How to Make a Retro Inspired Magazine Illustration

How to Make a Retro Inspired Magazine Illustration

In this tutorial, I’ll be showing you how to create a charming mid-century Better Homes & Gardens inspired magazine illustration. We will be using the TransferTone | Instant Pattern Swatches for Illustrator, along with some other RetroSupply goodies. These new swatches are perfect for adding those awesome retro patterns to your artwork and I’m super excited to test them out!

Buy TransferTone Now

Tierra uses TransferTone swatches in her illustration work to add instant patterns. Grab it now for just $19!

Step 1: Gather inspiration and reference

I searched pinterest for mid-century kitchens and appliances and Better Homes and Gardens lifestyle illustrations from the 60s. I’ve always loved the images in old lifestyle magazines, casual sexism aside — this era of advertising really reflected the (elusive) promise of the American dream.

Create a mood board highlighting key elements you wish to emulate. I also used these images as inspiration for a possible palette. Think 2 to 5 colors max. I see lots of pink, turquoise, and buttercup yellows combined with wood and stone. I love the simplicity of the top illustrations as well as the detailed, shiny renderings of the others; I will be going for something in between those two styles, hopefully creating something nostalgic but unique.

Step 2: Open Adobe Illustrator and set up your file

Create a file suitable for print, 8.25 x 10.75 with 1/4” bleed. Open the TransferTone swatches and import any vector brushes you wish to use. I will also be using the Vector Hero Brushes (also available from The Vector Brush Toolbox), and The Dead Pen Toolkit to create some nifty line work to add that mid-century look and feel.

We will be building a 1/2 page illustration, creating adequate space for some theoretical ad copy.

Step 3: Rough comp

You can start sketching in illustrator or import a drawing, whatever you prefer! I like to use a vanishing point for reference because I like it precise, but wonky shapes and flat objects would be just as swell.

You are basically creating the bones of your illustration. I’ll use my lines to create my perspective guides by going to View > Guides > Make Guides. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s nice to have because we will be creating some tiled floors that we will need transform. It’s going to look pretty technical and boring at this stage so be patient.

Step 4: Add details

Start building your shapes with the Pen tool and play around with the TransferTone swatches.

You can edit the colors of the swatches by double-clicking the swatch in the swatch panel. Select the main element and choose your desired color from the color picker. I’ve opted for 4 colors for now -- they can always be changed later on.

Now it's time to add the pattern to your artwork. To use the TransferTone swatches, I will apply the pattern to a shape. If I am using a color behind the swatch, I will copy the shape and paste it in place over top (Command + F) and select the desired pattern from the swatch panel.

These are the Transfer tone swatches I used for the final vectors:

  • Dust (counter)
  • Vertical Lines (window)
  • Strokes (curtains)
  • Vertical Wood (cupboards)
  • Wonky Grid (kitchen tiles)
  • Drops (towels)
  • Mosaic (stonework)
  • MCM Wallpaper (floor tiles)
  • MCM Brick

Now that we have applied our patterns, we can start refining our shapes.

I often like to soften my shapes by rounding the corners of objects. You’ll find that option in Effects > Stylize > Rounded Corners. Play around with the size options to get the corners you want.

I created some tiled patterns. By using the Free Transfer Tool (E) and selecting the last option, you can warp the square into the proper perspective using your guides. Just pull the corners into your desired perspective and ta-da!

Start adding those fun, little details to the kitchen to give it that classic mid-century vibe: clocks, tins, tiles, stones, rotary phone, appliances.

Step 5: Refinement

Once the illustration is starting to take shape, save a version 2. Make sure to label your layers so you don’t get lost in objects and chaos. I like to have separate layers for the items so toggling between swatches and testing out different options is easy.

Refine your shapes but also loosen up your lines. Play around with line-width and styles to get that retro feel. I like brushes that taper at an end or ones that have dashed effects. Delete any unnecessary information or clutter. At this point, you can finalize your colors and swatches.

Step 6: Photoshop

Open a file with the same dimensions in Photoshop, set it to 330 dpi (just a bit more res than needed) and use an RGB profile for now. I usually build my working files in RGB because certain blending modes don’t have the same effect in CMYK, and we can convert to CMYK once it’s finished. Copy your vector illustration as a smart object.

At this point, I used RetroSupply’s Matchbook Print Machine to add some custom ink characteristics and paper textures. This gives the vectors that vintage vibe and adds some inky viscosity to emulate those old printing effects. I just changed the canvas size to mimic my file and copied and pasted the edited image into my working file.


Add some custom ink characteristics and paper textures! Grab Matchbook Print Machine now for just $19.

Keep a smart object of your illustration in your file. This will help with creating paths for layer masks, and selecting certain colors to apply textures to.

Duplicate the art into a merged layer and flip it vertically. We will be creating a nice reflection in the shiny floor.

I set the opacity to 40 and used a texture brush to fade out the reflection. I also created a layer mask for the cream color so the reflection isn’t too busy and distracting.

Step 7: Shading & light

Now for my favourite part! All the effort until now has been for this moment. I also start using my tablet at this stage. The pressure sensitivity gives you variation in shading and adds some dynamic visual interest.

The brushes I will be using for shading and texture are the Turbo Textures Brush Kit, specifically The Godfather of Grain, The Fuzzy Orb Generator, and The Kitchen Sink. These are my go-to brushes and they will work perfectly for adding the fun details that really give your illustration some life.

I always create my shadows and light on their own layers and use layer masks, this way you are never altering your original artwork. For my shadows, I use the colors of my illustration and set the blending mode to either multiply or linear burn, and then play around with the opacity.

Grab Turbo Textures

Tierra uses these brushes for shading and texture! Grab Turbo Textures now for just $19.

Now for highlights and shine. Lets give our objects some glow and sparkle! I create shine by using my good friend, Gaussian Blur on a shape, or by using a soft edge brush for the tiny sparkles.

I then set the blending mode to Screen, Soft Light or Overlay– depending on the desired effect and the colors being used. Zoom in and double check your work often, and zoom out to check composition.

Step 8: Add some noise

When the illustration feels finished, I like to duplicate all layers and merge them into one top layer. Now we are going to add a subtle layer of noise. This creates a texture which gives the areas untouched by brushes a similar feel. I set the noise to 2 so it’s very subtle, but now we don’t have that vector perfection anywhere.

Save a web version without bleed (RBG) and a print version with bleed (CMYK).

And there you have it! Now we are ready to head into the kitchen to make some tea!

About the Designer

Tierra Connor is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. With her passion for mid-century design, vintage ephemera, and retro illustrations, she combines vibrant color palettes and bold shapes with rich textures and grains–weaving these elements together to highlight her sentimentality. After years of agency work, she began her own creative studio focused on editorial illustration and has worked for a diverse range of clients worldwide.

You can see more of her work on her Behance page and follow her on Instagram: @loservortex.