layer and fill with # b32025. Name this layer "Red inner".

Step 86

Switch to your Paths tab and click the Create new path icon located at the foot of the palette. By default this new path will be labeled "Path 2". Shift-drag another circular path as shown – the intersecting path area will eventually be the curled edge of the sticker.

Step 87

Load "Path 2" as a selection, then add a new layer. Fill the active selection with white and label it "Corner peel".

Step 88

Add a third path, then use the Pen Tool (still set to Paths) to Shift-draw a 45 degree intersecting path. You can now fine-tune its position using the Path Selection Tool (A) and by also selecting/moving the corner points using the Direct Selection Tool (found in the Path Selection Tool's fly-out menu). The 45 degree angle should now butt precisely to "Path 1".

Step 89

Load "Path 3" as a selection. Now target each layer in turn and hit Delete. The basic shape of the sticker is now complete.

Step 90

To create the inner shadow, add a new layer above the "Red inner" layer and label it "Inner shadow", then choose black as your Foreground color.

Now set the Gradient Tool (G) to the Foreground to Transparent preset and Shift-drag a 45 degree Liner Gradient from the bottom right-hand corner. Finally, change the layer Blend Mode to Multiply and reduce its Opacity to around 35% for a subtle effect.

Step 91

Load "Path 2" as a selection, then add a new layer and label it "Corner peel shadow". Now add two opposing 45 degree gradients within the selection – for a realistic outcome, apply a shorter pull to the bottom gradient (represented by the length of the arrows). Leave this layer at Normal Blend Mode, but reduce its Opacity to 85%.

Step 92

Now we'll add a logo created in Illustrator. Go to File > Place, then navigate/select the "PSD_logo.ai" from the "source" folder and hit the Place button. Click OK in the next window, then when you see the graphic appear as a Smart Object layer hit Return to accept the import.

Ensure this layer sits above the "Red inner" layer, then re-size, rotate 45 degrees and position centrally.

Step 93

Let's add a little wear and tear to an otherwise pristine sticker; Import "Grunge_Paper_6.JPG" from these textures above the "Red inner" layer. Name it "Distress", then set its Blend Mode to Soft Light.

Step 94

Now we'll trim those excess shadows; add a new layer at the bottom if the stack and name it "Clipping mask". Load "Path 1" as a selection, Contract by 1 px and fill with black. Next, load "Path 3" as a selection, Expand by 1 px and hit Delete. You'll now have a slightly shrunk black fill of the sticker shape.

To make the non-transparent areas of this layer serve as a mask for the upper layers, Option -click on the border between the new layer name and the one above it; continue Option-clicking up the layer stack until they're all clipped to the bottom one. Using a single layer as a clipping mask avoids any edge interference from the upper layers.

Step 95

As a final touch add a Drop Shadow Layer Style to the "Clipping mask" using the settings below. Now place all your layers into a group folder called "STICKER".

Step 96

Drag the "STICKER" folder at the top of the layer stack within your project file. Position bottom right and re-size as shown.

Step 97

Now spend a little time to fine-tune any elements, then you're finished.

Conclusion and Scope

Check out some retro inspiration here, the highly textural work of Scott Hanson and the clever mix of retro and modern imagery of Ian Keltie. Have fun mixing together styles from the past, while adding your own flavor using current techniques. The final image is below.

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