5 tips for composition distortion in Photoshop

the alchemist.jpg

Helloooo everyone, this week I wanted to do something a little different since I haven’t focused much on digital design in previous posts. Learning the Adobe Creative Suite has changed my life as a creator, and I highly recommend becoming proficient in these programs if you are serious about digital art. In this tutorial, I’m going to outline 5 tips on how to create compositions in Adobe Photoshop that are geared toward distortion and photo manipulation. I want to be clear that this is an intermediate tutorial geared toward those who have some Photoshop experience, but are not yet wizards.

I have always been inspired by Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist, and its themes of self growth and the Language of the World. To some people, this may have been just a book you ‘read’ in high school, but the messages and values in the story have stuck with me for years, and guided my own personal journey. I wanted to create a mystical, nighttime composition representing the theme of dreams as well as using motifs from The Alchemist to depict a visual representation of Santiago’s journey and growth as a person.

tip #1: visualize your concept

Before you open Photoshop and start creating, it is important to visualize the general concept you want to create in your composition. Think about what themes and motifs you want to portray, and what images can do this visually. I like to go on Pinterest or look at stock photos to find inspiration and trigger my creative brain. This also helps to “see” things from an artistic standpoint; one thing I was drawn to while finding inspiration was the use of shadows to add dimension which I ended up using a lot in my design. It is important to find word inspiration as well, even if you aren’t using text in your composition, as this can trigger concept association and give depth to your idea.

If you are creating a larger, more complex composition, it can be helpful to create a mood board of images and text that will inspire your design. This is similar to an artistic brainstorming process in the sense that it is not the time to approve or reject ideas - simply let your creativity run wild and refine your concept later. I’ve found that this process helps me to avoid thinking of my design in a linear way, and incorporate nuances that I might have overlooked. It can be easy to get stuck inside one idea, and referring back to a mood board is a good way to take a step back and visualize your concept from another perspective.

In the case of my design, I was very drawn to this particular image of the camels that I came across while looking at deserts. I ended up incorporating it into my design in a way that was two-fold: it helped tell the story of The Alchemist as the main character, Santiago, abandons societal norms in pursuit of his Personal Legend while also adding balance to the left side of my image and creating the transition between Santiago’s past life and looking toward the future.

tip #2: master select and mask

Layer masks are a crucial element in Photoshop compositions, and can be used to hide or reveal certain parts of a whole image. After applying the original layer mask, you can go into the Properties Panel and enter Select and Mask, which is essentially an advanced layer masking module. It is helpful in refining your selection, especially when it has uneven edges which need extra attention.

The image I selected of the camels was one that required this extra step, as the outline of the shapes was blended into the background and I couldn’t get a fine enough selection using just the Quick Selection Tool. Once inside Select and Mask, there are several view modes in the upper right corner giving you the freedom to view your image against a range of backgrounds. A helpful tip I’ve found is using keyboard shortcuts to toggle between an overlay view (V) and a black and white view (K). Overlay gives you a sense of what the image will look like in your composition, while the black and white view provides a much more contrasted depiction of your selected mask, and can be easier to edit in.

overlay view (V)

overlay view (V)

black and white view (K)

black and white view (K)

When refining your selection, it is important to know the difference between the two brush tools inside Select and Mask: Brush Tool (B) and Refine Edge Brush Tool (R). The main difference between these tools is the amount of detail the brush adds. The Brush Tool (B) works much like the regular Brush Tool in the sense that it completely adds or removes part of the layer mask. Now, you can still refine the hardness of the brush to give your selection a rougher or softer edge, but the overall work of the Brush Tool is more absolute.

By contrast, the Refine Edge Brush Tool (R), is useful for bringing out small details like strands of hair or leaves. It works as a more feathered tool, used to blend the edges of the layer mask into the selection. This helpful tool can make layer masks appear more natural, giving the composition a more uniform appearance overall. Both brush tools utilize the alt+click shortcut to toggle between adding and subtracting from the selection.

tip #3: use gradients

Gradients can be extremely useful in blending different elements of your composition together, as well as giving the appearance of shadows wherever necessary. In my composition, one area that was greatly enhanced using the Gradient tool was the transition between the desert foreground to the city in the distance.

The trick to the gradient tool is being consistent with the direction you drag the mouse so the effect remains uniform. If you think about a gradient in terms of shadows, they come from one direction and fade out. Looking at the image below, you can see that the transparent side of the gradient is on the right, meaning you will need to drag from right to left in order to give the appearance of shadows on the right side. The light grey color on the left side will begin to blend the image from the endpoint of the gradient line, relative to how you have adjusted the sliders. What I mean by this is if you were to adjust the top grey slider to be very close to the transparent slider, the gradient would be “longer” and therefore produce a stronger effect.

Screen Shot 2018-11-08 at 2.16.50 PM.png

I found that the gradient “neutral density,” worked well to achieve the blending effect I needed for my composition, as it fades the image into the background, rather than adding a color. For this image, I kept the smoothness at 100% and brought the left gradient slider down to give the appearance of a more natural transition. Getting the gradient to look just right in your composition can take some trial and error, but don’t be afraid to play with this effect, as it is very simple to CMD+Z (undo) (ha Photoshop jokes).

In my composition, I wanted the city lights to fade toward the right of the sand dune, so I dragged the gradient from right to left, or from transparent to grey. I used mostly small, horizontal motions, making sure that I did not distort the top part of the image - only the right side.

before gradient

before gradient

after gradient

after gradient

As you can see, the ‘after’ photo looks much more natural and realistic, as if the city is faded into the background of the sand dunes. The gradient tool is powerful in creating compositions, and although it requires some trial and error, it can make a huge difference in your design.

tip #4: blend text

If you are using text in your composition, perhaps one of the problems you’ve encountered is making the text appear to blend seamlessly into your image, rather than looking as if it was placed on top. This is something I have struggled with in past designs, but I wanted this particular quote to appear as though it was written in the stars.

One trick I’ve learned is to use an image similar to the background where you are placing your text, and overlay this onto your text using a clipping mask. You will need to rasterize the text layer in order to do this, and perhaps adjust the opacity to achieve the effect you are looking for. I’ve found that this technique achieves a more seamless effect rather than simply lowering the opacity of your text. Changing the opacity can work well in some cases, but in others it requires the text to appear too faded in order to begin to see the background through the translucence. For my composition, I clipped an image of dark constellations to my text to give the appearance of the stars through the type.

Another trick to blending text is using the effect Inner Shadow to add dimension. You can find this under Layer Style, or simply click the fx button in the layer panel. As you can see below, I adjusted the opacity and lowered the size and distance to make the effect more subtle in my design, but here is where you can exercise your artistic freedom and use this Layer Style to transform the text as you’d like. If the effect is not looking as natural as you’d like, I would suggest adding a blend mode such as Overlay or Multiply.

Screen Shot 2018-11-07 at 9.40.37 PM.png

tip #5: add texture

Once the main part of your design is completed, adding a texture can help bring all of the elements of your composition together into one cohesive design. This can be a texture created through Photoshop, or an image you want to overlay. While the textures embedded in the program can work well, I’ve found that I can achieve more creative freedom by finding my own texture online, or even going out and photographing them.

In most cases, the texture should overlay your entire image to give a sense of uniformity. When deciding which texture to add, keep in mind the tone of your image and how it will add to the visual. It can be helpful to refer back to your original concept or mood board. For my design, I wanted to overlay the texture of paper, since it my composition was inspired by a visual depiction of a novel. It took a few tries to find one that complemented my design, but the final result brought the entire composition together.

without texture

without texture

with texture

with texture

As you can see, the right image has a bit more dimension and looks more like a page of a book, rather than a digitally manipulated design. Even subtle details like adding texture can make a huge difference in your design.

Hopefully these tips have given you inspiration to create your own compositions. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try something different. It just might turn out better than you expect.