How to Create Successful Distressed Effects

Everything old is new again, making distressed garment effects highly popular with today’s apparel buyer. Learn to create simple, original designs that will avoid the on-press problems such artwork can cause.

If you’ve ever spent a few hours rummaging through an antique store, you have no doubt come across many worn-in (or worn-out) items. Aside from the awkward styles or out-of-date functions that may characterize these treasures, they often have surfaces that display a wonderful variety of distressed features: cracked paint surfaces, pitted metal signs, worn-out leather, and fatigued wood surfaces, to name just a few. If you look closely at these textures, you will sometimes find subtle patterns that can be extracted and used in your artwork. Taking distressed textures from a variety of sources to create vintage looks is an art in itself. With the proper application of distressed features on even a boring piece of typography or art, a design can suddenly take on a collectible, nostalgic, or even iconic look that is highly appealing to garment buyers.

Distressed effects can go wrong, however. Often, they are used indiscriminately, with no consideration of how they may impact the final design. This typically happens when the artist applies the effect at the end of the design process as a quick afterthought and then rushes it to the client for approval or, worse, to production. Used incorrectly, distress filters can seriously damage your art files, make text illegible, and cause a host of printing problems.  Since getting a distressed look is essentially a process of extraction in which you remove pieces of the design, it stands to reason that it makes a considerable difference where these pieces are removed, and to what degree.

Different Effects for Different Looks
Producing great distressed designs is all about the tools that you have to work with. You can often do the work in CorelDraw or Illustrator; for the really detailed patterns, Photoshop comes in handy. Start out by building up a collection of different textures. A lot of great public domain sources are available online, but in order to produce truly original designs, it’s a good idea to collect your own texture photos as well. The goal is to have a good variety of different effects that you can use to give your designs interesting vintage and worn-out looks depending on what the composition calls for.


Jersey distress on a sports design.

Most designs will have elements that should give you clues as to which distressed overlay will work best and how to apply it. For instance, a large sports design with block letters may look good with a jersey mesh distress filter knocked out of it to emphasize its sporty appearance. Other designs that have a retro appearance would look better with a cracked paint texture overlay to accentuate the vintage effect. Such a distress filter will augment and reinforce the design’s theme instead of just making it look worn-out.


Vintage print with a distress filter.

A good way to decide which distressed filter to use for a job is to look for an overlay that recalls the design’s theme. For example:

• Camping, outdoor, fishing, and hunting designs with a wood grain distress layer
• Sport teams and fan apparel with jersey and “usage” distress (areas that look worn through from excessive abrasion)
• Vintage logos and retro designs with cracked or sand-blasted textures, including pitted and mottled surfaces
• Rustic designs for country music or western logos with a denim distress pattern and worn-out corners
• Fitness apparel, boot camps, and mud race graphics with “grunge” effects and multiple distress filters combined.

Creating Fast Distress Textures from Source Photos
There are many ways of creating and applying distress effects. The more versatile the overlay filter, the easier it will be to adjust if the effect does some unintended damage to the final composition. A good rule of thumb is to apply a distress filter to the design and then step back and see if it feels right or not. The majority of the time, you’ll see some good areas, and many questionable ones where it may be wise to adjust the effect or remove it entirely. To make this process easy, approach it in a way that will allow you to quickly manipulate the overlay rather than making you a prisoner of a big, fuzzy square that overlaps the whole image.

Here are the procedures in CorelDraw for creating a fast distress overlay from a photo texture. For Mac users, the commands below are easily adapted to Photoshop and Illustrator.

1. Save the design with a background that approximates the shirt color and pattern that it will be printed on.
2. Import the photo and place it off to the side of the design.
3. Reduce the gamut of the photo by changing the mode into grayscale.
4. Adjust the photo to knock out the midtones using the curves adjustment.
5. Change the image back into a monochrome bitmap.
6. Place the photo into a powerclip to control where it shows. (In Illustrator, the powerclip is called a nested object.)
7. Place the distress image over the design and adjust the powerclip if necessary.
8. You may need to duplicate and/or reduce the powerclip with the distress overlay to get it just right.

Often, you may need to combine several effects or textures in one design. Prepare each element using the steps above, then place the different distress elements onto the design and overlap or blend them as you wish. Use a separate powerclip for each distress effect so you can carefully control the placement and location of each element.

Creating digital mockups of the design when you’re finished is easy. In CorelDraw, a monochrome bitmap with no fill will appear transparent; you can set the outline color to match the shirt color so it gives the illusion that it has knocked out that part of the design. With a distress filter, the monochrome bitmap will show the background image as transparent, and you can set the distressed pieces to black or whatever color the outline is. To do your separations, set the outline color to white so that it extracts the distress pattern out of the positive film.

Toning Down and Blending Distress Filters
When using multiple distress effects on one project, it’s easy to overdo it and cause too much breakdown of the original design. To avoid this problem, set up some of the distress layers as halftones in your design software so they will be adjustable percentages instead of 100-percent knockouts. In CorelDraw, you do this by converting a grayscale design to a bitmap image and then assigning the halftone pattern and frequency to it. This technique is particularly useful when distressing typography because you may not want to distress whole parts of the letters, but would still like the worn-out effect to show.

One final method that is very useful when working with type is to create an inside contour for the letters and contain the distressed effect to just that area. This prevents the edge of the fonts from being degraded, avoiding many of the legibility issues that can cause client complaints while still capturing some cool-looking patterns in your design.

Using distress filters doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process or a last-minute race to slap a bunch of cracks on your artwork. With the right tools, photos, and methods, you can use these effects to help lift the appeal of the artwork and add a vintage feel without damaging the integrity of the design. The right distress filter can work wonders on a logo when it is added thoughtfully, and it can be the finishing touch to integrate all of the elements of the design and turn it into a bestseller.

Check out Thomas Trimingham's distinction between grunge and distress effects or learn about four mistakes to avoid when creating distressed designs.

Read more from Screen Printing's February/March special garment issue.

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