PSDFan Extra

Creating the Surreal Photo Illustration ‘Checkmate’

Creating the Surreal Photo Illustration ‘Checkmate’

For this tutorial I will be showing you how to take a few simple elements and turn them into something dark and surreal. We will be covering different masking and blending techniques along with light and coloring effects. We will also be playing with some of the basic Photoshop Filters in order to create a balanced image with plenty of depth. If you are ready to get started then fire up Photoshop and let’s get going!

Final Image

Here is a preview of the image that we are going to be creating:

Step 1

First we will need to open the image of the model from the resources folder and remove the background. Before we do that however, we will make a copy of the original layer to work from. To do that, press Command/Ctrl+J to duplicate the model image and then turn the visibility of the original off.

Once you have done that, make sure that your new duplicated layer is highlighted in the Layers Palette and click on the Layer Mask icon along the bottom row of icons as shown here:

Now that we have this mask, we can switch to our Brush Tool (B) and with a hard round brush we can paint with a solid black color into the mask and it will remove the background. This will go by quickly if you are using a tablet. This is just one method of extracting a background from an image and you can adjust the size of your brush using the left and right bracket keys on your keyboard, which is helpful for getting into small spaces or to brush out large areas quickly.

With the model now isolated from the background we can save this as it is ready for use when we start to build our composition.

Step 2

Create a new Photoshop document that is about 1600×1200 pixels in size. Import the isolated image of your model and scale it up using the Free Transform Command (Command/Ctrl+T). Next, create a new layer below the model layer and double click on it to bring up the Layer Styles Options. Check off ‘Color Overlay’ and apply the color #454545.

Press the Enter Key to apply the Color Overlay effect.

Step 3

We now want to bring in the grungy paper texture from the resources folder. Use the Free Transform Command once again to scale the paper up so that t spans across the entire document. Make sure that this layer is below the model layer, but above the background layer we have just created.

Press Command/Ctrl+Alt/Option+U to bring up the Hue/Saturation Adjustment. Once the dialog box appears, move the middle slider all the way to the left in order to desaturate the paper texture.

Press OK to apply the changes and then change the Blending Mode of the texture layer to Screen.

You should now have something like this:

Step 4

Create a new layer above the paper texture and switch to your Gradient Tool (G). Make sure that you have a Radial Gradient that fades from transparent to solid, meaning that the edges will be dark and the middle will be opaque. To do this, check off the box that says ‘Reverse’ in the settings toolbar:

We want to use a solid black color, and then we can click and drag outwards from the middle of the canvas to create a dark gradient that fades out around the edges as shown here:

Step 5

Next, create a new layer at the top of your Layers Palette and switch to your Brush Tool (B). Press F5 on your keyboard to bring up the Brush Palette and click on the line icon at the top right of the palette as shown here:

From the menu that appears we want to choose ‘Load Brushes’ where we can navigate to the Designal Brushes from the resource folder.

From here we will select the last brush from the set.

With a solid black color selected, paint onto the new layer that we created. Place the shape towards the bottom of the model as seen below:

In order to build up a darker color I have duplicated this layer a few times (Command/Ctrl+J) and then merged them together by selecting all three layers and pressing Command/Ctrl+E. This will merge all three copies into a single layer.

Step 6

On another new layer use the second to last brush from the set we loaded, again using black and duplicating and merging the layers to build up the effect. You may notice I have also flipped and rotated the brush using the Free Transform Command (Command/Ctrl+T).

With this layer selected, click on the small Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette as shown below:

Once you have applied the mask, switch to your Brush Tool (B) and press F5 once again to bring up the Brushes Palette and choose a soft round brush, about 45 pixels in size.

Step 7

Hold the Command Key and click on the thumbnail icon for the model layer. This should activate a selection around the model where we cut her out.

From here, while the selection is still active, return to the top brush layer and click on the layer mask thumbnail icon as shown here:

Next, with a soft round black brush begin to paint into the layer mask of the brush layer and because the selection around the model is still selected, there is no need to worry about having to stay inside the lines!

Here I have just brushed out part of the shape that was overlapping the arms. Add a layer mask to the other brush layer like we did with the first and continue to use a soft black brush and paint into the masks in order to hide certain parts.

Step 8

Create a new layer and place it at the top of your Layers Palette. With a small black brush set to about 30% opacity, brush over areas of the dress and the brush layers covering up any inconsistencies and smoothing things out.

You can paint over a few of the creases in the dress as well, just so that it creates to be a good transition from her body into the splatter shape at the bottom.

Continue to paint and add black to create a more unified shape. Also experiment with adding or removing parts with the layer masks – this will all contribute to a better end result. Experimentation is a big part of the process so it’s important to have some fun with it!

Step 9

Next, make sure that you have your model image layer highlighted and selected in the Layers Palette. From here, click on the small black and white icon along the bottom row of the palette – this is the Adjustment Layer Icon. When the menu appears, choose ‘Hue/Saturation’ and you will then see a dialog box.


When the Dialog Box appears, move the Saturation slider all the way to the left in order to desaturate everything below this layer.

Now this is one of the reasons why I love Adjustment Layers so much. We have a mask on the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer that when painted into will bring color back into the image.

This isn’t any different from the masks we have used in the previous step. If you choose a hard round black brush and paint on the Layer Mask of the Adjustment Layer, then you will see the colors brought back in. We want to do this over the skin of the model. Leave the hair and the dress in black and white for now.

After making that adjustment you should now have something like this:

Step 10

Open the ‘Triangle.eps’ file and import it into your Photoshop document. We want to paste it as a Smart Object and then drag one of the four corners inwards (while holding the Shift Key) to reduce the size of the shape as shown here:

Now what we want to do is double click on the triangle layer to bring up the Layer Styles Options and apply an Outer Glow and Color Overlay effect. Use the same settings that I am using in the image below:

For the glow color we will be using #2EE71A.

For the Color Overlay we just want to use a solid white color.

Hit the Enter Key to apply the styles and you should now have something like this:

Step 11

With your triangle layer selected, click on the Layer Mask Icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette as shown in the image below:

From here, while the layer is still highlighted, hold down the Control Key and click on the layer thumbnail icon for the model layer where I have indicated:

Once you do that, you should now have an active selection going around your model.

Switch to your Brush Tool (B) and with a hard round black brush, paint into the mask on the triangle layer where the shape overlaps the models face.

Step 12

Open the first image of the two horse chess pieces and import it into your Photoshop document. For this part you can use the masking technique we have used in the beginning to isolate the model, or you can use an eraser, or even the Pen Tool (P) in order to isolate the white piece from the image.

Right now the piece is pretty large so we are going to use a Free Transform (Command/Ctrl+T) in order to scale it down a bit. From here, we will make a copy of this piece by pressing Command/Ctrl+J and turning the original off for now. With the duplicated layer, we will place it in the upper left hand corner of the image at a slight angle, and then we will apply a Gaussian Blur by going to the Filter Menu and choosing Blur>Gaussian Blur as shown below:

We want to apply a blur of about 9.9 pixels as shown here:

Turn the other duplicated chess piece layer back on and scale it down a bit again using the Free Transform Command. Rotate the piece slightly and place it behind the model so that your Layers Palette looks like this:

Once you have done that you should have something similar to the image below:

Step 13

Next, open the image of the two black chess pieces and isolate the one on the left. You can use the Pen Tool (P) to trace around it as we have done before or you can apply a Layer Mask and paint around it using a black brush, either way the goal is the same. Once you have isolated the piece, bring it into your Photoshop document.

We want to balance out the two white pieces so we will have one black piece in the foreground with the same Gaussian Blur settings we used before, and another small black piece behind the model.

A quick tip for applying the same blur effect is to simply press Command/Ctrl+F which will apply the most recent filter effect you have used, which, in this case is the Gaussian Blur.

Step 14

Create a new layer and then switch to your Marquee Tool (M) before holding the Shift Key and dragging out a selection. Fill the selection with a solid black color using the Paint Bucket Tool (G) as you see here:

Next, go to the Filter Menu and choose Render>Lens Flare.

Use the same type of flare that is shown.

Once you have applied the flare, change the Blending Mode of the layer to Screen and then click on the Layer Mask Icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette.

Switch to your Gradient Tool and use a Radial Gradient that fades from white to black.

Now click and drag outwards from the center of the flare and it will fade out the edges.

Once you have done that you may choose to Apply the Mask by holding the Control Key and clicking on the thumbnail icon for the Layer Mask and choosing ‘Apply Layer Mask’ from the menu.


I have duplicated the layer by pressing Command/Ctrl+G and then placed them on the sides of the model as shown below:

Try to rotate or change the size of the flares to mix it up a bit. You can experiment as much as you would like with the placement.

Step 15

Duplicate one of the flares and press Command/Ctrl+T to initiate a Free Transform and then drag outwards from one of the four corners of the flare while holding the Shift Key to constrain the proportions. Scale it up quite a bit and then place it below the model layer.

You get a pretty nice result and can see a few rays of light coming out. It also helps to blend the light flares that we have previously placed in front of our model. You should now have something like this:

Step 16

Create a new layer at the top of your Layers Palette and switch to your Gradient Tool (G). Select the last gradient out of the different ones, which should be sort of a diamond shaped gradient. We also want the gradient to fade from solid to transparent as shown below:

For the color I am using #8EFF7B.

Next, lower the opacity to about 80% and change the Blending Mode to Screen.

What we want to do now is angle it so that one of the lines of the gradient almost follows the direction of the arm and the triangle shape as I’ve shown here:

Duplicate this gradient layer once by pressing Command/Ctrl+G and lower its opacity to about 50% and place it a bit higher than the first one so that it colors more of the arms.

Step 17

Next, create another new layer at the top of the palette and this time use a Radial Gradient with the same color and settings that we used before, and add a small to mid sized gradient over the face and neck of the model. Change the Blending Mode to Screen and reduce the opacity of the layer to about 36%.

While your new gradient layer is still selected (it should be highlighted in the Layers Palette) hold the Command Key and click the thumbnail icon of the model layer in order to activate a selection around the model.

The selection should still be active and now you will want to click on the Layer Mask Icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette to apply a mask to the gradient layer.

What this will do is make it so that the light green color is contained within the shape of our model and not on the background. It also helps to unify the light so that there isn’t such a stark contrast between the colors and the photo of the model.

After making those changes you should now have a pretty sweet light effect built up that places light sources behind and in front of the model. The addition of the colors is starting to help unify the model with the triangle and the whole piece overall.

Step 18

Create a new layer and add one more Radial Gradient with the same color and settings that we have been using and lower the opacity of this layer somewhere between 20-24% opacity and place it over the lower part of the body where the skirt begins to melt away.

The image below shows you the before and after of the effect.

You can see how doing this helps to make the light and color look more unified as I had mentioned, but it also adds a cool glowing effect. We want the light to feel more realistic and when you look at a beam of sunlight shining through the trees for example, you can see how it gradually fades out in a seamless transition.

Step 19

Create a new layer and add another Radial Gradient but this time it will be a pretty small one that we want to place over the shaded area of the neck. Also, change the Blending Mode to Overlay and reduce the opacity to about 50% as shown below.

You can see how this helps to push the image further because light would also affect the shadowy areas of the body as well. Doing this really seems to light everything up.

Step 20

Make sure that the very top layer in your Layers Palette is selected and click on the small black and white icon or the Adjustment Layer Icon.

Once the menu pops up, choose ‘Hue/Saturation’ as shown here:

For the settings we just want to boost the Saturation by moving the middle slider over to the right.

This will bring out a bit more color and vibrancy in the whole image.

Step 21

Create a new layer at the top of your Layers Palette and switch to your Marquee Tool (M). Next, hold the Shift Key and drag a small square shape before filling it with a solid white color using the Paint Bucket Tool (G).

Press Command/Ctrl+T to do a Free Transform and rotate the square shape so that it turns into a diamond shape.

Press Command/Ctrl+J to duplicate the layer and hold the Shift Key before moving the shape to the side so that it stays in line with the original. Duplicate the layer once more and slide the next one over so that you now have three in a row.

Next, in your Layers Palette select the first shape layer then hold down the Shift Key and select the bottom shape layer so that you have all three selected.

While the layers are still selected, press Command+E to merge them together.

Step 22

Duplicate the newly merged layer and move it to the side so that you now have six shapes next to each other as shown below:

Continue to duplicate and merge the layers together until you form four rows of diamonds going across the canvas from edge to edge.

Once you have done that, move the shape down on the Layers Palette so that it’s just above the paper texture but below the faded edges as shown here:

You should now have something like this:

Step 23

With your shape pattern layer selected, click on the Layer Mask Icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette to add a mask.

Next, switch to your Gradient Tool (G) and with your default black and white colors selected, choose a Radial Gradient that fades from white to black as shown below:

Click in the center of the image and drag outwards, making sure that you are in the Layer Mask of the shape pattern. Doing this should fade out the pattern on both sides at the same time. Reduce the opacity of this layer between 36-42% so that we have a more subtle effect.

Step 24

Click on your model layer in the Layers Palette so that it becomes highlighted. Once that is selected go to the Filter Menu and choose ‘Sharpen>Unsharp Mask’ as shown below:

Apply the settings shown below:

Once you have applied the Unsharp Mask you will have brought a bit more crispness and detail into the focal point of the design.

Step 25

To do a bit of last minute adjusting I feel like we need to balance out the chess pieces a bit more and/or place something in the bottom left of the image because it’s feeling pretty empty. White space is good in design but for this particular image we want it to have a nice flow and rhythm to it and we can use the chess pieces to do just that.

Open the image of the two white chess pieces and clip out the one on the right using your Pen Tool (P) and tracing around the piece. Once you have done that, hold the Control Key and click anywhere along the path before choosing ‘Make Selection’ from the menu. After the selection has been activated, press Command/Ctrl+J to duplicate this onto a new layer.

We are going to place this piece somewhere in the bottom left as I had mentioned but we also want to apply the same Gaussian Blur that we used earlier on. To do this, return to the Filter Menu and choose ‘Blur>Gaussian Blur’ and I believe we were using a setting of about 9.9 pixels. After playing with the positioning of the pieces and the scale a bit more I think that we have achieved a good balance in our composition.

If you haven’t done so already, now would be a great time to save your work and give yourself a pat on the back because you have finished this design tutorial. Thank you guys for following along and I hope you have picked up some tips along the way!

And We’re Done!

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.

Download Source File for this Tutorial


Get more of our great design content direct to your inbox
Join our newsletter and receive our best weekly content by email. Also get access to hundreds of free design resources via your Designer Toolkit area.

About the Author:

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.

Leave a comment

17 Comments:

  1. Tom says:

    Wow, one of my favorite tutorials of yours Eric. Love the detail of this one! :)

  2. Eric Vasquez says:

    Thanks so much Tom! I really took my time with this one to try and get as much detail as possible. Hopefully it will be well received!

  3. john says:

    awesome tutorial, great stuff!
    thanks friend

  4. OrlandoLab says:

    wow nice tutor bro…

    but have you tried the other color for the glowed triangle??

  5. Kailash says:

    This is the best tutorials ,i’ve ever seen!!!!! thanx!!!!!

  6. Eric Vasquez says:

    Thanks so much Kailash for your kind feedback! And thank you Tom for the opportunity to have my tutorials published on your site!

    @OrlandoLab – I did experiment with some different colors for this one but I really liked the way that the cooler colors like green and blue looked reflected off of the pale, sort of desaturated image of the model.

  7. deda says:

    hello thnx 4 this tut it is very amazing but i am just wondering if you could show ud more about the brush set coz it is my first time to deal with it plz show me the values thnx

  8. tirath says:

    Excellent tutorial
    thanks so much for this
    nice final result
    keep up good work
    you make Photoshop more interesting
    god bless you :-)

  9. söve says:

    Great job.Thank u.

  10. johnny says:

    I’m so lost on the triangle.eps part? There is no triangle file on here.

  11. valentino says:

    this was a really good tutorial, thanks Tom…

  12. Eric says:

    is there any way to get the triangles.eps without paying the $9 membership?

  13. Robbe says:

    @Eric: you could just make the triangles in illustrator(where it is probably made), or even in photoshop with the pen tool.

  14. Bikash Prasad says:

    Hello , Eric I Loved your Photoshop Tutorials and thanks for sharing it . I liked your website very much …

Leave a Comment:

Related Posts

Subscribe to PSDFAN and Get Your Free Designer Toolkit

Have every post delivered to your inbox and get access to hundreds of useful design freebies.

Your Design Work, But More Awesome:

Do you know the basic tools in Photoshop but feel that your work is still looking average? Join our creative community at FanExtra and get the direction you need to take your work to the next level.

JOIN OUR FANEXTRA COMMUNITY TODAY