08 February 2010

Using vector art in Photoshop tutorial

As promised, here is a little tutorial on one technique I used for the Open Cell illustration: working with vector objects. The schematics were provided by the client as DWG files. The first thing to do is open them up in Illustrator. Often, CAD files like these will have labels, text, and other diagrams you don't need. If you need to, close any open paths and outline strokes if you want them. Select the shapes you do need with the Selection tool (that's the black arrow) and just do a Copy from the Edit menu. Go into Photoshop and Paste. You will get the Paste options dialog, asking if you want to paste as a Smart Object, Pixels, Path, or Shape Layer. Choose Shape Layer as it will give you a filled vector object on its own layer. This is the most editable way to bring Illustrator art in.

In this screenshot you will see several vector shape layers (also called Fill Layers) brought in this way. Only the paths from Illustrator will be pasted into Photoshop. You will lose all fills, strokes, or effects. The fill color of the new Shape Layer will be your current foreground color in Photoshop and you will only have one fill color per layer, even though it can have many separate paths. Remember that unlike Illustrator, Photoshop does not like open paths. You can easily change the color of the Shape layer by double-clicking on its color swatch, which opens up the color picker. What you really have here is a layer filled with that one color and the vector shapes are acting like masks. From here, you can edit the paths just as you would in Illustrator. You will find the same black arrow (now called the Path Selection tool) that allows you to select and move entire paths. If you need to, you can use the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow) to edit individual points and curves on your path. You can select, copy, paste, delete, and move paths around, all on one Shape Layer.

Create empty layers above your painting and use the Line tool on them to set up vanishing points. This image uses simple 2-point perspective. As you can see, the actual vanishing points are outside the canvas area of the image. Choose bright, fully saturated colors for your perspective lines, as they will stand out from your image. It helps to use different colors and layers for each dimension: height, width, and depth.

Now it's time to transform. Make sure the Shape Layer you want is selected and use the Free Transform tool (Cmd+T or Ctrl+T). Choose Skew if you need to move a point or line in just one direction or Distort if you need to do more. Since this is 2-point perspective and no sides will end up being horizontal or vertical, choose Distort. Move the points of the bounding box so that they match up with the intersections of your perspective lines. Once you have done that, you can choose Scale to move or size the shape into position by grabbing its sides. Right-clicking is a great way to access the menu with all of these transformations. You may be tempted to try the Perspective option, but don't; it's very limited. Also, don't grab and move your shape; you will lose the correct perspective you have set up. Always do it with Scale. When you are done, accept the transformation. What is great about this method is that since you are working with vector shapes, you can scale and distort as much as you want without losing any edge quality and Photoshop's Transform tools are much better and more precise than Illustrator's.

Once you have the top edge in place, it is easy to create the rest of the shape going down on a layer underneath it. You now have a complex shape receding in the distance with correct perspective that would not otherwise be possible in a 2D application. Since it is done with vector shapes, you have the best of both worlds: crisp, smooth edges and all the Photoshop options of blending modes, opacity, layer masks, clipping masks, layer effects, and so on. One more point to remember: if you have the Move tool selected, the transformations will be applied to the entire layer; that means all the paths on it. If you just want to transform individual paths on the Shape Layer, use the Path Selection tool to select the one(s) you want to transform first. Sadly, you can't transform paths on different layers at the same time.

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