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How to Design a Retro Theatre Poster in Adobe Illustrator

This post is part of a series called Fairy Tale Week.
How to Create a Nature-Inspired Peter Pan Text Effect in Adobe Photoshop
How to Create a Little Red Riding Hood Inspired Fairytale Illustration in Paint Tool SAI
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

How do you test a princess’s royal pedigree? By whether or not she’s able to get a good night’s sleep if there’s a single pea under her pile of 40 mattresses—at least according to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” 

While the original tale is short, it has inspired other retellings (as fairy tales tend to do), such as the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress. The original cast included actress and comedienne Carol Burnett (who was nominated for a Tony Award in the role of Princess Winnifred) and opened at Phoenix Theatre in New York in 1959 before moving to Broadway.

In this tutorial, we’ll be designing an illustrated tribute poster for the original production of Once Upon a Mattress, though the design could just as easily be used for a current production. We’ll use Illustrator’s basic shape tools and the Pen Tool to layer shapes for the base of our illustration, and then we’ll add details and texture with vector brushes and clipping masks, along with some fun typography.

Make sure to check out Envato Market’s selection of poster templates in a wide variety of styles and event categories to get a head start on your own projects.

What You'll Need

The following resources were used to complete this tutorial:

1. Prepare Your Document

Step 1

Open a new document in Adobe Illustrator. A typical size for theatre and movie posters is 27 by 40 inches (by U.S. standards), but as working with such a large document could make Illustrator a little sluggish, feel free to use smaller dimensions (like 11 x 17 in. / A3) for the purposes of this tutorial.

new Illustrator document

Step 2 

If you’d like to use the same color scheme you see here, now would be a good time to set up your palette and get the colors ready to go in the Swatches panel. You can see the colors and their hex codes below. Just enter each code into the Color Picker window, hit OK, and drag the color from the Fill box in your toolbar over to your open Swatches panel.

color palette

Just as a side note, for the purposes of this online tutorial, we’ll be working with RGB color (how colors display on screens/devices), but if we were actually designing a poster to be printed, we could want to design in CMYK color (which all printers use) or convert from RGB to CMYK when preparing the file for printing.

2. Add a Background

Step 1

Open a new layer and name it Background (to change the name, just double-click on the new layer in the Layers panel and you’ll be given a place to type in a new name). Fill your whole artboard with the light blue color (#B3C5AB) by using the Rectangle Tool.

creating background layer

Step 2

If you didn’t do this at the beginning of the tutorial, install and open the set of Airbrush Brushes. We'll be using these brushes to add some grainy texture to our poster, an effect that was common in illustrative styles of the 1950s and 60s.

Pick a brush or two to add some texture in an oval shape in the middle of your background. Use a stroke color that’s a bit lighter than the background color.

There are a couple ways you can do this: completely freehand using the Brush Tool, or start by creating an oval outline with the Ellipse Tool, apply one of the texture brushes as a stroke on the shape, and then fill in the empty middle space by hand with a brush. This second technique is the one I opted for, using Airbrush 13 for the outline and Airbrush 6 to fill it in. If you want to make the effect a little subtler, select the brushed textures and lower their opacity to around 60%.

creating background and adding texture
  • Time-saving tip: An easy way to automatically generate a selection of tints and shades (or lighter and darker versions) of a given color is to open up Illustrator’s Color Guide (Window > Color Guide). If you already have a color in the Fill area of your toolbar, when you open the Color Guide, the top row will have your selected color in the middle with its tints and shades to the right and left, respectively.
color guide in Illustrator

Step 3

Lock the Background layer by clicking on the empty box to the left of the layer name in the Layers panel; a padlock icon will appear. Doing this keeps the elements on that layer from moving around or getting in your way when you’re trying to work on top of them.

locking background layer

3. Stack Some Mattresses

The princess’s pile of mattresses will be the main organizing concept of our design. The princess will, of course, be perched on top, but the mattresses will also double as space for the play’s title and other text.

Step 1

Open a new layer and name it Mattresses. Try stacking a combination of rectangular and more “floppy” shapes. For the straight-edged mattresses, choose the Rounded Rectangle Tool with a click-hold on the Rectangle Tool; select it from the menu that pops up. For more freeform shapes, either start with the Ellipse Tool and then drag the shape’s anchor points and handles until you get your desired look, or create your own shapes with the Pen Tool.

drawing mattresses with shape tools or pen tool

The number of mattresses will depend on the specific shapes and sizes you end up with, but you will want to make sure you leave a generous cushion of space at both the top and the bottom of the artboard. You can also add a simple suggestion of a bed frame at the bottom if you like.

Step 2

Include a few mattresses with larger heights or adjust some you’ve already drawn; we’ll need these areas to place the text for the title of the musical.

creating space for title

As a finishing touch, don’t forget to hide a pea somewhere in there!

Step 3

This step is optional, but if you’d like to add some more detail to the mattresses, this would be the time to do it. You can try drawing some embellishments like stripes or polka dots and/or adding some texture like what we placed in the background.

There will be an extra step in the process, though. After adding your details or texture on top of the mattress shapes, you’ll want to clip or trim those elements to the shape of each mattress. One way to do that is with clipping masks. If you’re not familiar with this process, you can get up to speed with our Quick Tip on clipping masks. Here’s what your work might look like before and after making clipping masks:

making clipping masks

Step 4

Whether or not you decided to add extra details to the mattresses, now’s the time to finalize their arrangement before we add text on top. Feel free to change their shape, size, rotation, or color until you get a result you like.

Here’s what I ended up with, after creating multiple clipping masks (sometimes two for a single mattress, layering textures with other embellishments). For the textures, I went to the Color Guide to choose colors that were a bit lighter or darker than the mattresses’ base colors and applied them using Airbrush 13 again.

adding details with brushes and clipping masks

Lock the Mattresses layer before moving on to the next steps.

4. Place the Typography

Remember how we made some of the mattresses extra tall a few steps back? That was so we’d have plenty of room to place the title of the musical, which is our first order of business in this section. So open up a new layer and call it something like Text or Typography.

Step 1

I decided to split the title, Once Upon a Mattress, into two pieces (to be featured on two mattresses). You could try different divisions depending on what works for your composition.

  • "Once upon a” is set in the font Trocchi in all lowercase letters, sized to fill the width of the mattress, and rotated a bit to match the tilt.
  • “Mattress” is set in all uppercase letters in the font Steelfish, and again, scaled and rotated to fit snugly within the shape of the mattress. To give the letters some movement, highlight one letter at a time with the Type Tool and then expand the Character panel, adjusting the Baseline Shift of each letter with the up and down arrows.

Here’s what we have with the title placed:

placing title typography

Step 2

If you want (and space allows), you can add some other text. I’ve included the tagline “a new musical” and the name of the star of the show on two more mattresses, set in the fonts Honey Script and Trocchi.

adding more text

Step 3

Lastly, fill up that empty space at the bottom of your poster with a theatre name and date. The theatre name is set in the font Gone and sized to be roughly the width of the bottom of the stack of mattresses. The opening date is set using Steelfish again. To fill the space more effectively, try adjusting the Tracking (or letter spacing) of both elements to around 75–100 in the Character panel.

placing theatre text

5. Illustrate a Princess

Now it’s time to form a princess to perch on top of your pile of mattresses. We can’t have a design inspired by “The Princess and the Pea” without the eponymous princess, right?

Sometimes drawing or designing human figures (even “cartoonish” ones) can seem difficult, but in this case, we’re really just repeating the same techniques we’ve already been using: layering and manipulating individual shapes to create a composition, then enhancing those basic shapes by adding detail and texture on top. Let’s get started:

Step 1

Create a new layer and call it Princess. You may find it helpful to first form the structure or “skeleton” of the illustration by starting with basic outlined shapes. That’s what I’ve done below to work out the pose and proportions of the figure, primarily using the Pen Tool to form the torso and arms, along with the puffy sleeves and full skirt of a dress/nightgown.

outlining princess illustration

Step 2

Keep using the Pen Tool and/or shape tools to add the outlines of whatever main elements are still missing in your illustration—in my case, the hands, feet, head, and hair. You can save details like facial features for a later step.

completing structure of princess illustration with pen tool

At this point your princess may look a little strange, a bit like a marionette puppet, but don’t worry; she’ll start to come together quickly in the next step.

Step 3

Replace those outlines with fill colors of your choice. Adjust any shapes that aren’t looking right to you now that you see them in color. 

adding color to princess illustration

Step 4

To create the stripes on the dress that you see above, duplicate the shape that you’d like to apply striping to and move it off to the side of your artboard. Use the Pen Tool to draw dividing lines across the shape where you want to separate the colors. Then select all the lines and the shape and go to Window > Pathfinder > Divide. This will divide the shape according to the lines you drew, and you can select each segment using the Direct Selection Tool and change its color. Drag the striped shape back over to the artboard to sit on top of the original shape.

pathfinder tool

Step 5

Now would also be a good time to add textures if desired, getting color variations from the Color Guide and using clipping masks as before. (Those individual shapes that you created in the outlining stage will make isolating and clipping the textures much quicker.)

adding texture to princess illustration

Step 6

Give your princess some personality by filling in the facial features. I used the Pen Tool and Ellipse Tool for this, plus a texture brush (Airbrush 2) for the rosy cheeks. Feel free to add some other fun details, such as a crown or maybe some embellishments on the dress.

adding details to princess illustration

Step 7

Admire your finished work!   

completed poster

Take a Bow

Good work, you did a lot in this tutorial—a little illustration, a little typography, some texturing, and more! I hope you’ve enjoyed combining various design elements and techniques to produce a finished project in Adobe Illustrator, as well as digging into some of the program’s hidden gems like the Color Guide.

As always, feel free to share how your project turned out or ask questions in the comments section. Happy designing!

theatre poster mockup
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