In this tutorial, Adi Gilbert explains how he produces
beautifully-crafted illustrations using a blend of traditional brushwork, and digital techniques with a tablet, stylus and Photoshop.
See also: 83 Best Photoshop tutorials
“I like to think of my Mac and my tablet as just another tool alongside my pencils, brushes and inks,” says Adi, “and try to combine them all to keep a hand-crafted feel to my work.”
By using traditional drawing techniques and textures, you can create a tactile, imperfect piece that can then be coloured and enhanced with editable, digital layering. This technique gives you the best of both worlds, especially when working to deadlines or changing requirements.
The illustration is a reinterpretation of a piece he did for a motorcycle magazine. He describes it as: “A pretty good example of how you can take advantage of the awesome potential a tablet and stylus can give, especially if you are more comfortable with holding a pencil or brush than working with a mouse. Unleash the power!”
Time to complete
Photoshop, scanning software, tablet
I started this project by creating a job folder. Within this, I added subfolders called Resources, Artwork, Previews and Deliverables.
In Resources, I stored all my scans, a scrapbook of inspirational and reference files, as well as the client brief. Artwork housed all the layered Photoshop files, Previews was for the low-res files for client approval, while all the print-ready files were to be stored in Deliverables.
I always gather my reference and inspiration material together. I’ll trawl through my scrapbook and books for anything that might inspire me and take any photos I need. In this case, I shot some of my hands in a mirror to work from, and found some photos of cafe racers. I put all this in my Resources folder, so I could refer to refer back to it later.
Before it ends up on my Mac, most of my work is drawn with a mechanical pencil, and then inked with a sable bush, Indian ink and some pens. I start off with a rough sketch, then draw in the details.
Next, I taped the drawing to my lightbox – a thin, A3 one that can rest on my desk or lap – and taped a sheet of Bristol Board over the top. I then brushed ink onto the new sheet, using the pencil drawing below for reference, so as to have clean paper with no pencil marks to rub out.
After painting in all the black inkwork, I added some white highlights, effects and corrections, with white drawing ink.
It was now time to scan the illustration into my Mac. As I inked straight on to fresh paper, there was very little cleaning up to do.
I always use an Epson GT-20000 A3 scanner, which saves me a lot of time. If I need to work on a piece that’s larger than A3, I find Photoshop’s Photomerge function comes in handy.
To clean up the scan and get it ready for colouring, I opened up the file in Photoshop and created a Levels adjustment layer. Here, I adjusted the sliders until the whites were bright and the blacks strong. While many will tell you to maximise the black for the strongest contrast, I prefer to leave some depth to the black for a natural brush effect.
Once I was happy with the levels, I selected all (
Cmd/Ctrl + A) and copy the merged layers ( Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + C). This copied everything you can see, including the adjustment layers into one single layer. I pasted the adjusted inks, so I could touch up any imperfections, then duplicated this layer to keep the original safe, calling the fresh version ‘cleaned up inks’.
This is where I first really used the tablet to great effect. I zoomed in tight and moved around the image, cleaning up any dust, dirt or suchlike that ended up on the scan. For this, I used a combination of tools, including Eraser, Brush, Clone, Spot Healing brushes, Patch tool, Burn and Dodge. Here, I used a stylus for everything, as it’s with tasks like this that you really feel its benefit.
When I finished cleaning up and adjusting the scan, I saved the file and then created a copy, which would be the main artwork file. In this case, I sized it to A3, CMYK (for print) and 300dpi. I usually save them as a Psd file, but you can save them as layered Tifs if you prefer.
Here, I added a paper texture with a vignette at the top of the layer stack – dropping the opacity to 10% – to add to the vintage feel I’m going for.
Next, I used the stylus to add some shading to the drawing. I wanted to keep it simple and pretty sketchy, so it kept its energy and matched the inkwork, but doing it digitally it allowed me to make easy amends, colour changes and effects. So my shading didn’t interrupt the line work, I set the ‘cleaned up inks’ layer’s blending mode to Darken mode, and then created layers beneath it to add my shading.
To get the look I wanted for my shading, I created a custom brush. The best way to do this is to click on the Brush tool and select a roughly suitable brush from the panel – loading some of the different brush sets to find something I like.
Here I found a rough-edged brush that was in the right park, but I needed to tweak the settings. I wanted rough edges, so I played with the settings until I got something that would leave daubed strokes like my real brushes do.
I selected a colour for my shading and started making strokes on to my shading layer as though it was on paper. I kept it pretty loose and didn’t zoom in too much, so as not to lose the feel I was after. As I made each stroke, I varied the pressure on the nib to taper or thicken the line as I would a real brush.
To make the strokes feel natural, I used the canvas rotate facility, which allowed me to spin the artwork around to make strokes at comfortable, natural angles – just like how you might if you were to move your paper around on your desk.
To rotate, hit
Shift + R, click on the canvas with your stylus and drag-rotate the image accordingly. Esc returns the canvas back to its original orientation.
I gave this image a background by adding a layer and filling a rectangular selection with red. In order to give the appearance that my characters are masked out of the red, I painted white areas on a separate layer. These sit above the red masking it but below the ink layer.
You can do this by using the Lasso or Marquee tools, but I like the rough effect I get by painting them in.
Here are all the main components of the piece: black inks, white paper areas, a layer of blue shading and a block of red. It’s simple, but very effective.
The loose and rough use of the stylus means that it’s more akin to the style of my inkwork. And with it all on separate digital layers, its easy to amend.
To finish, I added a sprinkling of distressing and print effects.