Tutorial: Creating ghosted illustrations.

Photoshop see-through techniques for creating phantom automotive illustrations.

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Example of Ghosted Illustrations

Basic Photoshop CS-CS5 Painting Tutorials

Photoshop Paths | Airbrush Tool | Basic Painting | Layer Masks | Color Management



All Tutorial Text & Images - Copyright © 2011 KHI, Inc.

This tutorial will cover the creation of a cut-away image that is done in the "ghosted illustration" technical style. A ghosted illustration is similar to a traditional cutaway in terms of revealing the mechanical insides of a product, car or piece of machinery, but rather than "cutting" or "sectioning" the exterior shell of the object we are making it transparent in certain locations. This style of technical art is also known as a "phantom view," or "see-through" illustration.




This tutorial will outline the basic techniques used to render a ghosted exterior by using the Photoshop airbrush and erase tools and technique. The sports car image example used in this tutorial was done entirely in Photoshop, and as opposed to the traditional "cut-away" method (below, left), all of the painted interior areas must be completely finished on individual layers before the ghosting process can occur.

Photoshop Tutorial - Cutaway vs Ghosted Illustration

It should be noted that a ghosted illustration will be more time consuming and therefor, more expensive to create than a traditional cut-away. This technique requires completion of the entire outside of the subject AND all of the interior machinery. In a traditional cutaway, more internal information may be visible whereas in a ghosted illustration the exterior of the subject will be dominant. The decision to use ghosting or a traditional cutaway is a purely a stylistic one.


Step-by-Step Creation of a Ghosted Car Illustration

In this tutorial we will approach the entire illustration process in much the same way as was done in creating a traditional airbrush cutaway, although there will be no pencils, ink or paint will be used - only the computer.

To "paint" an area of an illustration in the old days, you would use a transparent masking material such as frisket film, and you would only paint or airbrush one small section at a time. The term "frisket" refers to a self-adhesive transparent plastic film that was used to "mask" specific zones in airbrush illustrations. This mask would cover an area of a line drawing and a window would be cut with an an X-Acto knife which you would then airbrush through.

The first step in our Photoshop example is to create a line-art drawing using Adobe Illustrator (below) or the vector function in Photoshop. The you would export the layered Adobe Illustrator vector file from into Photoshop. Be sure to retain all layers when exporting your file by choosing the '.psd export' format. It order to use the following painting and erasing techniques successfully, you will need to use a good quality drawing tablet such as the (Wacom Intous, as a computer mouse does not have the accuracy or agility of the tablet.

Note: For additional information on creating a line art perspective drawing, see our: 2 Point Perspective Tutorial.

Photoshop Tutorial Car Line Art

Photoshop Layers Palette

The samples below show the final Adobe Illustrator (left) and Photoshop (right) layer palettes in each file format. In our example the Photoshop file version has been truncated for this tutorial, and there would typically be a separate "line" and "tone" layer for each element. You should always retain a backup copy of each line art layer for every layer/element in order to make necessary changes further down the road.

Photoshop Tutorial - Layers Palette

Before we begin painting, it will help if the "Painting Cursor" or "Eraser Cursor" are set to "Brush Size" in the "Display & Cursors" window of Photoshop's preferences. By using this setting you will have a round cursor that is roughly the diameter of the pixel dimensions for the selected brush size. It is extremely helpful to have this visual cue to see how large of an area you will be affecting with each brush stroke.

Photoshop Tutorial - Cursors

We will start by painting each individual layer, using the line-art layers as a type of "frisket" mask to select each area to be painted. For some basic Photoshop painting techniques, refer to the Basic Photoshop Painting Techniques section of our tutorial page.

The screenshot samples below show the main paint layers before any ghosting takes place. The order arrangement of the Photoshop layers is critical to achieving this technique. You will notice that the "Chassis" layer and "Car Background Tone" layer are both underneath the "Body" layer to be ghosted.

Car Body Color
Car Insides
Car Exterior Color

When all of the individual layers have been painted it will be time to start the ghosting process. To begin we will select the "Body Frisket" line art layer in the Photoshop layers palette, changing the opacity of this layer to around 1%. This accomplish two things: 1) You will always know if you are working on the wrong layer because nothing will happen if you paint or erase on the 1% layer; and 2) You will not be distracted by the dominance of the line art.

Body Line Work
Body Line Art Frisket

While still on the "Body Frisket" layer, you will use the Photoshop "Magic Wand" tool to select the areas to be erased away. Subtlety is the key to a successful ghosted illustration, and you should pay close attention to the relationship between the "exterior" of the subject and the "interior" detail you are revealing.

You should start by selecting areas with large, open fields such as the car's door panels, hood, roof and quarter panels. This will leave small details and highlights intact. When selecting an area to be erased you should "Feather" the selection by at least 1 pixel to soften the edge of the selection. Once selected, you should turn off the "Marching Ants" using "Command>H" to hide the selection.

Selecting Area Using Line Art

You will now use Photoshop's "Eraser Tool" to create the transparent ghosted effect. After selecting the Eraser tool, set the tool's "Mode" to "Brush" in the "Options" tool bar, then set the eraser's "Opacity" to a low percentage of around 15% or less. You will want to work slowly, so the lower you set the Opacity percentage, the better off you will be. If you go erase too much of the exterior shell you can always undo your strokes using the History window, or you can revert to a previously saved version.

Setting Photoshop Brush Opacity

You can also create two extremes, one that is heavily ghosted (erased away), and one that is barely ghosted (mostly exterior), and by using the layer opacity you can make fine adjustments in the level of ghosting. In the "Brushes" palette select a brush size that covers a large area and use a brush with a soft, feathered edge which will give each stroke an "airbrushed" look.

Setting Photoshop Brush Size

While leaving the selection areas active, you will click on the "yellow Body" layer (see "Layers" palette below) to make it active. This is the only layer that will be altered during this phase of the ghosting process. It is a good practice to duplicate this layer before proceeding. You can turn it off and hide it below a solid white background layer.

Airbrush Erase with Photoshop Tool

Using a gentle, sweeping back-and-forth hand motion you will start to slowly erase the exterior body layer in the defined area you have selected. Do not begin a stroke in the middle of a selected area, but instead, work from the outside of your selected area toward the opposite outside edge. Beginning in the middle will create a noticeable, and unwanted hot-spot which will make the ghosted area look blotchy.

Photoshop Brush Technique

Once finished you will now de-select your selected zones using "Command>D," and you will continue erasing the highlighted areas that remained intact after working on the prior selection. This time you will set the eraser's brush diameter to a smaller, more manageable size, and you will set the brush's opacity to an even lower percentage.

Photoshop Brush Technique

At this stage of our ghosted illustration you will now work on the smaller areas such as the sample (below) showing the car door's "b-pillar." The last step will be to work on the remaining uppermost layers such as the car's defroster lines, seat and interior upholstery fabric, etc. - erasing away the necessary amount of detail to achieve the desired end result. Remember to leave the fine body lines, door, hood, trunk and window seams, and other delicate exterior details intact as this will enhance the ghosted illustration effect of the outside being "over" the inside details.

Photoshop Painting - Door Pillars

To add a nice finishing touch you will want to add a few highlights on the car's glass windshield and side windows using a new "Screen" layer, and also add a new "Multiply" layer for the greenish tint that is characteristically added when looking through laminated car safety glass. You can also make subtle adjustments to these layers by altering their opacity in the "Layers" palette.

Photoshop Painting - Window Glass

With the use of these ghosting techniques you can create a realistic transparent look to your car illustration, giving it a genuine, see-through transparent exterior look as if the car's body was floating over the interior information. As was said in previous paragraphs, subtlety is the key to success.

Finished Ghosted Car Illustration

Note: The following hardware and software was used in this tutorial: An Apple Mac Pro desktop computer, a Wacom Intuos 6x8 drawing tablet, Adobe Photoshop CS-CS5 photo editing software and a properly calibrated monitor.




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