How I draw Semi-real style cars in Photoshop (This week :) )…a WIP-Torial

How I draw cars seems to be a bit different depending on the type of style and really, how much I learned recently.  It seems to be ever evolving so….this is how I do a semi-real looking car design at this point in time….check back with me next week cause I might be doin somethin totally different.  🙂

anyway…here we go.
The Job:
It’s a a 3 car t-shirt design for a Northern California aircooled (old) VW shop. They sent me photos of their vehicles for reference and their company logo. Ultimately the design will be 5 color spot separated and ready for the screenprinter to output, burn screens and print. Pretty routine.

Step 1:

I start by doing all my pencil work. I draw the vehicles on regular old paper. I use a 5mm zebra tech pencil and a lot of eraser! I draw each vehicle at least twice, sometimes more. After I do the initial drawing, I scan it, size it up, print it out in blue line (ctrl+U hue/saturation colorize) then I put it on my lighttable and tape a clean piece of paper over it and transfer it. I fix what I can and repeat this process until I’m ok with the pencil base. I like starting out with the pencil because it gives the final render a more organic feel. It’s still digital but the imperfections make it human. It’s why I like Bugs Bunny so much.

Here’s the bus rough 1:

Here’s the bus rough 2:

Here’s the Bug rough 2:

Next I open Photoshop and use the pen tool and “ink” the contour lines. I make a layer above my blueline layer and select the hard round brush. I usually do the contour at size 9 pixels. File size is about 11 inches wide, 300 dpi.

I open the brushes pallet (F5 on my keyboard) and I check the shape dynamics box. I move the minimum diameter slider to about 43.

Next I click the pen tool and I start to click around the contour. I will go a few steps then right button click on the path and click “stroke” I stroke it using the “brush” and I check the box that says “simulate pressure”. That’s important. What Photoshop does is stroke my path at 9 pixels and the ends of my line get a tapered kind of look to them. The simulate pressure renders my line based on the minimum diameter setting we set on the brushes pallet. It sounds tricky, but it’s not (lol) it’s pretty cool actually.

Now…in order to do this over and over really fast. I recorded my path stroking as an action and assigned it to the F6 key on my keyboard. I did include a delete path step as I don’t keep all paths.   So…I can click click click make a path, hit F6, stroke it simulating pressure then click click click another path. cake. (Note: I have another action that strokes a path using the brush with no simulate pressure and does not delete the path. This is useful for rims and tires where you wouldn’t wan a varied line weight necessarily.)

Here’s the bus contour:

After the contour I change my brush size depending on what I’m inking. For the most part I might do door seams at 4 or 5 pixels and maybe vents at 3 pixels…maybe the headlights at 5 pixels so they have more visual weight. The varied line stroking really gives it a hand inked feel.

I will add layers above my main inking layer and then ink the side line for example. I will ink it through the actual shape and then just erase back to the point where it needs to be. Then do a CTRL+E and merge the layers down into my main inking layer.

here’s some of the interior linework:

now…on tires and wheels, I create about 11 layers above my line layer and I ink out the separate parts. I will have the tries, and outer rims on one since they don’t intersect. Then the inner rims, then the wheel face, slots, slot depth, 1 lug nut layer…which usually ends up being 3 eventually merged into 1 then that 1 is duplicated 5 times…I position the logs…scale down the ones furthest away for perspective…merge them into 1 layer and erase what you wouldn’t see then merge then into a main layer. I don’t simulate pressure on these wheel lines. I usually do the outside tire at 7 pixels…first outer rim at 5 pixels…rim lip at 4 pixels then all the rest of the wheel lines at 3 pixels.

You can see I include my hilite and shadow lines in my rough drawing. What I do after I ink the piece is create a bunch of paths with the pen tool. I make all my hilite and shadow lines these closed paths. I use the paths down the road to make selections and render to. After I do all my paths I just stroke them at 2 pixels on a layer above everything just because it’s cool looking and kinda neat to see.

Essentially what I create is a really intense coloring book. LOLOL

The next step after inking and paths is to create a layer above my blue line but below my inking layer. I use my inking layer to make a selection of the bus body. I use magic wand, some lasso tool to get into the tight spaces and I have another recorded action that expands any selection by one pixel. I assign it to my F4 key and this is very useful.

One the body is selected I fill it with my base color on my body layer. many times I will also turn this selection into a new alpha channel so I cab select it again easily or I turn it into a clipping mask and just render my loose tones right above it.

That’s what I did here:

Same thing for the other 2 vehicles. I actually haven’t done the DoubleCab yet, but I will.

here’s the body base on the bug:


The clipping mask contains whatever I brush in to a defined area. That area is the body base in this case. So I set my airbrush to like 15% OPACITY OR LOWER and the flow to like 40% and I just brush in some light and shadow indications. I use a darker color and a lighter color. I’m not big on dodge and burn…just a preference thing. In this case I created a second clipping mask layer and the dark tones are on one and the light tones on another.

This is just a rough base…it will be refined later in the process.

I started the inking on the doublecab bus so I did a few screen shots that may help explain the inking stuff better.

Here’s the brushes pallet and the dynamics set to 43

So I use the pen tool and make a path on a layer above my blueline.

In the next 4 images I will stroke that path and tell photoshop to use my brush and simulate pressure which makes PS stroke the path with the dynamic settings we put in. (note: These four steps I recorded as an action and assigned a function key to it so I don’t have to do this every time. I just hit F6 and PS gets down on it for me.  )

so…right button clik on the path, and click Stroke

PS will ask you what you wanna stroke it with…click Brush
(note: my brush is set to hard round 9 pixels 100% opacity and flow)

click the Simulate Pressure check box. This tells PS to use those settings in the brushes pallet.

and there you go…

Now I get a stroked line that has a bit of a varied lineweight to it. By doing this in bits as I work around the piece, it takes on a very hand inked look.

see? Kinda cool.

Like I said earlier I did record a delete path in my inking action as I don’t keep all paths.

Here’s a look at how I deal with compound objects like the indicator light.

I used the ellipse tool and transformed it for the front of the indicator, and I used the pen tool and made a path for the body. I add 2 layers above my line layer. these are just working layers.

I stroke the ellipse on one layer

I stroked the body of the indicator on the second layer. I made it red so you can see it. (Note: I made it red by locking the transparency on that layer and just filled it red. This helps you see whats on what layer in compound objects.)

Then I just use a hard round eraser and erase the line from the body of the indicator. I find the inking looks better in the end if you just ink through shapes and erase back. The eraser in PS is probably the best tool. It has a great feel.

Here’s the inked indicator

Ta da!!

We can do some tire talk now.

basically the entire turn indicator process is repeated.

I use the pen tool and the ellipse tool and layout all the paths. I do take a lot of liberties. I could be waaaaaaaay more technical, but once again….if it feels like that’s what it wants to be, who am I to tell it no? 

I then stroked each path on a layer. I did do the first 3 rings on one layer…they don’t intersect so it’s cool. I did make 1 lug nut, and named that layer. I’m gonna need to duplicate and scale on it so I need it identified for later.

Funny…I always make 11 layers above my line layer to do a wheel. I don’t always use all 11, but time has trained me…11 usually covers it. 

Then I take the eraser and erase what wont be seen.

I do this on all the layers. Just like the turn indicator. I duplicate the lug nut layer and scale the far side ones for perspective, then merge them into one layer and then erase what won’t be seen. This adds depth.

Here’s all the layers erased out. I merge them into one layer and then click the Lock Transparency box on the layers pallet. This makes the PS layer uneditable except for where there is pixel data, or where I drew something.

Then I just alt+Backspace fill the layer black and there ya go. Rim is done.

I add 4 more layers and stroke the ellipses for the tread and the tread lip

Then I erase the unseen on those layers, merge down and my rim and tire is set.

so…now that the base lines are done…I make a bunch of paths that are all closed and they represent the hilite and shadow lines.

Here’s the paths

Then I just stroke those paths at 2 pixels on a layer above my lineart. I do this so I can see them, when we get into the render I will show you how to make selections using paths. I actually render to those selections.

and now here’s the flat body base added and a little background tone. I find it easier to render with a colored background. For some reason the solid white background is very stark to me.

Now we can add some tone.

First thing I do is pretty basic. Make a clipping mask in this case above my body base. It’ll be for dark tones. I set my airbrush to soft edge and flow about 40% and opacity about 15% then I just brush in some tone in the shadow areas. I build it up a little so I can see it, but I don’t try to get too specific or even really worry about going outside a shape. I add another clipping mask and brush in some lighter tones.

Then we start havin fun.

Here’s a look at how I use the paths we created for hilites and shadows.

I used the magic wand to select the entire door area on my lineart layer. I turn on my paths and select the mirror shadow. (yeah yeah, I know…doesn’t make sense for the lighting which is all over the damn place anyway, but it looks cool.  )

Right button click on the path and click Make Selection then click New Selection

PS selects just the mirror. Now…I have the make new selection, subtract from a selection, and intersect a selection set up as actions as well, so I just hit F3, Shift-F3, and Shift-F2 to do those functions.

Once the area is selected I can gradient in the tone, or brush it in, or fill to taste.


So for this one it’s gonna stay a bit more graphic so wrapping it up was cake.

Little things like adding some back light to the door seams, and darkening the bumper back, really help.

It’s still not done as there is adjustments in the layout, but so far so good.

I did add a hue saturation and a levels adjustment layer. that’s kinda like the reward.

Here it is:


The panel bus landed here:

and the split window bug landed here:

then the rest was cake. I just put the vehicles in the design. On the elements like the text and the scene I tried to incorporate the colors in the vehicles. This helps reduce the pallet. I also did the little make the glass tint the color of another vehicle in the design thing. That way I can print this in 5 spot colors on dark t-shirts.

Here’s where the design landed:

Clients dug the snot out of it. 

Thanks for reading.


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