Signalnoise Tutorial: Rainbow Shards

As some of you know, I spoke at FITC Toronto last month where I included a small and simple Photoshop tutorial on how I achieved the rainbow shard effect seen in many of my poster designs over the last few years. What I showed to the crowd was a stripped down version so I could demonstrate easily and quickly how the effect was created in about 4 minutes. We can’t have only those who attended have all the fun, so here is the web version of the tutorial in the exact way I presented it at the conference.

But before we begin, please PLEASE try experimenting with various steps along the way. I understand tutorials are meant to be a map from point A to point B where you can create the exact results shown, but screw that. Try your own stuff, add images, change the shapes, switch up the colors. Anyone can read and follow instructions, it’s the exploration and playing that makes it your own and can lead down other creative paths. I endorse learning, not replicating.

Bear that in mind, and lets get to it.

Step 1: In Adobe Illustrator, create some basic shapes using a few varying degrees of greys. Try to get a good range so they don’t look so monotone. If you are looking to get things lining up later on, be sure to hold down the Shift key while making these so all lines are perfectly horizontal, vertical or 45º.

Experiment tip! After you’ve run through this tutorial once, try creating some other shapes to play with later on. It’s super fun, trust me.

Step 2: I originally used Flash in order to create these random little groups, but you really don’t have to. Take the shapes you created in Step 1 and make a few groups with a variety of size and dispersal. Take a bit of time here to play with the shapes and get the groups looking as random and interesting as possible. If you are adjusting lengths, be sure to hold down the Shift key to maintain that 45º angle so things line up properly.

Experiment tip! Seriously, don’t cut corners here because it will hurt you later. The more interesting the groups are here will improve depth later. Try using different shapes and arrangements to see what results they might yield. Think of these groups as your tools, the better they are the better they will work for you.

Step 3: Copy and paste 2 of the groups you just created into Photoshop onto a black canvas, then drop the opacity of these layers down to 50% each. Expand the size of the shapes a bit so they bleed off. You can set the dimensions of the canvas to whatever you like, I just chose this format because my it was for my Keynote presentation.

Step 4: Copy and paste 2 more groups of shapes into Photoshop on top of the previous ones from Step 3. Again, expand the groups so they bleed off the edges of the canvas.

Step 5: Set the Blending Mode of those 2 new layers of shapes to Overlay. You should now be able to see some interesting things happening as the shapes react to those underneath.

Experiment tip! Try adding as many layers as you wish to this step. Also try adjusting the scale and opacity of the shapes to see what happens.

Step 6: Now it’s time to add color. Create a new layer, select a full spectrum linear gradient and apply it across the canvas. I then selected the shapes below in order to apply a layer mask to the color layer. Looks pretty gross, huh?

Experiment tip! Try using different colors, radial gradients or using the airbrush tool to create custom color fills.

Step 7: Set the Blending Mode of the color layer to Overlay, and set the opacity to around 35%. This coloring doesn’t look too interesting but there is a method of applying color I discovered quite by accident, which is by way of layering colors over top of one another …

Step 8: Duplicate the color layer 3 times so you have 4 layers of color. This will improve the saturation of your colors without over-blowing or pixelating the shapes. You might have to adjust the opacities of your color layers individually of they are reacting too harshly with one another. I included my layers palette in this image to show you how I have things set up so far.

Here is the clean version of Step 8.

Step 9: Now we are going to add some subtle highlights and shading to the shapes in order to create a bit more dimension. Create a new layer and set the Blending Mode to Overlay. Select the gradient tool with a setting of white to transparent, and apply a radial gradient to the upper-right corner. Do the same steps and apply a black radial gradient to the lower-left corner. You can adjust the opacity of this overlay if the highlight or shadow are too harsh.

Experiment tip! Try using this method of highlight and shadow in different areas to either bring elements forward or knock parts back. It can add quite a bit of dimension to your work.

And there you go, nothing to it.

This is a fairly simple tutorial, but I hope you can understand the possibility of experimentation particularly in the early steps. It’s nothing to just follow instructions to yield to same outcome, the real power comes from playing with elements along the way to see what results might come about.

So have fun, and feel free to post your creations in the comments. I’d love to see what you come up with.






29 responses to “Signalnoise Tutorial: Rainbow Shards”

  1. Jovan Haji-Djurich Avatar

    Thank you so much! This is a great tutorial! Thank you so much for sharing.I was gonna suggest opening a special category on blog called submissions where you would review and make comments on other peoples work.If you have the time of course! Here is something I did couple of weeks ago, heavily inspired by your work.

    Thanks again and keep rocking!


  2. Gavin Steele Avatar
    Gavin Steele

    Great tutorial, you can take it a step further by using the warp tool to create arcs etc..

    Great colour tips! Learning how to use all the blending modes and stacking layers helps create amazing designs.

  3. nbirckel Avatar

    thx for sharing some of your techniques with us.

  4. Lykeios Avatar

    Got a few in my collection inspired by yourself that use a modified version of the shard effect. I tend to just do them in photoshop though…

  5. james Avatar

    Thanks so much everyone, hope you have fun with this one.

    Gavin, I wouldn’t recommend manipulating your shapes in Photoshop because you would need to rastorize the SmartObjects which takes scalability away from you. It’s best to keep most of your manipulation in Illustrator to maintain that flexibility later. Keep it non-destructive.

  6. John Avatar

    Ah great tutorial. A while back when you posted a teaser for your tutorial DVD with the .psd file I went to work trying to create my own shards to experiment with. I want to try the coloring and layer styles that I saw in the .psd.

    Came up with a decent shard-ified poster that turned into

    Have you ever tried inverting the colors of your pieces? The result is actually kinda neat!

  7. DavidCom Avatar

    I’ve seem them used everywhere!! Just look at the AppStore.. their header at the moment is made of these!

  8. Brian Oz Avatar

    Thanks for the tutorial!

  9. james Avatar

    John, I’ve tried inverting a few times, but I always like original version far better. Probably because it’s what I had in my head to begin with. :)

    DavidCom, I can’t find that header, you have a link?

  10. Mat MacQuarrie Avatar

    Great tutorial James :) I can’t wait to give it a try and see what shakes loose. Thanks for sharing.

  11. John Avatar

    Ah I gotcha. Well I guess it could be that when I experiment I don’t really have a result or end-point in mind. Just going with the flow

  12. Nikola Lazarevic Avatar

    Super tutorial James, I already experimented with this shards in Photoshop, and now I’m going to try with Illustrator.

    Thanks for writing this tutorial!

  13. james Avatar

    Mat, my pleasure man.

    John, you’re absolutely right and that’s what it’s all about. Trying those little things along the way to see what might happen.

    Nikola, no problem at all. Hope you’re having fun. :)

  14. Jovan Haji-Djurich Avatar

    James, can you please remove the link in my comment #1.
    Since its a private website, and this page is gonna get a lot of traffic, I don’t want to be understood as advertiser of something.

    If you could remove the whole comment, that would be great!


  15. Matthias Avatar

    Hey James, fantastic as ever.

    You say you did these groups in flash. Did you make the shapes also randomly or just the grouping?

    Thumbs up from somewhere over the rainbow

  16. Brad Avatar

    This is really cool! Hope to see more tuts from you James.

    Also, I love that you put the app icon in the corner of each screen to signify what program that step was in. Simple but clever.

  17. Thomas Avatar

    thanks for the great tutorial!
    you made me use illustrator for the first time since i only got cs4 for photoshop and indesign :lol:

    i used this to create a new background for my twitter account ;)

  18. Dusan Vlahovic Avatar

    Thanks a lot James!, a very inspiring and useful tutorial, i’ve never tried this and it looks great.

    And how you say, it’s very important to experiment!, everyone can follow a tutorial, but the magic is in decomposing it and trying new things.


  19. Joacim Svedlund Avatar
    Joacim Svedlund

    Hey James!

    I did this a few months ago, inspired by all your work.

    Now when I see everyone’s sharing work, I thought you could take a look at it and tell me what you think!

    Peace <3

  20. Richie Avatar

    Thanks for the tip, James. I can’t agree with you more about experimenting. Tutorials are just a guide to help you experiment.. and when such an advice comes from a person as established as you, I can’t wait to put my ideas to work.. This tutorial has certainly inspired me to work more….


  21. Ant Gray Avatar
    Ant Gray

    Cool, and you can animate colours in After Effects!

  22. Marina Marlene Avatar
    Marina Marlene

    well , I don´t have the program illustrator,so i managed to make everything in photoshop and this was my result:
    I have some problems with the curves xP
    Your work has been a great inspiration for me, thanks. :D

  23. Solo Avatar

    Thanks for the awesome tutorial. Next im going to try and experiment.

  24. Kuba Avatar

    Thanks for your tuts and free psd. Your work inspired me a lot and I think your’re one of the best PC artists in the world right now!
    Thanks a lot man

  25. Ritchie Avatar

    This is great, thanks. I thought it was worth mentioning that to get the layer mask to apply, you need to shift-click the gradient layer, then cmd (or ctrl on Windows) and shift click the thumbnails of each smart object layer, then apply the layer mask. For someone like me who doesn’t know too much about PS I struggled with that and in the end found out how to do it via YouTube.

  26. bayonet Avatar

    would you mind elaborating the 2nd part of step 6 for me? (I then selected the shapes below in order to apply a layer mask to the color layer. ) I seem to be doing something wrong around this part of the tutorial. Thanks

  27. Antoro Avatar

    this is superb. thanks for sharing james. :)

  28. Bryan Avatar

    Thanks for the “duplicate multiple light overlayed colour to achieve a nice overlay vibrant colours” method. Its absolutely brilliant !

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