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Letterpress Effect Tutorial : A Digital Craft Project

Letterpress Tutorial Project: Final Result

Letterpress Tutorial Project: Final Result

Make your summer BBQ or pool party invite super-cool and give it a lo-fi twist with a vintage letterpress effect.

One of the perennial challenges for designers in the computer age is creating images that seem organic, that appear handmade, and feel analog even though they were digitally generated.

Taking a direct cue from the graphic arts of yesteryear can often work wonders. Don't be afraid to explicitly mimic the look and feel of low-tech printing methods. The artifacts and imperfections associated with older, traditional techniques can evoke strong feelings of nostalgia in the viewer and lend a vintage feel to even the simplest of designs.

Letterpress printing is one of the easiest printing techniques to simulate, and requires little more than making simple selections, deleting parts of images, and applying the most basic layer effects--which makes it perfect for a Summer side-project. LETTERPRESS PRINTING

shutterstock_7963231

shutterstock_7963231

In the broadest sense of the term, letterpress refers to the technique invented by Johannes Gutenburg whereby a raised surface is inked and pressed onto paper (relief printing). One of the problems with the process stemmed from the fact that, for centuries, both printing plates and paper were handmade, and therefore not perfectly flat, resulting in knocked out areas where ink failed to deposit on the paper. Printers attempted to avoid such errors by increasing the force of their machines so much so that the plates would actually compress and flatten the paper at the point of contact, creating the distinctive indentation and contouring for which letterpress is known today.

Of course, Photoshop won't actually crimp your paper, so true letterpress printing can only be achieved on a real printing press, but one advantage of faking it in Photoshop is you're less likely to lose a finger.

TUTORIAL

To demonstrate the process, we will make a simple, summer-themed postcard. This tutorial requires both Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and you should have a mid- to advanced-level understanding of both programs to follow these steps.

1. Create your basic design. Bear in mind that during real-world letterpress printing, each color is applied separately, using a different plate, requiring the machine to be reset, making complex, multicolored designs hard to pull off. So letterpress tends to rely on line art, bold graphic elements, and limited color palettes. Shutterstock has thousands of vector resources that are perfect for this.

I started out with a pair of sunglasses, Terry Richardson 'modern cats' 5000 frame (Image ID: 55073296) by elenabo. Inside these, I placed the reflections of a sailboat from  'Silhouettes of yachts' (Image ID: 29968414) by charobnica, and a stylized sun from Jeffrey Moore's'Multiple stylized sun graphics' (Image ID: 52298176). I combined all these in an Illustrator file, and then created a background using 'seamless wave illustration' (Image ID: 57481165) and 'ocean wave seamless'(Image ID: 86052196) by paul_june. One great thing about these vector files is that they are relatively easy to slice and dice and adapt to your overall design's needs as I have done with'Tropical coast' (Image ID: 79855960) by song_mi. In this case, I extracted the palm trees and the wavy lines delineating the clouds. For shading, I used a 'halftone pattern swatch' (Image ID: 41049799) by williammpark.

TIP: To help the textures show through dark colors, make those colors slightly transparent. For instance, I brought my blacks down to 80 or 90 percent opacity. One can also simply lighten the darkest colors up a bit, replacing blacks with dark grays, for instance.

Layout

Layout

2. Lay out your artwork in Illustrator, then bring it into Photoshop and merge the design into one layer.

3. Import two different paper textures, one for the printed, compressed area, and another for the blank background. I chose a handmade looking paper with highly visible tooth to it, 'Watercolor paper background texture' (Image ID: 57042394) by Ambient ideas for the background and a second image that also has visible fibers, but is more flat, 'Paper texture' (Image ID: 59705827) by R-Studio.

4. Command+click on the design layer to make a selection from the artwork, and mask the pressed paper texture so it covers the same area as the design. Place this behind the design layer. In the layers palette, set the artwork layer Blend Mode to 'Multiply'. This will allow the texture of the paper layer to show through and give the colors the look of ink soaked into paper. (This is where the lowered opacity on the darker colors comes into play.)

summer2b

summer2b

5. Now we are going to begin to build out the indentation effect. Select the design layer and apply an Inner Shadow layer effect (at the bottom of the Layers palette). Tweak the settings until the scale and darkness of the shadow looks right.

summer3b

summer3b

6. Copy the background paper layer (the other texture), and place it on top of the design. Command-click the artwork layer to make a selection (same selection you made for the texture layer behind the design). Cut a hole out of the top paper layer. Apply an Inner Bevel (also found at the bottom of the Layers palette). Tweak the settings until the scale and darkness look right.

summer4b

summer4b

7. Add a layer mask to create knocked out areas. These imperfections occur frequently in actual letterpress prints, and will add an additional note of realism to the image. For this I used 'Great for textures and backgrounds for your projects' (Image ID: 23399209) by ilolab. Desaturate the texture image and copy the grayscale version onto an alpha layer in the Channels palette. Make a selection based on this alpha channel, then make a layer mask on the main artwork layer and fill the selection with black. Adjust the levels until the prominence of the knocked out areas looks good.

noiselayer

noiselayer

EXTRA CREDIT

You can make things more interesting by embossing designs onto the non-inked parts of the of the paper. I added a border of dots around the artwork that I included in the indentation.

FINAL RESULT

postcardSunglassesFinal-1

postcardSunglassesFinal-1

Hope you had fun with this summery craft project... Stay cool, Shutterstock fans!

- Byron Hudson

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