Create a Nature Themed Composition Using Minimalist Techniques


Minimalist pieces aren’t always easy to create. It takes a lot of effort to create something that is full of empty space but is also full of depth. In today’s premium tutorial, we will demonstrate how to combine several stock images to create a complete composition using several photo manipulation techniques.

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.

Before We Begin

Unless your design is 100% experimentation, it’s not usually a good idea to open Photoshop without an idea of what you’re going to accomplish. It’s important to have some idea of what you’re going to execute. As you can see, this composition started off as a sketch with some basic shapes, leaving a lot of empty space. Using the right Photoshop tools, the empty space of your piece can become its strength.

The basic idea of this piece was to have some kind of human head sleeping, made of rocks. It really doesn’t have to be photo realistic; it’s all about having subtle meanings. For this piece, we used rocks because they offer a lot of shadows and highlights and you can isolate them very easily, while still looking natural.

We’ll work deeply on the colours, so while I picked some stock photos here and there, I didn’t give much attention to the colours of the rocks on the pictures. We’ll desaturate most of these anyway.

Step 1

Start off by opening a blank landscape A4 canvas. A4 300dpi is the very minimum dimension you should work with when creating a digital art piece. When I create something that could be printed, I like to work in A2. Anyway, start with a light blue/gray gradient from the bottom-left to the upper-right, #e4ebeb to #aaafb6.

Step 2

Now, add some noise (Filter > Noise > Add Noise). Be sure to use something around 4%, Gaussian and have Monochromatic checked. For this piece, I’ll use some noise for two reasons: it helps tremendously to remove the banding (that annoying effect often appearing when you use gradients in high resolution files) and it will add some kind of texturing without even using any photo.

Step 3

Pick up the first rock stock photo (Landscapes0149_L.jpg), and with the Magic Wand Tool (W) with a rather high tolerance, select the sky. Use the Refine Edge tool with the same settings as used in the example and click Ok. Now, Select Inverse, and we have our rocks selected. That’s usually a pretty bad cutting method, but if you got some nice contrast, like we have here, it’s a very fast and efficient method.

Step 4

Import the isolated rocks in our document and. Use the Free Transform Tool, resize then right click on the rocks and apply “Flip Horizontal”. Open the Hue & Saturation Tool and desaturate the rocks completely. As seen on the rough sketches, we need a pretty organic shape; therefore we’ll add some more curves to the rock. Just use Free Transform again, right click and select the warp tool. Play around with the shape until you’re satisfied with its curve.

Step 5

Here’s one of the key parts of the tutorial, while being a very short step, it’s one of the most important. Using the Lasso Tool (L), cut a big part of the rocks out, leaving a very organic shape. This can take some time to obtain a satisfying level, so just experiment. It’s all about having a shape both organic and elegant. Although a graphic tablet can be handy, a mouse can do the trick without any problem.

Step 6

It’s time to open up another rock stock photo (Landscapes0131_L.jpg). Just repeat the same last 3 steps and try to obtain something like in the example. Reduce the opacity of the stock to 43%, this will create more depth. Place the layer underneath the 1st rocks. By now you should have an overall shape looking like a head looking at the sky.

Step 7

Open Landscapes0105_L.jpg and notice there’s not as much contrast as for the previous two images. Therefore I’d recommend cutting the mountains out with the Pen Tool (P). This might take some more time but you’ll get some very accurate results.

Step 8

Import the isolated mountain and just like in the previous steps, desaturate it, warp it around and cut some parts in a nice, elegant and organic way. This time, place this layer underneath the front rocks and over the low opacity mountains.

Step 9

As you’ll notice in the first image, there’s quite a lack of depth between some of the layers. Select the front rocks and create a layer right behind it. Right Click on the selection and choose Fill, then select a black colour. Then, unselect and apply a 20px Gaussian Blur, this is a more dynamic way to create shadows.

Step 10

Of course, you don’t want the shadow to be applied on everything behind. While being on the layer we just created, use the Quick Mask Tool (Q) and with a big soft brush, remove the parts as in the example. Get out of the Quick Mask Tool (Q again) and add a layer mask.

Step 11

Pick the last rock stock photo (Landscapes0161_3_L.jpg) and cut the sky out. Import it, place it like the example and cut an organic shape out of it. This layer should be beneath every other rock layers. Let’s make it darker as it was shadowed. For that, while having your layer selected, add a Curves adjustment layer and set it like in the image, don’t hesitate to play around with it. Remember, it’s all about experimentation.

Step 12

By now you should have a layer palette looking more or less like this, I’m not telling you how to order your layers because I think it’s personal, just try to stay coherent and sure you know where everything is.

Step 13

It’s time to add some more contrast to the rocks. Select all the rock layers but the last one we worked on, since we’ve already set a Curves adjustment layer on it. Then duplicate them, and merge them. Now, while holding Cmd/Ctrl, click on the layer thumbnail of what we just merged and the selection of the rocks will appear. On top of the group of the rock layers, add a Levels adjustment layer with the same settings as in the example. Now we have a lot more contrast and a lot more depth.

Step 14

Next, we’ll add a subtle shadow. This will help the composition to be more coherent in the space. Right click on the thumbnail of the layer mask of the Levels adjustment layer we just created to get the selection. Create a new layer under the group of rocks, right click on the selection and fill it with black. Free Transform the layer and using the distort option try to place the shape like I did in the example. Later in the tutorial, we’ll add some lighting from the right of the piece, therefore the shadow should be on the left. Add a 50 pixels Gaussian Blur and reduce the opacity to something like 20%. Then, create a layer mask and use a black and white gradient to fade out the further part of the shadow.

Step 15

Import the bear stock photo, resize it and add a layer mask. Now with a small and soft brush, just cut the bear out. Especially if you have a graphic tablet, cutting hairy elements can be quickly done with this technique. Open the Hue & Saturation panel and put the saturation at -65%.

Step 16

Create a new layer, and using the Pencil Tool (B) with a 2 to 4 diameter and white colour, just start drawing around the edges of the rocks until you’re satisfied with the result.

Step 17

It’s time to add some circles there and there to accentuate the composition. Open the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M), and fill the different selections with 3 colours (#f0e5cf, #80959a and #f40b0b). Depending on what’s behind the circles, having a normal blending mode and 75% opacity might do the job, or you’ll have to use either Lighter Color or Color Dodge blending modes with a lower opacity (especially for the red circle).

Step 18

Import a small part of the Landscapes0149_L.jpg image in the document and intensify its contrast using the Levels Tool, using settings around 40 – 1,00 – 220. Now select the Brush Tool and open the Brush Panel. First, select the 14 pixels sized default brush and use a spacing of around 400 pixels. Then, use Shape Dynamics, Scattering and Dual Brush with the same settings as in the example. Now, add a black layer mask to the stock photo, and start painting it around in white to let some small particles appear there and there, this will create more dynamics to the scene.

Step 19

Go back to the layers where you’ve drawn some edges with the Pen Tool and repeat this with the circles, using the adequate colours.

Step 20

Duplicate and merge the main composition (the rocks, the circles, the bear and the lines) and move it slightly on the left while reducing the opacity to 68%. This will create some kind of motion blur. Press Q to open the quick mask code and with a big soft brush erase most of the parts but the mountains from the background. Press Q again, create a layer mask, and admire how easy it was to create some motion.

Step 21

Using a small soft brush with a #962a32 colour, start painting some parts of the rocks you’d like to highlight with some red. Once you’re done set the blending mode to Color Dodge and reduce the opacity to 16%. I’d advise to place this layer behind the circles.

Step 22

Above everything so far, create a new group of layers called “Adjustment”. Inside this group, first create a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer, colours #daccb6 and #b9a988, blending mode set to Color and a 27% opacity. Create a new layer, fill it with black and set the opacity to 27%. Add a layer mask and with a big black soft brush, erase the centre of it. This way, you’ll highlight the middle of the composition by darkening the corners. Add a Curves adjustment layer with the same settings as in the example, and finally, just duplicate the Gradient Map Adjustment Layer we created and place it at the top of the group. Your layer palette should now look just like in the example.

Step 23

Duplicate the group we created in Step 22 and place it under it. Inside the new group, delete everything but the two Gradient Maps. This seems like quite an unorthodox method, but while experimenting, duplicating adjustment groups to watch the effect is a perfectly common method.

Step 24

Create yet another adjustment group above the previous two. Create a new layer, fill it with black and add a layer mask. This time, apply a big black soft brush on the right side of the image so the corners are darker on the left side. Then, just duplicate the Curves Adjustment Layer we previously created and put it above the layer we just created. The layer palette should look just like in the example.

Step 25

Create a new layer with an Overlay Blending Mode, and make sure you have the “Fill with Overlay-Neutral color” option checked. Go in the Filters and apply a Lighting Effect with the same settings as in the example and then blur the layer with a Gaussian Blur of 250 pixels. When it’s done, just reduce the opacity to something around 60%. This is a good, non-destructive way to create some lighting.

Step 26

Add a little random text in the bottom-left part of the image with a nice font. I used a #f0e5cf colour. Then underline this text with some small part of the rocks you can just copy in the image and erase some of its part with a layer mask and the custom brush we previously created.

Step 27

In the final step, select the entire composition and then Edit > Copy Merged. Finally, paste and use the Unsharp Mask Filter (Filters > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask) with about 85% and a 1 pixel radius.

Final Image

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