How to Achieve a Realistic Distressed Effect with Hand Lettering 2/3 ? Distressed Effect in Photoshop

How to Achieve a Realistic Distressed Effect with Hand Lettering 2/3 ? Distressed Effect in Photoshop

Last week, we saw a technique to make your own textures from household items. Today, we’re going to use what we created to apply a realistic used effect on a lettering piece in Photoshop.

But first let’s define realistic: as I said last week, there are plenty ways we can go wrong with distressed textures on type. You can have a beautiful lettering piece and a crisp texture brush at your disposal, and end up with a mediocre result. There are many examples on the Internet, and multiple reasons to it that we’re going to explore together before starting. It would be a shame to ruin such great material.

There are two main reasons why digital effects can look stiff, and the first one is a bad perception of reality.

When you want to reproduce something that exists (neon, water, steel, wood, etc.), you need to do researchs. And by researchs, I don’t only mean Google, I mean going out and gather visual data from real life. That’s where the difference begins between you and the others who will settle for average effects: you are willing to go outside and reference from the actual reality that you’re trying to reproduce. There’s a difference between looking at a medium-sized, compressed image of wood grain on your LCD monitor and looking at actual wood in three dimensions, being able to approach it from up close, see it from different perspectives and under the natural light of the sun.
You can (and you should) take pictures of what you find, so that you can reference from it later, but the point here is to constitute your own mental bank of effects and textures, to train your eyes at spotting the subtleties that makes something looks the way it looks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should ban Google from your sources and go for a walk every time you need visual references. What I’m implying is that this is a habit to get into, especially when are aiming at a certain sense of authenticity in what you do. This is the hustle of a designer who stands out from the ones who never go past the first page of Google Images.

The second common reason why effects look bad is not enough time spent on doing it.

Everyone wants everything right now. I’m no exception. I’d love for the ideas in my head to materialize way faster than the actual time it requires to make it right. I’m sure you already watched a work of art and wondered “how did that guy do to make it look so good/real?” The answer is simple: he took a lot of time. Probably way more than he was expecting to spend.

Yes, there are many ways you can go fast. Simply slap a brush on your lettering piece and voilà, you’re done. Or use a Photoshop action file, a Smart object, you can find thousands of them and some are actually great. But as with texture brushes, and as with fonts, if it looks that great, there are probably a ton of designers using it as well.

Effects often look bad because designers rush it. They exactly reproduce the steps they were told in tutorials without even checking if it works with new base material, and without even wondering what these steps do and why they matter.

As I stated in the previous article, what I want to do with this tutorial series isn’t to provide you a step-by-step-do-exactly-like-i-do course. I want us to study goals to accomplish and determine actions to achieve them. Yes, this may sound a little pompous for a tutorial, but we’re here to make beautiful things together, so be it.

Since we can’t really go outside in nature together right now, we’ll start from a very good photographic reference. We won’t try to replicate it exactly as it is, but we’ll identify the features that make it interesting and reproduce them on a new original composition.

There are many things that can be noted on this image: the blue paint that covers the background has been damaged and reveals the original texture of the board (especially on the edges), the outline of the letters are not perfect because they’ve been painted by hand, the outline and the inline of the letters are not damaged the same way, some parts of the letters are faded, there are drops of white paint around the letters, there are dark stains all over the boards, etc.

From these observations, we’re going to build a clean lettering piece, then virtually damage it.

There are two ways we can start:

  • You can use an original drawing, scan it and directly Live Trace it in Illustrator. This is the quickest way, since you won’t need to roughen your lettering to give it a hand-made look. You then can go directly to the next step of the tutorial
  • You can use a vectorized lettering or a vectorized font, and in that case you’ll need to roughen it. This is the step I’ll walk you through now.

Roughening a clean lettering

This lettering has been meticulously vectorized on Illustrator, so it wouldn’t be convincing to simply slap a texture on it. It needs to be roughened first to give the feeling it’s been drawn or painted by hand.

We open the lettering in Illustrator and select Effect > Distort & Transform > Roughen. We make sure that Preview is checked, we set a very low Size in Absolute mode (0,2 mm for me), low Detail (30/in for me) and Points on Corner (to make it sharp). This creates a lightly roughened outline to my vector while preserving its integrity.
This step allows us to randomize the shape of the piece, to break its sharpness and prepare it for the next steps.

We then apply Object > Expand appearance and copy/paste the vector into Photoshop on a new document as a Smart object.

What we need to keep is the overall shape of our piece, with smoother outline.

Above the Smart object, we’re going to create a Threshold adjustment layer, then we’re going to go back on our Smart object and apply a Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. You should see your lettering getting smoother outlines and corners.

The advantage of using a Smart object is that we can decide to change the amount of Gaussian Blur as much as we want, without altering our layer. That amount is up to you, it depends on the result you want to achieve and the dimensions of your lettering layer.
What happens here is that, by applying blur, we’re scattering pixels and smoothing the overall design. The Threshold adjustment layer allows us to render pixels as absolute black and white, dismissing the blur and retaining the smoothed outline only.

We import the result back in Illustrator, and we’re going to use on of its most interesting features: Live Trace. What it does is turning raster images into accurate vectors. A large variety of options allows us to tune the final render to our liking.

To use Live Trace on our drawing, we select the object and use Object > Live Trace > Make. An option window opens, and we see a preview of our lettering as a vector, with a default preset. We then can tune the options to our liking. Here are my adjustments, but I suggest you to play with the options so you can understand their effects, and tune it for yourself. Make sure Preview is checked so you can see what you’re doing:

  • Threshold: 140
  • Paths: 95%
  • Corners: 20%
  • Noise: 25%

When we’re happy with the result, we click on Expand to convert it into vectors.

You may need to clear the white space from the vector group. I generally use the Magic wand to select all the black area, cut it, clear everything on the crop area, and paste the lettering that was stored in my clipboard. There are many ways to do the same thing but it’s the quickest I’ve found so far.

There’s a last round trip that must be done between Photoshop and Illustrator to give a more irregular aspect to the lettering piece. We import it as a Shape layer into Photoshop, and apply Filter > Distort > Ripple with a low percentage (20% for me) and a medium frequency. This creates a subtle distortion that preserves the shape while giving it an irregular outline.

As we did earlier, we now import the result into Illustrator and use Live Trace to convert it into a vector shape.

Stamp effect

The “stamp effect” is a popular and pretty convincing way to give a distressed look to lettering. It consists in lightly altering the inside of the letters while leaving the outline intact. What we can see on the image example is that the inner grit is lighter but frequent and regular, while the grit on the outline is heavier but irregular and more rare. The stamp effect will then be a good base to achieve our final look.

We import the lettering as a Shape layer into a Photoshop document (mine is 750x500). I renamed mine lettering for clarity purposes and filled it with #fff5d4. I added a Solid color layer filled with #36262d as a background layer under lettering.

We select the brush we created in the previous tutorial. This brush is way too large compared to the document, so we need to change the thickness so the grit remains proportionate to our lettering (I made mine 1000px). Then, we create a new layer, rename it body grit and apply the brush with the same color as the background over the lettering.

You may notice that the result is a bit blurry: that’s because we resized the brush. A good way to make it sharp is to apply Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp mask. Everytime you feel that your texture isn’t crisp enough, applying an Unsharp mask can be a good solution.

We now need to remove the grit on the edges. We want to do it in a non-destructive way so we can edit it later; therefore we make body grit a clipping mask on lettering. We then select lettering and apply an Inner shadow with the same color as the lettering. On my own composition, I set the opacity at 100%, the Distance at 0 and the Choke at 60 to make it thick and solid but not too defined as a Stroke would. I set the Blend mode on Dissolve to make it gritty and fit the overall design.

Going further

We’ll use the same brush at its original size to create the outline, thicker grit. We apply it on a new layer and rename it outline grit. There needs to be less outline grit than body grit, so we add a Layer mask on it, and paint in black on it with a hard brush to remove it from the inside of the letters and leave a few of it on the edges.

We now want to fade the lettering on some places. On my composition, I used another brush that I made with a piece of fabric with smaller and tighter fibers. I applied it on a new layer with the same color as the background, set the Opacity at 80%, then applied a Layer mask on which I randomly painted in black with a large soft brush. This renders an irregular faded effect on the lettering, that’s not as important as the body and outline grit.

What’s now left to create is a background that fits our distressed lettering. According to our image example, there should be a consistent light alteration all over the background, and thicker spots around the lettering.

Above the background, we create a new layer called background grit and apply a texture brush with the same color as the lettering. I used another brush I made with a picture from a wall. This renders a consistent grit effect, that we can regulate with a Layer mask if it’s too strong. I usually use the same brush for creating the texture and for masking parts of it, so it remains natural.

To create the larger stains close to the lettering, I used a brush made with lint on fabric only. This allows me to render big particles to strengthen my effect.

And we’re done :)

As I said in the beginning, this tutorial isn’t made to be followed step by step, but as a general method to inspire you. I used multiple textures I created myself, and played a lot with the different tools’ options before achieving convincing effects. I strongly encourage you to create your own bank of quality material, observe real life examples to inspire your effects and play with softwares to feel comfortable enough and understand their potential.

What we did here is great as an artwork, but can’t be used as a logo or in any other vector context. Next week, we’ll see how to reproduce this effect in Illustrator.

I use:

  • Photoshop CS6
  • Illustrator CS6

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