Photoshopping for MAD

July 10th, 2006 | Posted in MAD Magazine

I have gotten a lot of positive comments about a three page job I did in MAD #467 a month or so ago called “Rejected Characters from CARS”. The article consisted of 15 cars ala the Pixar film that didn’t make the cut as characters for the movie because they were deemed too “kid un-friendly”. The writer on the piece was Jacob Lambert. Most of those commenting pointed out that the art I did for this job was quite different from my usual ink-and-color work. Usually my work for MAD is penciled and inked on board in the traditional manner, then scanned in and colored in PhotoShop. The process for this piece really wasn’t that much of a departure, except for the fact that this art contained no linework. I thought I would put together a little step by step of one of the cars in the project. It’s not a real tutorial, as I did not save each step as I went, but it will somewhat describe the process.

MAD art director Sam Viviano called me about doing this job about two weeks before the issue’s deadline, so time was tight. What they were looking for was something close to the look of the film’s images… meaning a realistic rendering job on cartoon, humanized cars. Sam and Ryan Flanders, MAD production artist extraordinaire, thought I could pull this off. Coloring something within the framework of a line drawing is very different from fully painting something. With line-and-color, the inked lines define and hold the forms together, and the color adds values and furthers the description of the forms. Take away the lines, however, and the painting will not stand on it’s own in the least. In order to do something like this Cars piece, I needed to define all the forms with the values of the painting. I’ve done this before with some other illustration jobs, but not to this extent, so this piece would require a lot of learning on-the-fly.

I did the pencils right on the layouts, scanned them in and used them as the basis of the painting. Keeping them on a separate layer, I did the backgrounds first, using a combination of painting, photos and textures (the concrete). Then I started doing each car as a separate piece, which I would then drop into the final art file and add the shadows, etc. That seemed simple at the time. I had great aspirations to map out the reflections in each car to match the environment, the cars next to each, the eyes in the hood, etc. just like the ones in the Cars film. However after I spent an entire day painting “Guzzle: the 3 miles-per-gallon Winnebago” I realized I did not have the time to do this with 14 cars to go. Therefore I had to just paint each car with a generic reflection pattern, freehand in many cases. The end result wasn’t anywhere near as accurate to the Cars movie look as I wanted, but more of a cartoon interpretation of it. If you see the piece in #467, “Guzzle” is the only car I spent as much time as I wanted on, and it is the closest to the look I really wanted.

To illustrate the process, here is “Scotty Scofflaw: The Booted, Ticket-Plastered Sedan”. First, I started with some reference of an appropriate sedan:

The reference

The cars in “Cars” are anthropomorphic, with human features that take precedent over the structure of the car itself. The integrity of the car still needed to be maintained, like it was made of rubber and not metal, and would stretch and move with expressions and animation. Pixar took a lot of liberties with the front ends of the cars to accommodate the mouths. Here’s my sketch of the car with the expression and action needed to ‘sell the gag’:

Car Sketch

I started adding flat color under the pencil drawing layer, separating areas into their own layers. Because I wanted to maintain the mechanical lines of the car’s structure, I would use the vector tool to draw precise contours and then transform that to a selection, using a light feathering of the selection to avoid a jaggy edge:

Adding Flat Color

I continue to add the flat color, but also am now doing a little gradation work in the windshield and the ‘eyelids’. The eyes are the key to the life of the car, so I wanted to get that part right and as close to the film as I could. For the eyes I used ellipse selections I would save and then scale down for the pupils. The Pixar cars have eyes that are very concave, like little bowl depressions in the windshield with a lens over the top, like a real eye. I tried to capture this by offsetting the pupil in the iris and adding shadows to give some depth:

More color added

Now I lose the pencil lines and can really start the rendering:

Adding eyes and some gradations

I apologize for the jump right to nearly fully rendered car. I did not anticipate doing a step-by-step at the time, and did not save the image in stages. What I did here was use the wand tool to select areas like the body color, then use the lasso tool to remove areas of the selection, soften the edges and use the airbrush tool to lay in highlight reflections, dark reflections and other values. In some cases I just went in with the paintbrush tool and painted the reflection, which took away from the realistic look but was a time issue:

Rendered Car

I added the final touches. The tickets are a real ticket I got from a law enforcement website, manipulated and twisted around:

Almost Done!

Here is the final car painting in position. I added the shadows on the ground to the background image:

Final Art!

Some time in the future I will do a tutorial on my painting technique for a MAD job, and will save steps along the way in anticipation of that.


  1. pagmatic says:

    🙂 Thanks for the step-by-step (even though you missed a few).

  2. cvanoni says:

    I was skimming through MAD #467 a couple weeks ago and stopped on the CARS parody to investigate a new MAD artist.
    Digitally color me surprised; It was Tom Richmond!

    Good to see others took notice as well!
    Great job – always interesting to see artists try out new techniques.

    ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Corbett


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