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Retro Drawing and Shading with Adobe Illustrator

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With illustrating on computers it's always tempting to use all the bold and bright colors that appear in the default color palettes. Sometimes though, fewer colors and slightly softer shades will give your work a certain warmth and charm that will leave folks wondering if it was created on a computer at all!

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


Before we go diving into color, let's take a look at how I put together this retro style illustration. I've included all the shortcuts I took and points to look out for when choosing and placing your color.

The Illustration is a humorous take on computer auctions. The focus is on the lamp just to the right of center. I've got a group of computer bidders on the left and the auctioneer on the right. The people coming out of the computers seems to be the most complicated elements, we'll work on those first. I like to do the hard stuff first, as the job always seems easier once that's done!

I worked out a sketch to follow, it's very loose and is just a guide for positions, etc. After I've scanned that into the computer, I place it on a layer called "TRACE," and lock the layer so I don't go accidentally nudging things later.

Step 1: Old Skool Reference

I looked up some photo references for my old school computer and thought this one from the 1970's was a good start. I like the angled built in keyboard and that oh, so tiny rounded monitor! This illustration will be a curious mix of 50's, 70's, and present day culture!

Step 2: Line Tips

Draw out the computer shape using black and white to begin with. I thought the air vents on the photo looked cool so I'd use the lines for a bit of decoration on the side of mine.

The Quickest way to run neat lines up the side of a panel [1] is to copy the top most line and bottom most line (only) and using the BLEND TOOL (B) from the toolbar and for spacing use Specified Steps of 6. Create an array of lines all parallel to each other. Expand the selection Menu > Object > Expand. Next copy and paste in front a copy of the whole side panel area and move your lines underneath so you can use the two elements to make a Mask.

I used the same process to make the buttons [2]. By using specified steps between two objects, it really keeps the spacing neat and even. One last bit of decoration on the top of the computer is a curved line [3]. The quickest way to make that is to draw an oval with a stroke and using a copy of the computer top shape make another mask to lose the unwanted portions.

Step 3: Dumb Down the Color

You know we are going to copy and paste those computers instead of drawing them all again right! We'll first off lets drop in some color on the computer so we don't have to recolor those five times down the track. Since the background is soft and wishy-washy, let's give the computers strong, flat colors so they contrast nicely against each other.

I used warm gray, turquoise with cyan lines, I know! sounds awful when you describe it to somebody, but visually it looks OK, sometimes it's worth keeping a note of color combinations that work, you never know when you are going to need them!

I dropped in some odd mid tone colors on the buttons as I wanted to play them down and have them interfering with the people. I often try and work out what I want folks to be looking at in an illustration and try and tone down anything that may be a visual distraction.

Note: The black on the side is the same gray as the top but with the black slider pushed all the way to 100% on the CMYK Color Palette keeps it deep and rich.

Step 4: All the Young Dudes

I'm starting with the bidder at the back, his head is just an oval with a crude shape for hair and a basic triangle for a nose. He looks kinda bland [4] at first but with a couple of well placed blends we should be able to smarten him up. First thing is to give him some depth by adding some shadow.

I find a little shadow behind the ear and one under the nose really brings a face out. Also adding a darker skin and making it a gradient will bring the skin to life too. The gradient is very subtle and only gets slightly darker to one end when used. In this instance it gets a little darker going up to his forehead, a little darker on the tip of his ear and the same on the bridge of his nose.

The suit is green only because I thought blue or gray would get lost against the computer. Notice how I added a quite dark gradient at the bottom of his suit? That's to give the impression he is really standing inside that computer screen and his lower half is going into shadow.

To help put the guy into the TV, take a copy of the screen and extend the top R/H corner to cover where his head and arm may go [5]. Again use this shape as a mask and crop the body. See how duplicating shapes, paste in front and mask are a great way to cut down on your working time. You could divide the shapes and neatly trim them, etc, but if they don't print, why bother! So, place the masked man over the computer screen and he should look like he is really standing in there!

Step 5: Variations on a Theme

Now we have one man and one computer all colored up. Let's duplicate him three times and make slight changes to the new versions. It only take a couple of tweaks to give a new feel to an existing drawing. The guy who is in middle-back, [6] let's rotate his arm forward a little and also slide his eyeballs forward to...maybe change that lip color to white, and extend the lower arch down to make a smile. Suddenly we have a bidder who is excited and desperate to make a bid.

Likewise, with the other guys, small changes but noticeable! I made them larger to help with the perspective and changed the mouth to be a smirk and half smile.

It's only a small point but I made the buttons multicolored on the computers and mixed up the patterns on each one. I don't know why I did that exactly? But I can tell you it felt right at the time.

Same deal with the woman. Draw one version, duplicate, and make a few small changes. In this case it was hair color and face shape. To get her right arm [7] to be fully outside the screen. I pasted it in front of everything to put it at the top of the stack (making sure the arm did not extent into the collar area and blocking parts out)

The dollar sign BTW is just text scaled horizontally 80% with the Scale Tool (S), and skewed slightly vertically with the Shear Tool (W), then rotated a few degrees. Often with these kids of things you can adjust them manually until it seems to sit visually with what you are trying to achieve, doesn't have to be rocket science.

Step 6: Illuminating Quirky Shading

The lamp is the main focus piece in the illustration, but I want to keep it lean and not overworked as with the computers. As I'm trying to convey the idea of something slightly rounded a bit of light and shade might come in handy!

I found the more irregular the shapes and quirky the shading angles, the more interesting the illustration became.

The main highlight on the auction lamp was a blend made with the Blend Tool (B) going between a pink and red oval. Also, some low light shading [8] was a vignette between a red and dark brown using the Gradient Tool (G). I also wanted to cast a shadow on the neck of the lamp [9] and found the fastest way to do it was like this:

  • Roughly draw out an oval shape behind the vase.
  • Select the vase neck and copy, whilst it is still selected hit Paste In Front (that keeps it on top of itself but NOT on top of the yellow lamp shade).
  • Then Shift Select the oval shape - so you have them both highlighted.
  • Now from your Pathfinder palette select Intersect

This will leave you with your shadow shape, a slight gradient from red to brown will give it a nice shadow from left to right.

If you don't have your pathfinder palette (and there is no reason why you shouldn't! it's a handy tool) it can be found under Menu > Window > Pathfinder (Shift + Command +F9).

To give the lamp a sense of being an electrical goods item, I gave it a plug [10] and made the flex a 2pt stroke with a dash of 2 and a gap of 2 in light brown. I pasted a copy of the flex behind itself in a dark brown to give a nice contrast.

Step 7: Make a Crowd

Using another copy of one of the men we drew earlier flip him vertically using the Reflect Tool (O), and stand him behind a podium. The podium uses the same colors as the computer without the lines on the side. To make the new Auctioneer a littler different from the regular Joe's doing the bidding, I gave him some nice round glasses and a bow tie (classy guy!). The same shading technique, low on his jacket works for the podium, just as it did for the inside of the TV screen.

No we have all our people and elements it's time to start massing them together! To avoid any selection mishaps, it's best to copy/paste in front and group OBJEC /GROUP (G) each auction bidder so we can move the people and computers around together just using the SELECTION TOOL (V)

Step 8: Don't Go Nuts!

Now that you've done all the hard work of creating slightly different men and two women, it might be tempting to duplicate them all to make an orc army like in "Lord of the Rings," and really make a show of all your work. But to be honest all that does is dilute what you've done, not enhance it. Why use six hundred people to convey an idea when six will do. At least with six, folks might get to see some of the finer detail you've put in.

Step 9: Spread the Action Around

When arranging the people there are no hard and fast rules. The things I generally look out for are:

  • Spreading the interest around - in this case the women are interspersed with the men giving a naive mixed group feel.
  • Making sure elements of interest are not obscured - so heads are not blocking out other heads behind them, and the auction bats are clearly visible between people and computers.

Step 10: Background

If we drop a flat blue background behind the illustration it looks a little dull, even if we add a star burst behind the lamp.

What would be good to give it that cyberspace feel would be to have the computers floating in mid air and maybe some mystical scientific stars scattered around and some soft shading. Let's start with that background. Rather than introduce a new color, it might be nice to introduce a softer shade of a color that is already in the illustration.

I think a softer shade of the warm gray on top of the computers would look good. And to bring in the focus to the middle, let's add a gradient from the computer top gray to our new background color. The shapes only need to be rough triangles as they will bleed off the edge of the illustration.

To bring out some of the elements within the illustration, like the gavel and some bid paddles, a circular gradient from the background color to an off white will hopefully catch the viewers eyes! I also put one behind the lamp star burst just to soften it down a little. The circular gradient of the guy at the back is actually going underneath the star burst gradient. I could fix this by re-drawing the circles and using some transparency options, but I feel as it is only a small point I'll let it go ...this time!

So, nearly there now! I think some solid ground shadows that are really obvious (rather than these wispy white halos) and will let people know these people are really floating out there and some spiky stars made of 2 pt lines will really add to the mix. Try to make the stars a little off balance, not too symmetrical and use some of the colors already in the the illustration.


Easy, eh! Keep it lean, keep it mean. Have a few well chosen colors and re-use them whenever you can, and use the Copy and Paste in Front feature as often as possible. Cheers.

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