Photoshop tutorial: Create an artwork with a 1980s tropical feel

Use abstract shapes and negative space to create a bold and striking artwork.


In this tutorial, illustrator Chris Malbon takes you through the process of creating a bold artwork with an 80s retro tropical theme – drawing on the kitsch glamour of shows like Miami Vice. He says the secret to his striking style is using abstract shapes and negative space. 

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“Simple can be beautiful – flat and bold knocked-back screens can create depth and tints that really lift an image,” explains Chris. “You also need to consider how negative space can be used to your advantage to create a truly original piece of work.”

He also shares some techniques for ensuring there’s a base of photorealism underpinning an abstract piece. By using photos as a starting point, then tracing them in a simplified way, the illustration has a good contrast that feels both handmade and digital.

Time to complete

3 hours


Photoshop, Illustrator

Step 1


To begin with have a look around for good reference images. Create some rough scamps, and take photocopies and print outs. To get the perfect artwork, you often have to work from more than one source – my image is made up of components from three different photos.

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Print your references out, then put them on a lightbox – or you can use a window – and trace over them with a black pen. 

Step 2


Composite your tracings by tracing over them again on a new piece of paper. Don’t worry if you need to break away from what you’re tracing to create a cohesive comp – let your artistic talent help you out.

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Step 3


Scan your tracing into Photoshop. Next, create an A4 300dpi CMYK document, and drag and drop your scan in. Select the Pen tool, with Shape mode and a black colour selected. Trace the face. 

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Step 4


Try to keep the number of path points to a minimum. This is the face of a beautiful woman – it needs to be as smooth and curvaceous as you can get it. Don’t worry too much about detail – the image is meant to be clean and simple, so we’re after nice bold shapes.

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Step 5


Once you’re happy with the lines and shapes, hide the guide image to give yourself a clearer view, and make any last-minute tweaks. Use the Path handles to smooth out any stray points. 

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Step 6


It’s time to think about the other elements for this composition that will give the feel of 1980s tropical glamour. First up, we need some stock shots of palm trees, which are easy enough to find.

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Again, just trace them with the Pen tool to make simple silhouettes – we don’t want a jungle, just some nice abstract looking leaves and trees. Give the silhouettes a bold neon pink colour.

Step 7


Next up we need to create some nice streaky texture. You can find mine in the project files, but you can easily create your own by streaking real paint on paper or canvas. Scan two of these into Illustrator and then, in turn, use its Live Trace function to create the shapes.

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Copy and paste each into separate Photoshop documents, then use Image > Levels to get rid of any gradation in their tone – we want them clean and bold. Colour one neon pink and the other neon blue.

Step 8


In Illustrator, there’s a Blend option. Draw two filled shapes in illustrator, with space between them, then go to Object > Blend > Blend Options > Select Steps. It’s a good idea to play around with the different settings – I put in 15 for this image. Next, press OK, go back to Object > Blend, but this time around press Make Blend. 

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Afterwards, I tweaked the shape to create a circle, but you can have any shape you want and its great fun playing around with different angles.

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Step 9


To boost the tropical theme, we need another background element – some flying parrots seem appropriate. Find a stock photo and trace over them, again using as few points as possible so that we have a really striking look.

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Step 10


Now let’s begin colouring in the face, starting with the lips. Give the layer with the black linework a blending mode of Multiply, so you can draw beneath it. Create a new layer underneath it, select the Pen tool, open up your Color Mixer, and choose one dark red and one slightly lighter. 

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Fill in the lips using the darker red. When you’ve finished, create another layer above it with a Screen blending mode. Select your lighter red and draw some circles along the top of the lips as highlights.

Step 11


Next, it’s time to colour in the sunglasses, using the same neon pink as before as a base.

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Create a layer under the face layer. Fill in the glasses with pink. Add a highlight using the Screen blending mode. Add a second highlight for a refraction effect, dropping the opacity so it appears to be behind the first.

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Step 12


We want to give a warm human feel to the background that contrasts with the bold neons. Create a new layer at the bottom of the layer stack. Open up your Color Mixer and pick a skin tone. Fill your layer with the colour – you’ll see straightaway how it makes the graphics pop.

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Step 13


Copy and paste in the other elements around the face, using your scamp as a reference for positioning. This is an abstract piece, so experiment with your composition.

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This can throw up some interesting ideas you may not have thought of. The bottom-right blue stream looks a bit like a coastline – perhaps that of Florida – so I’ve added some stars that hint at the US flag.

Step 14


I felt the piece needed some additional contrast, so I drew a bold black rectangle – it helps the pink stand out and grounds the palm trees. Add some diamond-like white stars to the glasses to reinforce the feel of retro glamour – and we’re done.

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