Create a Fantasy Underwater Scene


The ocean depths are the least explored of all the world’s ecosystems; and many say that the ocean is truly the last frontier on earth. Beneath the world’s oceans lie rugged mountain ranges, active volcanoes, vast plateaus and almost bottomless trenches that shroud many mysteries.

Today's tutorial will focus on creating a mythical sea creature illustration by blending stock photography and 3D renders. You’ll discover how Photoshop’s channel extraction techniques can save you hours of tedious cut-out work, how clever masking can enhance your composing skills, and finally, breath life into your illustrations by adding realistic textures. So let's open up Photoshop and dive in!


You'll find some files in the "source" folder. You'll also need the following stock photography to complete this tutorial.

Step 1

Create a new RGB canvas 28 cm X 40 cm with the Resolution set at 300 pixels per inch and select White under the Background Contents drop-down menu.

Set your Foreground/Background colors to # 2a77a2 and # 42bdea respectively. Now set the Gradient Tool (G) to Foreground/Background in the options bar and Shift-drag a Linear Gradient up from the canvas base as shown.

Double-click your layer thumbnail to unlock it and rename it "Grad". Now place the layer within a group folder called "OCEAN SCENE". To reduce the banding effect, first target the "Grad" layer and choose Filter > Noise > Add Noise and enter a value of 5%, then check the Uniform Distribution and Monochromatic options. Next, go to Filter > Noise > Median and apply a Radius of 4px to soften the effect.

Step 2

We now need to extract the rock and plant structure from the first underwater image. Switch to your Channels tab and cycle through each channel in turn channel to determine which holds the most contrast – in this case it’s the Blue. Drag its thumbnail over the Create new channel icon at the foot of the palette to duplicate it. Now hit Command/Ctrl + L to access the Levels dialogue box and set the Input sliders as shown. Don’t sweat over any remaining detail; these will be fixed when we refine the channel mask.

Use the Lasso Tool (L) to roughly encompass the main rock. Press D to restore your Foreground/Background colors to default black/white, target the duplicate channel and hit Option + Delete/Backspace to fill with black.

To clean up the channel mask, use the Dodge and Burn Tools (O) on the midtones and highlights respectively to remove detail. Now clean up the mask's edges using the same technique.

By default, white acts as selective channel areas, so hit Command + I to Invert the channel to negative. Command/Ctrl-click the channel thumbnail to load a selection. Now activate the top RGB composite channel and Copy the selection to the clipboard.

Paste the selection into the "OCEAN SCENE" folder. Hit Command/Ctrl + T, then press Control/right-click and choose Flip Horizontal from the Transform menu and resize, rotate and position as shown. Name the layer "Background rocks", then change the Blend Mode to Soft Light and reduce the Opacity to 54%.

Add a mask, and then use a large, soft-edged brush at a low Opacity to hide the upper quarter area. Because we're using masked layers to assemble the scene, you can re-position layer content and refine their masks later.

Step 3

Place the second underwater image as a new layer within the same folder and label it "Midground rocks 1", then rotate and resize to the right as shown.

Because this image has a less defined edge, use an assortment of soft-edged brushes on a layer mask to blend it into the background.

Choose Color Balance from the Adjustments panel to automatically clip an adjustment layer and copy the following settings.

Step 4

Place the third underwater image within the same folder and label it "Midground rocks 2", then, flip, rotate and resize to the left.

Add a mask and gently blend the hard edge into the background layers.

Step 5

Add the fourth underwater image within the same folder and label it "Ocean floor", then resize and place at the bottom of your canvas.

Add a mask and hide the top half using a large brush to blend the seabed into your underlying layers. For best results use a variety of brush sizes and work at a low opacity at first, then at full opacity. My mask is shown in isolation in the lower half of the screenshot.

Step 6

Open the fifth underwater image, then grab the Quick Selection Tool (W). Activate the Add to selection in the options bar to select the coral and fishes. If your selection includes unwanted areas use the Subtract from selection option to remove them. When you're happy, click the Refine Edge button.

In the next window check the Smart Radius and Decontaminate Colors options, then copy the remaining settings as shown and hit OK.

Step 7

Your selection will now appear as a new masked layer. Drag the mask into the trash icon at the foot of the palette and accept the Apply prompt. Place this layer into the same folder in your working file and rename it "Foreground rocks". Now clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment and set the Saturation to -50.

Target your "Foreground rocks" layer, clip a Levels adjustment and set the midtone Input slider to 0.62.

As a final modification to this layer clip a Color Balance adjustment and apply the following settings.

Step 8

Add the sixth underwater image as an uppermost layer within the same folder and label it "Background plants". Transform and place centrally, then reduce the layer Opacity to 85% and change its Blend Mode to Soft Light. Now blend it into the composition by masking the hard edges.

Step 9

Add the final underwater image as a top layer within the same folder and label it "Ocean texture". Resize to cover your entire canvas, then reduce the layer Opacity to 51% and change its Blend Mode to Darken. Add a mask, ensure your Foreground/Background colors are set to default and Shift-drag Foreground to Background Linear gradient from the bottom up.

Drag the "Ocean texture" layer over the Create new layer icon at the foot of the palette and rename it "Ocean Ceiling". Reset its Blend Mode to Normal and the Opacity back to 100%, then squash the layer content vertically and Shift-drag it to the very top of your canvas. Finally, modify the mask with a large soft-edged brush to create a white semi-circle at the top.

Step 10

In this step we'll give the scene some dimension and depth; revisit your "Foreground rocks" layer and choose Convert to Smart Object from the fly-out menu situated top right on the Layers palette. Now choose Filter > Blur Gaussian Blur and enter 6.0 px.

Remember, filters applied to a Smart Layer remain fully editable; simply double-click the filter effect name below the layer and adjust accordingly.

Step 11

Now lets make the seabed a little more murky; place an uppermost layer within the folder and label it "Black grad". Use the Foreground to Transparent preset to add a Linear Gradient from the bottom up. Next, change the Blend Mode to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to 36%, then apply a 5% value of noise.

Add a new layer called "Black centre" and drag a Radial Gradient over the middle seaweed. Hit Command/Ctrl + F to reapply the Add Noise filter again, then change the Blend Mode to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to 32%.

Step 12

Our natural world is subject to light, including underwater scenes – and light shining through a substance or an environment such as water is known as volumetric lighting. Place a new top layer within the folder and name it "Sun rays". Jump to the Paths tab, set the Pen Tool (P) to Paths in the options bar and draw a series of closed paths as shown.

Remember, you can fine-tune your path at any time by holding the Command/Ctrl key to access the Direct Selection Tool (A) to adjust individual direction/anchor points as required.

Command/Ctrl-click your path thumbnail to load it as a selection, the switch back to your "Sun rays" layer and press X to transpose the Foreground color to white. Next, shift-drag a Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradient from the top to fill the selection with white.

Note: If you find the "marching ants" annoying, hit Command/Ctrl + H to hide the visibility of the selection – just remember to deselect when you're done.

Now go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and enter an Angle of -90 degrees and a Distance of 646 px. Press Option + F to bring up the Motion Blur dialogue box and apply an Angle of 58 degrees and a Distance of 198 px.

Note: It's worth experimenting different Angle and Distance values because your light rays won't exactly match mine.

Finally, apply a Gaussian Blur of around 10 px, then rotate and position as below.

Step 13

Open the barbarian warrior. Set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to Add to selection, the Tolerance to 33 and check the Contiguous option. Now make a selection as below.

Set the Lasso Tool (L) to Subtract and remove the unwanted areas. You should now have the torso as a clean selection and the spear partially selected. Now choose Select > Modify > Contact and enter 1 px.

Press Command/Ctrl + J to copy the selection to a new layer, then switch off the visibility of the "Background" layer to check the edge pixels. You'll notice the selection has omitted some of the spear, which we'll fix next.

Enable the visibility of the "Background" layer, then use the Pen Tool (P) set to Paths to draw around the spear as indicated in red.

Load the path as a selection, target the "Background" layer and copy to a new layer. Position this layer at the top and hit Command/Ctrl + E to Merge Down. You can now disregard the "Background" layer.

Step 14

Drag the barbarian layer into your project file and label it "Man". Resize, rotate anti-clockwise and place within a new folder called "FIGURE".

Next, go to Layer > Matting > Defringe and enter 2 px to remove any edge halo.

Step 15

Now we’ll add some long flowing hair to our creature. Attempting to isolate each strand of hair using paths from this image would be an impossible task, so we’ll use a channel or density mask.

Switch to your Channels tab and determine which one holds the most contrast – in this instance it’s the Red channel. Duplicate it, then apply a Levels setting as below.

Hit Command + I to Invert, then load the channel as a selection. Target the top RGB composite channel and switch back to your Layers tab. Double-click the default layer to unlock it, then hit Command + J to float the selection as a new layer. Trash the original layer, then use a medium, hard-edged Eraser (E) to remove unwanted areas.

Step 16

Add the hair within the "FIGURE" folder and scale/rotate to fit, then add a layer mask. Command/Ctrl-click your "Man" layer to generate a selection, then use a small hard-edged brush on the mask to hide any hair that overlaps the right eye. Now use a larger, soft brush at a low opacity to blend into the figure's original hair.

Next, lasso a rough selection from the hair layer and copy to a new layer. Position this over the figure's neck and change the Blend Mode to Multiply and mask as previous. Now label these layers "Hair 1" and "Hair 2".

We now need to blend the hair a little more. Set the Burn Tool (O) to Midtones and the Exposure to 100%, then use a 70 px brush to carefully darken the areas indicated on the "Man" layer.

Step 17

We'll now apply some tonal and color modifications to the figure. Target your "Man" layer, then click on the Exposure icon in the Adjustments panel and copy the following Custom settings.

Target your "Man" layer again use the same technique to apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer as shown.

Step 18

We've supplied a ready-made reptile skin render in the "source" folder; but I'll briefly run through how it was achieved. First, I took a screengrab of my work in progress, then opened Poser. The screengrab was placed as a background image, then Poser's default David figure was loaded. I then used the background image as a guide to roughly position the figure with the Parameter dials. The right hand and arm were then made invisible in the Properties palette.

I then used Wireframe view mode refine the figure's size and pose over the guide.

Next, the appropriate reptilian skin texture was applied from the Poses folder. Finally, I rendered the image as a transparent .PNG.

Step 19

Ok, lets add some scales. Open "Render_1.png" from the "source" and lasso, copy the selection as shown.

Paste the selection as a new layer below "Hair 1", reduce its Opacity to around 70%, then Transform/position as over the torso.

Step 20

When you’re happy, set the Opacity back to full strength and add a mask to the "Man" layer. Now load the 3D render layer as a selection, target the "Man" mask and use a small hard-edged brush to hide the protruding hip areas.

Now add a mask to your scales layer and use a large, soft brush to blend the scales into the upper torso and chest areas.

We now need to transform the legs into a fish's body. First, target your scales layer and lasso/copy a small selection to a new layer. Position over the crotch and use a small, soft Eraser (E) to blend the hard edges into the lower layer.

Use the same process to copy additional scale patches to hide more of the middle leg area.

When you’re done, Shift-click all your patch layers as well as the original scales layer. Now apply the Merge command and click the Apply Mask button in the next window. Name the resulting layer "Fish torso".

Step 21

Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the "Fish torso" layer and copy these settings.

Now apply a Levels adjustment layer to lighten slightly.

Finally, add a Color Balance adjustment layer to give the scales a golden hue.

Step 22

Next, we'll add some fins. Open fish one, Crop (C) and use the same techniques as before to select the background, then use the Refine Edge command.

Place the fish below "Hair 1" and label it "Fish body". Now Transform to match the angle of the torso.

Step 23

The upper left fin is not required, so lasso it and hit Delete/Backspace.

Add a layer mask to your "Fish body" and use an assortment of brushes to carefully blend it into the "Fish torso" layer.

Step 24

Duplicate the "Fish body" layer and rename it "Extra tail". Flip Horizontal, Transform as shown then modify its mask accordingly.

Lasso/copy the upper right fin to a new layer and name it "Left fin". Flip Horizontal, Transform, then blend it to the body with a mask. Now choose Warp from the Transform menu and pull the control points to make it a unique shape and not an identical duplicate.

Step 25

At this point I decided the lower body and tail looked a little too short; but the beauty of layers and masks means this can easily be fixed. First, stretch the "Fish torso" layer a little, then reposition the "Fish body" and "Extra tail" layers and adjust their masks to suit. Finally, lasso the upper right fin on the "Fish body" layer, select the Move Tool (V) and use the arrows on your keyboard to nudge the selection down and to the right a little.

Step 26

Next, we'll add some smaller trailing fins. Duplicate your "Left fin" layer and stretch it horizontally.

Now apply the Warp command to create a crescent shape.

Continue to create additional fins and vary your Warp settings, then place them around the creature's main fins and adjust their masks to suit.

Step 27

Revisit "Render_1.png" and roughly select/copy the chest. Paste as a new layer above the fins and resize/position as shown. Name this layer "Chest scales".

Draw a closed path around the middle section of the harpoon and the right arm. Load the path as a selection, then choose Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection.

Generate a layer-based selection from your "Man" and press Shift + Command/Ctrl + I to inverse. Target your "Chest scales" mask and fill with black. Finally use some soft-edged brushes to confine the scales to the chest area, then change the Blend Mode to Overlay.

Step 28

Open the second fish image and draw a series of closed paths around them. Load your path as a selection, hit Shift + F6 to access the Feather window, then enter 2 px and copy.

Paste your selection as a new layer at the top of the stack within the "OCEAN SCENE" folder, resize and label it "Fish". Now lasso individual fish and reposition with the Move Tool (V).

Add a Levels adjustment layer to the "Fish" to increase the contrast.

Now add a Color Balance adjustment as below.

Step 29

Load a selection from the "Foreground rocks" layer, target the "FIGURE" folder and choose Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection.

Step 30

Duplicate the "OCEAN SCENE" folder, then press Command/Ctrl + E to Merge Group. Rename it "Ocean blur". Next, convert the layer to a Smart Object and apply a Gaussian Blur of 4.0 px.

Generate a layer-based selection from your "Fish" layer, then target the Smart Filter mask. Now use a small, soft edged brush to paint within the selection to bring the larger fishes into focus. Deselect, then use a larger brush to hide the ocean ceiling.

Next, duplicate the "FIGURE" folder, apply the mask and rename it "Figure blur". Convert the layer to a Smart Object and apply a Gaussian Blur of 3.0 px. Create a layer-based selection, Contract by 16 px and Feather by 3 px. Now target the Smart Filter mask and fill the selection with black to soften the hard edges.

Step 31

Place the "Ocean blur" and "Figure blur" layers within a new folder called "EFFECTS" at the top of the stack.

Next, we'll add some subtle grain. Place an uppermost layer within the same folder, label it "Noise" and fill with black, go to Filter > Noise, set the Amount to the maximum of 400% and also check the Gaussian Distribution method and Monochromatic options. Now set the Layer Blend Mode to Screen and reduce the Opacity to 25%.

Step 32

In this step we'll make an overall color/tonal adjustment. Add a Black & White Adjustment layer above the "Noise" layer, choose the Darker preset and change the layer Blend Mode to Multiply. Now hover your cursor between both layer thumbnails and Option-click to unclip the adjustment, which will now effect all the lower layers.

Step 33

Repeat this process to add a Hue/Saturation overall adjustment, copy these settings and reduce the layer Opacity to 58%.

Step 34

To finish off, add a layer at the top of the stack within the same folder and label it "Shadows/highlights". Hit Shift + F5 and select 50% Grey from the Contents menu, then change the Blending Mode to Overlay.

Now add shadow and highlight areas with a selection of soft, black and white brushes at around 20% Opacity. You can now use the same technique to paint within layer-based selections. If you make a mistake, set your brush color to # 939598 (50% black) and paint at 100% Opacity. This layer is shown in Normal Blend Mode at the bottom of the screengrab for clarity.

Conclusion and Scope

I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and also discovered some techniques that you can apply to your workflow. I also hope you've been inspired to create your own mythical sea creature illustrations – remember, the only limit is your imagination!

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