The advent of the world wide web has opened up an entire new sphere of design — very good, very bad, and a whole gamut in between — readily accessible by hundreds of millions worldwide. For designers, it’s like an never-ending art gallery at the tips of your fingers. Now and then while surfing, you may come across a technique or element in design which strikes your eye. This tutorial will show you how to re-create one of those elements which grabbed my attention.
I am going to walk you through the process of making the curvy header image used at gositewave.com. I should note that I am in not endorsing the products or services offered by the site itself. That is not really relevant to this tutorial. However the site itself sports a very nice design which was obviously well thought out and implemented. In particular, I chose this element to recreate because it contains some interesting and perhaps unusual challenges. The subtleties of the color and the curved elements require some thought and careful planning.
Step 1 – Create the document and gradient background
To begin with, we need to create a new document. I created mine at 1200 x 375 pixels. Obviously 1200 pixels would be too wide to fit on any widely-compatible website where it was placed inside an element of a specific width. To implement this element it would almost certainly be a parent of all elements with any width or floats. But enough of the ugly details about web development.
We’ll need to fill our empty document with a subtle gradient running from top to bottom — the darker color at the top. Select your foreground color and choose #151a20. Then select your background color and and choose #232a34. Choose the Gradient tool (g) and make sure you have the default “Foreground to Background” gradient selected from the list. Ensure your gradient type is linear and then draw a vertical gradient on the canvas, with the darker color at the top.
Step 2 – Add a colorful blue background
You’ll notice there is a brighter blue background to the left of the waves, and fading towards the left. To emulate this element, I chose to apply a radial gradient. We’ll want to create a new blank layer for this. I named mine “Radial Blue”. Change your foreground color to #143f8b, and then choose the “Foreground to Transparent gradient from the list. For the type of gradient, make sure you’ve selected the radial gradient.
Start dragging at a point approximately 450 pixels from the left (x=450) and 80 pixels from the top (y=80). You can see your x and y coordinates in the “Info” palette. If your units are set to something other than pixels (like inches, points, etc.), you can change them under the “Units and Rulers” screen of Photoshop’s preferences. Select “pixels” from the “rulers” dropdown and you’ll be good to go. Drag from this point downward and end at the bottom of the document. You should now have a nice blue gradient like you see below.
Step 3 – Create a shape layer for the first curve using the pen tool
Now it’s time to get into the meat of this effect, and break out the pen tool to get the curvy shapes we’ll need. I’m assuming you have some familiarity with the pen tool, otherwise you’ll probably want to learn a bit about it before continuing this tutorial. We’re going to create a shape layer (not a path), so select the pen tool and make sure the “shape layers” icon is selected in the “Options” palette.
If you look at the GoSiteWave.com header, you’ll see three curves. We’ll be creating a shape for the top left curve first. For reasons which I’ll explain in just a bit, we want the edges of this shape to extend a little ways beyond the border of our document. In order to do this, drag out a corner of the document (if necessary) so that you see the gray area which signifies the “out of bounds” area of the document. Depending on the size of your screen, you may have to zoom out the document so you have enough screen real estate to see around all the edges of the document.
Change your foreground color to the dark blue of #061733. Then, using the pen tool, add a point a 50 pixels or so above the top border of your document and left about 520 px (use “Cmd/Ctrl-R” on the keyboard to turn on the rulers if you want). Then create the next point to bleed the same amount off the left side of the document and place it about 150 pixels down. Drag out the curve to simulate the curve of the header.
We’re going to want to cover the rest of the canvas with this shape, so option-click on the last point to unhinge the handles. Then create other points around the outside of the document until the shape is closed and complete.
Step 4 – Add a colored highlight along the inside of the curve
So now that we have our shape, we need to the lighter blue highlight uniformly along the curving axis of our shape. Finding a way to do this effectively was one of the more unusual challenges I saw in recreating this graphic. We can’t apply any kind of normal gradient here because the effect would trail off and be very non-uniform on the curved edge. Trying to manually brush in the color would be tedious and difficult at best. The answer to the problem isn’t brain surgery, but does require a couple of extra steps and a bit of forethought.
The main key to solving the problem is to utilize Layer Styles. A simple inner glow will provide the needed uniformity around the curve. However, the inner glow will obviously be applied to all sides of the shape, not just the curved side. This is why I extended the border of the shape beyond the bounds of the document. This way, the inner glow will not be visible along the other sides of the shape. If you find that your shape isn’t quite extending out far enough to hide the inner glow, you can use the direct selection tool (a) to select and move the points of the shape.
Apply an inner glow with a size of 40px and opacity of 75% to the shape using the color #1245a0.
Step 5 – Mask the shape
To get this first curve looking its best we’ll first have to apply a mask to the shape so only certain parts are visible. Before we do that, however, we need to change a setting in the blending options of the layer. If we were to mask the shape as is with the layer styles applied, we’d get funky inner glows all around the mask itself. To fix this, open up the Layer Style dialog box for the current layer and choose “Blending Options” at the very top of the list on the left. In the “Advanced Blending” area you’ll see a little toggle titled “Layer Mask Hides Effects”. Check this and click “OK”. Now Photoshop will not try to simulate our layer effects on the edges of our mask, but will treat the layer styles as something “underneath” the mask.
So with this done, add a layer mask to the shape layer. Set your foreground color to black. Choose the gradient tool and select the “Foreground to Transparent” gradient. Also make sure to set your gradient type back to linear. Use this to mask around the left, right and bottom edges of the shape so that all the edges gently “flow” into the background color. The layer, however, should still obscure the major portion of the underlying blue radial gradient.
Step 6 – Repeat steps 3-5 for the other two curves
We will apply basically the same procedure with a few variations for the remaining two curves. Create the second curved shape with your pen tool (fill color #0b2148). The edges of the shape may not need to extend off the edge of the canvas, so long as you leave a little room to mask out the layer styles and leave a smooth transition with the underlying layers. When you’re happy with the shape, bring up the “Inner Glow” screen of the Layer Styles window.
This middle curve is a bit more complex than the first. If you look closely you’ll see that it not only has a highlighted edge, but then a darker area adjacent to it. Applying a typical inner glow would give us the glow, but not the darker region to the inside of it. To accomplish this, we’re going to incorporate a seldom-used feature of the inner glow — a custom gradient.
In the “Structure” section of the inner glow screen we have our typical light yellow foreground to transparent gradient. Click the dropdown menu here and choose the foreground to background gradient. Then click the gradient to bring up the Gradient Editor screen. Double-click the color step to the far bottom left of the gradient (location: 0%). For the color, enter #9ab7ee. Double-click the color stop to the far right (location: 100%) and choose #14243e. Now click a blank area directly below the gradient to add a color stop and place it at 15%. The color will be #5384e1. Add one more stop at 60% with a color of #0a2047. Make the size of the inner glow 70 pixels. Now you should have a bright glow at the edge of the shape with a darker area immediately to the inside of it, fading into a slightly lighter blue in the middle of the shape.
To finish this shape, mask around it much as you did the first. Don’t forget to select “Layer Mask Hides Effects” in your blending options. Mask it fairly heavy so only the areas near the visible curve are opaque.
Now for the final curve. Carefully draw the shape again with the pen tool (using a fill of #121f32). This is the most subtle of the curves and will not require the customized inner glow gradient of the second curve. Apply an inner glow with a size of 25 pixels and a color of #082e69.
This curve is subtle enough that we’ll lower the layer opacity to 60%. Prepare your blending options and mask around this shape like the others. At this point we’ve done most of the hard work and it’s time for a little fine tuning.
Step 7 – Tweak the lighting with another blue radial gradient
Our effect is close, but the designer of this site had a keen eye for lighting. Between the second and third curves on GoSiteWave there is an area which is a bit brighter and adds some more depth and interest. To simulate this, add a new layer between the 2nd and 3rd curve layers. Make your foreground color #112c59. Choose the foreground to transparent radial gradient. Click between the two curves and drag out a medium distance to create a small area of subtle light in this area. My radial shone through some of the mask below the 3rd curve (which I didn’t want), so I masked out the bottom side of this radial.
By using some advanced planning and close attention to detail, we were able to re-create a subtle, artistic lighting effect using mostly standard tools and methods, with the exception of a couple of unusual layer style workarounds. Hopefully this process has taught you a bit more about Photoshop and given you a better understanding of how to implement a graphic design with complex lighting.