How to Make a Psychological Retro Design in Photoshop

Behind the Door - A Psychological Retro Illustration

As a kid I loved old films of the 50s and early 60s - especially cheesy science fiction (with a side of horror for fun if you don’t mind!). It wasn’t just the stories that intrigued me back then, it was the bombastic scores, the dramatic lighting, the self-important dialog and characters that you had to acquire a taste for – it was ALL of it!

It was the vibe that the whole production would communicate that most captivated me. If it pushed my disbelief just a bit further than I was willing to suspend it, they had me.

To see what I mean, do yourself a favor and watch the 1963 movie The Man with X-Ray Eyes with Ray Milland, a favorite of mine, then and now. When I started creating illustrations for clients in the style that I’m showcasing here (HiFi) it was my chance to convey that same inner feeling I had as a kid to others.

I love creating concepts in this style, imbibing them with a bit of grit, drama and nostalgia – always hoping I’ve been able to push the image just enough to take the viewer just beyond their disbelief… then I know that have them!

My Mystery Movie Still

I love making retro photo illustrations - it’s like directing a scene in an old movie that no one has ever seen. In this tutorial I take a few random images and create what could be a still image from an over-the-top psychological mystery. Come along and learn how I do it.

Note: For clarity, this image will be 5” x 7” at 300dpi – knowing this will make all the function settings I suggest accurate.

Beginning with the Background

One thing I like to try to mimic is old grainy film stock. It’s not difficult as long as you know how to Add Noise to an image and play around with Gaussian Blur. The only other secret I add in is enlarging a section of the “noised” sample before blurring it.

Main Character and Glow

Adding a slight glow around the main character adds interest to the scene. Again, it’s easy with Gaussian Blur.

Eye Beam and Head Opening Elements

The Eye Beam is the element that gives this visual element that ties together the narrative – it’s easy to create but will need some special attention as this tutorial continues. The head opening is where all the action takes place – it’s easy to create but also requires a few steps to fill and finesse.

To insert the elements you will be using the Paste Into function a number of times.

More Elements in the Head Opening

Layers of elements inside the head space creates a narrative focal point. The layers we will insert create an interesting depth. Initially, the elements being placed in the space will look raw but later we will be adding depth and nuance by using the Burn Tool to add shading and shadowing which will make it feel ‘real’.

Creating Keyhole for the Door in Head Opening

Making elements for this image is pretty easy and straight forward – making the keyhole element is very easy. Finessing the eye beam so that it looks like it goes into the keyhole is also very simple.

Finessing the Eye Beam

M finessing of the Eye Beam happens in this next set of steps. What we do here will weave the beam in and out of the elements of the image and create an interesting path for the eye to follow.

Finessing the Head Opening & Main Character Elements

Head Opening Elements: Selecting elements on either side of the door element will give you the ability to add targeted shading and shadowing using the Burn Tool. In using the Burn Tool I cycle through darkening all three levels of the art: Highlights, Midtones and Shadow. I also adjust the Exposure levels of the Burn Tool from about 10% to 20% as I do this targeted shading both in the additional shading I did with the head opening elements and on the main character hair and face.

Final Touches – Targeted Blurring

In finishing up the image I use the Blur Tool judiciously. I find this can create a pseudo-depth-of-field feel which adds an interesting feel to the overall image. Basically, anywhere there is a cut edge of an image I will add blurring. But in some areas I will add more blurring than others to create a more pronounced pseudo-depth-of-field. 

With all of these tips and tricks you can make a memorable image of your own. Keep experimenting and find techniques that excite you!