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Create a Forest Dragon With Photoshop

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What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial, we will show you how to create a dragon composed of photographic elements. In the process, we will talk about how you can shoot your own photos of trees, leaves, and vines, and then extract the elements that you need to form any object that you want to create. Let’s get started!

Before We Get Started

As it is quite a long tutorial with a lot of repetition, I will be describing in detail the techniques that you will need, but not going into exact step-by-step instructions. You will see why as you read on. I have also supplied some low resolution PSD's of the project files if you want to pull them apart as well.

Supplied in the tutorial files you will find everything you will need to create your own nature-themed creature. Feel free to get creative and use the stock I have provided and these techniques to create anything you want. We won't be going in exact step-by-step instructions as this would make for an insanely long tutorial - so it may be easier to work freely and develop your own creature.

The puppet warp tool is an absolute must for this project, something that only appears from CS5 onwards. If you have an older version of Photoshop you could try to achieve similar results with the regular warp transform tool but it will be much more difficult and time consuming when the time comes to wrap vines and branches.

Getting Started

First, you'll need stock. You are more than welcome to use the stock provided, however if you want to use your own stock and know your way around a camera then that's great too.

The stock for this project was shot using a DSLR on a tripod. The shooting was done at dusk to ensure soft, even lighting, so the tripod is an absolute must. For best results, keep your ISO at 100 and aperture of at least 8.0, the lower the better so you have as much as possible in focus. This may mean your shutter speed will end up being over 10 seconds, but it will be worth it - the better your stock is at the start of the project, the easier things will be later on and the better your end product will be too.

A few other things to remember if you are shooting your own stock:

  • Most current memory cards have truckloads of space on them, don't be afraid of getting trigger happy with your camera in case some shots don't turn out.
  • Get multiple angles of interesting or useful objects – it's easier than having to manipulate the angle later in Photoshop.
  • Shoot in Camera RAW to allow yourself more flexibility when you go to bring your images to Photoshop

1. Cutting Out The Pieces

Using the stock we've procured, we need to cut out the pieces we'll be using. Beware: this could take a while depending on your level of skill with the pen tool, rest-assured though, by the time you are done you will have had plenty of practice. Go through the stock images you are using and pick out some images to start with you think might be useful. Here we start with some vines that might be useful to form the core body of our dragon.

Generally speaking, there are two broad ways of a selection of part of an image that we want: a colour selection like the "colour range" tool or "quick selection", or a direction method like the lasso or pen tool. Pro's use the pen tool and, given that literally all our stock here is set again a complex background, it's basically going to be the only tool at our disposal so we're going to need to get very good at this basic tool. Being able to make clean, professional selections reaps massive dividends to the end product of a piece like this – and can be the difference between awful and great looking art. If you don't yet know how to use the pen tool it is strongly recommended that you take the time to do so, it is an excellent tool for making complicated and clean selections where other methods won't work - it's always a fallback.

This looks like it could be the beginning of a claw or limb

Step 1

Grab the pen tool (shortcut "P"), and make a path around the outside edge of the vine. This could take a while at first but take your time and working your way around the shape. Try to stay as close to the edge of the vine as possible.

Take your time and stay as close to the edge as possible

Step 2

Now, as you work your way around the vine, your going to need to make curves - click and drag as you make the new point, the longer you drag, the wider the curve. You want to keep the selection fairly close to the light so that the next step works well. Take your time and make sure you get it right, come back using the CMD/CTRL and alt keys to fix up and move the different nodes if you need to.

Using the Pen tool for these kind of selections is a very basic skill but I cannot stress how important is to get it right, especially when you need to do so much of it for a project like this.

Step 3

Once you're done, with the pen tool still selected, right-click so a menu pops up and choose "make selection" (In CS6 there is also a "make selection" button in the top right of screen when the pen tool is selected). You should get this panel:

These should be the default settings.

Step 4

Once you have your selection, hit CMD/CTRL + J (copy to new layer) and you should get something like this:

Step 5

Now copy the layer to a new document with the following settings. The size of the document is generally going to change depending on how large the photos coming out of your camera are. Generally speaking, around 3500 to 5000 in each dimension should be sufficient. We are going to use this file purely a container where we can keep these individual elements in a convenient spot.

The dimensions and file size will vary depending on your source material and the speed of your computer

Step 6

Get working and cut a few more images of likely candidates of things you think might be useful. As you do, keep piling up these images in your "pieces" file.

In the project files you should find this forest_dragon_pieces.psd file already. Included are a number of pieces to help get you going, there are potentially quite a few hours of cutting out involved in this project. Hopefully this helps.

So after you've cut out a number of pieces already, you should have something that looks like this:

These are the examples included in the project files. Feel free to use them as well

At this point it's probably a good idea to make this change to workspace too; go to the top right hand corner of the Layers palette and open the drop down menu, choosing "panel options". You should get this:

The idea here is that as you have so many layers, often with similar or identical content, that identifying layers with descriptive names becomes obsolete. With large thumbnails and the display mode set to "layer bounds", you can simply identify the content by the thumbnail, instead of needing a name.

Another useful way of selecting a layer is by selecting the Move tool (shortcut "V") then pointing the mouse at a layer if you right click on any given point of your image you will get a drop-down menu listing all the layers that have pixels at that point. Selecting one of these items will select the relevant layer. In all likelihood, the layer at the top of the list is the layer you can see:

The layer listed on top is the image you can see on top

2. Start Building

Right, that's the boring stuff out of the way, time for the interesting part.

Make a new document, the settings you use will depend on how powerful your computer is. If you want to preserve detail (ie pixel data), go for the largest size possible – but be wary that the file size will increase dramatically later on. Here is how I set up my document:

Again, the file size will depend on how powerful your computer is, remember to make the document significantly taller than it is wide to accommodate the wings.

Now, start laying down some basic pieces the overall "frame" of your creature. You can see some pieces placed from the vines we cut out earlier:

Here you can see the basis of the "legs" and "ribcage"

Use the Free Transform tool (CMD/CTRL+T) to scale, rotate and flip layers as you see fit, building our image up a bit like a "puzzle".

Get creative and don't be afraid to shuffle pieces around to see how they look.

3. Bend It

Now, it's pretty much a given that the vines aren't always going to be shaped the way we want them too. The tool that makes this whole project possible is the puppet warp tool.

You can find it in the Edit menu (Edit > Puppet Warp)– with the layer of something you want to bend or reshape, so ahead and select it:

If you have a selection made, the warp will be applied only to it, otherwise, make sure you have the layer you want to warp selected first.

Step 1

In this instance I'm going to bend a tree branch that is going to form the start of one of my wings. For the purpose of this project, always use these settings with the puppet warp:

Leave the mesh on, and for a higher quality result set the density to include more points – with less points you are often left with visible stretching on the image. Have the mesh turned on lets you know if there is going to be any excess "buckling" or stretching in the transformed image as you'll see.

Step 2

Now, start by placing your first pin on the mesh at a point that won't be moving. This will act as your anchor - in this example this was at the base of the branch where it meets the torso. Then place another another anchor point at the opposite end like so:

Step 3

If you click and drag this pin it will move that whole section of the image. Move this second pin to where you want it to end:

Step 4

Now click to add a third point in the mid section and drag it to add a bend to the image. Hit enter when you are done.

Pretty simple but effective, certainly faster and more effective than trying to replicate similar results with the regular warp tool. You can use this in all kinds of applications, as you will see as we move through this tutorial.

4. Mix and Match

Bring more elements over from your pieces file and build up your image don't be afraid of playing around with your form. This is basically a complex form of collage, so use the free transform tool to spin and flip images around and see how they fit in:

Play around placing more pieces to build the basic frame of the creature

You'll notice this looks significantly different from the finished product you saw earlier – I changed mine quite a bit as I went along – to the point where I completely scrapped the first head and wing I made.

If you don't like how something is turning out, don't be afraid of erasing selections and trying agian; it will almost certainly be better the second time around

5. Organisation is Key

For a project as complicated as this with so many layers it is VERY important to stay organized. While I don't think it's worthwhile to name every layer as so many layers have such similar content, layers should be organized into groups that are name appropriately. I grouped mine for certain areas of the dragon's body. At this stage, this is how my layers palette looked:

A project like this can easily have over a thousand layers by the end

6. Building the Wings

Step 1

Once the frame of the wing is made, you can think about adding the "membrane" portion of the wing. For this the leaf texture that you will find in the pieces file was used, cut in half and pasting it into the file on a layer behind the main frame we have made already:

Position the base of the leaf where it will join the wing using the transform tool and the grab the puppet warp tool again so you have something like this:

Note the stem where the veins start is positioned against the frame of the wing

Step 2

Now add a line of pins to the top edge, as you add each pin line the edge of the leaf up with the stem.

As you add each pin, drag it in line in line with the stem

Step 3

Now you can add more pins to the lower part of the leaf to bring it in and help give the leaf some depth – we want the leaf to look like there is air filling the space underneath it. Here is how mine looked:

Only add 3-4 pins for this

Step 4

Finally, add a layer mask to hide the un-wanted sections.

Looking pretty good. That was fairly easy, but it gets more complicated creating this texture for the other mid sections of the wing.

7. The Midsections

Step 1

Paste in more sections of leaves, making sure there is plenty of overlap, otherwise won't work properly. Make use of the other side of the leaf and flipped the original as well to reduce the chance of any repetition. You should have something like this:

Make sure there is plenty of overlap between the leaves

Step 2

Using the previous technique, shape the leaves to the frame:

Step 3

Add a layer mask to each of the leaves, getting rid of any excess that might have slipped outside the frame. Grab a brush set to 100% opacity, 0% Hardness with the black as the colour and select highest leaf in the layer stack. Start painting away at the leaf to blend them together. Let the veins run into each other but no overlap.

Step 4

Eventually you should have something that looks a bit like this:

When you've reached a point where you are happy with it, merge the layers together.

8. Details

Details will help make your image that much more and are also useful for covering up rough patches in your image. Adding vines from the project files will help in this. As before, the puppet warp tool is incredibly effective here too.

Vines are great for adding depth and hiding rough points where other layers meet

Use some of these fungus spores in the project files for spines for the tail. These were simply a matter of cutting them out and placing the individual blades. Note how some are in front and others are behind the tail layer.

Details like this also help make it clearer for your viewer what the creature is

Another very simple trick I applied was to cut out pieces of this close up of a mossy tree and insert them behind the torso to add more detail and depth. Strangely enough, not everything needs to be too complicated!

You can use detailed photos... add detail without all the leg work

9. Lighting and Shading

At about this point you will probably find your computer starting to struggle as the file size starts getting quite large (or at least I did). The best way to tackle this is compress layers together, however before we can do that we need to start lighting and colouring the individual layers. The reason for this is that many of the layers are lit differently already as they are from different photos.

You should think at this point what kind of light you want your creature to be set it. I want mine to be in soft, cool blue light – as I will be setting it in a forest glade or something similar.

To help streamline this process, we are going to set up an action sequence. Select the layer of one of the components and open the actions palette and hit record. Each layer will perform a different function.

Set up a new action script

Follow these steps in setting up your actions. It is very important that you use the layers menu instead of the buttons at the bottom of the layers palette

These are the settings I've used:

1. First go Layer Menu > New Adjustment Layer > Vibrance. Make sure for all of these the "Use previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask" box is checked. set to Normal

2. Layer Menu > New Adjustment Layer > Curves.

3. Layer Menu > New Adjustment Layer > Photo Filter

4. Layer Menu > New Layer. Set the blending mode to "Overlay". I named this layer "Shading". This layer will be for painting our soft light.

5. Lastly, Layer Menu > New Layer. Keep the blending mode as normal, this one I called "Highlights/Shadows". As the name suggests, this layer will be for painting highlights and hard shadows.

When you are done your actions and layers palettes should look like this:

Test it to see if it works; every layer should have a clipping mask and you should get no error messages

10. What Do They Do?

Each of these layers serves a purpose, every time I go to render a layer I will run this sequence. Lets go through what each layer does.

The vibrance layer is there to subdue, or sometimes enhance, the existing colours on the layer. In this instance because we are going for a soft, subdued colour scheme almost every layer will have the vibrance scaled back at least 25%. As objects fade away or disappear into shadow, the less vibrant the colours will become.

The curves layer is used to lighten or darken the whole layer as needed, sometimes add or subtract contrast. On most layers you will want to increase the strength of you shadows, don't go too overboard though.

Use the Photo Filter layer to cool the layer down and add blue too it. On nearly every layer I added 10-25% of Cooling Filter (LBB).

The shading layer is where most of your light painting will happen. With a fairly large soft brush around 20% opacity with black and white as your foreground and background colours, use this layer to add soft light and shadow to individual objects. Be sure to take your time with this layer.

Lastly, the Highlights/Shadows layer will be used where either direct light falls on an object or you need strong shadows. And example of this is where two components meet like at the base of this log or on the very top edge. For this, again use black and white at low opacity with a smaller, soft brush.

This part of the project will take a while, but take your time and do it properly. Work your way around the image, shading the different parts of your creature.

11. Other Tips

Another trick you can use in shading the wings to highlight the veins in the leaf texture was to duplicate the layer, apply a high pass filter and change the blending mode to "Overlay".

Duplicate and re-attach the clipping mask

Filter > High pass at 30+ pixels

To finish up add a layer mask and masked off the central areas with a soft brush to help give the wing membrane some depth.

Take your time working on the details, like here on the wing I have wrapped the frame with more vines. Use a much smaller brush and pay a bit of attention to the individual leaves. You can also see here how the vines have been used to hide the ends of the different branches and blend them together. Getting details like this really helps make the image.

Filter > Note the rim lighting across the top of the wing

Then finally once you've finished shading, select the layer at the top of the layer at the top of the layer stack and go Layer Menu > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient map. Set the blending mode to Overlay and the Opacity to 50%. Hit Ok.

This will help tie the colours and shading together

Once the layer has been made (again, making sure it is right at the top of the layer stack), select it and double click on the gradient that appears in the "Properties" panel. You should get this box:

Set the colours at each end to #33415c and #a9d5b4 respectively. This layer helps tie the image together and give the overall image some consistency.

12. Final Touches to the Dragon

The last thing the dragon needs is it's "heart". Open the file "Energy_orb.jpg" from the project files:

Copy and paste it to the main file, setting the blending mode to screen. Hit CMD/CTRL + T and scale the orb down with the centre over the centre of the dragon's torso:

Next, we need to add some adjustment layers. A black and white layer (use the default), a curves layer to bump up the contrast a little and a colour fill layer. The colour for this layer should be #29a77f and the blending mode set to "Overlay". If you haven't already, while holding the alt key down, click the line between each layer to clip them on to the energy layer. You should get something like this:

Simple but effective

Finally, add a layer mask and with a large soft brush fade out the edges. I also added an extra layer set to overlay and painted more white onto it to bump up the strength of the orb in the centre.

13. Building the Scene

Part 1 - The Perch

All right, now we really are getting somewhere! It's time to start building the scene that goes around it. Here is how the creature should look roughly at this point:

Pretty cool, but it's just floating in space

Save this version of the file, and go File > Save As and to another copy of the project. Call this one "Dragon Scene" or something similar. In this new version, merge the layers of the dragon.

The first part we need to build is a base for the dragon to be perched on – something to ground it to the scene. Using the same techniques used to build the dragon, a mound like this will suffice – it's nothing special, start with some of the mossy rocks in the project files and build up on top of them. Add vines, curling branches and leaves to make it more believable. Finally, shade your mount using the exact same techniques we used for the dragon. Note how the vines or "roots" of the dragon were also extended into the mound as well.

Start with rocks and large branches for the base

Build up more details

Cover any gaps or rough areas with vines and leaves

Pretty simple. We're only making a clump here instead of a defined form like the dragon, so this will be a walk in the park by comparison

Then shade it the same way we did the dragon

14. The Background

Go right to the bottom of the layer stack now. Create gradient fill layer with style radial, using the same colours we used earlier for our gradient map (#33415c and #a9d5b4), the green should be in the centre. Set the scale to around 500%, although this will change depending on the size of your document.

Duplicate this gradient fill layer and change the blending mode to "Overlay". Change the colours to #2b867a and #feffef. You should get something like this:

Grab the file "Colour_Grunge.jpg"from the project files.

Scale it up so it fills the screen, then desaturate the colours either with the "black and white" function or simply hitting CMD/CTRL + "U" (I prefer to use adjustment layers so I can come back and alter it easily if I want to). Drop the layer's opacity 20% and change the blending mode to multiply:

Now grab the file "Green_Forest_Large" from the project files and paste it into the project above the grunge layer we just added; mask off the low section of the image that make the ground.

The forest has the right feel, but too much detail will draw away from our subject, the dragon

Hit CMD/CTRL + T, right click and choose "Distort". Drag the corners of the box out until so that the image fills the screen and all the trees are vertically aligned:

This doesn't need to be too perfect as you will see...

Now go Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and use the following settings:

Add a layer mask and with a large (at least 500 pixels wide) black brush at 0% hardness mask off all but the lower sections of our blurred forest.

Now add a Photo Filter adjustment layer, set to Cooling Filter (LBB) at about 45% and clip it to our forest.

Then add a Vibrance adjustment layer, this time reducing the vibrance to -50.
Lastly, duplicate the layer and clip it to the original and change the blending mode of the duplicate to "Overlay". You should see the result below, notice the layer mask of the forest.

That's it for the background, now on to the foreground.

15. The Foreground

The first thing we are going to place in front of the dragon is the trees that frame the image. In the file "forest_dragon_pieces.psd" in the project files find this image:

Paste it into our project file and duplicate it – placing one copy on each side of the image, then run the action script we created earlier to shade the shade the dragon. Render the trees as if the light source is coming from the centre of the image, so that the outside edges are dark. You should get something like this:

Now, to help emphasise the fact that these trees are closer to us than the dragon, we are going to blur them out of focus – just like an out-of-focus object appears in a regular photograph. Go Filter > Blur > Lens Blur and use these settings:

Using exactly the same technique, add a few more details like vines to the edges and corners so that you get something like this:

Take some of the cutout leaves from the supplied pieces file, and using the same techniques again, we are going to add some falling leaves to the scene to further add to the atmosphere.

However, this time we want the leaves to look like they are closer to our point of focus (the dragon), so when you apply the lens blur this time drop the radius of the blur to about half what you used last time (so about 35 pixels).

As seen in the project files

They should not be as blurred as the trees as they are closer to the "focus point"

Make sure you vary the size of the leaves and for the smallest leaves that are closest to the dragon, don't blur them at all.

Keep some smaller leaves sharp to make them look like they are level with the dragon

The last thing we are going to add to the scene is some extra falling light. Find the file "Falling_light.jpg" and copy it into the project behind the trees but above the dragon.

Set the blending mode to "Screen" and clip a "Hue/Saturation" Adjustment layer to the layer. Set the Hue to -38 and the Saturation to -59:

Mask away the lower portion of the light so that not too much hits the dragon, then go Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Set the angle to 90 degrees and the distance to about 300 pixels.

16. Final Details

The last thing we want to add to the image was to give the dragon some more life, specifically to add something to the eyes. Using the exact same technique we used for the heart, take paste the file "Energy_orb.jpg" into the project again – twice this time, one for each eye. Scale and centre each orb over an eye, set the blending mode to screen and colourize the orb again like we did earlier.

Once you've done this, create a blank layer above both orbs, blending mode normal this time. Grab a brush, 200 pixel diameter with hardness set to 0%, 100% Opacity, foreground colour white – now paint a single white circle over each eye and you should get something like this:

Last but not least we will add some smoke coming from the dragon's eyes. Open the file "Smoke.jpg".

Using either the lasso or pen tools, make a selection around one of the smoke plumes and copy and paste it to the main file. You will see here that I only cut part of the plume – cutting it at a point where the direction changes – see the next panel to see why.

Position and rotate the smoke over the eyes. Hit CMD/CTRL + Shift + U to desaturate the colours of the smoke plumes.

Change the blending mode to screen and add a layer make to both layers. With a large soft brush, mask away the top of the plumes so it looks like they are fading or dissipating. With a much smaller brush, mask the bottom end as well to hide any straight edges and blend the smoke into the eyes.


And that's it! We are done. Hopefully you learned some new techniques and tricks here and have made something you can be proud of. This whole tutorial would not have been possible without the puppet warp tool – an amazing powerful tool with many, many applications.

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