Michael Kammerer’s abstract works feature heavy doses of typography and geometrical shapes. Here he shows you how to produce an illustration based on the letters D and A (Why those two, I wonder… – Ed.) in a kind of dismembered style.
See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials
The plan will be to use Illustrator to create some basic abstract forms and import them into Photoshop as Smart Objects. Then you will learn to assemble these elements into a whole that has an arresting intricacy as well as integrity.
The tutorial also covers working with textures and some colouring tricks Michael relies on. These techniques can be very useful, not only for abstract illustrations but also to help you to get a better feel for composition in general.
Time to Complete
3 - 5 hours
Illustrator CS3 or later, Photoshop CS3 or later
Files for this tutorial are downloadable from
Create a new 300dpi A4 portrait document in Photoshop and fill it with a gradient from white to light grey. Using a gradient as a background can give you more depth and can have some advantages over plain colours when you work with textures.
Place the letters of our design in the middle of the canvas. I used Helvetica for them – it’s a clear and clean typeface that will contrast nicely with the abstract elements and remain legible despite us messing with it. They need to be in separate layers and also big, while leaving enough space around them to add the abstract elements later.
The project files include an Illustrator document containing all the abstract elements we’ll use, but here’s a crash course in how I create these abstract shapes. First draw some standard shapes in assorted sizes and fill them with black, white or grey.
Select all the objects, go to
Object > Blend > Blend Options, choose Specified Steps for the Spacing, enter a value of 20 and hit OK. With all objects still selected, hit Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + B and you should get something like the above.
The result of Step 5 looks okay, but it could be even better with some tweaks. Select it and go to
Object > Blend > Expand to convert it to individual objects. Select some anchor points with the Direct Selection Tool ( A) and deform the shapes by dragging. The above is an example of what to aim for.
Let’s use the shapes to mess with the lettering. Right-click the type layer and select
Rasterize Type. Choose and copy a few shapes in Illustrator, then paste them over the letters in Photoshop as a Smart Object. Cmd/Ctrl + click on its layer thumbnail and hit delete. Now delete the Smart Object for something like the effect shown above. You can instead do this step a few times with individual shapes – just don’t erase the letters so much that they become unrecognisable.
We need more abstract elements for interest. I usually start with a few big shapes to create a basic composition. You can make them as in Step 2, or just use the ones from the project files. I took two shapes from there and placed them around the letters to get what is shown above.
Our basic composition needs more detail. Copy another shape from Illustrator into Photoshop, scale it down and put it next to one of our two main shapes. Repeat this twice. Place at least one shape above a letter to give more of a sense of three dimensions.
I also pasted in one of the shapes from Step 6, positioning it exactly over where it’s been used as a mask at the bottom left of the A. I then softly erased most of the lower half of it as shown.
It’s time to create more depth by adding some shadows. Select the Brush tool (
B) and choose a round brush with 0% Hardness. Create a new layer above the gradient layer and below the type and abstract elements. Select a dark grey colour and brush on some soft circles. Use a new layer for every circle to make it easy to move them around for the best look.
Let’s add some colour. Choose something nice and bright,
Cmd/Ctrl + click on the D’s layer thumbnail, create a new layer and start painting over the letter with a soft brush. Repeat with another colour on a different part of the D, and with multiple colours on the A. You can also use the red-and-blue shape in the project file to add colour. I selected the black area to the lower left of the D and masked the coloured shape in there. Repeat for the small triangle below and to the right, hue-shifting the purple to yellow.
Now choose another abstract shape from Illustrator and copy it into Photoshop. Put its layer somewhere in the middle of the layer stack, set the blending mode to Overlay and reduce the opacity a bit. Repeat with, say, three other shapes to create some nice background features.
Add yet more colour highlights by brushing on circles with a soft brush. As before, always create a new layer for each so you can easily rearrange the circles and change the order of layers if needed. Play around until you are satisfied with the colours.
To add more complexity you can also paste shapes from Illustrator over the coloured letters and set the blending mode to Overlay to get patterns inside the letters.
Textures are important, and they are what we’ll add now. I usually use the high-quality free textures from lostandtaken.com. Grab one of their film textures (
bit.ly/19GjRR) and paste it into Photoshop at the top of the layer stack. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + U to desaturate it, change its blending mode to Overlay and set the opacity to 50%. Note the dramatic effect.
The upper left corner is still rather empty, but it’s easy to fix by simply applying another film texture from the set. This time, leave the blending mode set to Normal, create a mask and draw a gradient from black to white on the mask. Set the opacity to 20% for a subtle finish.
Based in Nuremberg in Germany, Michael says that he has always been fascinated by abstract art. Over the years he has tried to developed his own digital art style to bring his ideas to life, and at the age of 22 he has already had work featured in various magazines, design blogs and books like OFFF’s Year Zero. Contact