How to Make a Coney Island Steeplechase Poster

by Matt Wood July 08, 2020 2 Comments

How to Make a Coney Island Steeplechase Poster

How to Have a Full Day of Fun for 50 Cents (If You Lived in Brooklyn in 1897) 

You and a friend are stuck at home and have absolutely nothing to do. The soul-sucking boredom you are both experiencing inspires you to rifle through the couch cushions to see what’s there and (surprise!) you find 50 cents.

How much entertainment value do you think the two of you could manage to squeeze out of that windfall?

If you were living in Brooklyn, NY, in 1897, 50 cents was enough for a full day of thrills, sun, and fun at the all-new 15-acre bayside Steeplechase Park on Coney Island!

This place had everything.

  • 50 midway attractions with exciting names like Shoot the Chutes and Arial Racing Slide
  • Amusement halls like the Blow Hole Theater
  • A wild spinning wooden platform called the Human Roulette Wheel

It seems like quite the deal for 50 cents – until you realize that back in 1897, 50 cents was equivalent to $15.55 in today’s dollars. Which now makes me wonder just how often people searched their couch cushions 123 years ago for coins of any denomination.

These are just a fraction of the many interesting facts I found while doing my research for this assignment. Do a little sleuthing of your own and see what you can discover. 

Learn more about Steeplingchase Park and the bizarre grinning Steeplechase Funny Face.

America has had a love affair with entertainment and amusements for a very long time.

If you have a similar love affair with retro advertising art and can’t resist the charms of turn-of-the-century poster design, consider this tutorial your entertainment hook-up, your very own personal Coney Island, Steeplechase Park experience.

Don’t forget to invite a friend along to share in the fun! Step right up!


Setting Up the Files

Here are the specs for the two Photoshop files you will be working with.

Funny Face Art File: 6 x 6 inches at 400 dpi (RGB)

Poster Layout File: 8.5 x 13.125 inches at 400 dpi (RGB)

Inspiration & Sketches

This Steeplechase poster design was my inspiration and helped me to simplify my color choices, it provided the copy I would use and also helped me visualize both my font and art choices.

Having read that the Steeplechase Park “Funny Face” mascot had seen various revisions over the years, I decided it would be fun to make a version of my own. I wanted to make it a little more modern, and honestly, a little less creepy.

I started with freehand pencil sketches for the poster design as well as the new Funny Face character and scanned them.

Funny Face Illustration

1. Shapes Guides

I begin with building the new Funny Face character. In Photoshop, I place my pencil sketches into the Funny Face Art File, sizing them so they fill most of the area and then, on a new layer, I begin to overlay the sketches with simple geometric shapes as well as centering lines that give me a framework for making my Funny Face character. Later, I will use these shape guides when I create the final character artwork digitally.

2. Outline

Next, I turn the opacity down on both the pencil sketch layer and the shapes layer so that I can use them both as guides for the final art. My first move is to create a PATH half way around the Funny Face image. I create a new layer and on it I stroke this sub-path with a black line that feels like the right weight for the art. Since the character I’m making is basically symmetrical I duplicate the half-outline and flip it, combining the two in one. This gives me a thick outer boundary line over my shapes and pencil sketch layers.

3. Black Layer

At this point, I use a digital brush, choosing a thickness that roughly matches the outline and I start to create all the inner facial features of the character.

NOTE 1: When I’m drawing the black lines, for every line I make I create a new layer. This way I can be very selective about changes I might want to make along the way. When I am done drawing all the black lines, I will MERGE all the lines (including the outline layer) together into one layer.

NOTE 2: Since this character I’m making is symmetrical I really only need to draw one side of the character, for some parts of this image it feel like it’s alright to do this, for others it not. The reason is that a purely symmetrical drawing ends up looking very flat and since this is a face I want it to have slight differences to keep it from looking too plastic when I’m finished.

NOTE 3: Since I can only be so accurate with a hand drawn line, I create PATHS for some of the features that I want to look cleaner. The parts that I did this for are the hair shapes, eyebrow shapes and suit.

4. White Lines Layer

Once all the black line art is done, I create a layer above it where I can add some white lines to the hair, the eyebrows and the suit lapel. I use SHAPES to create two white circular light reflections in both of the eyes.

5. Red Lines Layer

Under the black layer I create a layer for the red lips and red tie. For both of these I made a PATH for the shapes.

6. White Backing Shapes Layer

Now I jump down below the black and red layers to create white blocks that will go behind the eyes, in the mouth and for the white of the shirt – I do this by making PATHS and filling them.

7. Blue Shadows & Lines Layer

This layer floats between the white backing shapes layer and the black line layer.

The blue I’ve chosen (R60 G122 B176) is used to create a nice shadow effect that is slightly transparent so I set my layer effect to MULTIPLY and 45% opacity.

The light direction I’ve chosen for the drawing comes down from the upper right of the face.

The art I show here should be helpful to see how that shadow-play panned out.

There are additional lines drawn using this blue that are not ‘cast shadows’ but instead part of the drawing – these are the lines for the teeth and the two collar lines.

8. Face Color/ Dot Pattern

The dot pattern used in the Funny Face is from the brand new RSCo product called ColorLab for Photoshop.

Here’s how I’ve use it in this illustration.

First, I create a PATH around the opening that will contain the face color. Next, I add a layer under all of my other layers where I make a selection in the shape of a square. This square will be a swatch of dot pattern - it fits within the shape of the face but doesn’t cover the whole face. I fill the square with the pattern Y3R2 using the PATTERN RUBBER STAMP TOOL.

The reason for making this swatch smaller and not filling the whole face area at once is that I want control over the size of the dot pattern in the final art and I achieve this by scaling up the swatch.

Next, I SCALE up the swatch so that it covers the face opening and I keep enlarging it until I am satisfied with the size of the dots. I then select the PATH around the face, activate it, chose the INVERSE of the selection and delete all the left over swatch outside the face.

9. Flatten Art/ Move to Poster Layout

After saving a version of this layered Funny Face file, my next step is to flatten it and select it using the MAGIC WAND TOOL in the white area around the art followed by the SELECT/INVERSE command and CUT command.

Steeplechase Poster Layout

1. Art Placement

We will now be working in the Poster Layout File.

I PASTE the Funny Face illustration into the Layout File. I select the space around the art again and create another layer below the art. Using the SELECT, MODIFY and EXPAND commands I set a value of 24 pixels and grow the selection so that it is now wider than the art itself. I fill this selection with white. This gives me an oversized block in the shape of the Funny Face that I can move around underneath the art.

2. Colored Blocks, Fonts & Lines

Referencing my initial layout sketch, I start to build the simple shapes that populate the design using PATHS fill them with the colors I’ve chosen: RED (R186 G76 B0) and YELLOW (R246 G218 B68).

The yellow block also has the dot pattern Y4R2 added to a duplicate layer above it.

The two fonts I’ve used for this poster are Wheat Aged Regular (from RetroSupply Co) and Franchise Regular.

The majority of the blocks of text are basic. For the stair-stepped Steeplechase block of text I simply typed out the word and selected each letter in the word individually and altered its size, making each successive letter a smaller point size than the previous one and then larger again toward the end of the word. In doing so, the kerning of the letters ended up needing to be finessed to make the overall word look as good as possible.

For the cent symbol I simply typed a lower case “c” then created a layer and made a red line above and below it. I then flattened the line layer and the text layer together and widened the newly created cent sign horizontally to make it more visually pleasing.

All words blocks with out of register shadows are just two blocks of text over top of each other colored differently and offset slightly.

I typed out the “Swimming Pool” and “Open until midnight” blocks of text on two different layers, then created a rectangle shape that would contain them both. I then colored the blocks and text and type, linked the text and block layers and skewed both individually.

Finally, I drew a few lines with my brush tool and placed them at the top, bottom and either side of “The funny place” text block.


The styles of retro American advertising art is a powerful way to create a sense of excitement and warmth in your work.

Use this style to bring a welcoming and eye-catching look to your next poster design, advertising campaign, or book cover. 

At first designs like this might feel intimidating (so many steps and different techniques). But if you focus on individual steps you'll find that they are not difficult — multiple steps just feel difficult. 

And with a little practice you'll find that the process is enjoyable, faster than expected, and offers room for adding your unique style.

Matt Wood
Matt Wood


2 Responses

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson

July 17, 2020

Great article Matt! When you say, “I PASTE the Funny Face illustration into the Layout File”, I am guessing you mean Adobe Illustrator. Is that correct?


July 15, 2020

That was fascinating and I think I learned oh…about a billion things.
Thanks very much!

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