Create a Limited Color Vintage Poster Design in Adobe Illustrator

Final product image
What You’ll Be Creating

In this tutorial we’ll take freshly drawn line art, modify it in Adobe Photoshop, use the Image Trace panel in Adobe Illustrator, and create our own halftone patterns. Creating a vintage poster design that’s usually screen printed is easy! Additionally, we’ll break down what it will take to get your design screen-print ready if you choose to take the extra step.

First things first, though. Head on over to Rowena Aitken’s drawing tutorial to create an absolutely darling spring-themed illustration, ready for your vector poster design.

1. Preparing Your Document

Step 1

Open your line art in Adobe Photoshop.

  1. Each element of this design (the lettering, the girl, the lamb, and the clover) is on a separate layer within the Layer panel. Make sure your lines are clean and have been drawn deliberately.
  2. Duplicate each layer 2-4 times and set those duplicate layers’ Blend Modes to Multiply in the Layers panel. Merge (Control-E) like layers together so each element is once again separated onto its own layer.

You may not need to follow this step if your lines are thicker and darker than those below. Save your file as a PSD, close Adobe Photoshop, and let’s move on. 

Prepare your line art

Step 2

Open Adobe Illustrator CC and create a New Document that’s 8.5 inches by 11.14 inches or so (whatever file size you created your line art at, or whatever print-size you’d like your document to be). Additionally, I’ve set the Color Mode to RGB, since I’m not printing this design out (so you may want to use CMYK if you are) and the Resolution to 300 dpi.

Create your Illustrator document

Step 3

  1. Finally, open your PSD file in Adobe Illustrator and make sure Convert Layers to Objects has been selected.
  2. Each of your previous PSD layers should be its own image and layer in the Layers panel in Illustrator. Select all of your layers in the open PSD file, Copy (Control-C), and Paste (Control-V) them into the new Illustrator document.
Import your PSD into Illustrator

2. Image Tracing Your Line Art

Step 1

You have two options with Image Tracing: go to Object > Image Trace > Make and let the program create the Image Trace, or you can open the Image Trace panel and choose your settings yourself. I chose the latter, since each image from my PSD needed different settings in order for me to retain most of my line art. The settings I used on most of the images were as follows:

  • Mode: Black and White
  • Threshold: 181

I left the rest of the settings to default, since my images aren’t terribly complex.

Image Trace your line art

Step 2

I found the hand-drawn lettering to need a higher Threshold than the other images since the lines were thinner. I set the Threshold to 215 in the Image Trace panel.

Use a higher threshold for more delicately drawn lines

Step 3

Repeat this section for the other images within your design until your line art is at the level you desire for your final product. Below, you’ll see the line art I’ll be working with. It retains the charm of Rowena’s original lines while having been converted to scalable, malleable vectors.

my finalized line art

Step 4

Zoom (Z) in on any areas you’d like to adjust.

  1. In this case, I’ve zoomed in on the cheeks of my design.
  2. Select your line art and use the Delete Anchor Point Tool (-) to delete unwanted anchor points creating the little ellipses on the cheeks of the design (or whatever it is you’re removing from your design).
  3. At the point where there are only a couple anchor points left, you can adjust their handles with the Direct Selection Tool (A) so that the paths they’re attached to don’t warp.
  4. Finally, make sure your paths are as smooth as they were before you deleted the extraneous components of your design. Use Smooth Tool to reduce the amount of anchor points in a section and adjust its shape.

We’ll be recreating the rosy cheeks later with shape tools.

Delete unwanted sections of your design

Step 5

Focusing on the little girl and her lamb, keep the lettering on its own layer and hidden in the Layers panel for now. Move the other objects to a single layer, Unite in the Pathfinder panel, and set the fill color to brown (#8e6c56).

Set your line art color to brown

3. Working With a Limited Color Palette

Step 1

Create a New Layer (Control-N) and place it beneath the brown line art layer in the Layers panel.

  1. Starting with the hair, use the Pen Tool (P) to carefully trace the contour of your line art and fill in each space with a flat color.
  2. Work each large area in smaller sections. I started with a ponytail, moved onto one half of the head, and continued onto the right side of the design.
  3. Select all of your hair components and Unite them in the Pathfinder panel. Make sure to hit Make Compound Shape in the panel’s options and Expand so that your United shapes become a compound path.
drawing sections of flat color

Step 2

Repeat with each section you’d like to have a flat fill color. The colors I’ve used for my palette are as follows:

  1. Yellow (#fbde7b)
  2. Blue (#a9dbd0)
  3. Purple (#dea6cb)
  4. Green (#9ab63c)

Each color is on its own layer in the Layers panel. For my background, I’ve drawn an antique white (#f3ebce) colored rectangle on a separate layer to simulate the paper color on which I would print the design.

Figure out your limited color palette

4. Creating the Halftone Pattern

Step 1

Creating a simple halftone pattern is easily done with the Pattern Options panel.

  1. Draw a small circle with the Ellipse Tool (L). My circle measures 1.7 px.
  2. Open the Pattern Options panel and hit Make Pattern in the panel’s options. Select Brick by Column for the Tile Type. To change the space around the repeated circles, check Size Tile to Art. For my pattern below, I entered 1 px into both H Spacing and V Spacing.

When you’re done with your pattern, hit Done, and you’ll find it in the Swatches panel, ready for use.

create a simple dot pattern

Step 2

Altering the spacing around your circle changes the density of your pattern. Play with spacing, pattern shapes, and frequency of objects within the pattern in order to give greater variety to your halftone patterns.

variations in halftone patterns

5. Applying Halftone to the Design

Step 1

Let’s apply our newly made halftone pattern to our design.

  1. Copy and Paste the girl’s yellow hair object. Apply the halftone pattern of your choice in the Swatches panel. Go to Object > Expand to expand the pattern. Alternatively, you can draw a rectangle filled with the pattern over the object.
  2. Use the Magic Wand Tool (Y) to select the bounding box around the pattern and delete the grid that it selects.
  3. Unite your expanded shapes in the Pathfinder panel.
  4. Make sure you hit Make Compound Shape in the Pathfinder options once it’s united.
  5. Hit Expand in the Pathfinder panel to change the Compound Shape Group into a Compound Path.
Change your pattern into a compound path

Step 2

Below you’ll see the result of expanding and uniting the pattern. Select both the pattern and the hair object and hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel. This will delete the pattern shapes from the hair, allowing the background to show through.

delete the pattern from an object

Step 3

  1. For halftone applied as a shadow rather than a texture, use the Pen Tool to draw shadow shapes.
  2. I’m focusing on areas that connect with the ground.
  3. Additionally, include anything with another portion of the design (the lamb’s leg) covering the area to which I’m applying shadow shapes.
  4. Do so on both socks and Unite the shadow shapes in the Pathfinder panel.
Drawing shadow shapes

Step 4

Repeat the process of applying an expanded halftone pattern (making sure it’s a compound path) to an object, but hit Intersect instead of Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel.

intersect the pattern

Step 5

For the lamb, my shadow shapes were drawn with the Pencil Tool (N) in blue. I wanted to emphasize how fluffy and cloud-like the lamb’s wool looks with each shape.

make the lamb fluffy like a cloud

Step 6

Continue adding halftone to any part of the design where you want to add highlights, shadows, or areas of texture.

final halftone design

6. Create a Background and Add Lettering

Step 1

To complete our design, let’s start with the background.

  1. With the Ellipse Tool, draw a large circle behind the rest of your composition.
  2. Trace the contour of any objects that should be transparent (showing the background color) in your design.
  3. Hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel to delete these shapes from the background circle. Repeat around the design.
drawing the background circle

Step 2

Apply a halftone pattern to the background circle and Unite it with the other like-colored objects. In this case, I united the circle with all of the purple shapes.

apply a halftone pattern to the background circle

Step 3

  1. Set the lettering’s line art fill color to brown.
  2. Select the inside of each letter with the Direct Selection Tool.
  3. Trace the insides of letters like “P” and “G” with the Pen Tool and hit Minus Front in the Pathfinder panel. Then, Unite all of your letter objects in the Pathfinder panel.
Prepare your lettering

Step 4

  1. Set the fill color of your lettering to white or cream for now.
  2. Copy and Paste the lettering. Set the fill color to brown, the stroke weight to 2-3 pt, and place it directly behind your original lettering object.
  3. Copy and Paste the brown stroked lettering and place it behind the other two lettering objects slightly down and to the left. Expand the strokes under Object.
  4. In the Pathfinder panel, Unite the brown lettering objects and Minus Front the cream lettering from the brown lettering. Place the lettering within your design. Paste another copy of the lettering to subtract it from the halftone background.
finalize your lettering

7. Prepare Your File for Printing

Step 1

Unite all like-colored objects in the Pathfinder panel and place them onto their own layer. Each layer represents a single screen for screenprinting. Make sure the order your layers appear are correct, as the image would be printed from the bottom layer up.

The PAPER layer would not be printed, but represents the color of paper I would choose for my final design and would be deleted if I sent it to a printer. 

prepare your design for screen printing

Step 2

Consider alternate colors and color limits for your final design. The fewer screens used to print, the lower the cost will be to have it printed.

finalize your design

Step 3

Let’s take a last look at the final design. Note the way the halftone shades without shifting into a cell-shaded style.

final image

Great Job, You’re Done!

To show off the final design, I downloaded a poster mockup template from GraphicRiver. Presenting digital material and various works in this way can give your work an extra kick in your portfolio. Share your vintage poster designs using the techniques outlined within this tutorial in the comment section below, and don’t forget to follow along with Rowena Aitken’s companion tutorial.

Finished design of vintage spring poster

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