Birgit Palma created this optical illusion of a 3D Rubik's Cube with movable eye, nose, ear, and hair in Adobe Illustrator CC and Adobe Photoshop CC.

How to Illustrate the Impossible

By Terri Stone

It appears to be old, but it's new. It seems that it's 3D, but it's not. To illustrate the concept of the "the fluid self," represented by a Rubik's Cube with movable facial features, Birgit Palma used only two apps, one service, and a vivid imagination.

Palma, an illustrator and letterer who lives in Barcelona, began by constructing the cube out of intersecting lines in Adobe Illustrator CC. She then moved to Adobe Photoshop CC, where she later incorporated Adobe Stock images of ancient statues and lots of textures. "I know this cube wouldn't work in reality," she says, "but I'm an illustrator. Pursuing the impossible is what makes graphics interesting!"

Palma captured her process in a series of soundless video screen-captures. Check out her techniques below and, if you want to give it a go, download 10 images from Adobe Stock for free to begin.


Palma says she used Illustrator to draw the cube because it's easier for her than Photoshop when she's making geometric objects in a certain perspective. Once she was happy with its basic shape, she copied and pasted the cube into Photoshop as a Smart Object. As you'll see in the video clip below, Palma frequently edited the Smart Object in Illustrator after pasting it into Photoshop, moving lines, refining angles, and more. Photoshop automatically updated the file with her changes.

Toward the end of the clip, Palma used the Brush tool to paint in shadows between individual squares. "I let some air in-between each small square," she explains. "The space helps to create depth and separates the gray mass."


Before this screen-capture video, Palma found several statues on Adobe Stock and saved the previews to a Creative Cloud library, which she could then access from Photoshop. After placing the previews to see which would work best ("To create a good three-dimensional effect, it's important that the details have the same perspective as the cube," she notes), she licensed her favorites. 

She then selected parts of each statue (a nose here, an eye there), masked them out of the larger photo of the statue, and placed the bits onto individual squares of the cube.


From Photoshop's Libraries panel, Palma searched Adobe Stock for stone textures, using Layer masks to apply different textures to different sides of the cube. "By using Levels and Saturation on the textures," Palma says, "I emphasized parts of the cube and gave it all a more convincing three-dimensional look." To catch Palma in an especially effective demonstration of trompe l'oiel, watch this clip closely from 06:14 to its end.


Palma was ready to add pattern to her cube. "Having too many eyes or mouths on the cube would make it look creepy," she explains. This clip shows how she created the initial stripe and dot patterns in Illustrator, pasted them into Photoshop as Smart Objects, and modified them so they appear integral to the cube's surface. She also introduced color to individual squares, which she overlaid with textures. 


In this clip, Palma broke out of the rigid cube grid by transforming a corner into a swirling mass of hair. "I didn't want only to make the cube look 3D," she says, "but also to give the face a certain depth. The viewer gets a feeling of movement and also the possibility that the face can change however you turn the cube."


See Palma fake signs of age by incorporating a stock texture into one square, roughing up the cube's originally smooth surface.


Palma wanted the small details outside the cube to create a sense of movement. "I always imagine my artworks as something living—in movement," she says. "Motion makes illustration more interesting." She eventually decided to remove the background squares she added much earlier in her process and instead use smaller, more abstract geometric shapes.

March 22, 2018