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Transform clip art into an amazing illustration with this cut-paper technique

Added on Tuesday 28th of March 2006 01:00 am EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


Using clip art straight from the source doesn’t add much of a creative touch to your personal design. But if you take a little extra time to enhance it, you can make a world of difference. One way you can do this is with this cut-paper technique, which can transform your ugly clip art into a work of art.


To transform your boring clip art into an amazing cut-paper illustration, we’ll:

     Explain the process of traditional cut-paper illustrations and how it parallels the way we’ll do it in Photoshop.

     Provide the benefits to preserving paths as well as having a rasterized line art drawing as reference for your creation.

     Describe how to break apart your image so you can dismantle your own clip art.

     Show you how to obtain a realistic texture and edge effect, and save it as a style to streamline the process.

     Tell you how to enhance your illustration with shadows and highlights for depth that pops off the page.


If you’re a frequent user of clip art, you may notice familiar clip art on someone else’s piece. As you cringe and wonder what people are thinking when they see the clip art you use, remind yourself that you don’t have to use it straight from the catalog. We’ll show you one way to personalize your clip art to replicate the look of a traditional cut-paper illustration, as illustrated in Figure A. After all, you want to hold your head up high when you see your finished piece.



The technique

When using traditional artist materials to create a cut-paper illustration, you begin with a line art drawing. Using transfer paper, you then transfer sections of your illustration one at a time onto colored paper. Then, you cut out the pieces with an X-acto blade, and glue it all together. In a nutshell, every color shift, shadow, highlight, and every element of the drawing is cut out independently of each other.

In an object such as our fish, the eyes, pupil, lips, fins, and every scale is another cut piece of paper. You glue together individual components, such as the fish and bubbles shown in Figure A, then cut and stack pieces of foam core to make elements of your illustration jump out and add depth. Now, we’ll show you how that relates to our Photoshop technique.


It starts with the art

Our technique starts the same way the traditional technique does—with line art. But we’ll use this digital file, and rather than cut with an X-acto knife, we’ll re-create the sections with the Pen tool (no, we haven’t lost our minds) in order to break every element down to a simple shape on its own layer. These are things to keep in mind when choosing art for this technique:

        While you can work with a full color image, it’s better to start with a fresh color palette and eliminate the distracting original colors as we did by converting the image to black and white or even shades of gray.

        Don’t ignore your own scanned drawing or rasterized clip art for this technique. If you go this route, keep in mind that you’ll have to create all the paths in your illustration.

        Select vector-based clip art for the convenient option to preserve and utilize its paths. Keep in mind, however, that clip art is often constructed in a fashion unfriendly to dismantling, so you’ll have to re-create some or many portions of it anyway, depending on the clip art you choose.

        Be careful when using preserved paths as guides to draw other paths as they can get cumbersome. It’s best to have a copy of the rasterized line art in your Photoshop document as well as the vector paths.


To preserve or not to preserve the paths

Without paths in your document, you need to re-create everything, and by preserving paths, you’ll still need to re-create something. Since there’s no sense reinventing what is done already, we’ll show you how to set up a document with both paths and the rasterized line art.

To follow along with our example, download the file from the URL listed at the beginning of this article, and extract the file fish.psd. (Image provided by Art Explosion, Nova Development Corporation. Some images modified for educational purposes.) Then, launch Photoshop and open the file. You can skip to the next section, break apart the image and color it in, or read on to see how we set up our document and how you can set up future documents.


To set up your document with line art and rasterized line art:

1.       Open your clip art in an illustration program of your choice.

2.      Copy the clip art. (For more on copying and pasting clip art from illustration programs to Photoshop, see the box titled Tips For Copying And Pasting Clip Art.)

3.      Launch Photoshop and create a new document with a white background.

4.      Paste the clip art, select Path from the Paste As dialog box, and click OK.

5.      Paste the clip art again, select Pixels from the Paste As dialog box, and click OK.

6.      Press [return] ([Enter] in Windows) twice to accept the placement.

7.      Rename your Work Path something intuitive.

8.      Set your background color to white and increase your canvas size to give your image more breathing room.

Your Photoshop Layers and Paths palettes should look like ours in Figure B.





Traditional materials

You can create a traditional cut-paper illustration with any number of materials. Some of the more commonly used materials include, but aren’t limited to:

        Canson paper. A textured paper used a lot for charcoal drawings and colored pencils. It’s a mid-weight paper available in a wide range of colors, making it a durable choice for cutting and building.

        Color-aid paper. A lightweight paper coated with a thin layer of pigmented clay. It’s available in a multitude of colors, although it tends to scratch easily.

        X-acto blades. This is the cutting medium of choice. If you’re creating a cut paper illustration, you’ll need plenty of these on hand. Changing your blade often ensures clean cuts, which are imperative to this technique.

        Foam core. A sheet of foam encased in heavyweight paper. This is a useful material to use for creating spacer blocks to build your illustration with, adding depth to an otherwise flat medium.




Tips for copying and pasting clip art

The most universal way to preserve your vector paths is to copy it from your Illustration program and paste it into a Photoshop document. While we don’t have the space to re-create the steps for every possible scenario, we can give you a few vector preservation pointers for more popular vector based applications, as well as Photoshop.


        When copying from Adobe Illustrator 10/CS/CS2, you need to make sure the AICB preference is set. Choose Illustrator > Preferences > Files & Clipboard (Edit > Preferences > Files & Clipboard in Windows) and make sure to select the AICB check box and the Preserve Paths option button at the bottom of the Preferences dialog box and click OK.

        When copying from Macromedia FreeHand MX, the copy clipboard settings are mirrored from the Export preferences. To quickly override the settings, choose Edit > Copy Special. In the resulting dialog box, select EPS from the list and click OK.

        When pasting into Photoshop 7/CS/CS2, press [command]V ([Ctrl]V in Windows) and choose Path from the Paste As Options in the Paste dialog box, and then click OK.


Break apart the image and color it in


At this point, we’ll begin to select individual sections of the image and add some fill color. In this technique it’s important to work from the background up, or from the largest shapes to the finest detail. We’ll show you how to make the selections and fills from the preserved paths, and also use the pen tool to create the rest of our paths, with the rasterized line art as a guide. We’ll work with a lot of layers, so we’ll begin with a Layer Group.



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