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Tutorial: How I use real paper in digital illustration


Tutorial: How I use real paper in digital illustration

Liam Spradlin

Over the past few weeks, I've been sharing some "material" experiments - illustrations using real paper textures, inspired by the work Carl Kleiner did for Google.

I've had lots of requests for downloadable versions of the illustrations I've shared, so I thought I'd provide that here on Dada, but add a bonus: a tutorial explaining how I actually made them. I'll keep my example simple and brief, and let your imagination use my explanation to create something cool. Here's what you'll need:

1. A bunch of different kinds of paper
2. A scanner
3. Software to create the images (I use Illustrator)
4. Patience

Scanning paper

Before I started experimenting with this, I wasn't quite sure what direction I'd take it. But I knew I'd want a variety of different papers to experiment with. As it turns out, craft or scrapbook stores have tons of different kinds of paper and paper-like materials.

When buying paper you can keep the colors in mind, but tuning the material closer to your desired color later is easy enough, so feel free to go crazy. After all, what you're really after is the tooth or texture of the paper, or the pattern (if it has one).

I got bunch of different materials but actually have only used a few of them so far.

Once you've picked everything out, scan the materials using an ordinary scanner set to a workable resolution. I scanned mine at a pretty high resolution because I knew I'd want to make wallpaper-sized images. 

Laying everything out

Start off with a basic layout of what you envision for the final illustration. For this tutorial, we'll just be doing a simple cloud on a blue background.

Then decide what materials you want to use. For this example I'm going to use one of my cardboard textures and a simple cardstock texture.

Colorize and clip

I'll open both textures in Photoshop to match the colors I'm looking for. There's probably a better way to do this (leave a comment below with your ideas), but I create a swatch of color on top of the texture and use the Hue and Saturation tool to tune the material to my liking. The color doesn't always come out exactly accurate, but I'm okay with that.

Next, copy the texture and bring it back to your illustration-in-progress. Size it up as needed, and then (if you're using Illustrator) create a clipping mask with the appropriate area of the illustration. For this example I created two clipping masks - one with the rectangular background, and then another (with the cardboard texture) with the cloud shape.

Now to make things look a little more realistic.

Lighting and Dimension

To give each piece of the illustration some dimension, I make use of edges, shadows, and gradients to emulate lighting. First, edges.

This one is pretty easy - copy the shape of your element, make another copy, shift the second copy down (or over, depending on how your drawing is oriented), and use Divide in the pathfinder panel to get your top and bottom edge shapes. Then, align those pieces on top of your main element, color the top one white, the bottom black (with blend mode set to multiply), and adjust the transparency.

Then, select your element and create a drop shadow. This part is fun since you can decide how close or far each element is from the surrounding elements, creating a nice layering effect. But of course with shadows, discretion is key. Careless use of shadows can quickly pollute your image, so be careful.

Then, "lighting." The approach I use for this is a simple white-to-transparent gradient in the shape of elements that need lighting, with extremely low opacity to keep it subtle. Like shadows, overdoing this can quickly ruin the image.

Once you've perfected the edges, shadows, and lighting, you're done! ...Or you'll be done after a quick export!


If you came to download some of my illustrations, check out the images below, and just click to download each one.