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For this tutorial I will be showing you how to combine various photos all inspired by nature into a collective and unified illustration. The design will use coloring and lighting effects along with advanced masking techniques. If you are ready to go then fire up Photoshop and let’s get rocking!
As always, this is the final image that we’ll be creating:
Let’s create a New Document in Photoshop and we will make it 11” x 8.5” or standard paper size. The document should be horizontal, and we will be able to make our image nice and large.
Once we have set that up we are going to open the mountain image from the resources folder and grab our Magic Wand Tool (W). What we want to do here is just trim out the mountain so we can eliminate the sky in the background; we are going to be creating our own sky later on. Select a part of the blue sky in the image and you should have a selection of the majority of the sky. If you don’t get all of it then just hold down the Shift Key and click in and around the clouds to add to our current selection.
Now that we have an active selection we can simply press the Delete Key to remove the background from our mountain image.
Next, drag the isolated mountain image into the document we created. You can now close the original image since we have dropped the image into our file. After placing the image we want to press Command+T to initiate the Free Transform command and just enlarge the image so that it stretches across the canvas. Make sure to hold the Shift Key and drag from any of the four corners to constrain the proportions of the image.
(If the image is too small, you don’t want to scale it up very much as it could result in a noticeable loss of quality.)
Duplicate the Mountains Layer by pressing Command+J and turn off the visibility of the original mountain image. From here, add an Adjustment Layer by clicking on the icon shown below in the Layers Palette:
Select ‘Levels’ to apply the Adjustment Layer and move the middle slider to the right a bit so it’s right around ‘0.75’ or whatever looks best to you.
Doing this will add more contrast to the mountains and anything beneath that layer. You should now have a darker version that looks something like the image below:
Turn the visibility of the Levels Adjustment Layer on and off to see the difference that it makes for us.
We are now going to add another Adjustment Layer to our image but this time instead of Levels we want to go with ‘Black & White’. For now we will leave the setting of the Black & White Adjustment Layer set to ‘Default’ as highlighted in the image.
Create a New Layer at the bottom of our Layers Palette just below the mountain image. Switch over to your Gradient Tool and set it to a Linear Gradient that fades from mid-gray (I’m using #888888) to a solid white (#FFFFFF). Click and drag from the top to the bottom of the image to create the gradient.
Next, create another New Layer above the previous layer and with your Gradient Tool selected, make sure that you have a Radial Gradient that fades from solid to transparent and then check off ‘Reverse’ on the toolbar as shown below:
Click in the center of your image and drag past the outer corner of the document. This will create a gradual fade that darkens the upper edges of the image.
Duplicate the mountain image once again by pressing Command+J and change the Blending Mode of this layer to ‘Soft Light’ as shown here:
Add a Layer Mask to the duplicate mountain layer select the Gradient Tool once again. Make sure that it is still set up as a Radial Gradient that this time fades from solid black to white and uncheck the ‘Reverse’ option we used in the previous step. Click at the top point of the mountain and drag downwards to fade the layer into the layer below.
Doing this will show the original black and white image beneath the copy we had just set to ‘Soft Light’ creating a fairly subtle effect that adds a lot of depth to our design. Experimenting with Blending Modes and fading them into one another can often produce some interesting results.
You should still at this point have your Gradient Tool since we just used it and now we will go back to a normal Radial Gradient that fades from solid to transparent as shown below:
The color I am using here is a pretty bright shade of red with the value of #DC4040.
Now that we have that set up create a New Layer at the top of the Layers Palette and click in the center of the image before dragging outwards to create the gradient. Change the Blending Mode of this layer to ‘Linear Dodge (Add)’ and you should now have something like this:
I am placing a light source pretty early on in order to establish a focal point in the background where we can continue to build up our design.
Next, open up the image of the deer (or download here) and with the Magic Wand Tool (W) select part of the white area. Hold down the Shift Key and click in between the antlers on the right so that you also get this area selected before pressing ‘Delete’ to remove the background from this image.
Drag the image of the deer into your document and resize it so it matches pretty closely to the image below:
From here we are going to go back to the first copy of the mountain image and reduce the opacity to about 20% now that we have placed the deer.
Make a copy of the deer layer (Command+J) and turn off the original layer. Next, press Command+Alt(Option)+U to desaturate the copy of the deer that we have just made.
Next, duplicate the red gradient layer beneath the deer and move it up to the top of the Layers Palette. Reduce the size a bit and position it towards the edge of the deer’s head as shown in the image. I have duplicated this layer once more and positioned it at the bottom of the deer and masked it out.
To do this, hold the Command Key and click on the deer layer to activate the selection. After that, select the red gradient layer and click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette.
So far we have covered some different ways that we can use Layer Masks and create some interesting light effects. We have also been experimenting with the Blending Modes to push things even further. In the next part I am going to repeat these steps in order to create the same type of light effects on the deer using contrasting colors.
You can see I have placed the colors all around the deer, in some spots actually mixing it with the red lights to produce some cool results as well.
Create a new layer at the top of your Layers Palette and with the Circle Marquee Tool (M) create a large circle shape that overlaps the left side of the deer. Remember to also hold down the Shift Key while you make your circle to make sure that it remains in proportion.
Once you have your selection made switch to the Paint Bucket Tool (G) and with a vibrant red color, fill in your shape. After doing this, change the Blending Mode to Multiply.
Next, open up the nebula stock image from the resources folder (or download it here) and place it into your document just behind the deer layer. Press Command+T to initiate a Free Transform and enlarge the image so it fills out the canvas. Once again, hold the Shift Key while doing so to prevent the image from stretching out and distorting.
Duplicate the nebula image and move it to the top of the Layers Palette, just below the red circle.
After that, hold down the Command Key and select the deer to activate the selection or the “Marching Ants”. Select the copy of the nebula layer and then click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette to mask the image.
This is basically what our image would have looked like if we just placed the nebula image at the top of the Layers Palette, the difference is that now you have control over the part of the nebula image inside of the deer as well as the outside. Change the Blending Mode of the top nebula image to Overlay and save your work before moving on to the next step.
Open texture ‘A’ from the grungy paper textures (which you can download here) in the resources folder and bring it into your Photoshop document. Rotate the image so that it spans across the document and scale it up so that it covers the entire canvas. Once you have done that, change the Blending Mode of the texture layer to Multiply.
Next, open up the vector elements in Illustrator. You can use any of these elements as you wish, but for now I am going to use the diamond border that I created and just copy it from Illustrator and paste it into Photoshop as a Smart Object.
In this case, I am putting the border beneath the original nebula image so that it blends better with the overall image. Double click on the layer and apply a Color Overlay with red and set its Blending Mode to Multiply.
I have chosen to add a few more of these vector elements throughout the piece. I have used the circle border below the deer at a reduced size, and have also placed the 3d spheres behind the deer with the Blending Mode set to Multiply. Feel free to play around with the positioning and scale of these elements until you find the right balance.
To add some additional glow we are going to double click on the deer layer and apply the Inner Glow Layer Style using the value #F9FECF shown in the image below:
From here I am just going to add a few more spots of color to show some of the ambient light on the deer, reflecting off of the red circle. If you are still reading along with this tutorial than you have reached the end! I hope you have enjoyed following along and perhaps learned a new trick or two. Let’s have one last look at our final product:
You can view the final outcome below. I hope that you enjoyed this tutorial and would love to hear your feedback on the techniques and outcome.
You can click on the image below to view the full-sized final piece:
Eric is a Graphic Designer, specializing in Print and Web Design. He's a graduate of the New England Institute of Art in Boston and has over 4 years of professional and freelance work experience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York working as a Graphic Designer and he has been featured in Advanced Photoshop Magazine, The Art of Fashion Art Exhibit and Artists In The Station Art Exhibit. Visit Eric's portfolio at ericvasquez.net.
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