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How to Make Icons

Guide by fanfly posted over a year ago
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A while back I wrote an article about How to Make a Banner. I've decided to follow it up with a tutorial on how to make icons! They're actually much the same- the major difference is size.

You will need an image editing program. I use Corel Paint Shop Pro but I think most people use Photoshop.

There's also the following online programs but I've never used them and this tutorial isn't necessarily meant to be used with them because I have no idea what these programs are capable of doing.

picnik
pixlr
GIMP free download




the Size of Your Icon Matters


Now this part is extremely important and I can't tell you how many icons I've seen that have been botched because they were incorrectly sized.

This isn't an icon, it's a too-small rectangular picture.
This isn't an icon, it's a too-small rectangular picture.
Your icon must be SQUARE [even on all sides].
Rectangular icons end up stretched, blurry, cut off or overly pixelated when uploaded on picks or as your profile picture.




The following are acceptable icon dimensions:
100x100
200x200

I prefer to work in 200x200. It gives you room to see what you're doing and increases the general image quality. When Fanpop resizes it for a pick or profile image, it looks good.



Creating Your Icon Template

Never just crop an image and call it an icon. You should always use a template. It just makes icon creation so much easier and allows you to be more creative. Especially if you make a lot of icons [which I do].

Open up your program and create a new file.
Size: 200x200
Background: black
File type: JPEG

Save it for future use as your icon template. Or just save this one.
200x200 Icon Template
200x200 Icon Template



Choosing Images

Now you'll want to select the picture you're going to make an icon out of. Always choose large, high quality images to work with.
700x387, mediocre quality- meh, you can find better.
700x387, mediocre quality- meh, you can find better.

1280x700, high quality- just the way I like it.
1280x700, high quality- just the way I like it.


Google image search is not always your friend. It may take time and effort to hunt down good screencap sites but it's definitely worth it in the long run. It makes your job so much easier because there's only so much editing that you can do to a poor quality image to make it better. Also, it may seem strange to choose such large pictures to make a small icon out of but trust me, good icon making is all about the quality of the source material.



Resizing Images

So now that you've chosen your nice big picture, it's time to resize it so it will fit on your icon.

Find the Resize tool in your program's options. Mine is located under a menu called 'Image'. Yours could be located somewhere else. Just look through all the menus until you find it.

Open the Resize tool. It should give you the dimensions of the picture you're trying to resize.
Example:
Width: 1280 pixels
Height: 700 pixels


Change the height to 210 pixels. Only change the height and make sure that the 'Maintain aspect ratio' box is checked. Otherwise your image will be totally warped.

The reason you don't resize it to exactly the height of your icon is because you'll want to give yourself some leeway to move it around. It's very hard to position it precisely and if it's off even just a little bit it will leave a gap at the top or bottom of the icon.

Also, you don't have to resize the image to 210. You can experiment with different sizes/crops but we'll get to that in just a moment. First let's establish how to copy and paste.



Adding an Image to the Template

So you have your resized image and are ready to make it into an icon. You're going to copy and paste it to the icon template as a layer.

The Copy tool is in the 'Edit' menu. Just click it and you're done. The image is copied and ready to be pasted. Go back to your icon template.

The Paste tool is also in the 'Edit' menu. It may offer you several options: Paste as New Image, Paste as Selection and Paste as New Layer.

Choose Paste as New Layer.
It will drop the image directly in the center of your icon.
Standard resize/crop
Standard resize/crop



Cropping Your Icon

This is the part where you position the image so that it shows the section that you want to see. You can get really creative with this!

Move tool
Move tool
Use the Move tool to change the position of the image.
Just click and drag.
Image was resized to 400 pixels
Image was resized to 400 pixels
As I said earlier, you don't have to resize it to 210. You can resize it to 450, 300, 572- whatever!
That way you can zoom in on certain sections of the image.

Same image, same resize just cropped differently
Same image, same resize just cropped differently
You can also position the image in different ways, be creative!
You'd be surprised at how easy it is to make an icon look cool just by cropping it differently.







Editing Your Icon

So you have your image resized and cropped just the way you want it. Now it's time to spruce it up a bit.

Sharpen
This tool is found in the 'Adjust' menu- as are all the basic tools to refine your image. I use the lowest setting. You do not want to overuse the sharpen tool, it will pixelate your icon way too much. If you're using a high quality image then you don't need to sharpen much at all.
Perfectly sharpened
Perfectly sharpened
Sharpened too much
Sharpened too much


Brightness and Contrast
Again, this tool is in the 'Adjust' menu. For most pictures you don't need to go crazy with this tool. Usually just bump up the brightness by about 10 and the same for the contrast. If you make it too bright, the darks will look washed out. If you give it too much contrast, the darks will swallow the light.

Saturation
Saturation is how intense the colors are. Now depending on the effect you're going for you might want to increase or decrease the saturation. You can play around with this until you find something you like. The Hue & Saturation tool should be in the same menu as the Brightness & Contrast tool. I wouldn't recommend changing the hue unless you want to go for a really funky effect.

There are many different tools located in the 'Adjust' menu that you can use to tweak your images. I recommend exploring them, playing around with them and finding what works the best for you.
Sharpened, Brightness & Contrast, Saturation increased
Sharpened, Brightness & Contrast, Saturation increased


Ok now you have a good, basic icon. But you could make it better...



Advanced

Watermarks and how to get rid of them

One of my biggest pet peeves about icons is when you can see a watermark on the image. It's usually from the network that aired the tv show and it's really not that hard to get rid of.

Now we are venturing into more advanced tools and be aware that not every program will call them the same thing.
Push tool sample
Push tool sample

In my program, it's called the Push tool.
What it does:
Pushes the pixels around the image.

Partially obscured symbol using the Push tool.
Partially obscured symbol using the Push tool.
How you're going to use it:
To cover up the ugly symbol.
You can adjust the size of the tool [you'll want it to be small] and the opacity [you'll want it to be in the midrange] You won't want the opacity at 100% because the edges will be too hard [like in the first sample image].
You just want to gently try to push the pixels around until it looks like the symbol was never there. Start in an area where the symbol isn't, then just click and drag the pixels over the symbol. Don't use the same starting point for the whole thing. Choose the pixels that look like they belong in that spot. In this image I used the black shadow to cover the bottom of the symbol. The more gray shadow on his neck to cover the rest, being careful not to get any dark pixels on his chin. Most programs have an 'Undo' option that can erase your last stroke if you make a mistake.




Layers

Now we're going to get into layers and how you can use them to improve your icon and make it different.

The image that you added to your template is a layer. You're going to create one or more layers to go on top of it to add different effects.

In order to see and arrange your layers: Go to the 'View' menu, scroll down to 'Palettes' and there should be an option that says 'Layers'.
Layer and Color Palette
Layer and Color Palette
[Note: some programs automatically have the Layer Palette open in your workspace so you may not need to open it.]
It's just a little window that shows the layers one on top of the other. You can move them up or down as you need. You can also change the opacity and blend mode of your layers.









You'll want to create a new layer the exact size of your icon template. In my program I simply go to the bottom layer [called the Background], right click on it and choose 'Duplicate'.
If you are unable to do that the simplest other way of doing it just to create another black icon template, then copy and paste it as a new layer.


You're going to need the Fill tool. It should look just like a paint bucket. Now you get to choose a color. You may have noticed the color palette on the right hand side of your workspace. It will offer you many choices. After you've picked one, just click on the black layer with the Fill tool and there you go.

Choose a solid color or a gradient.
Choose a solid color or a gradient.
You can also choose a gradient [a blend of 2 or more colors]. To do this, there should be a drop down menu that lets you pick between solid or gradient. You can use one of the preset gradients or make your own. You can also change the angle of your gradient and the number of times it's repeated.

After you've filled your layer with color, make sure that it's on top of your image layer. Now you'll want to change the blend mode and opacity in order to get different effects. You can get all kinds of different looks with this and you can also add more layers to get even more effects.
Blue layer set to 'Color' at 40%
Blue layer set to 'Color' at 40%

Brown/Green gradient set to 'Overlay' at 95%
Brown/Green gradient set to 'Overlay' at 95%



I usually use this specific gradient [one that I created] set to Overlay at varying opacity levels on every icon I make to just give it more punch.
Ivory to Skin gradient
Ivory to Skin gradient

Ivory/Skin gradient set to 'Overlay' at 55%
Ivory/Skin gradient set to 'Overlay' at 55%








Then if I want something with a bit more panache or a different color, I'll add 1 or more layers- playing with different blend modes and opacity levels until I'm satisfied.
Ivory/Skin gradient set to 'Overlay' at 55%, then Brown/Tan gradient set to 'Hard Light' at 70%
Ivory/Skin gradient set to 'Overlay' at 55%, then Brown/Tan gradient set to 'Hard Light' at 70%
















Texture

You can also add textures as another layer. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about textures because they really aren't much different than color layers. You just have to play with the blend modes and opacity until you get what you want. In this case Google is your friend. Here's some examples of textures:
Google image search for texture
Google image search for texture


The only thing I want to point out is that if your texture is obscuring something vital in your icon [a character's face for example] you can always use the Eraser tool on it. The eraser tool looks like an eraser of course. Use a very low opacity setting on it [5%] and set the hardness level at about 50. The hardness is just how soft or hard the edge of the eraser is. Gently erase some of the texture to let vital features show through a little better.

I don't remember everything I did to this icon but it involved texture!
I don't remember everything I did to this icon but it involved texture!



Text


Text isn't my strong suit. It's kind of hit and miss with me. I'd have to say that it's by far the most difficult part of icon making. Luckily, icons don't necessarily need it to be pretty! But in case you want to do it, I'll give you the basics.

You'll need the Text tool, which will look just like a letter of the alphabet [I've seen it as a T or an A]. When you open it, there will be a box to write in and some options to change the size, font and color. Sometimes these options won't appear in the text window but at the top of your workspace or in the color palette.
When you type usually a preview of it will appear on your icon.

Now the text is going to be added as another layer. Which means that you can use blend mode effects and change the opacity for it too.

This icon took a lot of time to make. lol
This icon took a lot of time to make. lol
I would recommend adding each word as an individual layer rather than typing it all into the text box at once. This way you can move each word independently into the position you desire. Which makes it easier to fit the text around the subject of your icon if you need to. In order to add them as separate layers, type one word in the box and add it: then select the top layer of the icon and add another word. Repeat for every word. Otherwise it will group them all together as one layer and when you try to move them, it will move them all at once.



Size, color and font

Some tips to help make your text legible: Keep in mind that your icon is going to be small. As you add the text, occasionally zoom out on the icon to get an idea of how it's going to look.

Most times you'll want to avoid thin, delicate fonts because they won't show up well. Use fonts that are bolder, thicker.

Try to use colors that contrast with the image. Again, it's going to make them easier to read.

Bold font, contrasting white
Bold font, contrasting white





Sometimes it's helpful to give the text a Drop Shadow to make it pop out more. The drop shadow tool can be found in the 'Effects' menu under '3d effects'. What it does is makes it look like there's a shadow or outline under the text. You can choose different colors but for most icons black works the best. I recommend a strong opacity level and low blur level. You can also change the angle of the shadow both vertically and horizontally. Be aware that once you add a drop shadow to your text you can no longer edit it.
Added a black drop shadow, 100% opacity, 2.0 blur, -1 vertical -1 horizontal
Added a black drop shadow, 100% opacity, 2.0 blur, -1 vertical -1 horizontal





Please proofread your text before you're finished. There are online dictionaries that can help you with spelling if you need it. There's nothing more sloppy-looking than an icon with poor spelling and that kind of ruins the point of all the hard work you just put into making it.
If you're interested in downloading some cool fonts to use, I recommend this website: 1001freefonts





I hope this guide has provided you with some useful tips on how to make icons. If you have any questions or need clarification on anything, just leave a comment and I'll try to help as best I can.
Go forth and make icons!
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6 comments

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User20392 said:
fanfly, thank you so much for making this article! It surely helps, and it's really awesome, specially since Supernatural is mentioned! This is a great guide, thank you again. :>
posted over a year ago.
 
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Great article.
posted over a year ago.
 
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fanfly said:
Thanks guys! I'm so glad people have found these articles useful. :)
posted over a year ago.
 
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iHyrule said:
Your using Gimp in this Article right?
posted over a year ago.
 
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^It looks like Photoshop to me, but I think you could still do some of the same effects with Gimp.
The text, overlay, layers,,, Things like that, I guess,,,
posted over a year ago.
 
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fanfly said:
@iHyrule, No I've never used Gimp. The program I use is Paint Shop Pro [which I believe is similar to Photoshop]. But Rainsky-57 says that effects I describe can be accomplished with Gimp.
posted over a year ago.