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Create a Cosmic, Dreamlike Composition

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Sometimes a photo will ignite your imagination and inspire you. When I first saw the stock image of the model used in this tutorial, her embryonic-like pose instantly conjured up thoughts of an out of the body experience or a lucid dream.

In today’s tutorial we will demonstrate how to create a cosmic, dreamlike composition using some advanced Photoshop techniques. Let’s get started!


The following stock photography was used in the process of creating this tutorial.

  • Model
  • Hair 1 by Porah
  • Hair 2 by Ophelia
  • Space 1
  • Space 2
  • Sunset by Nulus

  • Before we Start

    It is also worth mentioning that the following artists' work also served as inspiration for this tutorial:

    Step 1 – Extract the Model

    First we need to accurately isolate the model from the rock background; Photoshop has many tools to achieve this, but because the background is complex, we will need to use paths.

    Set the Pen Tool (P) to Paths in the Option bar, then zoom in and draw around the outer edge of the figure (indicated in red). You’ll need to use your judgment as to where to extend the path into the rock obscuring her wrist (this will become apparent in the next step). Now set the tool’s option to Subtract and draw the inner sub path (indicated in yellow).

    Remember, you can fine-tune your paths at any time by holding the Command key to access the Direct Selection Tool (A) and adjust individual direction/anchor points as required. When you’re done, save your Work Path by double-clicking its thumbnail - this also avoids it being over written.

    Now to fix the missing area - this is best carried out on a separate layer, so mistakes can easily be rectified. Command-click your path thumbnail to generate a selection and add a new layer. Set the Clone Tool (S) to Current & Below, then use a medium, soft-edged brush within the selection remove the rock within the model’s wrist.

    When you’re done, keep the selection active and hit Command+E to Merge Down. Now choose Select > Modify > Contract: 1 px and Copy to the clipboard.

    Step 2 – New Document

    Set your Background color to neutral grey (# 6d6d6d), then create a new document: 15 cm x 22 cm; Resolution: 300 dpi; Color Mode: RGB; Background Contents: Background Color.

    Paste your selection as a new layer within a group folder called “FIGURE”. Now hit Command + T to resize, then Control (or right-click) and select Rotate 90 degrees CW. Name the layer “Girl” The grey background will reveal if there is any edge interference from your initial selection, if so choose Layer > Matting > then Defringe by a pixel or so.

    Step 3 – Extracting the Hair

    Next we’ll add some long flowing hair so our model appears to be floating. 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 cycle through each one in turn to determine which holds the most contrast between the hair and the background - in this instance it’s the blue channel. Duplicate it by dragging its thumbnail over the Create new channel icon at the foot of the palette. Now hit Command + L to access the Levels dialogue box and enter the Input settings below.

    By default, white acts as selective channel areas, so hit Command + I to Invert. Your channel should now look something like this.

    Command-click your duplicate channel to load it as a selection, then 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.

    Use the Lasso Tool (L) to roughly encompass the right-hand hair segment and hit Shift + Command + J to cut the selection to a new layer. This will give you greater flexibility when placing the hair around the model’s head in the next step.

    Now extract the hair using the same technique on this image. This time the Red channel holds the most contrast, so duplicate it and apply a Levels adjustment.

    After copying the channel selection as a new layer, deleting the original and erasing, your image should look something like this.

    Step 4 – Assembling the Hair

    Begin to add the hair as new layers (set to Multiply) within the “FIGURE” folder. As you’ll need to resize, flip and transform these layers multiple times, choose Convert to Smart Object from the fly-out menu (top right on the Layers tab) beforehand. Now your layers will remember their original pixel information and can be transformed as many times as necessary with no loss of pixel quality.

    Continue to build up the hair. Don’t sweat over areas covering the face or any central “holes” – we’ll fix these in the following steps.

    Once you’re happy with the hair layers they can be rasterized; to do this, highlight your top hair layer thumbnail, then Shift-click the bottom one and choose Layer > Rasterize > Layers. Now add masks to all hair layers and hide areas as required. Next, load the “Girl” layer as a selection (Command-click its layer thumbnail), then paint within the selection on the hair masks to reveal the face.

    Merge all hair layers and reset the resulting layer back to Multiply. Name it “Hair,” then set the Clone Tool (S) to Current and fill the central “hole” using a large, soft-edged brush.

    Target the “Girl” layer, grab the Burn Tool (O), then using the Midtone and Highlight Range settings to darken so the existing hair blends - you”ll get a better result if you set the Exposure to around 50% and gradually build up the effect using a medium, soft-edged brush.

    Step 5 – Color and Tone Adjustments

    Duplicate the “Girl” layer and change its Blend Mode to Multiply to darken the tonal range.

    Hold down the Option key and select Levels from the Create new fill or adjustment layer drop-down menu at the foot of the palette. In the next window, check the Clipping Mask option, and then adjust all three Input Levels as shown. Now change the adjustments Blend Mode to Multiply.

    Use the same technique to clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer using these settings.

    Step 6 – Cosmic Intervention

    Change the color of the “Background” layer to # 2c0437. Now import this space image as a new layer below the “FIGURE” folder and resize/position to roughly cover the top half of your canvas.

    Duplicate the layer, Rotate 180 degrees and Shift-drag to the bottom of your canvas. Add a mask to the duplicate, then grab the Gradient Tool (G) and Shift-drag a black to white Linear Gradient downwards to blend the two layers.

    Highlight both layer thumbnails, then hit Command + E to Merge them and change the resulting layer’s Blend Mode to Screen. Rename the layer “Space,” then add a mask and use a large, soft-edged brush to hide the central area.

    Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the “Space” layer. Check the Colorize option and use the settings below.

    Add another layer filled with black above the previous adjustment. Change it’s Blend Mode to Multiply, then add a mask. Now use a soft-edged brush to reveal the inner portion. For best results, paint using a low opacity first, then finish at 100%. Name this layer “Black.”

    Step 7 – Fluid Forms

    Now we’ll create some fluid shapes in Illustrator. Open a new A4 Illustrator document and overlap a series of small circles using the Ellipse Tool (L). Their color is irrelevant, at this stage because we’ll be pasting them as paths into Photoshop later.

    Select All, then choose Make Compound Shape from the fly-out menu in the Pathfinder palette.

    Next, hit the Expand button.

    Choose Filter > Stylize > Round Corners and enter around 1-2 mm, this amount will depend on how large your shape is, and may take a few attempts to make it look right.

    Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to move individual anchor points or handles and also the Pen Tool’s (P) Add (+), Delete (-) and Convert (Shift + C) anchor points as required.

    Continue to draw several shapes using the same process. When you’re done, select your first shape and Copy to the clipboard.

    Step 8 – Define Custom Shape

    Switch back to your Photoshop file and Paste. Check the Path option in the next window and hit OK.

    Your shape will now be visible as a temporary work path, so now is a good time to save it. Choose Define Custom Shape from the Edit Menu and label it accordingly.

    Access the drop-down menu in the Options bar and you’ll see the Custom Shape added at the bottom of your current library.

    Step 9 – Shape Layers

    Set the Custom Shape Tool (O) to Shape layers, check the Unconstrained option and change its Color fill to # 3f0c3e. Now add your first Shape layer within a new folder called “SHAPE LAYERS” below the “FIGURE” folder. To start off we’re aiming for a subtle effect, so change the Blend Mode to Overlay.

    Add a mask to the Shape layer, then use a large, soft-edged brush to gently blend it into the background.

    Switch back to your Illustrator file and Copy > Paste your next shape as a path and save it to your shape library. Now add it as a second Shape layer using the same fill color and blend using a mask.

    Continue to Copy > Paste your remaining Illustrator shapes. Remember to store them in your library, then add as Shape layers. Again, use masks to softy blend them into one another.

    If you need to change a shape’s color, simply double-click its layer thumbnail - I introduced a slightly lighter purple (#641277). Now experiment by reducing their opacities and trying out different Blend Modes such as Multiply or Screen.

    Add more Shape layers using hot pinks as their fill color (#cf68cc; #bb4cd6; #db75f3), these will work best set to either Overlay or Soft Light. Also, try a burgundy (#87153e) set to Screen.

    Now introduce some smaller Shape layers using #ae183b set to Screen and adjust their opacities to taste. You can also use the Ellipse Tool (U) set to Shape layers to add simple circular fills. When you’re finished, you may wish to revisit the layer masks and adjust accordingly.

    Step 10 – Dot Patterns and Warping Paths

    Next, we'll create a dot pattern. Open a new A4 Illustrator document and select Show Grid/Snap to Grid via the View menu. Now choose Illustrator > Preferences > Guides & Grid and enter 5 mm in the Gridline every and 1 in the Subdivision field.

    Snap a black circle (top left) to fill four grid divisions, then stagger another circle down and right. Select and Group both shapes, then Option + Shift-drag to copy it to the right. Now hit Command + D eight times to repeat the transformation.

    Group this line of dots, then Option + Shift-drag down, then hit Command + D eight times again. You should now have a block of circles as shown. Select All, then hit Command + 8 to Make a Compound Shape.

    Copy the shape, then Paste As a Path into your project file. Now you need to scale the path down in size, so go to Edit > Transform Path > Scale, then Option + Shift -drag from a corner inwards to keep the path central.

    Next, enable Snap/Snap to Layers from the View menu, then add central guides as shown.

    Set the Ellipse Tool (U) to Paths and check the Intersect option. Option + Shift -drag from the center out. If don't get the path dead-center, just select it with the Path Selection Tool (A) and reposition. Now add it to your Custom Library..

    Add the new shape as a couple of Shape layers within the “SHAPE LAYERS” folder using a fill of #641277, then reduce their opacities to taste.

    Add as a another shape, highlight its Vector mask thumbnail, then choose Edit > Transform Path > Warp. Now drag within the warp mesh and also pull the corner points to distort it.

    Resize and position to the right of the model's shoulder and change its fill to #ae183b. Now change its Blend Mode to Screen. Duplicate the shape, then position near the model's wrist and change the Blend Mode to Linear Burn at 57% Opacity. Finally, add masks to these two layers and blend their hard edges.

    Step 11 – Using the Blend Tool and Smart Objects

    Now we'll create some wavy dots using Illustrator's Blend Tool; this is a neat way of making two shapes morph into each other by using a specified number of steps between them.

    Open a new Illustrator document (you don't need the grid visible here) and add two circles filled with 7% C; 100% M; 97% Y. Make the bottom circle slightly smaller, the grab the Blend Tool (W) and click both objects.

    Double-click the Blend Tool in the toolbar to access the Blend Options. Set the Spacing to Specified Steps and enter an amount so your blend looks something like this.

    Grab the Pen Tool (P) and add (+) a couple of extra anchor points to the path, then convert (Shift + C) them to smooth points and pull their control handles to make a nice curved path. You can also select your original end circles with the Direct Select Tool (A) and move them around as required.

    Now try making another blend, but this time add another smaller circle at the top (shown on the right below). Remember blends remain live unless they’re Expanded, so you can modify them at any point.

    Copy > Paste your first shape as a Smart Object within a new folder called “PATHS” below the “FIGURE.” Transform/position around the figure, then change its Blend Mode to Soft Light. Repeat this for your second shape and label them accordingly.

    Smart Objects also remain live, so double-click your first shape layer thumbnail to open it as a child document. Now select both end shapes and change their fills to 95% M and Save.

    The Smart Object will now automatically update within your Photoshop file. Repeat this for your second dotted path, then change their Blending Modes to Screen and lower their opacities to suit. It's worth mentioning that if you have several instances or duplicates of the same Smart Object, they too will be updated.

    Step 12 – Add the Blended Paths

    You can also create some complex wavy shapes using Illustrator's Blend Tool. First, draw a curved upper path (Fill: zero, 1 pt black Stroke) using the Pen Tool, then draw a lower path and blend, adjusting the step count to suit. Create as many different wavy blends as you wish, then change all their Strokes to white and Copy the first one to the clipboard.

    Paste As a Smart Object within the “PATHS” folder. Now change its Blend Mode to Soft Light. Transform / position around the model, then add a mask and use a large, soft-edged brush to blend into the background. Now Paste and repeat using your other Illustrator line blends.

    Step 13 – Reflective Spheres

    Next we’ll use the Polar Coordinates Filter to create some shiny spheres. First, open the sunset image, then grab the Crop (C) Tool. Hold down Shift and drag a square top right, then double-click to accept the crop command.

    Choose Filter > Distort > Polar Coordinates, then select the Polar to Rectangular option. This much under-used filter converts a selection from its rectangular to polar coordinates, and vice versa, according to the selected option.

    Choose Image > Canvas Size and uncheck the Relative option. Set the Height to 200% using the drop-down menu and anchor the image placement to top middle.

    Double-click the layer to release its transparency. Duplicate the layer, rotate by 180 degrees and flip horizontally. Now hold down Shift and drag to the bottom, leaving a pixel or so of transparent canvas at the base.

    Merge the upper layer and hit Option + Command + F to access the last filter. Now choose the Rectangular to Polar option, which will result in an elongated oval.

    To transform this into a circle, select Image > Image Size, uncheck Constrain Proportions and check Resample Image, then change the Height value to match the Width. Next, we’ll magnify the sphere; choose Filter > Distort > Pinch: -77%. This negative value will shift pixels away from the center.

    Finally, add white central highlight using a large, soft-edged brush and Save.

    Have some fun and repeat the process to make more spheres; I cropped a different portion from the sunset image to create a second sphere. I also used this space image to make a third and final sphere. Feel free to harmonize the color and tonal range of these spheres to fit your project file.

    Step 14 – Multiple Spheres

    Drop your first sphere into your working file within a new folder called “SPHERES 1” below the “FIGURE” folder. Apply a Levels adjustment to darken the shadow and midtone areas, then duplicate several times, resize and position around the model, then label all layers accordingly.

    Continue to add more sphere layers, including the variations you made at the end of Step 13. Now reduce the opacity of some of the smaller ones to create a sense of depth.

    Step 15 – Liquify the Model

    Next, we’ll apply the Liquify filter to a merged copy of the model. Disable the visibility of all layers and folders except the “FIGURE.”

    Add an empty layer at the top of the stack and choose Image > Apply Image and hit OK in the next window. You’ll now have a composite image on the new layer.

    Go to Filter > Liquify (Shift + Command + X) and use a variety of large brushes at full strength to distort the model’s lower half. Have some fun here and experiment with the various brush options - and if you make a mistake, use the Reconstruct buttons. Once you’re happy hit OK.

    Name the layer “Girl liquify,” then enable the visibility of all the layers/folders. Now place the layer at the bottom within the “GIRL” folder. Add a mask and use a large, soft-edged brush to hide the hair, head and torso. Also, feel free to stretch the layer content so it’s more apparent.

    Now change the Blend Mode to Screen for a subtle distorted glow around the model.

    Add a mask to the “GIRL” folder and use a variety of soft-edged brushes at a low opacity to blend the model’s thigh and buttock into the background.

    Step 16 – Add Fluid Effects

    Add a new folder called “DISTORTED SPHERES” beneath the “SHAPE LAYERS” folder. Add another large sphere within the folder and Liquify again.

    Name the layer “Distorted 1,” transform/position as shown and change its Blend Mode to Hard Light, then hide superfluous areas with a mask.

    Next, we’ll use an advanced blending technique; double-click the layer icon to access its Blending Options. Now Option-click (to split) the top white Blend If slider. Your layer should now have a softer appearance - if not, revisit the Blending Options window and adjust accordingly.

    Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the same layer and edit the overall Hue, then edit the Reds as shown. Again, fell free to modify these settings to your preference.

    Duplicate the liquified sphere and its adjustment layer, then transform/position as shown. Rename it “Distorted 2” and drop its Opacity to around 30%.

    Add further spheres within another folder called “SPHERES 2” at the top of the stack. Now reduce the opacities of selective layers and change some of their Blend Modes to Lighten.

    Step 17 – Final Details

    Now we’ll apply the Liquify Filter to selective spheres within both folders; start off with the larger one to the right of the model’s head.

    Next, Liquify some of the smaller spheres.

    With the image almost complete, take some time to review your work and carry out any last minute alterations. Feel free to reposition layers and add more distorted spheres set to Overlay and Lighten Modes. You may also wish to darken the model’s hair a little using a Levels adjustment.

    Finally, open the Preset Manager, in the next window Command-click (to highlight) your Custom Shape thumbnails and hit the Save Set button. Give them a memorable name and store them in the Custom Shape folder within Photoshop’s Presets. Now you can load them as and when required.


    I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and also discovered some new techniques along the way!

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