How to Make a Retro Editorial Collage in Photoshop
In this tutorial, learn step-by-step how to make a retro photomontage using household items, photos, and some a little help from Photoshop.
The illustration style I’ll be sharing with you in this tutorial is one I’ve created and named Hi-Fi. Just one of the many illustration styles that I have developed and have worked in over the years.
To create this style I curate and collect a wide variety of materials from different sources to create interesting and exaggerated situations to convey concepts for my clients.
For two decades I’ve created hundreds of editorial illustrations for magazines as well as pieces for advertising agencies, design firms and private commissions. Because my work is mainly commercial, my aesthetic instincts and compositional choices focus almost exclusively on conveying as much information as I can to the viewer as quickly as possible - ultimately within just 2 to 3 seconds. The compositions I assemble are intended to direct the eye of the viewer through an image so that the most important information and concepts are identified in an order that helps the viewer develop an overall ‘first impression / snapshot overview’ of the material being presented.
Camera: For this tutorial I’m using my iPhone Xs. It has plenty of resolution for the items I’m photographing - especially at the size they will be appearing in the composition.
Step 1 - Priorities: Sizing & Placement
The piece we are making today is a new composition of an actual full page illustration for a magazine article that I worked on a few years back.
My first two priorities when beginning a project is to establish the overall dimensions of the final piece as well as understanding where the image will appear. In this case (as the art was to be appearing in a magazine) I asked specifically if the piece would be positioned on the left or right side of the magazine spread. The image was going to appear on the left.
Both page dimensions and positioning of the art are critical pieces of information as they affect composition building. Both give crucial insights into how the final image will be visually consumed by the reader.
The magazine’s final trimmed dimensions are 9” x 10.875” - so to allow for easy placement by the designer as well as trimming of the image in the printing process I add .125” (⅛”) around the entire image making my working file 9.25” x 11.125” (RGB 300dpi).
Step 2 - Visualizing: Concepts & Composition
First, it’s important to share that the article this art was created for was a story about how corporations evolve and how their boards (and board member choices) needed to as well. The operative word in the headline that I focused on was Retooling (Retooling the Board) . From the 3 or 4 concepts I pitched for this illustration - the image we are working on today is a slight re-imagining of the concept the Art Director chose.
I knew the visual elements in the piece would need to reflect concepts like “hands on”, “crafted” and the “creation” of a new board member with the end-result being a “retooled” board of directors. These words helped me choose which visual elements would best convey that.
Once I decided what elements I would use I could start sketching them into a composition that had a purposeful visual direction and flow. Here are some sketch notes that speak to that visual flow as well as balancing the design of the overall spread:
Step 3 – Content: Asset Curation & Creation
After deciding what images will appear in the illustration I begin curating them. My list of items for this illustration:
- Saw blade (shot at two angles– one shot flat or used as a source for shadow)
- Woodgrain textures
- Grid paper
I found the Saw Blade and Chisel in my garage and cleaned them up prior to being photographed.
I took the photos using my iPhone Xs with minimal to no special lighting setup. The pictures that I took with the iPhone ended up being more than enough resolution to maintain image crispness at the size they would eventually be printed.
Note 1: It took about 5 to 7 separate shots of the angled saw blade and the chisel to get the exact angle I wanted for use in the illustration. I wish I had a perfect eye - but I don’t - simple trial and error are still my best friends!
Note 2: Some minor brightness and color adjustments were applied to the images after being opened in Photoshop but nothing extreme. The most work that needed to be done was to remove the type on the angled blade image (which I will explain later in the tutorial).
The Businessman image is from an old product catalog that I bought on eBay. I carefully removed the page from the book and flat scanned it.
I found the following two high resolution Woodgrain Textures online for free.
To maintain ultimate color control over the Woodgrain Textures I switched the downloaded Woodgrain images modes to Greyscale from RGB then I adjusted the contrast of the image so that the darker lines that make up the wood texture stood out from the background wood color.
Next, I switch the mode back to RGB and added a layer over each image filling it with a color approximating the wood color I wanted knowing that I could adjust and fine-tune later as needed. I switched this color layer mode to Linear Burn so I can see the texture through it and once again have a colored wood image.
And for the last asset I flat scanned sheet of Grid Paper with blue lines.
Step 4 - Saw Blade Clean Up Using Clone Stamp Tool
The text that is printed on the side of the saw blade needed to be removed. This was done by using the Clone Stamp Tool (S) from my tool box.
First duplicate the original image and place the new “working file” on a separate layer in your file. Next choose a brush width for your Clone Stamp Tool by manipulating the brush size in the Brush Preset Picker. Choose a sample area to replicate from nearby then brush over the text that you wish to cover over.
By adjusting the Opacity and Hardness settings in the Brush Preset Picker you can control how quickly or opaquely to cover the area on the blade that contains text. It takes a bit of practice to get good with the Clone Tool but it has the ability to convincingly cover the text on the blade if you take a little time.
Step 5 - Cut Out Assets Cleanly Using Paths
For each object create a path around them that only slightly cuts into the object itself – don’t leave any background color showing around your objects. When you’re done selecting and cutting out the objects you should have the parts shown below. (I will explain the Flat Saw Blade image and how it will be used as a guide to create a shadow later in the tutorial).
Step 6 – Making a Practice Composition for Reference
After collecting and cutting out and cleaning up all of my assets – I create a to-scale Practice Composition of the piece where I am able to freely experiment, size and arrange all the elements I have into a composition that looks and feels right. It’s at this stage that I also make some basic color choices and other adjustments.
The reason for this? Since there is a lot of size adjusting and image distortion happening at the very beginning of building a composition, the pieces I’ve manipulated can begin to look “soft” or damaged and not retain their original crispness. Adding this step Practice Composition stage gives me plenty of room to play without ending up with a damaged final piece.
Once the composition feels good to me and I have a general idea of how everything will go together – I flatten the Practice Composition down to one layer and use it as a guide and positioning tool for all the subsequent final layers that I build above it.
Step 7 – Building the Woodblock & Shadow
Referencing my Practice Composition I build a tight outline of the Woodblock in Paths - I make one overall shape as a base of color on a Layer and then create all the individual pieces on Layers above it.
The image below is a guide for how the whole Woodblock image is layered. In the diagram A is the lowest layer, B is the layer above that and so on up to the letter K.
Note: I’ve reduced opacity on layers G, H and I on the diagram so you can see how the Businessman fits into the art.
To insert each piece of Woodgrain texture into the structure I select the Path I created for that specific piece and paste in the Woodgrain using the Paste Into function (Edit > Paste Special > Paste Into). Once the Woodgrain texture was in place I adjusted color, contrast and angle as I saw fit. This was repeated for all the subsequent pieces.
To create the illusion that the Businessman is stuck in the Woodblock I reduced the Opacity on section H so I could see through it and then I cut a chunk out of section H that conformed to the contours of the Businessman’s leg.
To build the shadow falling behind the Woodblock I created a shape, filled it with a dark grey. To add the additional shape of the Businessman’s head and shoulders to the shadow being cast I just selected him, created a separate layer, filled it with the same dark grey then cut off the section I needed and added it to the top of the shadow shape behind the Woodblock, skewed it to match the angle of the shadow, merged the layers, then turned the mode of the layer to Multiply with an Opacity of 36%.
Step 8 – Angled Saw Blade Placement, Blade Slot & Shadow
While building my Practice Composition I found that the angle of the Angled Saw Blade in the photo I had taken was a little off from where I would’ve liked it to be, so I played with its angle quite a bit until I was happy with how it looked. Having figured this out ahead of time, when I placed the final Angled Saw Blade image into the file all I needed to do was adjust it to fit the one in the Practice Composition without any fuss. To accomplish this I use the Edit > Transform > Scale, Skew and Distort functions to fit the blade image into place without multiple transforms.
After placing the Blade I trimmed the excess height off that I didn’t need.
Once the Angled Saw Blade was in place I create a Blade Slot on the layers under it so it looks like it disappears into the table. The diagram shows how this is done. I used Paths again to make the shapes, filled them with color and used the Burn Tool (O) to darken the orange shape and give it some dimension.
Next, to create the shadow that appears behind the Angled Saw Blade, I use the Flat Saw Blade image to create an outline (using Paths) which I then filled with a flat grey color. I then placed that flat grey colored shape on a layer below the Angled Saw Blade to create the shadow. I rotated and distorted the angle of the shadow piece to get just the right effect, trimmed off any extra of the shape that I didn’t need, and then changed the layer mode to Multiply with an Opacity setting of 35%.
Step 9 – The Three Sided Board
At the top of the composition is a board. To construct this refer to the method that I used to make the Woodblock as it is the same procedure.
Step 10 – Wood Shavings & Grids
Using my Practice Composition as a rough guide I created the Wood Shaving shapes with Paths. Once I was satisfied with the shapes I selected each one (using Paths) and filled it with a section of Woodgrain and again use the Edit > Transform > Scale, Skew, Warp and Distort functions to get the Woodgrain to fit within the Shaving shape and end up looking authentic.
Once the Wood Grain was in place I again used the Burn Tool (O) to give some lighting dimension to each of the Shavings. Finally, I added shadows underneath each of them.
For the Grid pieces, I simply dropped the asset into place, sized it and then switched its mode to Multiply with an Opacity of 100%.
And there you go!
As a rule, I try to keep everything I do as simple and as quick as I possible in the construction of my illustrations while still adding little touches that make everything come to life. When you concentrate ahead of time on concept, composition and getting to the point of the piece you’ve accomplished at least 70% of your objectives. The additional 15 - 20% that the curating of assets and building the piece adds is definitely important but it’s the ‘end’ of the project, not the beginning. Any additional flair or detail that you can add after that is icing on the cake - the final 10%.
About Matt Wood
Matt has been a professional artist and illustrator based in Colorado for 30 years. He is 100% self-taught. Prior to going solo in 1998, Matt was a Graphic Designer and Art Director. In 2012, he also founded a collaborative animation studio named Bad Idea Motion Studios with colleague and longtime friend Greg Vannoy.
With work appearing in scores of magazines, on product packaging and in print ad campaigns - Matt always keeps a number of other artistic pursuits in the works. So far, his two greatest superpowers are creating art in multiple illustration styles as well as cultivating enduring relationships with his clients. This is his very first detour into tutorial writing (and he’s really digging it!)
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