Adam Levermore

January 15, 2014 Tutorial: Creating a Retro Sci-Fi Poster Posted In: Uncategorized

I recently did a podcast interview with the folks at Giant Fire Breathing Robot, in which I discussed my work with QMx and my freelance graphic design work, among other topics. It was a pretty fun interview to do, and at the end, I mentioned that I planned to start working on some tutorials here on my blog, to help other aspiring designers learn from my experience.

About a week later, GFBR’s host, Andrew, contacted me to ask if I could create some promotional items for them to take to the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in September.. They needed a rush job, and I needed inspiration for these tutorials, so I offered to waive my standard rush fee in exchange for permission to create a process tutorial from the design. They happily agreed, and this is the result.

Since Andrew was familiar with my vintage/retro style, he asked me to create a poster that incorporated their iconic robot mascot into a 1950s-era pulp sci-fi magazine cover.


I always start retro-style projects like these by looking at examples of the style and era of art I’m emulating. There are a lot of different factors that go into making a piece look believable, from choice of fonts to colors, to composition, to printing techniques, etc. A pulp book cover from the 50s won’t look the same as a propaganda poster from the 40s, and nailing those details can be the difference between awesome and not-quite-right.

One of my favorite sources for pulp images is x-ray_delta_one’s photostream on Flickr. He’s got nearly 4,500 images of classic book covers, advertisements, photos and more, the vast majority of which are posted under a Creative Commons license. Looking through his images, I found a few that caught my eye for this project.

Not only do these serve as inspiration, I can sample colors from them to use in my own piece, which adds another level of accuracy to the finished product.


I work almost entirely digitally, but I still create rough sketches before I get to work on the finished piece. This helps me visualize the overall composition, without the distraction of lots of colors competing for my attention.

When I’m sketching out a design, I add a layer style to each layer, with a 3pt blue stroke (#0090FF) and a white color overlay. Download this as a Photoshop style preset.

I created a new file in Photoshop using the following settings:

I like to keep my layers and groups as neat and orderly as possible. It’s not because I’m particularly OCD about it, but I tend to use a LOT of layers. If I don’t give them descriptive names and sort them into groups, I tend to get completely lost. So I start out with a top-level group called SKETCH. In that, I’ll add groups for each major element of the design.

The first step is to create a border. The border serves two purposes. First, it defines the boundaries of the book, and second, it provides a safety margin for when the printer trims the final poster. The border was inset 1/4 inch from the edges of the document. (Using ruler guides helped me position all the elements properly) I also created a strip at the bottom where the URL will go. I made this nice and large, since the whole point of the piece was to be a promotional giveaway to drive people to the website.

Now it’s time to start adding some text. I started with the two most important elements: the title and the URL. On pulp novel covers, nothing is more prominent than the title, which tends to be the very definition of sensational. And just about everything on those old covers ended in an exclamation point. For the vast majority of the text on this piece, I used fonts from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which has a stunning collection of crunchy old fonts from the first half of the 20th century. I added a strong but small drop shadow to the largest text to give it some extra dimension.

The kerning (the space between letters) on these old publications tended to be quite a bit wider and more uneven than we do it today, so keep that in mind when laying out your text.

After the title and URL, I added some “flavor” text. These are the bits and pieces of text that announce the price of the book, the featured stories, and other odds and ends. These fill up the space and breathe life into it. Minimalist design can be beautiful, but it has no place on a pulp magazine cover! The flavor text is a perfect place to insert easter eggs, so I asked Andrew to provide me with some of the inside jokes and running gags he and his crew use on the podcast.

Finally, I placed one of the mascot images Andrew had sent me into the document, and applied the sketch style to it. Again this helped me work on the overall composition, since everything was in silhouette.

Placing images into designs is something I do constantly, but Photoshop doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut for the Place command by default. You can add your own by going to EDIT > KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS.

I resized and re-positioned the image and text items until I was happy with everything, and the sketch was finished.


Since a lot of the layout work is already done, I duplicated the SKETCH group, along with all its contents, and renamed the new group COLOR. As I work, I’ll remove the sketch style from each layer in turn. If you like, you can just mainpulate and alter your sketch layers into the final design, but I like to be able to go back and refer to my original sketch as I work.

To make things easier, I turned off all the layers except the background to start, and then turned the rest on as I went, editing one element at a time. This is another reason to organize the crap out of your layers palette.

First, I created a background layer and filled the entire layer with black. Then I filled my border layer with a desaturated blue color (C71 M45 Y31 K5) and filled the bottom banner with a vivid red which I had sampled from one of my reference images (C0 M95 Y100 K0).

Then, to create a sense of depth in the background, I added a gradient effect to the background layer. To do this, I first set my foreground color to C80 M70 Y61 K77. (This is a little lighter than pure black, which would have been too dark.) I then chose [Gradient Overlay …] from the Layer Style tool at the bottom of the layers palette. From the gradient picker, I chose the Foreground to Transparent option, and set the gradient angle to -90 degrees, so that the dark portion was on top.

Next, I turned the text layers back on, experimenting with various color combinations inspired by my reference images. [DOWNLOAD THE COLOR PALETTE] The layout of the text and the words themselves have changed slightly since the sketch, based on first round feedback from the client. I removed the drop shadow from the URL, because it seemed to work better flat, but I kept it on the title. The size of the drop shadow remained the same, but I changed the color to C53 M74 Y76 K76

Next, I added the robot back in, repositioning it to fit with the new text layout. Then, in a separate layer below the robot, I added an explosion by loosely painting with some free cloud brushes I downloaded online, alternating between red (C6 M97 Y100 K1) and orange (C1 M22 Y86 K0) until I was happy with the overall effect. With that, the final composition is basically complete. Now we need to start aging the design to make it look like an actual magazine cover from the 1950s.


To start the aging process, I added two groups titled ADJUSTMENTS, one above the text layers, and one below, but above the robot and background layers. This allowed me to age the text and art separately, simulating the effect of the publisher adding text to a piece of existing art. Because I only want the aging adjustments to affect the book, and not the black background behind it, I made a selection around the border of the book, then created a clipping mask on each group. Now, anything contained inside that group will be confined to the shape of the mask.

In the art adjustments group, I created a new layer, and filled it with black. Then I added a film grain filter by going to FILTER > ARTISTIC > FILM GRAIN …

Then I set the blending mode for that layer to Overlay, and set the opacity to 50%.

I then duplicated the grain layer, changed the blending mode to Linear Dodge, and upped the opacity to 100%.

That gives us the start of a nice dirty look. But the edges of the robot are still much too sharp. To fix this, I went back to the Robot layer and used the layer styles tool to added an inner and outer glow, using an orange hue that was similar to the color of the explosion (C0 M71 Y100 K0).

Moving up to the text adjustments group, I created a Photo Filter new adjustment layer (click the button at the bottom of the layers palette), which I set to Deep Yellow, with a density of 50%.

Above that adjustment layer, I created another grain layer (you can just copy one of the previous ones) and set the blending mode to Color Dodge and the opacity to 100%. It’s a small change, but it helps sell the colors.

Next, I added some detail work to the fonts. If you look closely at the text on the reference images, they’re not a uniform color. This color shift may have happened over time, or might have been a result of poor ink quality or equipment. Regardless, adding little touches like this won’t be noticed consciously by anyone looking at the poster, but it will definitely FEEL more authentic. To achieve that effect, I added a gradient layer style to each text layer, choosing a color just a hair darker than the font color itself. No need to go overboard here. We’re just adding a hint of color.

The piece is almost done now, but it needs two more things to really bring it home. The first is to make it look like this book has been battered around and read who knows how many times. To do that, I broke out my favorite grunge brushes, created by ardcor on deviantART, set my foreground color to C4 M7 Y21 K0, and set to work “damaging” the edges of the book. Again you want to apply a clipping mask to this layer so your brush strokes don’t extend beyond the edges of the book.

There’s no real science to roughing up your edges, but I do have a few tips. First, think about why the damage is there in the first place. It’s where the ink has been worn away from the page, and that’s most likely to happen around the edges and corners. The corners especially take a beating because they’re the first thing to hit when a book is dropped. The edge near the spine takes less abuse because its edge isn’t cut. Finally, remember that a little goes a long way when you’re distressing an image. If you take it too far, break out your eraser tool. Just make sure you use a grunge brush for your eraser too, so your grunge continues to look organic.


For the final step, we’re going to add a halftone pattern to simulate the printing process. First, take your whole COLOR group and duplicate it, then merge the new group (ONLY the new group) into a single flat layer. (I’ve created an action that simplifies this process. Just select a group, click the button and voila!) Convert the layer to a smart object by right-clicking on the layer and selecting CONVERT TO SMART OBJECT. Set your foreground color is set to black and your background color to white, then add a halftone pattern filter to the layer by selecting FILTER > SKETCH > HALFTONE PATTERN …, with the following settings:

Change the blending mode for the layer to Overlay and change the opacity to 75%, and change the blending mode for the halftone pattern to Soft Light.

That’s it! Our vintage pulp sci-fi poster is complete!

One Final Note

There are a lot of detailed specifics in this tutorial, from filter settings to color values. I cleaned up the process considerably for this tutorial, but in actuality, there’s a lot of trial and error involved. Settings that work for one piece may need to be tweaked for another. The most important thing is to experiment and work at it until it feels right to YOU.

Have any questions about this tutorial? Drop me a line. I’m also available for freelance design work, so feel free to check out my portfolio as well.



  1. Annukka • January 29, 2014

    This is a great tutorial. I'm in need of an illustration like this for my comic book cover and this is very helpful for me when planning it. Thank you very much. Reply

  2. Awesome tutorial! Great style! • June 17, 2014

    Just wanted to say thanks for the great tutorial... Reply

  3. Raxatech Labs • February 11, 2016

    Thanks for the excellent tutorial. I had a really fun time working on this project. You can view my final result and all the production notes here: Reply

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