Typography tutorial: Create a colourful 3D text explosion

James Davies shares tips on how to blend vector images and trickery to jaw-dropping effect.

Combining vector art and photography can yield some great – and unexpected – results. The impact is even greater if you factor in lighting techniques, as James Davies shows in this tutorial, which combines Photoshop with Illustrator to blend manipulated photographs with 3D images, with no need for expensive 3D software.

This tutorial will show you how to take command of layer blending modes and masks, and employ simple but highly effective tricks to generate light sources, shadows and add depth to your work.

Lighting techniques are huge in fashion and advertising at the moment and 3D text and effects are similarly trendy. This tutorial serves as a springboard for you to learn that as long as you can be creative, you don’t need an extensive knowledge of multiple software packages to create rich and deceptively complex graphics.

01. Open up egyptnile.jpg from the cover CD and go to the Channels palette. Duplicate the Blue channel (rightclick/ Ctrl + click on the channel and select Duplicate Channel) and boost the levels of the image (Cmd/Ctrl + M) to create a silhouette. Use this to mask off the background from the sky, painting black over the grey patches further down the photo areas until it’s fully black and white. Create a layer mask from this.

02. Open up Scotlandhills.jpg and scotlandsky.jpg and import them onto a new document with the egyptnile. jpg file. We’ve got a blue feather around the egyptnile layer, so select the mask and adjust the levels to eliminate more of this. Apply the mask and go to Layer > Matting > Defringe and apply at 5 to further eliminate the feathered edge.

03. Add level adjustment layers to each of the layers (highlight a layer, then hold Alt/Opt while clicking on the Adjustment Levels icon at the foot of the Layers palette) ensuring that ‘Use previous layer to create clipping mask’ is checked. Adjust the levels until you have a more natural relationship between the elements. Select the Burn tool and set it to Highlights with an exposure of 15%, then using a large, soft-edged brush, paint over areas of the background that have too much light. Then select the Sponge tool and desaturate the blue reflection on the water.

04. To create the 3D text we’ll use Illustrator. If you don’t have Illustrator then open 3Dtext.jpg from the CD. Create a new document and use the text tool to type all the letters individually rather than as a word. Go to Effect > 3D > Extrude Bevel, and play around with the settings. Click ‘Show More Options’ and change the light source to give the best tonal range.

05. Import the 3D letters onto your document, making sure each one is a Smart Object and on its own layer. Arrange them, adjust their scale and rotate until you’re happy they work as a focal point. Next, we’ll create some clouds to back the text. Open cloud.jpg or use your own cloud photos. What we’re looking for is a cloud that has a good tonal range and can be easily isolated.

06. Make the image black and white (Image > Mode > Grayscale) and adjust the Levels sliders to turn up the contrast. Achieve this by pulling the left slider handle towards the right and right-hand side slider to the left. We need all the surrounding sky to be completely black, so load a big softedged brush with black and paint out any remaining greys.

07. Import your clouds into the scene. Set the layer blending mode to Screen – this will knock out the black, leaving only the whites and the greys. Drag copies of the cloud around the canvas by holding Alt/ Opt while dragging the cloud with the cursor. Experiment with scaling the clouds, adjusting layer opacity and applying Gaussian blurs.

08. Create a gradient running from pink to yellow via purple, blue and green and apply it on a new layer over the letters group. Switch the layer blending mode to Color and mask it off. Create another gradient running in the opposite direction on a new layer. Treat in the same way but mask it off over the clouds.

09. Duplicate your text layers, rasterize them and apply a 1-pixel Gaussian blur to each layer. Select the Burn tool and set it to Highlights with an exposure of 10. Then use a small (we’ve gone for around 100 pixels) soft-edged brush to paint in the shadows on each letter. Mask off using the Lasso tool if necessary.

10. Create some 3D geometric shapes in Illustrator using the same technique as for the letters. Experiment with different extrusion depths, angles and light source points to get the best results. Import them into your scene as Smart Objects and place them as above. Create depth by placing some in front of and behind the letters. Try some motion blurring for movement.

11. Create a new layer called ‘Light_ beam’. Use the Marquee tool (M) to draw a large rectangle, then select the Gradient tool. Pick a light yellow colour and choose Foreground Color to Transparent gradient. Hold down Shift and draw a horizontal gradient across your selection.

12, Duplicate your beam layer twice and use Hue/Saturation to make one of them white (slide the lightness handle far right). Apply a 7-pixel Gaussian blur to the white beam and a 14-pixel Gaussian blur to both of the yellow beams. Set the layers and blending modes as shown here.

13. Group the layers and select the group on the Layers palette. Go to Edit > Transform > Perspective and pull the bottom right handle in towards the middle to create a cone shape. Duplicate and place these in between the letters, thinking about where light would come from. Add layer masks to remove unwanted beams.

14, Here, I’ve added some photographic elements to the focal point. Select a small soft brush and paint in some stars. Start with 3-pixel brush and progress up to a 35-pixel one, using all the default increments in between. Draw your elements on different layers with different opacities to create depth. Add some more to balance the composition, don’t be afraid to add or remove elements as you create.

15. Flatten the image. Open up a texture file – here, I’ve downloaded an old paper texture from istockphoto.com (this can be bought from http://tinyurl.com/5qopy5). Resize to fit and adjust the levels to lighten up the paper. Set the blending mode to Multiply (layer opacity 70%), duplicate and set to Linear Burn (25% opacity).

16. Change the original texture file to Grayscale and import into your working file. Go to the Channels palette and create a selection from the channel with the best tonal range. Create a layer mask from this selection and adjust the levels of the mask to get the best results.


Creating lens flares is easy, but getting them to look good requires care. Draw a square with the marquee tool and on a new layer, fill it with black. Keeping the selection loaded go to Filter > Render > Lens Flare and pick the 105mm prime option. Drag the centre point until the lens flare is completely centralized. Turn the layer blending mode to screen and then transform the flare until it’s very long and thin. Turn at a 45º angle, duplicate and flip horizontally. Play around with sizes and layer opacity until you’re happy.

Who: After working as an art director on magazines, James Davies is now a freelance graphic artist and designer. With a portfolio boasting work for the award-winning GamesTM magazine, renegade T-shirt label Dirty Velvet www.dirtyvelvet.co.uk and portraits for HD Review, there’s little time left over for sitting on the beach in his native Bournemouth.
On the CD: All files for this tutorial can be downloaded here or are available on the cover CD.

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