Photoshop tutorial: Create a beautiful bird illustration

Give depth to your artwork with these techniques for accomplished use of shadows and textures.


This Photoshop tutorial will demonstrate how effective use of textures and shading can bring a sense of depth and complexity to relatively simple forms – techniques that can be applied to any illustration subject. 

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Here, Andrew Lyons has applied it to an illustration of a swan, one of a series of birds he created for a client packaging project.

The aesthetic style the client sought was one of reduced, elegant forms – an approach found in much of his work. Although he often uses photo references as a starting point, Andrew believes it’s important to develop drawings beyond exact representation. Whether he’s illustrating figures or animals, he tries to abstract and simplify to create something that’s both pleasing to the eye and which brings out the inner nature of the subject.

STEP 1

I started with thumbnail pencil sketches, from which I chose five to present to my client. They went for the first one (A).

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Getting the drawing right at this stage saves time later, though it’s not necessary to go as far as defining the position and shape of the swan’s feathers at this point.


STEP 2

Once one had been selected, I developed this into a tighter drawing.

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I then created a new Photoshop file – A3-sized, landscape at 300dpi. Although the final illustration was printed smaller, I find it’s better to work larger in case the client needs a hi-res version at a later date – or if you want to make prints of the artwork (as I did).

I scanned the pencil version into Photoshop, added it my document and set the layer’s blending mode to Multiply with a 25% opacity.

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STEP 3

I then created a new layer, named ‘body base’. I chose a neutral off-white colour for the body, and traced the central shape of the swan with the Pen tool.

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When I was happy with the shape of the curves and outline of the path, I selected Path > Fill path. I now had the base layer of the swan’s body.


STEP 4

Still following the lines of my pencil drawing, I traced the swan’s beak area and filled the path on a new layer. I then created another layer above this called ‘beak details’.

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I made a selection of the beak shape, and filled it with black.

I then cut away the unwanted parts with the Pen tool and set this layer’s blending mode to Soft Light at 38% opacity. 


STEP 5

Having made a selection from the swan’s ‘body base’ layer, I created a new layer above this called ‘body shading’ – setting its blending mode to Colour Burn at 10% opacity.

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I used the Pen tool to define the shadows and added a vector mask. The shadows were softened with the Radial Gradient tool.

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STEP 6

With the body taken care of, I grouped all my layers.

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For this illustration I only needed to create one wing – I would then duplicate and flip this. I started by tracing the leading edge of the wing, where the swan’s arm bones would be. I named this layer ‘wing base’.


STEP 7

It was now time to create guidelines for my feathers. I didn’t worry too much about swan anatomy, being more concerned with a good, flowing wing shape.

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These guidelines didn’t have to be exact as I knew I’d have time later for adjusting the position of the feathers. However, guidelines are very useful in ensuring you don’t lose the overall form of the wing.


STEP 8

As I wanted my feathers to gradually get darker as they got smaller and closer to the body, I made a rectangle with a two-tone gradient at the top of my screen to serve as a palette when it came to picking the colour of each feather.

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STEP 9

The feathers were created from a single shape that I duplicated many times and changed gradually in size.

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I traced the outline of the first feather with the Pen tool and filled it with a light shade from the far left of my gradient palette. Next, I placed the feather along my top guideline.


STEP 10

I duplicated my feather, slightly darkening the tone by picking a new one from further along the colour gradient.

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I made it a little smaller by transforming it (Cmd/Ctrl + T) and rotating the feather into place.

This process was repeated with gradually smaller and smaller feathers until they were all in place. This was, by far, the most time-consuming part of the illustration’s process.


STEP 11

To add shadows, I first created a selection of the top-most feather, added a new layer below it and filled the selection here with black. I set this layer’s blending mode to Soft Light.

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Next, I applied a Gaussian Blur. The Radius of the Gaussian blur you apply to a drop shadow will affect the illusion of height between the layers. Here I’ve used a 20px Radius. I cropped any of the shadow that extended beyond the feathers.

I repeated this step for each feather to add definition and depth.

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STEP 12

Once the first set of feathers was complete, I grouped all of my feather layers and duplicated the group. I then merged this new group, adjusted the colour slightly (Layer > New adjustment layer > Hue/Saturation) and made it smaller. This became my second row of feathers.

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I repeated this process to create the third row.


STEP 13

Between each of these layers of feathers I added further drop shadows to add depth to the wing.

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STEP 14

To give the impression that the feathers were blending into the wing base, I duplicated the ‘wing base’ layer, and gave it the same tone as the feathers at the top of the wing.

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I then added a layer mask and used the Linear Gradient tool to fade the colours of the two ‘wing base’ layers together.

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STEP 15

It’s important you group layers, so as to avoid getting lost when working on a complicated illustration. It’s also useful if you need to duplicate parts of your image.

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With one wing complete, I placed all my wing layers into a single group, which I duplicated and flipped (Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal), then moved in into place on the left behind the swan's body.


STEP 16

Now for the textures. This was my favourite part. I placed several different paper textures above my swan and played around with the layer styles to get the look I wanted.

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In general, I’ll set my textures’ blending modes to Color Burn, Overlay or Soft Light, and then adjust the opacity.

The artwork was now finished. Continue through this tutorial for a couple of tips to get the best from this kind of elegantly textured artwork


Tip 1

STEP 17

Taking time to play around with the layer styles and seeing how they work can open up many possibilities in your work. It’s always worth taking time to try different styles to see what effects you can achieve. 

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Tip 2

STEP 18

As adding textures can greatly alter the contrast and colours of my illustrations,  I’ll often leave making definite colour choices until the end. At this point, I’ll go back and add Hue/Saturation adjustments to many of my layers.

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