How It’s Made: Firepower 4 Edition

So the latest iteration of the Firepower mixtape series has been in the works for some time now, and it’s finally completed and ready to be unleashed for public consumption.

The album has an overall feeling of barbaric force to it, so I wanted the album artwork to reflect that, while also blazing territory not typically traversed visually by rap albums. As I think I’ve mentioned a few times, I can’t help but pop in the occasional ManOWar/Iron Maiden/Helloween CD from time to time. I don’t usually listen to a lot of metal, but every once in a great while, I get the urge. This project seemed like a perfect opportunity to pay homage to one of my favorite album covers, while also making something new that was eye catching enough to make somebody take notice no matter their musical preferences. I mean just look at this classic metal cover and try to tell me it isn’t badass. Try! It’s like crazy 80’s metal testosterone overload.

I wanted to replicate the overall aesthetic of this cover, but at the same time adding my own elements and doing it all from scratch. Just below here is our version in all its glory. Like Nabo Rawk said upon glimpsing the cover, “It’s like He-Man, Thundercats, and Conan the Barbarian all rolled into one!” I couldn’t have described it better.

I saved the project at various points, so I could track the progress. If you find talk of vectors, typography, and texture overlays boring, then proceed at your own risk. If it sounds like a grand old time then ask yourself, how does it feel to be a huge dork? I kid I kid, continue on for a step by step process of making Firepower 4…

Okay, so the inspiration for the illustration has been chosen, so a good starting point is to bust out the custom text first. So here’s what the original ManOWar font looks like more close up. It’s everything you want in a typeface, bold, unique, and attention grabbing. Lets try to duplicate it!


First I did some quick and dirty copy pasting in Photoshop to try to figure out how FIREPOWER 4 would look in this style. I tried to use preexisting letters where I could, though that was unfortunately only three of them. It’s a much longer word, but the O still falls pretty close to the center, so I was able to retain that detail in the new version. Also the first and the last letter had to be oversized in order to be faithful to the original.

Now that I have the rough number of letters and spacing I can just get in there and start altering things with the paint brush tool. It aint perfect, but it is another step closer to completion. I had to try to emulate the style of what I thought an E or a P would look like since there really was no basis for what they would look like.

After some more tweaks in Photoshop, I plunked that image over in Illustrator where I traced my rough with the pen tool creating the sharper more refined version below. Not too shabby! One step down, now on to the subtitle.

Now in the original, the typeface used was pretty basic and really nothing too fancy. For this design, we wanted to spruce that up, and bring a more graffiti style type to the table. Ape’s got the sick handstyle so it’s a no-brainer to incorporate graffiti into the design. He whipped up quite a few versions until we settled on this one. I don’t scan stuff too often now that I have my tablet, but for creating nice flowy words nothing beats paper and sharpies. It’s definitely hiphop, and graff, but also pretty metal looking, which helps tie everything in the project together.

The only issue with the writing is it’s going to need quite a lot of editing to get it just right for the cover. Photoshop will make this a breeze however. First thing I waned to do was flatten the line created by the tops of the letters. and to round off the bottom and give it a more clean line arcing along the bottom. A couple of the letters had a bit of a slant to them, and I wanted them to be more straight, so I lined things up some. Also I grabbed the “of” from one of the other versions because it seemed like a smaller one was a better fit and drew less attention away from the other more important words.

It looks pretty good to me at this point, the only thing left to do is make some of the thicknesses more uniform and to clean up some of the areas where the letters are brushing up on each other too much. Tooling around with these areas will help give the letters some space to breath, while also making it more readable.

Okay so just like the last step, when you get to the point where you feel like something is close to done, I jump over Illustrator.  This way it’ll look its sharpest, and we can blow it up to any size for things like banners and shirts if we want. With another element done, we’re moving right along. Also, at some point be on the look out for Secret of Steel shirts, I think their gonna look pretty nice.

With both main typography elements being finished, I can begin the real brunt of the work, the illustration for the front. First I used Photoshop to draw around the elements I knew we would keep, while also adding in the new things like the different face, sword and mic. Once I get the base colors filled in I can just remove the lines altogether, as they wont be needed moving forward. Careful listeners of Fire 4 will likely pick up on all the Conan the Barbarian samples, so it only seemed right to change the sword in to Arnold’s official sword from the movie.

We also knew we had to put Ape’s noggin on the barbarian so we took a few different pics from the correct angle. I Repainted the background doing my best to retain the original color scheme. Wasn’t too worried about things looking sketchy at this point as I knew it would all get refined later. Also I kept the original file on a different layer, so I could refer back to it as needed. Keeping things separated, organized, and labeled on different layers is an absolute must for laying out design and illustrative projects such as these.

Made an extremely rough first pass at coloring the warrior. It’s taking shape and even though a lot of things don’t look right, now I can begin to focus on certain areas and tighten them up one by one. Up until this point the face has probably gotten the most attention. Since the type is all finished, I dropped those in as well so I could see how they would all fit together.

Alright so now things are shaping up a bit. Things are starting to come together though the sword, mic, and other elements still have a ways to go. Added the earring, almost forgot to do that. The four little dots left of the torso are a good way to try to keep the color consistent while your working on different parts of a larger object. It’s just an easy way to use the eyedropper for quick access to some of the colors you know you’re going to have to use frequently. It’s a great tool and probably one of the few things I actually use hotkeys for. I usually just can’t be bothered to memorize any of them.

Hmm, at this point it was decided that it would probably be a good idea to have Apeshit and Illogix written somewhere on the front using the same tags that we used on previous Firepower mixtapes. Putting both names in the bottom corner helped fill out some empty space without overcrowding the composition, I just had to snip back some of the epic hair. The sword and the mic both gave me a bit of trouble, so they ended up changing a lot all the way up until the end. I just couldn’t get them to look the way I wanted.

More refining, and now things are really starting to shape up. You can see more definition in a lot of the areas like the armbands, and I added a lot of little details like tiny chain particles that weren’t even in the original cover. The electricity and fire both got a little more work put into them, and the mic and sword themselves are one step closer to their final version. I really liked how the hair looked in the original, and I didn’t want to mess with it too much, but in order to make everything look nice in the composition, I had to reflect the big flowy hair strand on the top of the head. You can see how much better the image fits with the text after this was done.

Finally finished tightening up the figure and refining the sword, mic, and electricity. I gave everything one more pass and messed around with the hair one final time. Also I subdued the color of the names on the bottom because when they were black, they attracted the eye too much towards the bottom instead of taking in the image from the top and moving downward like I intended. Lastly, I put in a light texture of colored pencils at about 40 percent with an overlay to pull it all together, and take away some of the digital look of eveything.

And just for the hell of it, here’s the back too.

Before I started getting serious with the CD design, I took a few minutes to get loose before the real work began. This is what resulted. I am sorry, so sorry.

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