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While creating things from scratch is an awesome way to showcase your style and technique, using stock photos is an easier way to add impacting detail to your work. To be able to do all that, we'll be using various ways to separate photos from their backgrounds, manipulating them and altering the overall lighting, contrast, and color balance to finish off this complex illustration.
Final Image Preview
Here's what we'll create today.
When it comes to creating this sort of work, it's all about building your piece step by step.
I started out by wanting to use a model photo. I wanted a simple and impersonal posture and found this asian model on istockphoto. It's the photo that gave me my theme, so I started looking for things I could use with that.
I decided to focus on Japanese culture, so bonsai trees and pagodas were an obvious choice. Wanting to include some kind of floral theme, I found enough orchids on sxc to use as an important part of the piece.
As a first attempt, I used mostly the same resources as in the final version, but made one crucial mistake -working at a small scale. While the document size was not at all small, the large overall size of the elements made the piece cluttered and too in your face. It was an easy fix: Crop Tool, select all, drag the box out a bunch, out with (some of) the old, and in with (a bit of) the new.
While all the objects in my first attempt seem to be fighting over hierarchy, the second piece spreads out all the elements, so that they all lead to the central part, the model's face. Her dark hair also makes it easy to draw attention, so I avoided using too many dark shades of colors in any other parts.
From a compositional point of view, the piece has clusters of colors that eventually balance out: Blue water at the lower left; blue sky at the top right. Red flowers and monument on the left; red large pagoda on the right. They strike a balance because they are all grouped in a two by two order.
Any imbalance in color will ultimately become a focal point, and whether or not it conflicts with what you want the viewer to be looking at, is up to how you plan your piece.
Rather than spending time beforehand, I created this balance along the way. Once I included an element, I was sure to create its counter measure. Slowly, the piece developed itself into what it is now. It's an organized improvisation that you refine with every step forward.
A good way to see if your piece is balanced well compositionally, not only chromatically, is to desaturate it. Here is a black and white version I made using a Channel Mixer set to Black and White with a Green Filter (RGB). It will show you if certain parts are too dark or too light and help point out any unintentional focal points.
First, get this istockphoto and open it in Photoshop. If you're keeping my document settings (listed later), buy the large format version. In this step, we'll separate the model from the background. Unfortunately, it's red, which will interfere with her lipstick, makeup, and even skin tone if not handled properly.
It's nothing we can't fix though, so open the photo in a PS document. Double-click on the background layer and name it something to turn it into a regular layer. Use the eyedropper tool (I) to select the photo's background color and go to Select > Color Range. Use an appropriate fuzziness that will cover as much of the model as possibly. Don't worry about part of the face showing up, we'll take care of that in the next few steps.
Open your channels menu (Window > Channels). Inside you will see all the available channels of the image. The red channel contains all red pixels, and the other two correspond to their own colors. The RGB channel is all in one.
In an ideal case, the background of the photo would be a green screen. If so, it would be better to make a selection of the green channel, instead of using a Color Range Selection. In case you want to combine channels, or make them interact somehow, go to Image > Calculations. There you can add, subtract or blend mode a channel on top of another.
Enter Quick Mask Mode (Q). A new channel will now appear, which is our quick mask. Make all the other channels invisible (RGB, R, G, B). You'll now see a silhouette of the model - the one created with the Color Range Selector.
All the white areas represent a selection, so we need to make sure that the inside part of the silhouette is completely black. Grab the brush tool (B) and paint with black inside, to cover any white sections.
Exit Quick Mask Mode (Q) and click on the small icon in the layers menu to make it a mask.
Now open a new Photoshop Document. It's a (very) odd size: 28.45 cm by 17.64 cm at 300 ppi (3360 px by 2084 px). Bring in the cut out model. We'll now do a little touchup. Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer) and make it a clipping mask (Command + Alt + G).
Add a Curves adjustment layer too.
To simulate an overexposed look, we'll add glows on lots of elements. Double-click on the model's layer to add a few layer styles. Use the settings below.
Cut out this flower with the Pen Tool and place it behind the model. Add the appropriate layer style.
Duplicate it and add a few more.
Add some above the model too.
Download this photo, cut it out and place it behind the model. In a new layer underneath the flower, paint a red glow. Change its colors by following the next step.
Add these Adjustment Layers: Hue/Saturation and Selective Color, using the settings shown below.
Duplicate the red orchids and move them to the other side. Change their colors with these Adjustment Layers and add a blue glow on top.
Find the "model" layer and create a few new layers as a clipping mask. Paint a shadow from the flowers on her right shoulder, a light glow on her head and fill her pupils with black (paint with a black, soft brush).
Get this eye photo and make a selection of it with the Marquee Tool. Feather it (Select > Modify > Feather) and copy it in a new layer. Place it on top of the model's pupil, duplicate it and place it on the other side. Don't flip the second eye, rather free transform it (Command + T), warp it and move the center of the grid until the pupils correspond with the model's previous eyes.
Add an Adjustment Layer for both of the eyes.
You could chose to leave this out, but I wanted a more impersonal look. Paint a light green soft dot over the iris on a separate layer.
Now get this istockphoto of a bonsai tree and get ready to go mad separating it. Some things are great to have isolated on white. I'd rather have this one on a different color. Highlights are more difficult to select than alienated colors because you're selecting white, you can (and will in this case) heavily interfere with the object's own highlights. Select white as your foreground color, and go to Select > Color Range. Use the settings shown below - don't forget to tick the Invert box.
Go to the Channels menu, press Q, make the quick mask channel visible and other invisible. Use the brush tool (B) on white to paint in areas that have dark accents and should be entirely white, like the bark and portions of the foliage. The brush should be about 95% in Opacity.
Once the tree mask is completely white, press Q again and add a layer mask. To do this, you need to double-click the background layer and transform it into regular layer.
Simulating the same overexposed effect, add some blend modes to the tree.
Duplicate the tree, flip it and place it behind all the other layers.
Get this photo and isolate it just like the bonsai tree. Add a Levels Adjustment Layer to make it brighter, and thus more faded into the background.
It's time for a background. Get this photo and place it behind all the layers. Erase anything that goes past the Pagoda's roof (toward the right side).
Add a white large glow with the brush tool (B) on the top left side, and fade out the horizon's mountains in the same way.
Now add a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer and make it a clipping mask for the scene.
Add the photo again on the other side, with the same Gradient Map applied.
Now trace this photo with the Pen Tool and copy its selection in a new layer. Most importantly, keep both layers (which includes the background you copied it from) and position them in the document. Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer for the copied layer, as a clipping mask. In the screenshot below, the background photo is not visible.
Make the background photo visible and add a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer. Also, erase all the sides and leave the bottom in so that it creates a reflection on the other water photo.
We'll now make a few color adjustments in the following few steps. Select the top of layer of the entire document, and make a few Adjustment Layers. First, a Curves and Hue/Saturation.
There are quite a few ways to change the colors in any given piece in Photoshop. You can use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, Channel Mixer, Photo Filter, Color Balance, Selective Color, etc. My personal favorite is the Gradient Map, and it's what we'll use right now. To create one, go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map. After creating one, select the proper gradient from the menu, and drag the layer's Opacity to 20%.
Add another Gradient Map, but with a different gradient and a different blending mode for the layer, use Overlay.
And as a final element, I wanted to add some kind of personal graphic. Create an elliptical shape (U) that's much larger than the document shape. Its color is irrelevant.
Double-click its layer to add these blending modes. The first thing to do is to drag the Fill Opacity to 0 in the Advanced section of the Blending Options menu (first thing you see).
After adding those, add a few more across the layers with different colors. To change to a different color, edit the Drop Shadow from the previous step.
Finally, I added a few soft white glows over the branches to give it more realistic lighting. With that, the piece is now finished. Thanks for reading, everyone!