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Creating a Neon Sign—Graphically

If you ever get the chance to watch a skilled artisan practicing their craft, you’ll notice they make it look easy. With years of practice, one can make just about anything look easy. To see a neon sign-builder make his work look easy, search for “Blue Collar: Master (Bleep) Is Making Neon Signs the Old-School Way, By Hand” on YouTube to watch Jay “Dirty” Gordon hone his craft with some vintage metal-working equipment and a lot of ingenuity. Caution: salty language is included in this video.

Creating a Neon Sign—Graphically

Replicate a Distinctive Neon Glow in Just a Few Easy Steps

By Shon Roti


Figure A: Examples of finished neon sign graphics created in CorelDRAW, including a close up of the sign designed here.

If you ever get the chance to watch a skilled artisan practicing their craft, you’ll notice they make it look easy. With years of practice, one can make just about anything look easy. To see a neon sign-builder make his work look easy, search for “Blue Collar: Master (Bleep) Is Making Neon Signs the Old-School Way, By Hand” on YouTube to watch Jay “Dirty” Gordon hone his craft with some vintage metal-working equipment and a lot of ingenuity. Caution: salty language is included in this video.

I also thought that graphically creating the look of neon for a sublimated sign, using CorelDRAW, would be difficult. It is not.

Today, I want to explain and illustrate a technique to create a neon-looking sign using CorelDRAW and sublimation (FIGURE A). I am using CorelDRAW 2017; however, the tools and techniques are relevant for versions 9 and higher.

Tailoring the Typeface

The first step to mimic a neon sign is to find a font for the project. Because neon tubes are uniform in thickness, choose a font that has a uniform thickness throughout the letters. In this application, I have chosen the font “Gisha” because neon letters often utilize sans serif and script fonts.


Figure B: The Convert to Curves option in the Object menu


Figure C: The Fillet/Scallop/Chamfer option under the Dockers section of the Window menu

Neon signs do not have sharp edges, so if the font used has corners that need to be rounded off, change the font to curves and use the Fillet/Scallop/Chamfer option. To change the text to a curve, select the text and go to Object>Convert to Curves (FIGURE B). The short cut is Ctrl+Q. Next, to round the corners, select the text (now an object) and go to Window>Dockers>Fillet/Scallop/Chamfer (FIGURE C). Adjust the radius appropriate to the font size. This font is at 229 points and has a radius of 0.1 in.

Referencing the Real Deal


Figure D: Using an example of a real sign will help you capture the unique look of neon.

It is at this point that I recommend importing a photo of a real neon sign for reference. This example will show what the actual neon colors look like, the glow they create, and how the colors emanate and change, moving from the center of the tube outward (FIGURE D). If needed, the colors in the photo can be used to create a color palette for this project. To do this, select the photo and go to Window>Color Palettes>Create Palette from Selection. In the next window that opens, name the palette. In the next window after that, choose how many colors you would like to be created. Up to 255 colors can be created; I’ve chosen 100 for this project (FIGURE E). This palette will now be in your workspace to use as needed.


Figure E: The Create Palette from Selection option under the Color Palettes section of the Window menu

Next, copy and paste (Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V) the text/object and set it aside. This copy will be used later in this project to create the “glow” of the neon.


Figure F: The Contour tool

Use the Contour tool to create the color migration from the center of the letters to the edges. Select the original text/object and click on the flyout of the Drop Shadow tool to find the Contour tool (FIGURE F). Use the Property bar options to modify the settings (FIGURE F). Select the Inside Contour, choose 5 steps in the Contour Steps, change the Contour Offset to .02, and select a color from the Fill Color (for inside the letters). The RGB color palette in the workspace can be used to change the edges of the letters. The Contour Steps and Offset may need to be modified to create the same effect on text that is larger or smaller.

Getting the Glow


Figure G: Convert to Bitmap


Figure H: Change the objects’ order using the Object menu

To create the “glow” of the neon sign, use the copy of the text/object that was set aside earlier. Select the copy and change the fill color as needed using either the eyedropper tool to sample and fill using a color from the sample image, or fill the copy using the color palette created earlier from this same sample image. Now, with the copy selected, change it to a 300 dpi bitmap. Go to Bitmap>Convert to Bitmap (FIGURE G). Now blur the image. Go to Bitmap>Blur>Gaussian Blur, move the slider to about the half way point (50 pixels). Click OK. Move the blurred image behind the original text/object by selecting the blurred image and going to Object>Order. Choose from a variety of options to layer these objects as needed (FIGURE H).


Figure I: Better replicate the appearance of light by using the Transparency and Merge Mode options.

If the objects you have just created are in front of a background image (as they are in this tutorial using a barn wood image), you may want to use the Transparency and Merge Mode options to make the blurred image blend more realistically with the background. To do this, select the blurred image and click on the Transparency tool (Figure I). Now, in the Property bar, select Uniform Transparency, change Normal mode to Soft Light mode in the dropdown menu, and change the percentage of transparency to 0% using the slider (FIGURE I). Copy and paste (Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V) this blurred image to further saturate the colors, if needed. Center the original text/object over the blurred letters. Make sure the text/object is placed above all the blurred letters.


Figure J: Create the finishing touch using the Object menu.

To create the oval around the “OPEN” letters, use the Ellipse tool (F7). Once the oval is created and the thickness of the line has been modified as needed (F12), change the line to a fill. With the oval selected, go to Object>Convert Outline to Object (FIGURE J). With that done, follow the same steps for this oval used to create the neon look for the OPEN letters.

With a little practice in CorelDRAW and sublimation, you, too, can call yourself a neon artisan—a sublimation artisan.

Shon Roti has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Sioux Falls with an emphasis in graphic design.

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