Make your own Valentine's Day cards

Whether you personally like or loathe the romantic holiday, there's certainly someone in your life who would appreciate a homemade card on February 14. Knock the socks off your sweetie with an easy-to-make card using the fabulous freeware app Paint.NET.

Paint.NET

Paint.NET provides a free way to create high-quality greeting cards.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

If you think you've got it tough on Valentine's Day, consider your poor, humble Download.com editor. My wife's birthday is on Valentine's Day! Luckily, we've been together long enough that I don't have to impress her with dozens of roses, buckets of chocolates, and the rest of the conventional commercial holiday paraphernalia. However, a homemade card is always a great way to demonstrate my love.

Creating your own Valentine's Day cards with commercial design software like Adobe Photoshop or CorelDRAW will provide you with a wide array of options for tweaking your images, text, and other graphical elements. Those programs also offer instructional assistance and templates to help you through the process. But if you're willing to use a little elbow grease and your imagination, you can create a fantastic Valentine's Day card using free design software.

For this tutorial, I'm going to use Paint.NET, a top-rated download that offers many of the important features that you'll find in commercial image editors. GIMP is another great free program that actually offers a bit more power in terms of third-party plug-ins and online tutorials, but I find that Paint.NET is an easier program for new users to learn.

Also, I'm going to create a basic Valentine's Day card that includes an image with overlaid text and the date on the front, and some graphic elements and romantic sentiments on the inside. If you're the artistic sort and can create your own graphics, more power to you. One good free app for doing so is the vector-illustration software Inkscape. I'm artistically incompetent, so I tend to focus on using cool pictures and injecting some wit into my text.

First, install and launch the Paint.NET application. A new document should already be waiting for you, but if not, create your own by selecting File -> New or hit Ctrl-N. By default, your workspace will be 800x600 pixels, set at a resolution of 96 pixels/inch. Feel free to play around with the dimensions and resolution, but the default settings will let you create a reasonably high-quality card without having to worry about the borders of your page.

Before even selecting an image, we're going to divide your project in half, for a traditional folded card. Unlike Photoshop, Paint.NET doesn't seem to have "guide" lines that you can use to mark specific measurements in your project. What I do instead is create a one-pixel black line down the middle of the page.

Paint.NET cursor position info

Information about your cursor position sits in the lower right corner.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Click the Rectangle Select tool in the Tools dialog, and move the cursor to the very middle of the top of the 800x600 project by watching the cursor location in the bottom right corner of the Paint.NET interface. When it reads "400, 0" you're there. Now click and drag your cursor down to the bottom of the page and move it one pixel to the right, or to "401, 600." Select black as your foreground color using the Colors dialog (if it's not visible, hit F8), then select Edit -> Fill Selection. Now you've got a black line down the middle of your page that will represent the fold mark of your card.

Next, choose the image that you want to use for the front of your card. Luckily for me, my wife is an excellent photographer who is a power Flickr user, so I've got thousands of images with which I can work. Save your selected digital image to your computer if it's not already on your machine, and then open it in Paint.NET. You should now have two files open, your blank card (with a black line down the middle), and the image for the front of your card.

After opening your selected image in Paint.NET, you may need to crop and resize it to fit onto one half of a standard 11-by-8.5-inch piece of paper. In my example, I've cropped my image to 330x392 pixels, which allows about 2 inches of white space on the top of the card, and a little more than an inch on the right border. I'll cut off that extra paper when I'm done, leaving me with a lovely card that's about 4x6. At the default resolution settings, you've got about a maximum height of 600 pixels and a maximum width of 430 pixels before your image will become too large to fit on half a sheet of standard paper. Crop to Selection is the first option in the Image menu, and Resize is right underneath it.

Paint.NET image navigation

Thumbnails in the upper right corner of Paint.NET help you navigate between open images.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

When your image is at an appropriate size and shape for your card, select the whole thing by using Edit -> Select All or hitting Ctrl-A. Copy it to your clipboard with Ctrl-C, then switch to your card project. Paint.NET displays thumbnails of your open documents in the upper-right corner of the interface, making it easy to navigate between them.

Now create a new "layer" in your card project. A layer is a discrete part of an image that can be moved, edited, or tweaked without affecting the rest of the image. All the layers for an image will be displayed in a Layers dialog. If you don't see it, hit F7 to make it appear. To create a new layer, select Layers -> Add New Layer, or hit Ctrl+Shift+N. In that new "Layer 2" you've created, paste your copied image onto your blank card.

We need to position your image so that it sits directly to the right of the black line running through the middle of the page. Select the Move Selected Pixels tool from the Tools dialog (hit F5 if you don't see it). It's the darkened cursor with a plus sign at the top of the left column. You can also select it with the keyboard shortcut "M." Then use your move to drag and drop that layer directly to the right of your black fold line. The arrow keys also move your selection pixel by pixel for fine tuning its location. Use Ctrl-+ to zoom in for a closer, more precise view.

The image for the front of your card is in the right spot. Now we need some text. I usually add the date in the upper right corner (or wherever is appropriate) for historical reference, and then write a big "Happy Valentine's Day" ("Happy Birthday" in my case) or other clever phrase in big letters on top of the photo. In this example, I've added "February 14, 2007" at the top and the short-but-sweet "I do!" at the bottom.

For maximum flexibility and editability, I recommend creating a layer for each text element you want to add to the front of the card. After creating the new layer, select the text tool from the Tools dialog. It's represented by the letter "A." (You can also just hit "T" if you're into keyboard shortcuts.) Position your cursor where you want to add the text, click, and type. It's that simple.

A secondary text menu at the top of the Paint.NET interface lets you select the font, size, effects, and orientation of your words. One nice aspect of Paint.NET is that the font drop-down shows how each font looks, so you don't have to keep applying them to see. Once you've decided on the content and appearance of your text, select the Move Selected Pixels tool (M) again to position the text exactly where you want it on the card.

Text drop shadow

Adding a drop shadow to your text helps it show up on the card.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

One quick aside: a semifancy trick for making your text pop on the front of the card is to apply a drop shadow, and there are a variety of methods for doing so. In my case, I've created one layer of text with "I do!" in black, and then other layer on top of that with "I do!" in white. I positioned the two text elements exactly so that the black background text disappeared below the white. Then I used the arrow keys with the Move Selected Pixels tool to set off the black text from the white text by 2 pixels to the right and 2 pixels down. Super snazzy.

Also, if you're looking for some fancy new fonts, I highly recommend the Web site dafont.com. Just download the font you want (if it's free), extract it using a program like WinRAR, open up your Fonts controls from the Windows Control Panel, select File -> Install New Font, and then navigate to the extracted file on your local drive to add it to Paint.NET and all your other applicable Windows programs.

Card front

Who's that handsome guy?

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Hooray--you're halfway through! (No one said love was easy.) Save your current project as a Paint.NET (PDN) document, so that you can edit any part of the document. Saving it as a JPG or other "flattened" format will remove your ability to edit specific layers.

What I would do now is print the front of your card to see if you're satisfied with the appearance. If not, go back and fix whatever's bothering you. If it looks good, it's time to move on to the inside.

I'm going to assume that you're using a single-sided printer (color obviously looks better), so we'll need to eventually print the inside of the card on the back of the paper upon which you printed the front. That will give you a nice, foldable card, but it's essential to line up the inside contents of the card with the front.

First, save your current front-card Paint.NET document with a new name, such as "cardback.pdn." This will let you create a new document without affecting your existing one. Now create a new layer, and select the entire area represented by the front image of the card, using the Rectangle Select tool (keyboard shortcut "S"). Choose light gray as your foreground color from the Colors menu, and Fill Selection, just like we did when we make the black folding line.

Now you've got the exact area for the inside of your card demarcated by that layer of light grey, so you can delete all of the other layers from the front of the card by selecting them in the Layers dialog and hitting the "X" mark.

Card back

Flipping images vertically and horizontally is a quick way to make corner pieces.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Next, create new layers for the additional graphic elements and text that you want to use on the inside. In my example, I've taken a selection of a picture of my wife's wedding bouquet and used Image -> Flip Horizontal and Image -> Flip Vertical to create four cornerpieces. I've kept each of them in their own layer in order to position them independently. If you're looking for some clip art to include in the inside (or front) of your card, Pat's Web Graphics has a lousy site design but a great collection of relevant images.

After adding the flowers in the corners, I added text to the middle of the page using the same procedure that we used on the front of the card--create a new layer, select the text tool, type it in, and tweak the appearance and location. In my example, I've spared you the romantic mush and used a generic "Romantic sentiments go here!" placeholder.

Once the images and text for the inside of the card are complete, you can delete that layer of light gray that we created to mark the card's area. You'll also want to delete the folding line from your background layer. Select the entirely area of the background layer using Ctrl-A, then simply hit "Delete" button to clear its contents.

Now it's time to print the final card. Take the piece of paper upon which you printed the front of a card, turn it upside down and reinsert it into your printer. Print the inside of your card on the back of that paper and then fold the entire piece of paper along the black guideline on the front. Use scissors (or better, a paper cutter) to cut along the lines of your card, discarding the blank extra space along the top, bottom, and right of the card.

Voila! You've got your own homemade Valentine's Day card. It didn't take that long, did it?

Did this tutorial work for you? (You can thank me after Valentine's Day.) What other software or tricks do you use to create your own customized greeting cards? Tell me about it in the comments.

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