A Graphic Designer’s Journal: Touring Japan Through Design

Noh Balcha explores Japan’s rich culture and learning design influences using PixelSquid—a graphic designer’s travel journal.

With the Olympics taking place in Japan this year and COVID-19 still looming over us, the majority of the population will be watching indoors. So, if we can’t travel to Japan, why can’t we bring Japan to us via art, exploring their rich culture and utilizing the myriad of tools we can access at home?

Let’s look at how we can utilize some tremendous Japanese assets from PixelSquid to explore the rich culture of Japan from the comforts of our Photoshop window.

A Bit About Japan and My Design Concepts

Japan, through my eyes, is a symbol of order and neatness, a rich culture filled with deep history and a strong moral code. Everything they create is a reflection of those traits. Their artwork is joyful, embraces imperfections, exhibits motion and change, is nature-driven, geometric, colorful, and revolves around their typography (they have over 2,000 characters).

Starting out, I wanted to create pieces of art that express how I would have felt if I were visiting Japan during the Olympics. I went through a fair number of articles to understand why the Japanese do what they do before I started my journey.

What follows is how I explored their culture through the tools at hand.

Running Through Mount Fuji

Bearing the torch at Mt. Fuji.

Dear family,

We just boarded the bus that will take us to Mount Fuji, where we’ll see one of the Olympic torchbearers run by us. The assistant at the front desk told us that there would be a huge turnout and a grand parade to commemorate this event.

On another note, Mt. Fuji is truly a sight that moves you. Seeing it every day from my hotel room has me appreciate life, nature, and everything around me. Anyway, I’ve attached the poster I found of the event. I hope you like it.

Yours, Noh

Notes on Creating This Poster

After studying a lot of Japanese posters, I noticed the red circle in many places. This circle is known as the Hinomaru in Japanese, meaning “circle of the sun.” It represents the sun that rises spectacularly over the sea to the East. With this thought, I began.

I prefer searching through PixelSquid’s expansive layout using my web browser (though you can search in the Photoshop plugin, as well). I like the Lightbox dialogue that appears whenever I hover my mouse over an object, letting me assign it to a specific category quickly. I also love the quick 360-degree spinning thumbnail previews before I jump into the asset details. It’s convenient and gets your creative juices flowing.

When working with PixelSquid—I can’t emphasize enough—always use the Lightboxes. It will help you collect all the models you like and might use in one place. By doing this, you’ll be able to access your selection with ease within Photoshop.

There are thousands upon thousands of well-made objects on PixelSquid, so you might get lost clicking on the next page button over and over again. (It’s happened to me a several times.) Lightboxes pull you back to the work at hand.

Japan Assets Inside PixelSquid
There are literally thousands of elements you can choose from in PixelSquid. Image via PixelSquid.

Once I’m back in Photoshop and have fired up the PixelSquid plugin, I head to my Lightboxes tab. Everything I selected in the web browser is waiting for me, ready to use.

Pixel Squid Lightbox
Store your images in the Lightboxes tab.

I usually like creating using the Rule of Thirds because it makes life easier when laying out elements. If it worked for all the masters when they began their masterpieces, why not use this centuries-old technique to lay out my composition?

I usually start with the background as it will dictate everything to come, including the lighting, colors, and layouts.

Now the fun part. Populate the scene with the various assets from your Lightbox. Mount Fuji, come here!

Placing 3D Element
Positioning Mt. Fuji. Image via y_u_no.

So, after correctly placing Mount Fuji the way I want it, I move ahead with the composition, as well as creating the reflections in the water.

Mountain Layout
Creating reflections in the water.

Now, I come to the running man. I could have searched for an athlete holding the Olympic torch, but I didn’t feel like leaving Photoshop just yet, so I used three models from my Lightbox to make the torch-bearing athlete.

I combined them using a mask, then cut out unwanted parts using my trusted lasso tool. (Don’t roll your eyes at me and my lasso tool. I’m an old school artist!)

Combined Images
Images combined.

Finally, I go ahead and finish the composition using various text and shape layers in Photoshop. Don’t forget the zing of the artwork—the smoke from Mount Fuji.

Final Photoshop Composition
Finished composition. Image of smoke via Zahaoha.

Baseball in Tokyo

Baseball in Tokyo
“Baseball in Tokyo” poster.

Dear Simret,

Greetings from Tokyo. I know it’s been over twenty years since we played baseball and saw James T. consistently hit the ball out of our small baseball park and into the houses around our school. Do you remember how hard we laughed imagining what people would think of the ball with stitches, as not many people knew what it was back then?

Anyway, baseball is part of the Olympics as of 2018. I’m currently on my way to see the games between Japan and Mexico. I wish you were here, buddy!

Truly, Noh

Notes on Creating This Poster

This is the second poster I worked on, and it’s dawning on me why they keep using the Red Circle, the Hinomaru. It simply ties it all in and warms up whatever you’re creating. It’s addictive. With that thought, I start my second journey in making this poster.

Initially, the concept was to be a soccer ball held by chopsticks, but some corrections were brought to my attention once I started working on it. Read on to find out.

This is my super-rough sketch. Thumbnails to me are a faint representation of what may be. I don’t like sketching in detail. It often feels like detailed sketches will seal what I have to create and shut out any spontaneous creativity that might pop up along the way.

Rough Sketch
Rough sketch of poster idea.

I started by collecting my assets and began laying out the hand holding the chopsticks. I was excited about the hands. I know I should have started with composing the major parts of the scene, but the hand overpowered me.

Hand Holding Chopsticks
Inserting hand holding the chopsticks. Image via zivcg.

Replacing the sushi with the ball was easy. If you’re new to PixelSquid, head to the Layers panel and find the Selection Area folder inside Smart Object. In it, you’ll find colored layers that just make life simple when selecting different parts of the model.

I head back to the main composition to look for a soccer ball in PixelSquid, and mask out the areas where the chopstick is supposed to be in front of the ball.

I enjoy the ability to quickly replace whatever parts that don’t suit the direction I’m taking.

Positioning Soccer Ball
Positioning the soccer ball.

I need a few more elements to make it feel like Tokyo. What better element than the Tokyo Skytree?

Search, select, insert, and download a high-res version from PixelSquid within Photoshop. BOOM!

Inserting Tokyo Skytree
Now, insert the Tokyo Skytree. Image via 3d_molier International.

At this point, my composition still needs a bit more of a Japanese vibe. How about a Japanese torii, or shrine gate, on top of a mountain? Good idea!

I loved the stadium but couldn’t get the view I wanted, so I swapped it out with another one from Shutterstock. In comes the Tokyo Dome.

What’s a sky and a sun without some clouds? They’re smoke clouds, but I like their shape. One thing I really love about the various clouds, smokes, and fires inside PixelSquid is their super-clean transparency. There’s no fringing on the edges.

And, finally, my piece isn’t complete without some gorgeous cherry blossom trees that just scream Japan.

Tokyo Dome and Cherry Blossoms
Inserting Tokyo Dome and Cherry Blossom trees. Image via Osugi and PixelSquid.

I’m almost done with my piece. I show my other trusted pair of eyes (my fiancé), who informs me, “Don’t think they play soccer inside the Tokyo Dome.” YIKES! That would’ve been embarrassing! Fear not, replacing the ball is simple.

And there you have it . . . Soccer Baseball in Tokyo.

Replacing Soccer Ball
Replacing soccer ball with baseball. Image via Stubborn3D.

Tokyo in the Morning

Tokyo Postcard
“Tokyo in the Morning” postcard.

Hey Dad,

What do you think of this picture? It’s the view I see of the Tokyo Tower every morning from my hotel. The sun rays truly hit differently here. No wonder they call it the Land of the Rising Sun. Anyway, hope you like it.

I found a place down the street that converts photos into postcards and had a couple made. Be sure to check your mail in a couple of days. Loving it here!

Your son…

Notes on Creating This Artwork

The idea behind this piece was to create one of those BY CHANCE picture-perfect moments where seemingly random things happen all at the same time. Lucky for you, you already had your camera app open and ready to snap a picture.

First off, we’re going to start with composing the scene. Add the Temple and Tokyo Tower.

Japanese Elements
Inserting the Temple and Tokyo Tower. Images via bgaj23 and royalmix.

I also added an airplane via PixelSquid. Rotate and import it as a smart object, create the guide layers using some lines of the jet trails and brush them in.

Adding details like this creates a bit of believability. Jet trails means the air they’re flying in is cold. In other words, it’s morning.

The scene needs a bit of atmosphere. It requires a morning sky with a beautiful gradation from orange to blue. Headed over to Shutterstock and got myself a beautiful cloud.

Adding Clouds
Inserting the sky and clouds. Image via ixpert.

For compositing, your lighting makes or breaks your artwork, especially when trying to emulate the real world. The models in PixelSquid are evenly lit, meaning lights and shadows are a simple brushstroke away.

You can see what I’ve done for both the Tokyo Tower and the airplane. Note that I’m adjusting the layer called Lighting inside the Tokyo Tower Smart Object with Curves to brighten up the Tower so that there’s a bit of contrast between the brightest points and the new, brushed-in shadows.

Needed one more element in the image. What goes hand-in-hand with the sky? A flock of birds! DONE. Adjust the colors of the overall picture. DONE. Like always, don’t forget the zing—lens flares!

Final Composition
With the birds added, the image is complete! Well done! Image via PixelSquid.

Final Words

This wraps up my imaginary trip to Japan. In all honesty, I’d gone through a fair bit of Japanese art and articles, and it’s funny how I feel a bit akin to the Japanese culture now.

The assets in PixelSquid were just right. So, I invite you to explore Japan during this time and do share it on your desired social media platform with the hashtag #japanthroughpixelsquid. I’d love to see what you can come up with.

PixelSquid is just plain fun! Take a look at these articles for even more inspiration:

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