Creating a Fictional Concept Sneaker in Photoshop
Part II: Constructing the Composite Foundation
Combined, the illustration contains 112 layers; 67 of these are pixel layers, 45 of them are adjustment layers. Together these layers are relying on 90 discrete local masks, all arranged within 45 groups. It was completed in two distinct stages; first, the arrangement focused blocking-in process, followed by the refinement heavy finishing stage.
In ‣ the first part of this series, I walked through the approaches and considerations I used to design the initial sneaker concept sketch. In this instalment, I’ll explore the tools and techniques I’ve used to combine discrete photographed surfaces and materials as seamlessly as possible. Along the way, I’ll discuss the necessary requirements for preparing the file for exploring and developing realistic alternative colourways.
Outer silhouette: constructing the concept sneaker upper
My first objective is to lay down the foundations for the NMD City Sock upper, which along with the mid and outsole, form the majority of the overall silhouette of the fictional concept sneaker. The upper needs to be done in a few separate passes. I’m using the Primeknit upper from the mid top NMD City Sock 1, which is a casual sneaker and as such, doesn’t have a silhouette that reflects the overall aesthetic of the EQT range. If I align the toe and the heel to my rough sketch (and even add in a small amount of rotation to attempt to find a more fitting angle), we can see that both the inner and outer guidelines aren’t a great match.
Aside from the height of the sock cuff, the baseline outer edges aren’t too bad. The front silhouette edge aligns relatively well with my draft sketch, running from the front tip of the sock cuff, which is where I want my layered tongue to begin, down to where the toe meets the outsole. The back outer edge of the heel is also fairly kind to my rough plans, and could be corrected with a relatively simple rotation. The height of the sock cuff will need to be dropped dramatically, taking the original silhouette from a mid top to a more EQT-like low top. The midsole seam, where the sock upper meets the Boost midsole is also relatively decent, not taking into account the protruding midsole overlay details of the NMD.
What will really need some work here is successfully creating a cohesive inner pattern to the Primeknit sock texture. The relatively minimal styling on the NMD City Sock is quite front heavy, with its shift in pattern textures dividing the upper into three increasingly larger ‘panels’ from toe to heel. This works well for a mid top light on upper overlays or flourishes, as the slightly larger surface area of the heel works to establish the three striped rhythm in the upper, placing the emphasis on the sock textures shifting directions. This will need to be heavily altered to accommodate the more equal three panel division I’ve laid out in my rough sketch. Not only will I need a shorter heel and logo panel, along with a longer toe panel, but I’ll need to create a more aesthetically appealing three-dimensional shape for my sock upper, as well as work through seamlessly extending and modifying the Primeknit texture pattern in the most transparent manner possible.
Working with the draft sketch guidelines, I’ll begin with the ankle/heel section of the upper. I rotated the base NMD upper to get a better starting point for the direction of the Primeknit texture, focusing only on the rear panel section. A large amount of the early blocking in process involves making edits and laying down foundation surfaces that look terrible in large regions, which is why the early stages of photo illustration can be kind of awful if you have someone watching over your shoulder. It comes down to focusing purely on the region you’re editing, not worrying about how bad the rest of the image might look, and having confidence in your pre-visualisation sensibilities. It might look bad now, but you know precisely what you can do to get it to where you need it to be.
Working with the guidelines of the draft, I can see this is a decent position to begin to get a relatively clean base texture for the heel panel. I’ll likely need to work with the raised section of midsole overlay that’s encroaching around my draft upper, but that won’t be too difficult to clone out. The goal here is to have as clean as possible a section of the knit texture filling out the largest surface area of the focused panel as possible. I won’t worry at all about lighting or even large seams until I get the entire base down. I’ll roughly mask it out so the areas outside the ankle panel aren’t too distracting, and quickly clone in a small section of base knit texture over the protruding area of the rubber midsole overlay.
Now I want to move onto the middle section, which is where I intend for the logo stripes to sit. I want to keep the shifting direction of the knit texture from the City Sock, and make sure the direction of the pattern works with the other inner silhouette lines I’ve established in my mock up.
The base middle panel from the original is too short horizontally, so I’ll ‘stretch’ the pattern by laying down a base section first, then shift two duplicate copies over to the left and right of it. This extends the baseline texture pattern beyond the boundaries of my intended middle panel. At this stage, I’m not really worried about the seams in the knit texture, as the logo stripes will cover some of those. Any other noticeable transitions remaining after that, I’ll clean up along with all the other prominent seams I’ll undoubtedly make. My real focus here is simply making sure that the overall diagonal direction of the new knit texture is relatively well matched across the three sections.
You’ll notice I’m not bothering at all with detail in the top section, where we have some very jagged seams between the texture pattern and the original background edge are very prominent. I’m going to recreate the tongue I need from all new sections of material, that are more aligned with the perspective they should have at the top of a moderately cylindrical shape.
So now I have the heel and middle panels roughly arranged, I need to lay the toe panel down. I’ll duplicate the original base again, position it accordingly within the draft sketch guidelines, aiming to fill as much of the sketched panel area with as clean a knit texture foundation as possible. Once I’ve done that, I’ll quickly mask it out and put a new layer of baseline clone knit texture over any noticeable trouble areas. Again, at this stage I’m not at all concerned with how rough the modifications look. I just want to get the baseline fill down. You can see I’ve removed the prominent construction seam from the texture pattern as well. I’ll need to add something like that as I get closer to the detail adjustment stage, but for now, it’s an unnecessary consideration.
Even though I’m going to try and rebuild the tongue from much smaller, more detailed sections of other sneakers, I’d like to try to get a foundation down for the knit texture here as well, if for no other reason than to stop the large sections of original white background from being so distracting. It also helps me to begin to visualise the intended edits more clearly, by giving me something more closely approximating the desired finished result.
I’ll take the front, topmost section of the middle panel, where the knit texture starts to move away from the lens, to best mimic the perspective shift that should happen naturally at the top of the silhouette. I lay that down at the general toe/middle seam area, then duplicate it and shift the new layer to the left, filling as much of the length of the intended tongue area I can. At this stage, I’m not sure how the layered double tongue will even look, let alone how it will meet the sock cuff, so I’ll leave the natural end of the duplicate section and focus on those details once the cuff is laid out. Now that I have a very rough foundation knit upper to work with, it’s time to see how the cuff will factor into this.
I’m not a fan of the city sock cuff for a fictional EQT sneaker. The City Sock is a little more limp than I’d like for a sturdier EQT aesthetic, so I’m going to take the cuff from the NMD R1 Gum, which has a more rigid elastic snap and weight to it. Aligning the R1 Gum cuff over the top of my in progress upper, I get the angle that I want while only falling short of the desired tongue height by a small amount. That should be easy to extend with some careful copy and paste work. I’ll roughly mask it out so I can start to factor the entire upper into how I progress as a more cohesive single piece.
At this stage it’s apparent how much work will need to go into creating a more seamless finish. The luminance and saturation discrepancies are pretty glaring, which can sometimes make for a large distraction early on. Oftentimes, I’ll encounter students who begin to fixate too early on in the mock up process over fine details. It’s better to disregard them for now, accept that the overall piece will look relatively awful and inconsistent, and continue to lay down the foundations for the other sections. Once you have those in place, then you’ll know which details you’ll need to refine. For now, I might not even be able to see certain sections that are glaring to me as I approach the end of the work. They may be obscured partially, or even entirely, by other areas I’ve added along the way. There’s no point obsessing over small details at this stage if you don’t even know how they’ll factor in to the finish as you near completion.
With the majority of the sock upper laid down, it’s time to move onto the midsole.
Outer silhouette: building the concept sneaker midsole
I’m going to base the majority of the midsole on the Originals EQT Support 93/17. While it’s entirely subjective, I feel like the defining features of the EQTs, which I’d like to retain as my number one influence in my concept, comes from the midsoles. The 93/17s have a more casual/street outsole, which runs flat along the base of the midsole. I’d like to mix the lines of the 93/17 midsole with a more cross trainer influenced outsole. For now though, I’ll try to get the overall base placement of the midsole arranged.
The main shape and lines of the midsole are close to what I want, barring a few small changes. Firstly, to accommodate the more equal division of the three upper panels, I’ll need to make the bridge between the heel and front section of midsole more narrow. I’d also like to extend the silhouette of the outsole of the heel, to shift the weight of the design back slightly, which should also help to even out the effect of the intended cross trainer style outsole I’m hoping to add. The logo stripes will also be shifted back from their original placement to align more accurately with the desired logo strip location on the upper. With the midsole in place, I’ll roughly mask it out along the top edge, then duplicate the front transition into the raised ‘bridge’ and shift the duplicated area back to the left a little more, then roughly mask that out as well.
As expected, there are some significant detail seams along the midsole, both the boost pattern as well as the surface and edge details that form the upper most region of the midsole itself, but I’ll make the necessary corrections to those once I’ve established more detail in the middle panel of the sock upper. I’ll also leave the logo stripes on the midsole where they are for now, until I have a clearer idea of the placement of the upper logo stripes.
Before I move onto the upper details, I’ll focus on getting the more EQT-like outsole blocked in.
Outer silhouette: modifying the concept sneaker outsole
I’m going to use the more textured outsole from the EQT Support 93. It’s got the kind of ribbed edge that I’d like to include to retain a more cross trainer like EQT feel to the silhouette of my concept. It’s not really the correct shape however, and as I’ve started to establish more of the concept at this stage, I’ll need to modify it more carefully than the midsole.
Firstly I’ll cut it out and run it through a little puppet warp to shift and reshape the bottom edges to align to my established outsole in a more aesthetically pleasing manner. Then I’ll need to chop it up and place it in multiple sections, to get it to work with my current in-progress work. The best approach here will be to work with the three panel split notion, and arrange the outsole in a front, middle and rear alignment.
The front toe section extends down to the beginning of the front-most base logo stripe. Although I may shift those later, that’s where the initial curve upwards of the original outsole really begins. Shifting the remainder of the original outsole back to the left allows me to work with it’s natural curve, and appears to be pretty decent at completing the outsole. However I’m not really happy with the understated, flat like curve angle in the heel section, and the additional midsole detail is something I’d like to add. To correct this, I’ll duplicate the outsole and warp the heel section independently of the mid region, getting the rounder curve I was after. This brings the outer edge of the outsole more into line with the dipped curve detail of the midsole.
Disregarding all the glaring seams I’ve now added to the in-progress work, I’ll roughly mask each section out along the upper transition edge to see how it sits. I’m also not happy with the gum outsole, both in terms of colour and luminance, so I’ll need to work on those shortly as well. Add them to the growing list of modifications I’m going to need to make to get this anywhere close to transparent.
Inner silhouette: aligning the upper heel overlay
Before I place the heel overlay, I’m going to position the contrasting, rigid heel ribbing from the City Sock into a more prominent position around my upper silhouette edge. That not only gives me a more realistic looking heel profile, but design wise makes a little more sense for the Primeknit upper, as it would be far too flimsy with no secondary heel support back there, no matter how minimal.
Next I’m going to use the heel overlay from the NMD R1. There are a couple of colours I could use here, to ensure I had a sufficient base region of highlight luminance to work with, however I’ll keep it consistent and use the white variation. I’ll continue to keep the overall foundation of the sneaker a few different values of relatively desaturated white, which will make it easier to work with adding variations of colourway values in the final stage.
I’ll align the heel overlay in the general position I’m after, not taking into account the misalignment of the sock cuff to the newly placed heel ribbing of the upper. Masking away the unneeded elements gives me a better idea of how it fits into the overall design, and shows a few of the pictorial elements I’ll need to clean up in the next pass. I’ll need to spend some time not only making the transition between the new heel overlay and the upper sock texture more seamless, but also between the sock texture, the heel overlay and the sock cuff. The overall finish is obviously looking very roughly cut and paste right now, but that’s completely fine for a first blocking draft.
I’ll likely leave the new double tongue until last, as I’m no professional designer and am not really sure how it’ll either a) work visually, or b) fit into the intended middle section of the design, which I want to be quite busy to work with the EQT aesthetic. With that in mind, I’ll focus now on the the entire middle panel details; the lace overlay, the side logo stripes, the overlay and the midsole logo placement.
Inner silhouette: positioning the Primeknit upper logo stripes
I’ll set the overall placement of all these elements relative to the side logo stripes, as I want to establish a more equal distance between the toe and heel of the silhouette relative to the more centre weighted logo stripes, along with a centred placement of the side logo relative to the width of the middle panel. There’s a natural seam in the upper sock texture between the toe and middle panel right now, but I plan to shift that back a little in my more detailed refining stage.
I’m going to use the logo stripes from the NMD R1 Gum, as they have just enough surface and edge texture to contrast against the sock knit pattern, and I wanted a more minimal logo stripe, one that wasn’t stitched onto the upper, which in this case, likely wouldn’t really work given the material of the upper sock texture itself.
I’m working with these separately, so I can control the distance placement more accurately and to my own specifications. Once I’ve got them down to a placement I’m happy with, I’ll focus on bringing over a new middle overlay that will bridge the midsole and the middle logos. I’m doing this for a couple of reasons; firstly, it’ll keep the design more in line with the established EQT aesthetic, which tends to be busier than the more minimal lines one would find in casual/street silhouettes like the NMD. But further to that, I’m really not a fan of the progressively elongated logo stripes that not having a middle overlay would create. The rear stripe will be longest, the middle becomes a little shorter than that, then the front stripe is shortest. It extends the entire middle region of the sock into an awkward visual finish (I tried, not a fan) and makes the intersecting lines of the logo stripes look quite haphazard, for my personal sensibilities.
Inner silhouette: sourcing a suitable side overlay
At the time of creating these, I couldn’t find a lighter middle overlay that suited my needs. There was a lighter suede overlay on the camo print turbo red EQT Support 93s, but I didn’t want to use suede. I felt like it would be quite jarring up against the plastic heel overlay, so I wanted something that would be a little more subdued and not make too strong of a statement texture-wise.
Instead I went for the overlay from the ultra turbo red Originals EQT Support Ultra. It’s more of a leather styled overlay and as such theres more of a surface consistency between it and the heel overlay. It is, however, black, which doesn’t really work to what I want for preparing the sneaker for multiple colourway variations. I’ll need to modify this to get it in the right spot for that step, but for now, I just care about placement.
I’m going to work with the midsole curve for my best placement, and also keep the diagonal line caused by the direction of the heel overlay in mind, relative to a desired rotation of the overlay. The midsole curve, which creates a straight bridge between the front and rear curved sections of the midsole, will also dictate the seam placement when I’m trying to establish a stronger division between the texture pattern of the rear and middle panels. I shift the position of the overlay relative to both my draft guidelines and the midsole bridge section, but remember any (or all) of this can change once all the pictorial elements are in place. Even though the design is coming along, it’s still very much in its draft phase.
So with a rough placement in mind, I’m going to mask the unwanted elements out, which reveals a a small gap between the natural end of the overlay and the midsole transition. I could remove that entirely by lowering the overlay a bit, and letting the natural end of the overlay meet the midsole, but I really want the downward sloping angle that the overlay creates to kind of parallel the angle caused by the downward slope of the heel overlay. If I drop the middle overlay, it’s lower than the implied line that runs off the heel overlay, so I’ll simply extend the edge with a small section of duplicated middle overlay. Now I can mask the unneeded elements of the logo stripes away to get a better idea of how the stripes sit on the sock knit.
Obviously they look really awkward, as they have no sense of raised height to them, so I know immediately I’ll need to create a sense of shadow around them to convey that height. However, at this stage I’m just interested in if the surface texture qualities of the logo stripes do enough to differentiate themselves form the texture qualities of the sock upper. Next I’ll shift the original midsole logo stripes back towards the heel to bring them into line with the main side logo stripes.
This is a pretty easy edit, I’ll just take each logo stripe, duplicate it to a new layer and shift them all back to align them with the main side logo stripes. In order to do this a little more transparently, I’ll also skew the stripes a small amount horizontally, so they fall in line with the angle of the side stripes. Then I’ll just mask the outer areas away and clone over any noticeable seam edges from the original logo stripes. Normally I’d leave this sort of detail edit for the next stage, however these are super distracting, so I’ll clean them up now. With all of that done, I’m now ready to move onto the lace overlay.
Inner silhouette: positioning the lace overlay
I’m going to use the plastic lace overlay from the NMD R1, which is the same source for the plastic heel overlay. That gives me consistency in surface texture qualities between the two overlays, even though the colour and the luminance values of the lace overlay are a little out of balance for the overall finish. I want to use the overlay from the NMD R1 because with the three lace buckles, it’ll nicely mirror the three individual stripes I have for the side logo, keeping the design elements consistent in the middle panel.
Once I get the rotation sitting right, I’ll mask out the superfluous elements, leaving both the laces and the lace overlay. We get three bridges of lace details to work with, extending the three striped motif from bottom to top. The other advantage of working with the original laces from the NMD R1 is that I can keep the shadows and use them to guide me in creating newer, artificial shadows for all the upper overlay elements, anchoring them more seamlessly.
I’ve got a little stripe and upper detail leftover below the overlay at the top and bottom regions, so I’ll duplicate a new section of the original middle upper knit texture region and mask it in over the top of those areas that are standing out.
With all of that placed and looking decent for a starting point, I feel like I’m ready to move onto the double tongue test.
Inner silhouette: creating a unique, layered upper tongue
The sock tongue is going to be the one truly unique design element in this mockup. Normally with sock style uppers the cuff will link around the ankle joint and the top middle section of the upper will stretch around the foot. This makes for fantastic street and casual style silhouettes, but it doesn’t really sell the EQT aesthetic that I’d like to be the primary design sensibility in the mockup. I came up with the idea of a layered tongue that bridged the three upper panels and gave sense of stability to the ankle region of the design, bringing the silhouette more into line with the EQT style. Whether it’s feasible or practical in real life isn’t really my concern here, as I’m not genuinely designing sneakers, simply coming up with fictional mock ups.
What I need to complete this section are a finished sock cuff around the top front part of the ankle, as well as a differentiated and layered secondary tongue that sits above the sock upper. I’ll work on finishing the sock cuff first.
I’ll use the top section of the cuff from this image of the NMD R1 Gum. This is a pretty poorly retouched image to begin with, you can see all sorts of haphazard cloning, feathered edges and colour and luminance shifts indicating heavy modifications. Once I’ve got the rotation I’m after, I’ll mask out the remaining sections I don’t need, leaving me with a relatively useable foundation base to work with. Next I need to start laying down the details of the double tongue.
I can work with the upper knit texture that’s already there as an initial foundation. However I need to extend the knit texture along a little further to the left, to extend where the tongue would be. I’ll use a section of the same perspective knit texture from earlier, shift it along to the left and mask it out once I’m happy with the length. Next I need to establish the new area as separate to the details underneath it with some PU leather piping.
I’ll use the piping from the NMD R1s, that established a fairly rigid looking frame around the upper and ankle. I’ll need to do some heavy modification to make this work, as the original image has laces intersecting with edges, and obviously the shape of the piping is different to what I’m after. I’ll mask out the noticeable areas I won’t need, going right up to the lace intersection, then lay down a new region of similar material piping from a different colourway of the same sneaker. That gives a longer straight edge to work with, and with a little puppet warp and distortion I have enough to work with to extend the frame along to where the lace overlay meets it. Then I’ll mask it out to give me a more seamless transition, establishing the positional hierarchy of the lace overlay relative to the tongue below it.
Next I’ll take that duplicated section of piping, shift it to the right and do a little extra puppet warp to get the angles correct, to extend the tongue down below the lace overlay closer to the toe. This will bring the tongue ‘panel’ in line with where I intend to create a noticeable seam, creating three panels to the sock upper. I’ll mask that out, leaving only the areas I think I’d like to work with. Next I need to work on the topmost tip of the tongue.
As it currently sits, the area where the sock cuff meets the tip of the tongue looks pretty bad. I intend to add a fabric logo over the top of the piping, as it would sit in real life, and bring that topmost diagonal line of the cuff and the tongue into a more cohesive state.
Inner silhouette: creating a logo label for the layered tongue
I’ll use the fabric logo label from the NMD R1. In it’s original state, the bottom most edge was cut off by the laces, giving it a chevron style lower silhouette. However, once I mask the unneeded parts out, even in it’s current state, you can see how it does wonders at bridging the two regions of the cuff and the tongue together. I’ll take the topmost edge of the label, with it’s straight line, duplicate it and shift it down and to the right to use as a label extension. We obviously have the shadow from the original top edge, but once I mask it out you’ll see the speckled texture of the label aligns relatively well, looking even at this stage like a cohesive single label.
Outer silhouette: refining the outer mask
Now I’ll just mask the outer silhouette edge of the remaining visible elements out, giving me the overall base to work with for the concept. I’ll need to add a lot of detail elements, such as stitching and shadows, alongside the obvious surface and edge fixes that stand out.
Now marvel at the raw, unfinished beauty of your frankenshoe
Or don’t, perhaps, as the case may be with our current cut-and-paste monstrosity. As mentioned countless times throughout this piece – under the guise, absolutely, of useful education, but also motivated significantly by the anxiety-inducing difficulty in presenting such unfinished work to the world – there is still a lot more work to do.
If we compare the current state of our concept sneaker with the finished example from the beginning of the piece, there’s a pretty massive divide. With digital composites of any kind, I always approach the process in two stages. In this piece, we’ve covered the foundation steps of making our concept sketch a partial reality. We’ve filled in the majority of the base we need to work with. We now have the material surfaces in place, and we can turn our attention away from constructing and arranging, toward the more refinement focused process of detail finishing.
In this post, I’ve discussed the methods used to complete the first distinct stage of concept sneaker photo-illustration; namely, the arrangement focused blocking-in process. The second stage is much more focused on traditional digital finishing and retouching concerns. In the next instalment of this series, I’ll present the tools, techniques and approaches I use to not only complete the illustration as seamlessly (and photo-realistically) as possible, but also discuss the methods I use to prepare the file for exploring and creating realistic alternative sneaker colourways.