Create a T-Shirt Design for a Fantasy Association in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
Recently I was asked to design a T-shirt for the Legnica Fantasy Association, which my sister belongs to. Since it's a non-profit project, I decided to share my creative process with you. I'll show you how to create the idea, how to refine it in Adobe Photoshop, and how to create a two-color, ready-to-print vector out of it.
Sometimes the idea will come to you from nowhere, but most of the time you'll need to help it along. The easiest way to create something new is to find inspiration that's somehow linked to what you want to do.
And what do we want to do here? A kind of super-stylized logo for a Fantasy Association "Gladius". Members of Gladius meet up to talk about fantasy or sci-fi books, and play tabletop games like board games, card games, and, of course, role-playing games. This is what we need to include in our design.
So, the first step is to find images associated with this topic. Look at them and try to find something that links them all. How can they meet together in a one place? This step is the most important of them all, so take your time.
tshirt idea reference how to start
We need to prepare the proportions of our designs. In the case of a T-shirt, the center of attention is the center of the shirt—you can try other compositions, but the middle-point will be the most successful one. It's because people look at a shirt, not really at the image—and the faster they get the message, the better. So, use a cross as your guide lines for a clear message.
tshirt orientation proportions design print area
Sketch the idea/ideas very loosely, and see if it survives outside of your mind. Don't pay attention to the details, just create a big, solid form. If it's readable without details, you can be sure the primary message will be delivered.
Hint: if you look at your rough design and think "there's something I don't like about it, but it will look better when I add this or that", delete the file and start again. A building with weak foundations will certainly look better with curtains and plants on windowsills, but it will not work better.
tshirt design sketch start
You can create the whole design traditionally, but it may take you more time. There's going to be lot of reshaping things, and it's certainly easier to do on layers. I will explain how to do it in Photoshop, but you can use other software for it.
Place your sketch in a new file, lower its Opacity, and lock the layer. We'll need a new layer for every step.
First, I want to take care of the unicorns. One of them will be a normal magic animal, while the other one will be a skeleton—this way it will not get too sweet. So, we need to start with a horse body. You can use my tutorial about horses as a reference.
The pose defines the space used by the unicorn and the rhythm of its body, so pay good attention to it before adding the details.
design tshirt sketch unicorn pose
Use the pose as a base for the skeleton.
design tshirt sketch unicorn bones 1
Duplicate (Control-J) the skeleton and flip it horizontally (Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal). Move the copied skeleton to the place of the other unicorn.
design tshirt sketch unicorn bones 2
Now we can easily use the skeleton as a base for the body of the other unicorn. First sketch the body without any details.
design tshirt sketch unicorn muscles
When the body is established, we can add more details, like muscles...
design tshirt sketch unicorn muscles 2
design tshirt sketch unicorn head
...and decorations.
design tshirt sketch unicorn
I decided to place a scroll-like shield in the middle, where I'll put the name of the association. Draw just half of it.
design tshirt crest
design tshirt crest 2
Just as we did with the skeletons, duplicate the half of the scroll and flip the copy horizontally, then place it in its spot. Then you can Merge (Control-E) the halves.
design tshirt crest 3
To emphasize the middle, I added a fantasy sword along the vertical line of the cross.
design tshirt sword
design tshirt sword 2
To make the image fuller and its secondary message richer, I added two dice and an open book.
design tshirt sword dices
design tshirt book
I placed a long sash under the crest to include the full name of the association.
design tshirt sash
design tshirt sash caption
To make the caption a part of the picture, I've added similar sashes on the sides of the crest.
design tshirt sash deco
Time for the name, in the end. In my case the name was a part of the secondary message—the shirt is going to be more decorative than informative.
I've used Minim font.
design tshirt caption
Before we go to vector, we can use Photoshop's tools for a freer design. Illustrator holds you accountable for every line you draw, so let's not use it for the design of the shading.
If you want to use a black T-shirt, add a new layer with a black background. Then duplicate the sketch and Invert (Control-I) its colors. Lower its Opacity to a very small value.
design tshirt photoshop sketch
design tshirt photoshop sketch 2
Take a hard Brush or a Pencil and paint over the illuminated areas with gray. You don't need to be too precise about it. Remember to keep the contours unpainted.
design tshirt photoshop sketch 3
Use the same brush in white to paint another layer of light, this time only in the heavily illuminated areas. Use it as an opportunity to create important contours.
design tshirt photoshop sketch 4
Use the same trick for the other elements, keeping a proper balance between what you paint and what you leave.
design tshirt photoshop sketch 5
design tshirt photoshop sketch 6
Let's move to Illustrator!
Create a New File. While the size of a vector file doesn't matter most of the time, here we need to pay attention to it. Why? We're going to use the smallest unit possible (1 point) for thin lines, and there's a risk they'll become smaller when being resized. Therefore, it's better to choose the final dimensions now, or make them a bit smaller than expected.
design tshirt size
Place the sketch in the file. Scale it and, if needed, crop the Artboard (Shift-O) to its proportions.
design tshirt size 2
Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to pick both colors you used and save them as Swatches.
design tshirt color swatches
Double-click the layer with the sketch to open the Layer Options window. Select Template.
design tshirt template
Add a New Layer below the sketch and draw a big black Rectangle (M) to make the background.
design tshirt background
Now we're ready to start building!
design tshirt
Why did I say building? Because, as I said before, Illustrator holds us accountable for every dot and line. For the final picture we need to get rid of the chaos element and do everything according to plan.
Create a New Layer, and lock the others. Paint the white highlights once again, this time doing it in a clean way, with the Pen Tool (P) or the Pencil Tool (N). Keep all the paths closed and avoid thin, sharp elements.
design tshirt vector shading
design tshirt vector shading 2
When you're done with this step, the overall message of your design should be revealed even when the sketch is hidden.
design tshirt vector shading 3
Do the same with darker highlights on a separate layer.
design tshirt vector shading 4
Now we'll want to blend both highlights without adding any more colors. Let's use simple parallel hatching for it. If we do it properly, the lines should appear to be blending from a distance.
design tshirt vector shading 5
Fortunately, we don't need to draw the lines one by one. It's Illustrator, after all! Draw a 1 pt horizontal line with the Line Segment Tool (\). Use the color of the second highlight for it.
design tshirt pattern parallel hatching diagonal
Select the line and move it with Object > Transform > Move. First make a Copy under it, then above it.
design tshirt pattern parallel hatching diagonal 2
design tshirt pattern parallel hatching diagonal 3
Make the outer lines 0.5 pt wide.
design tshirt pattern parallel hatching diagonal 4
Select all the lines and Object > Expand. Then Unite them with Pathfinder.
design tshirt pattern parallel hatching diagonal 5
Drag the lines into Swatches panel. Then recolor them to white and drag once again. We've just created two hatching patterns!
design tshirt pattern parallel hatching diagonal 6
Blend gray parts to the background by drawing the pattern with the Pencil Tool (N) on a New Layer.
design tshirt parallel hatching diagonal shading
Go to Object > Transform > Rotate to rotate the hatching. Select -45 degrees and tick Transform Patterns only.
design tshirt parallel hatching diagonal shading 2
design tshirt parallel hatching diagonal shading 3
Do the same to blend the white parts.
design tshirt parallel hatching diagonal shading 4
We want the hatching to become a part of the highlights, so that every color has its own layer. Converting patterns to shapes is a bit tricky, so be careful here:
  1. Select the pattern.
  2. Object > Expand.
  3. Object > Ungroup.
  4. Use Divide from the Pathfinder panel.
  5. Object > Path > Clean Up.
  6. Use Unite from the Pathfinder panel.
Now the hatching is ready for you to Unite it with the rest of its color. Do the same with the other one.
design tshirt pattern expand
Let's put the full name of the association on the sash. Use the Pen Tool (P) to draw curves for the text.
design tshirt text sash curve
Use the Type Tool (T) to convert the paths to a text area.
design tshirt text sash curve 2
Type the text. The font is Optimus Princeps.
design tshirt text sash curve 3
If your font looks too thin, you can add another stroke to it in the Appearance panel.
design tshirt text sash curve 4
We don't need editable text, but rather clean paths.
  1. Select the caption.
  2. Type > Outline Stroke.
  3. Object > Expand Appearance.
  4. Object > Path > Outline Stroke.
  5. Use Unite from the Pathfinder panel.
design tshirt cut outlines
design tshirt cut outlines 2
design tshirt cut outlines 3
Select both the caption and the white highlights, and use Minus Front from Pathfinder when holding Alt. This way you'll subtract the shape of the letters from the white.
design tshirt cut outlines 4
Once again take a look at colors. They're often printed darker than on the screen, so keep it in mind. Also, sometimes it's good to create an imbalance of C, M and Y for a tinted gray.
design tshirt colors
For the last time check if everything's OK. I needed to move the sash a bit to center it.
design tshirt clean
Prepare the file for printing. Depending on the printer, you may need an AI, EPS, or even PNG file (pay attention to the colors in the latter!). You can also create a mock-up of your design to imagine how it's going to look.
design tshirt print
design tshirt mock up
Now you know how to design and create a beautiful T-Shirt in two colors, without gradients. You can also use this technique to create clean illustrations and tattoo designs.
And here's how the T-Shirt looks on my sister:
t shirt design done


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