Saturday, October 3, 2015

How To Make Amazing Blog Graphics

If you have been frequenting my blog for the past month or so you should have noticed a vast improvement in the quality of the graphics I have used as headers for my blog posts. With the exception of last week's post I have been happy with the results of my graphical work which includes the new header graphic to the blog. I'm writing this to help give you the tips and tools you need to do the same without having to invest a ton of time, energy, or money.

Last week's post ended up looking like a kaleidoscope of death because I tried to do too much with it. In that lies your first tip. Do not get cute with it. Simple and easy are usually the best ways to build a graphic. If you are spending too much time on it then you are wasting time you could be using on other things and it's not going to look great unless you are a professional. I have almost 20 years of experience working with graphics, but I am still no artist. When I try to cross that line it usually ends in tears. This is coming from someone who should know better even though I try to cross the streams from time to time anyway. Enough of my excuses. Let's get started!

Tools

An artist is only as good as their tools, and the same is true for us. There are a ton of free options out there that you can use, but I have to recommend Photoshop as my tool of choice. It is simply the best option. The best part about it is that you can get Photoshop CS2 completely free right from Adobe's own website at www.adobe.com. There are plenty of tutorials on how to get this installed with a product key and everything. This is an unsupported version, so any problems or general questions will have to be answered through the magic of Google. Pet the Google and do not scream if it bites you. It is Google. Let it be.

Now we need background pictures. Never do anything from scratch! Photoshop is a photo editing program, not a drawing program. You can draw in it, but again I'm not an artist so we won't be covering that here. There are tons of websitea where you can download free pictures, but you have to be careful that these pictures are free to use to make sure someone doesn't sue you for every penny you have in your piggy bank. Fortunately for me, my piggy bank is filled with belly button lint. Pretty sure no one wants that. The site I recommend is Pixabay. There are others that you can pay a small fee for or join their spam mail list for free access, but this is the least intrusive option and it is free to use any picture here for commercial use last time I checked. Be sure to check the fine print of any site you use.

I saved this for last in the tools section, but this is probably the most important one of all. I'm talking about Fonts. Download as many as you can get. One of the most important parts of building a blog graphic is having the right font to capture the eye of the reader. Most graphics will require that you use at least 2 fonts, so having a variety available will help. I suggest going to Cnet's download website and searching for free font packs and download as many as you can. That website would be Download.com. Make sure to install them before loading up Photoshop or they won't show up in the font listing in the program.

Crash Course

I'm going to outline some of the basics of the program that you will need to get started. Nothing can replace experience though. Photoshop can do a lot of great things, but you aren't going to need 90+% of it. A lot of graphics work is trial and error, some quick keys that can help are CTRL+Z which will undo what you just did and CTRL+Y which will redo what you undo. There is also a box on the right side that displays your history that you can use to undo and redo multiple steps.
  •  Selection Tools - Located in the upper portion of your drawing tools on the left side of your work space. These are your friends. You will need to play nice with them because they will help you every step of the way when making graphics. If you can manipulate them well enough then you can do anything. Once you have selected something, if you hold Shift then you can add to your selection. The Alt key will subtract from your selection. These are like coffee for writers. I cannot overstate how important they are to manipulating graphics.
  • Layers - Located in the bottom right hand corner of your work space is the layer box. The picture you use will be your background that you add things on top of. You don't ever want to draw directly onto your background. Text will automatically create new layers. You need to know how to create a layer (button at the bottom of layer box), how to move layers on top of others(drag and drop in layer box), and how to access layer options(right click on the layer).
  • Paint Bucket and Erase Tools - Located in the middle of the tools on the left side under the selection tools. Once you have the area you want selected, you will most likely use one of these tools. The paint bucket will fill your selected area with a color. The Eraser Tool will erase it using a brush like tool. I prefer to use the delete key because the erase tool won't get rid of everything if you are sloppy with your brush work.
  • Background/Foreground Colors - Located near the bottom on the left side toolbar, it looks like two squares of different colors. Clicking on either of these colors will bring up a box of colors that you can click on to change the colors. You can also put in RGB or Hex values. I will use the Hex values a lot to get absolute black or white. It's hard to click on that exact color. In the box at the bottom labeled as # is the Hex value of color. If you put 000000 in that box you will get absolute black and FFFFFF will get you absolute white.

Building A Graphic

OK we have a background graphic from Pixabay opened up in Photoshop. So now what? Now it's time to bedazzle this thing! OK not really. Our goal is to add text to the graphic without destroying the cute background you picked along with cropping and adjusting the size to fit into your blog. So let's get started.
  • Resize The Image - First thing you need to do is to figure out how wide your blog is. Specifically the area where your blog graphic is going to appear. Most blog themes will break if your graphic is too wide. You can adjust that in the HTML, but I'm trying to show you how to do it without having to be too technical about it. You can make a test graphic to figure it out, or if you know what theme you use a quick google search might help you get that information. In Blogger it's easy. Click on Layout then the Template Designer link then Adjust Widths. It gives you the width in pixels of each sidebar and the length of the entire blog. You can subtract the width of the total blog from the sidebar width and that is the number you're looking for. For my blog it is 640 pixels, and I highly recommend you work in pixels for graphics to be used on the internet. You want the width to be less than that to accommodate for extra spacing. My blog has spacing around the sides for this theme, and I found that 560 pixels is the perfect width for blog graphics. You will also need to crop your picture vertically. I aim for around 250 pixels in height, but anywhere in between 200 and 300 should be fine.

    It's now time to crop. MWAHAHAHA... Nevermind me, I always put in an evil laugh when I cut something. The crop tool is the third one down on the far left side. Your goal is to cut it as close as you can get to 300 pixels in height and your target width without cutting out the things that make the background picture cool. Once that is done we can resize the image to your target width. It's important that we make the image smaller rather than bigger. If you cut too much and need to make it bigger then you need to go back and try cropping it again. If you resize the graphic to make it bigger it will cause the the graphic to pixelate which never looks good. To resize the image you use the top menu Image->Image Size. Make sure the Constrain Proportions box is checked. Then you can change the width value to your preferred width.
  • Make A Place For Your Text - If your background picture has an area of solid color big enough that is dark or light throughout then you can easily place your text there without needing to add anything. The only other option is to create a secondary background for your text. First you need to make an empty layer for your text background. I usually use Canva to get ideas. Their text presentation is excellent. The selection tools can help you make a design for a background then use the paint bucket to fill it with a solid color. I suggest you also right click on that layer then click on blending options. If the new addition obscures part of the cool background then you can make it transparent. As long as it makes the background brighter or darker. Blending options to experiment with include Outer Glow, Gradient Overlay, Pattern Overlay. The Drop Shadow and Bevel and Emboss tools may entice you, but now they look kinda cheesy. Beginners with Photoshop tend to fall in love with these settings just like the Filter -> Render -> Lens Flare. Don't be one of these people. These are the kind of people who put ketchup on tacos. They wear fanny packs. They hate unicorns and rainbows.
  • Text It Up! - The most arduous task is picking the font you want, and in many cases you will want a different font for the main portion of the post title to contrast it with the text of the opening or subtitle. This is solely trial and error until you find that perfect combination. The main rule to use for all your text has to do with the color. If you have a bright colored background then use dark colored text and of course light text with a dark background. Those color choices will ensure that your text is legible. If your background is in one of those middle ground colors then I suggest you use bright text with a dark outer glow. My preferred settings for that would be as follows: Blend Mode: Normal, Opacity: 100%, Color: Black, Technique: Precise, Spread: 0%, and Size: 1 to 4 pixels depending on how big your text is.

How I Made This Week's Graphic

This week's graphic took me a whopping hour to put together. Writing this blog post is taking me at least 5 times as long. There is so much more information I want to share, but it's not vital to making these graphics. The background picture for this week's graphic I downloaded straight off Pixabay. There was some blank space at the top and bottom of the graphic that I cropped out. Then I resized it to be 560 pixels in width. The idea for the background's black lines came straight from Canva. On a new layer, I used the rectangular selection tool (the one at the furthest top left), and held the shift key to use it again and again to make the pattern over the portions of the background graphic I wanted to be visible. I then used the menu Select -> Inverse to reverse the selection. The paint bucket made a black overlay on the background image. I made sure to make a spot for bright colored text on the black overlay. I initially planned to make the overlay transparent, but it looked so good as it was that I left it. After sorting through my fonts I decided on Engraver's Gothic BT for the top and bottom text and Futurex - AlternatLC for the "Amazing". Positioning and changing the size of the text took a few tries to get it just right. I added an outer glow to the "Amazing" and used the eye dropper to use a light blue color that was already in the background as the glow color for the final touch. When you click on the color box and it brings up the color swatch, if you move your cursor outside of that box it becomes an eye dropper that will pick up any color you click on.

I know I wrote a book this week, but this is barely scratching the surface of what you can do with Photoshop. If you have any comments or questions, don't be afraid to let me know. I will do my best to help.

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