Photoshop tutorial: Create artwork with both real and digital brushstrokes

Adi Gilbert explains how hand-drawn art can be enhanced by digital techniques to produce beautifully-crafted illustrations.


In this tutorial, Adi Gilbert explains how he produces beautifully-crafted illustrations using a blend of traditional brushwork, and digital techniques with a tablet, stylus and Photoshop. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

“I like to think of my Mac and my tablet as just another tool alongside my pencils, brushes and inks,” says Adi, “and try to combine them all to keep a hand-crafted feel to my work.”

By using traditional drawing techniques and textures, you can create a tactile, imperfect piece that can then be coloured and enhanced with editable, digital layering. This technique gives you the best of both worlds, especially when working to deadlines or changing requirements. 

The illustration is a reinterpretation of a piece he did for a motorcycle magazine. He describes it as: “A pretty good example of how you can take advantage of the awesome potential a tablet and stylus can give, especially if you are more comfortable with holding a pencil or brush than working with a mouse. Unleash the power!”

Time to complete 

1-2 days


Photoshop, scanning software, tablet

Step 1


I started this project by creating a job folder. Within this, I added subfolders called Resources, Artwork, Previews and Deliverables. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

In Resources, I stored all my scans, a scrapbook of inspirational and reference files, as well as the client brief. Artwork housed all the layered Photoshop files, Previews was for the low-res files for client approval, while all the print-ready files were to be stored in Deliverables.

Step 2


I always gather my reference and inspiration material together. I’ll trawl through my scrapbook and books for anything that might inspire me and take any photos I need. In this case, I shot some of my hands in a mirror to work from, and found some photos of cafe racers. I put all this in my Resources folder, so I could refer to refer back to it later.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below

Step 3


Before it ends up on my Mac, most of my work is drawn with a mechanical pencil, and then inked with a sable bush, Indian ink and some pens. I start off with a rough sketch, then draw in the details.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Step 4


Next, I taped the drawing to my lightbox – a thin, A3 one that can rest on my desk or lap – and taped a sheet of Bristol Board over the top. I then brushed ink onto the new sheet, using the pencil drawing below for reference, so as to have clean paper with no pencil marks to rub out.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Step 5


After painting in all the black inkwork, I added some white highlights, effects and corrections, with white drawing ink. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below

Step 6


It was now time to scan the illustration into my Mac. As I inked straight on to fresh paper, there was very little cleaning up to do. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

I always use an Epson GT-20000 A3 scanner, which saves me a lot of time. If I need to work on a piece that’s larger than A3, I find Photoshop’s Photomerge function comes in handy.

Step 7


To clean up the scan and get it ready for colouring, I opened up the file in Photoshop and created a Levels adjustment layer. Here, I adjusted the sliders until the whites were bright and the blacks strong. While many will tell you to maximise the black for the strongest contrast, I prefer to leave some depth to the black for a natural brush effect.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Step 8


Once I was happy with the levels, I selected all (Cmd/Ctrl + A) and copy the merged layers (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + C). This copied everything you can see, including the adjustment layers into one single layer. I pasted the adjusted inks, so I could touch up any imperfections, then duplicated this layer to keep the original safe, calling the fresh version ‘cleaned up inks’.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below

Step 9


This is where I first really used the tablet to great effect. I zoomed in tight and moved around the image, cleaning up any dust, dirt or suchlike that ended up on the scan. For this, I used a combination of tools, including Eraser, Brush, Clone, Spot Healing brushes, Patch tool, Burn and Dodge. Here, I used a stylus for everything, as it’s with tasks like this that you really feel its benefit.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Step 10


When I finished cleaning up and adjusting the scan, I saved the file and then created a copy, which would be the main artwork file. In this case, I sized it to A3, CMYK (for print) and 300dpi. I usually save them as a Psd file, but you can save them as layered Tifs if you prefer.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Here, I added a paper texture with a vignette at the top of the layer stack – dropping the opacity to 10% – to add to the vintage feel I’m going for.

Step 11


Next, I used the stylus to add some shading to the drawing. I wanted to keep it simple and pretty sketchy, so it kept its energy and matched the inkwork, but doing it digitally it allowed me to make easy amends, colour changes and effects. So my shading didn’t interrupt the line work, I set the ‘cleaned up inks’ layer’s blending mode to Darken mode, and then created layers beneath it to add my shading.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below

Step 12


To get the look I wanted for my shading, I created a custom brush. The best way to do this is to click on the Brush tool and select a roughly suitable brush from the panel – loading some of the different brush sets to find something I like. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Here I found a rough-edged brush that was in the right park, but I needed to tweak the settings. I wanted rough edges, so I played with the settings until I got something that would leave daubed strokes like my real brushes do. 

Step 13


I selected a colour for my shading and started making strokes on to my shading layer as though it was on paper. I kept it pretty loose and didn’t zoom in too much, so as not to lose the feel I was after. As I made each stroke, I varied the pressure on the nib to taper or thicken the line as I would a real brush.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Step 14


To make the strokes feel natural, I used the canvas rotate facility, which allowed me to spin the artwork around to make strokes at comfortable, natural angles – just like how you might if you were to move your paper around on your desk.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

To rotate, hit Shift + R, click on the canvas with your stylus and drag-rotate the image accordingly. Esc returns the canvas back to its original orientation.

Advertisement. Article continues below

Step 15


I gave this image a background by adding a layer and filling a rectangular selection with red. In order to give the appearance that my characters are masked out of the red, I painted white areas on a separate layer. These sit above the red masking it but below the ink layer. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

You can do this by using the Lasso or Marquee tools, but I like the rough effect I get by painting them in.

Step 16


Here are all the main components of the piece: black inks, white paper areas, a layer of blue shading and a block of red. It’s simple, but very effective.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

The loose and rough use of the stylus means that it’s more akin to the style of my inkwork. And with it all on separate digital layers, its easy to amend. 

To finish, I added a sprinkling of distressing and print effects.