Create an Awesome Number-Based Illustration

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Combining the power of some of Photoshop’s most basic tools can yield awesome results.  The power of the pen tool, when mastered, can allow a designer to create nearly anything in their creative vision.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to combine the power of the pen tool with some patterns and shapes to create an awesome illustration.   Designer Bram Vanhaeren will walk you through his technique for working at print quality, using various compositional techniques to achieve a creative result.  You’ll also learn some great tips for workflow, along with learning a variety of skills that you can apply in your own design works.

Hopefully you enjoy the tutorial, let us know in the comments if you have any questions, suggestions or just to say hi.

Tools Used

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Stock Images

Links resources:

Final Image Preview

Step 1

Open a new document, A3 300 dpi or bigger so we always have a nice High resolution artwork incase Magazines or other people want to buy your work or use it for an exhibition. It’s also a lot easier to work on a bigger canvas, to get your details correct.

Step 2

Now before I start adding new layers, i quickly make some groups to arrange my layers. I add more groups on my way but I start with these groups, from top to bottom; Color effects – Play – Logo or Model – PLay – Background. The “Play” groups are all the experimental textures and patterns with my shapes.

Step 3

Personally I don’t like to starting on a blank background, lately I just grab a paper texture and place it in the background, change the contrast and brightness a little bit and we’re ready to go.

Step 4

I’m going to make an artwork around the number 5. Why? To be short it’s my favorite number, or lucky number. And with the new cs5 I though it would be cool to work with this number. Plus it is a really nice shape to work with. I used the font, Avant Garde Bold, but you can choose any font or shape to try this tutorial on.

Step 5

First thing I want to do with my number is add some white shapes to create a glossy vector effect to my number. Use your pen tool and add every shape in another layer, so you can correct them a little bit till it fits perfectly.


Step 6

For the next Step we’re going to create a useful pattern. We will be using this pattern to add some cool effects on our number and background. Open a new file, 25px on 25px with a transparent background. Now select the LineTool (5px) and make a cross. Go to Edit>Define Pattern, give it a name and save.

Step 7

Now create some new layers (in our “play” group) with shapes filled with our new pattern.  Ellipses, circles, rectangles and triangles can be filled with the pattern and placed to match the natural features of the number that we’re using, or you can use the pen tool to do it.  These shapes can be used to add shadows or just make the graphic a bit more interesting. You can see my example for inspiration.

Step 8

The next step has everything to do with my personal taste. I prefer a more grungy look on my patterns, so I softly erase some parts with a traditional paint brush selected.

Step 9

Now I want to add a soft texture on my Number. For this I open one of my paper stocks in a new layer and desaturate them by (cmd + U). New you select your number layer by (cmd + click on layer), go to select inverse and delete. Now you change your layer blending option to ‘multiply’ and adjust some brightness and contrast till you think it looks perfect.


Step 10

Next, duplicate your texture layer, with the ‘multiply’ blending option on and place it under the original layer. Next I made kind of “fluid dripping selection” with my pen tool and press (cmd+c) top copy and (cmd+v) to paste some of this pattern in a new layer. Create some darker spots in your work with these pattern selections. You can choose where you use this technique. Check my example, to see where I added mine and see what I mean with ‘fluid dripping bubble selection”.  This can also be done with custom brushes, but if you use the pen tool, you have infinitely more control over how they will look.

Step 11

Next step is to add some more abstract shapes into our number. Simply add a new layer under our paper texture and create some round white abstract shapes with your pen tool (see example).  In order to get good looking abstract shapes, you’ll have to understand how Bezier curves work with the pen tool.  For those of you who haven’t used the pen tool in this manner before, there’s a nice quick tutorial over at PhotoshopCAFE that demonstrates these techniques: http://www.photoshopcafe.com/tutorials/pen/pen.htm

The white abstract shapes will keep the texture, but makes it a little brighter. Do this few times till you like the outcome. This is what I’ve done.

Step 12

Now it’s time to add some colors. What we’re going to do is simple. Again, use your pen tool to make some round fluid selections at the bottom of our five or whatever shape you’re using (like something is dripping of our shape). Give the selection some real velvet colors. Feel free to use my example.

Step 13

For the next step we have to make another pattern, Some oblique lines to fill our abstract round shapes again. Side note, feel free to create your own patterns and go crazy with it, experiment and make amazing artworks.


Step 14

Now I ask you to stop thinking and do some crazy stuff with colors and shapes. At this point you need something different that makes your artwork interesting and personal. Just keep on experimenting with shapes drawn with pen tool and different patterns. This is what i got after a couple minutes of 0% brain usage.

Step 15

As you can see I’ve been experimenting with some movement here. I came up with the idea inspired by the game “spin the bottle”. As you can see, I only concentrated on shapes and pattern and completely ignored my color usage. This step is to fix that moment of ignorance. This time we only concentrate on colors. This my way to create this stuff. If you can do shapes and colors in one step,that’s great, but most people will tend to get bogged down trying to do both at once. I simply took the time to workout the idea and then finalize it with the coloring.

Step 16

Now we start with my finishing touches. Lately I love to use the “nebula” Stock photographs from “http://moonchilde-stock.deviantart.com/gallery/#Nebulae-and-Scifi” to add some sci-fi effects to my work. Nebulae have an amazing selection of stars and outer space stocks, perfectly to cover some parts of your work with blending option “screen” selected.

Step 17

Quick tip on making your artwork look great on the web. You started to work on A3 with 300 dpi. You know the web is 72 dpi, so we can show some high quality work here if you use the right techniques. What I do is, quickly go to layer>flatten image after I saved my A3 as .psd Reduced the image size to 1500 pixels width go to to Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp mask with an amount of 80% , radius of 0.3 pixels and threshold of 0.

Step 18

Now repeat the last step but play with the % try 50%, 80% will be a little bit to sharp after you resized it to your favorite preview size, I prefer 650x… but for this tutorial I used 500px width.

Hopefully you learned something with this tutorial. Use these techniques to create your own personal work. Be creative with it and don’t be scared to experiment and show off your results. Every comment can help you getting closer to your goal. Don’t forget to have fun experimenting with objects, shapes, numbers, typography, you name it. Just have fun!

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