Creating composite images can be a lot of fun, and learning how to effectively use the tools in Photoshop can really enhance your creativity. A composite image is a manipulated or modified image. You may modify it to enhance its quality or to create a new image entirely. In this article, I show you how I enhanced and modified a great digital photograph to turn it into a piece of art that simulates an illustration.
I started with an image of a steampunk model that James Conway (my boss) took at Photoshop World last year (see Figure 1).
The shot itself is fantastic, but I wanted to add to it and give it a darker mood. Using Photoshop, I can nondestructively add layers and additional images to create a composite image. The key is using layer blending modes, which are found in the Layers panel.
The first image I added to the original is one I found online that has a Creative Commons license. You can use Google's advanced search to find Creative Commons images, or you can search the Creative Commons site.
To combine the images, I pasted the Creative Commons image on a layer above the original image (see Figure 2). I did have to erase one portion of the Creative Commons image because it was too dark. I used the steam and clouds from this image to achieve the look I wanted to create.
Lowering the opacity to 31% blends the two images, but using the layers blending mode helps merge the images even more (see Figure 3).
Figure 4 shows the layer blending modes in Photoshop CS6. They are grouped into categories:
Each mode will react differently given the layers in your document. Experimentation is key. Don't be afraid to try something new using these modes.
You can browse through blending modes by pressing the Shift and +/– keys simultaneously. This shortcut enables you to see each mode quickly and compare the effect on the layers below. I tried several before deciding on Hard Light, which produced the subtle clouds in the background.
Using this technique, you can add as many layers or images as you wish to create your own textures or background images. I added two additional layers, one of a wood texture and another with a rocky landscape. Again, with each layer I used a different blending mode (see Figure 5).
If you want to change the hue or color of your layered images, try using a gradient layer with a color blend mode and a lower opacity. For example, using a brown gradient and color blending mode creates a sepia-tone background.
With any complex document, layer organization is key. Organizing layers into groups and naming each layer and group will save you a lot of time and confusion.
Another great technique is creating selections to isolate or modify portions of your document. Using the Quick Select tool and Refine Edge command (Select > Refine Edge), you can select fine edges and details. Another great feature of the Refine Edge command enables you to output your selection to a new layer with a layer mask (see Figure 6).
You can use adjustment layers to enhance or adjust the image. You can also blend the image with other images, or you can even blend it with itself. Adding an additional layer of the subject with a blend mode of Hard Light can make the image pop (see Figure 7).
Another fun technique that can add dimension and mood to an image is to simulate rain in the image. This is an old technique that Photoshop pros have been using for years.
To simulate rain:
The end result is subtle, but the rain adds a vintage appeal (see Figure 10).
This could be the final image, and it would be a great composite. But since this was created nondestructively in Photoshop, I can always modify it or add to it later.
I decided that in addition to the changes I already made I wanted to create an illustrative look for this image. I started by duplicating a layer of the model and choosing Filter > Oil Paint (see Figure 11). This filter appears under Pixel Bender in Photoshop CS5, but in Photoshop CS6, it is part of the main Filter menu. With the new Mercury Graphics Engine in Photoshop CS6, Oil Paint is quicker to apply and even more fun to try.
The Oil Paint filter may be too intense at times, so you can use blend modes or adjust the opacity to reduce the intensity. You can also mask out parts of your image to emphasize the effect. In this case, I isolated the filter to the corset and necklace. When masked, the corset and necklace almost jump off the page compared to the rest of the image, which creates focus (see Figure 12).
Using the Mixer Brush and natural brushes, you can add original layers as illustrative elements to your image. The Mixer Brush simulates a natural painting technique, which enables you to simulate paint loads, mix, and even adjust the material saturation — wet, dry, very wet, and so forth (see Figure 13).
A new tool in Photoshop CS6 that creates a great look is the Erodible Point brush. This brush enables you to simulate the look of a traditional pencil or pastel tip that dulls due to use. These new tips also work well with a Wacom tablet and stylus to give you the pressure sensitivity needed to fade the tips and achieve varying natural thickness.
Sometimes you need to create a flattened layer in order to apply filters to your entire image. You could turn the whole image, including layers, into a Smart Object, but that would make editing individual layers difficult. Instead, try creating a new flattened layer.
On your keyboard, press Shift+Command+Option+E (on Mac OS) or Shift+Control+Alt+E (on Windows) to create a New Layer Via Snapshot. This will create a new layer composed of all visible layers without flattening your existing layers. This is a great way to create a flattened image nondestructively.
You can then turn this layer into a Smart Object by right-clicking the layer and selecting Convert To Smart Object from the context-sensitive menu.
You can also choose Filter > Filter Gallery to create an illustrative look for your image. My favorite technique is using two filters. First I applied the Cutout filter (see Figure 14).
After I achieved the look in Figure 14, I added an additional filter using the New Effect Layer button in the lower right corner of the Filter Gallery. The second filter is Poster Edges (see Figure 15). This will give you the outline look of a pen and ink drawing over your image. When using filters, you should experiment and adjust each slider to view the results.
You can use a layer mask to isolate the filters to specific areas of the image, like I did with the Oil Paint filter.
A great technique is to duplicate an existing layer mask by dragging the original mask to the desired layer while holding the Option (on Mac OS) or Alt (on Windows) key. The duplicated mask isolates the illustration look to just the model and leaves the background untouched. To enhance the mood and add some depth to the image, I applied the Black & White adjustment layer to the entire image (see Figure 16).
The final touch was to add vignette corners (see Figure 16). A great way to do this is to use the Lens Correction filter:
I hope you enjoyed reading about this project as much as I enjoyed creating this artwork. If you have your own composite images or illustrations to share, check out Photoshop on Facebook and share your image with the team.
Kevin Stohlmeyer is an Adobe Certified Instructor, user group manager, and Adobe Community Professional based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has been teaching Adobe products since 2000, both in higher education and at C2 Graphics Productivity Solutions. He has been featured in Photoshop User Magazine and is a NAPP member. You can find Kevin on Twitter @kstohl or on Facebook at facebook.com/kevin-stohlmeyer.