In this Photoshop tutorial, I’ll show you how to combine stock images and typography into a beautiful conceptual composition. The aim is to explain the creative process and motivations behind design decisions made while creating a digital art piece. Also, I’ll try to drive you through powerful Photoshop tools and commands that allow you to control color balance and image vividness.
Open man image and skull image(ctrl+o).
Preparing The Background
First, create a new document in Photoshop. We will work with a vertical canvas that’s taller than it is wider.
Add a radial gradient going from white to black.
And Paste in a Grunge Texture, desaturate it (Ctrl/Cmd + Shift +U) and set the layer’s Blending Mode to Multiply.
We will add some color, open Gradient Map adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map) going from a desaturated blue (#798bb0) to a dark blue (#030722).
Open Hue/Saturation(Ctrl+U) and set Saturation to -70.
We want the image to be darker so let’s apply a third adjustment layer. This time, we’ll go for a Levels(Ctrl+L) adjustment layer and move the black arrow just a little to the right.
The background is good to go, so select all the layers in the Layers Panel, group them together (Ctrl/Cmd + G) and name the group as Background and organization is fundamental if you work with lots of layers.
Add The Man
Paste in the businessman into our composition. I chose this image because I liked the pose and the idea of the subject smoking and drinking—it goes back to the whole death concept.
Use the Pen Tool (P) to extract the subject from its background by tracing around his body while making sure to leave out his head because we will replace it with the skull.
Each element inserted into a composition has to match with each other. In this case, we have to create harmony between the body and the grunge background. I wanted to emphasize an element of the image: the hand with the cigarette.
What I had in mind was to make the hand and the shoulders of the subject bigger. The Liquify filter will help us make this happen. So choose Filter > Liquify and use the Bloat Tool on both the hands and over the shoulders. This step might seem strange, but keep in mind that our character is surreal.
You should notice the light edges around the body. The best way to remove the edge, I’ve found, is to use the Dodge Tool (O) from the Tools Panel. You can use the same tool at the bottom of the body image to blend it into the dark background.
When working with the human body, I like increasing the contrast a bit as well as enhance image details. For this composition, I want to achieve a soft HDR effect. Let’s do this by first duplicating the layer that the subject is on (Ctrl/Cmd + J).
Then apply the Smart Sharpen filter (Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen) and set the Blending Mode of the layer to Overlay and the opacity at 30%.
Duplicate the subject’s layer again (Ctrl/Cmd + J).
This time, apply the High Pass filter (Filter > Other > High Pass) with a radius of 8px.
Once that’s done, set the layer’s Blending Mode to Overlay.
Now select all the layers we’ve created of the subject and press Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + E to merge them into a new layer.
At this point, lets apply the Sharpen Edges filter (Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen Edges) on the new merged layer.
Once you’re happy with the details and contrast, you can select all the body layers and group them together to keep our Layers Panel organized.
See the image below, which compares the original image with our processed image:
Paste in the image of the skull into our canvas. Since we increased the contrast of the body, we must do the same with the skull. The reason, again, is harmony between the different elements of our composition.
Begin by extracting the skull from its background, using the Pen Tool (P) just like in the previous step.
Duplicate the skull’s layer, apply the High Pass filter, and then set the layer’s Blending Mode to Overlay.
Merge the two layers into a new one (select the layers and press Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + E) and then apply the Smart Sharpen filter.
To make the image more realistic, we’ll give our skull a shadow. Begin by creating a new layer below the original skull. On the new layer, use the Brush Tool (B) equipped with a soft, black brush tip with its Hardness set at 0% to paint the shadow. If the shadow is too dark, reduce the Opacity option of the brush as necessary.
Group all of the skull layers together into a group called skull to keep our work organized.
Open the fire 1.
In order to extract the flames from the photo, open the Channels Panel (Window > Channels), hold down Ctrl/Cmd, and then click on the Green Channel. Doing this will automatically create a marquee selection around the flames.
Now, copy the selection (Ctrl/Cmd + C) and paste it (Ctrl/Cmd + P) into our main document.
Use the Move Tool (V) to position the flames on the skull/head.
If you want to modify the shape of fire, use the Warp command (Edit > Transform > Warp).
Repeat the same process with the fire 1 and fire 2 images, but this time place the layer below the skull so that it looks like the entire skull is burning.
We can use the Smoke brush set. Install it and apply it to our composition. I painted over the head and the cigarette.
Clean up the composition by removing unwanted pixels caused by the smoke brush strokes with the Eraser Tool (E)
We have to give a glowing effect near flames. So create a new layer below the body, choose a soft, yellow (#feec87) brush and paint below fires.
Reduce the opacity to around 40% so that the lighting isn’t so harsh.
At this point, the image needs more vividness. Also, I have the impression that the elements’ colors don’t match in a good way. Let’s try fixing those two issues with a couple of adjustment layers.
First, let’s reduce saturation by choosing Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation(Ctrl+U) and setting Saturation to -30.
Now add a Gradient Map adjustment layer that goes from purple (#290a59) to orange (#ff7c00). Set the layer’s Blending Mode to Overlay and reduce the opacity to 60%.
I want to explain in words the meaning of the composition. So I typed, “It’s time now to stop thinking. It’s time now to start living.” using the Horizontal Type Tool (T).
Place your text between the body and the background groups.
Let’s make some Blending Mode changes. First, reducing the type layer’s Fill to 0%.
Then, right-click on the type layer and choose Blending Options. Check the Bevel and Emboss to add that layer style to our type layer.