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Create a Mixed Media Masterpiece

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Photoshop cannot replicate the spontaneity of a paint splash or an ink splatter; and you won't find a happy accident tool – well not yet anyway! In the first part of this tutorial you'll be encouraged to step away from your screen, then get down and dirty to create your own textures.

Once digitized, you'll combine these real-world scans with some stock images to create an edgy feel that Photoshop alone would be hard-pressed to achieve. We'll also briefly touch on how Illustrator's paths can be utilized to make a cool Custom Shape library.

I've included all the texture files in the download, but why not have a go at making your own – that way you'll inject individual flair into your work – as well as have fun!


For those of you wanting to create your own textures, grab yourself the following materials:

  • A pad of heavy-weight watercolor paper, around 230gsm – make sure it's got a nice toothy texture too. Some various sized paintbrushes, watercolor paints, or some jars of liquid acrylic – the type with a pipette in the cap are a good choice.
  • A pad of heavy-weight cartridge paper (again, around 230gsm is fine) and a jar of black indian ink.
  • An old toothbrush and drinking straw.
  • Some tracing paper and pencils/pens.

You'll also need the following stock images – or feel free to use your own files.

Start off by creating a series of random watercolor washes, while the paint is still wet, hold some sheets quickly upright to allow the paint to run. Next, load the toothbrush with black ink and make some spray marks on the cartridge paper by running your finger over the bristles. Also, try drizzling ink over the paper and blowing over it through a straw for a neat spidery effect.

Now grab some paper and doodle out some abstract foliage. First sketch out some rough ideas, then refine by tracing over them. Feel free to use either a pen or pencil – whatever you're most comfortable with. And if you really don't like drawing conventionally, there's plenty of freely available doodle brushes to be found on the web. Finally, when all your work is thoroughly dry, scan them into Photoshop. I always work at print resolution (300dpi), so I scanned them slightly bigger at 400dpi, which gives the option to downsize later.

Step 1

Start off by cleaning up your watercolor scans using the Clone Stamp Tool (S) and also carry out any Levels adjustments (Command + L) as required – alternatively use the watercolor scans supplied in the "source" folder.

Create an A4 portrait, RGB document at 300dpi with the Background Content set to white. Open "Watercolor_1.jpg" and Shift-drag its layer thumbnail into your working file as a new layer. Lower its Opacity to 70% and name it "Wash 1." We'll be using a lot of layers throughout this tutorial, so it's good practice to label them accordingly as you work.

Drop in "Watercolor_2.jpg" and "Watercolor_3.jpg," setting their Blending Modes to Darken, then add all three layers into a group folder called "WATERCOLORS."

Step 2

Add "Watercolor_4" and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Duplicate this layer, then rotate 180 degrees, position at the top of the canvas and lower its Opacity to 76%. Now add "Watercolor_5" with a Blending Mode of Darken and an Opacity of 77%.

Step 3

Add "Watercolor_6" through to "Watercolor_9" using the Blending Modes and Opacities as shown.

Step 4

Add the remaining wash layers ("Watercolor_10" through to "Watercolor_13"), then go ahead and Transform/reposition any layers to build up the depth.

Step 5

Add a new folder and label it "TIGER," then open the tiger image and drag/drop its layer thumbnail into the folder as a new layer. Go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object – then Transform and position centrally. Pixel-based smart objects remember their original size, so they can be transformed multiple times without any loss of quality.

Next, go to Filter > Artistic > Cutout and use the settings shown. Because the filter is also smart, you can revisit and adjust these settings any time.

Step 6

Now change the tiger layer's Blending Mode to Lighten and label it "Tiger lighten." Duplicate the layer, change the Blending Mode to Vivid Light and rename it "Tiger vivid light."

Step 7

Target the "Tiger vivid light" layer, then set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to a Tolerance of 55 with Contiguous checked. Now click to select the outer white areas and go to Select > Modify > Expand by 3 px.

With the selection still active, target the "TIGER" folder and go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection.

Step 8

Target the "Tiger vivid light" layer again and use the Magic Wand Tool (with Contiguous unchecked) to select the pale orange areas. Now target the folder mask and use a medium, soft-edged brush to hide the right-hand areas as indicated.

Next, select the dark burgundy areas and use the same technique to blend the bottom areas.

Step 9

Deselect, then gently blend any remaining hard edges on the mask.

Step 10

In the next few steps you'll be working with an additional Alpha channel. You'll also be switching back and forth between the layer and channel palettes. If at any point, you find you're unable to work on your layers, check you've got the top RGB composite channel highlighted.

We now need to store a copy of the tiger within an extra channel. But because both tiger layers contain transparent information, a straight Copy > Paste will not align. A work around is to add two temporary black fills extending to the canvas edges on the "Tiger vivid light" layer.

With the "Tiger vivid light" layer targeted, Select All and Copy. Now switch to your channels palette and click on the Create new channel icon and Paste the selection into the new channel.

Step 11

Switch to your layers palette and Command-click the "TIGER" mask thumbnail to generate a selection, then switch back to your channels palette. Target "Alpha 1" and hit Shift + Command + I to inverse the selection. Next, ensure black is set as your foreground color and hit Delete to fill the active selection with white.

Deselect, then use a large, hard-edged brush to fill the remaining areas with white as shown.

Now go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold and enter a value of 58.

Step 12

Back in your layers palette, disable the visibility of the "TIGER" folder and drop a new layer above it. Now go to Image > Apply Image. In the next dialogue box, set the Blending to Normal, check the Mask option, then select "Alpha 1" from the drop-down menu as well as checking the Invert option.

The new layer is now a composite using information from all visible layers, as well as the extra channel. I've illustrated this below by disabling the visibility of the "WATERCOLORS" folder.

Drag this composite layer into the "TIGER" folder, set the Blending Mode to Multiply and label it "Tiger Multiply."

Step 13

Open the flower image and use the Pen Tool (P) set to Paths to plot around the petals. Remember to use the Option, Command and Shift modifier keys as you work. You can also fine-tune your path by pressing the Command key to access the Direct Selection Tool to adjust individual direction/anchor points. When you're done, Command-click the path thumbnail to generate a selection and Copy.

Add a new folder called "FLOWERS," then Paste the selection into the folder as a layer and label it "Flower 1." Now convert the layer to a Smart Object and Transform/position to the right, setting the Blending Mode to Screen.

Next, run the Cutout filter on the flower, using the same settings as step 5.

Step 14

Duplicate the "Flower 1" layer, then go to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal. Now resize and position to the left, just below the tiger's ear setting the Blending Mode to Hard Light. Add a mask, then generate a selection from the "TIGER" mask thumbnail and paint within the selection on the mask to hide the overlap flower area.

Step 15

Set you're working file to one side, because in the next few steps I'll show you how to create a custom brushset from the ink splats. For those of you who'd rather skip this part and use the supplied brushes, jump to Step 17.

For those who want to create your own brushes, start by opening your first spray image and carry out a Levels adjustment (Command + L), making your whites brighter and blacks denser.

Next, Select All and go to Edit > Define Brushset, giving it an appropriate name. Repeat this step for your remaining spray scans.

Step 16

Go to Edit > Preset Manager and you'll see your new bushes appear at the end of the list; if not, ensure you've got Brushes selected in the Preset pull-down menu. To save your brushset for future use, Shift-click to highlight their thumbnails and hit the Save Set button, remembering to give them a memorable name and location.

Step 17

With the Preset Manager still open, select Reset Brushes in the top-right, pull-down menu and click OK in the next window. You can now load your brushset from the same pull-down menu – or load the supplied "PSD+splatter_brushes.abr" from the "source" folder.

Add a new folder beneath the "TIGER" and label it "SPRAY;" drop a new layer within the folder and name it "Brown spray." Now use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to sample a dark brown from your image, then use your new brushes to add a few selective areas of spray – don't forget to rotate and flip your brushes to avoid repetition. We're only after a subtle effect here, so don't get too carried away. Now set the Blending Mode to Multiply and adjust the Opacity to taste – I used 56%.

Next, add another layer and use the same technique, but sample a red. Depending on your shade of red, you may wish to adjust the layer's Opacity and Blending Mode – I set mine to Multiply and kept the Opacity at 100%.

Add two further spray layers, one using a sampled yellow and another using white. Both these layers should have the default Blending Mode (Normal) and Opacities (100%).

Step 18

Now we're going to create a Custom Shape library from the ink/straw scans. Again, feel free to skip this part and jump to Step 22 and use the supplied Custom Shapes. For those who want to create their own Custom Shapes, start off by opening your first ink/straw scan and go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold, entering a value of around 188, then saving the file.

Step 19

Launch Illustrator and create a new document. Go to File > Place and navigate to your first ink/straw scan. Next, go to Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options, ensuring the default Black and white Mode is selected. Now increase the Threshold to 170, then save your setting by clicking on the Save Preset button.

Now hit the Live Trace button, then the Expand button found in the Control Palette.

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select the white background, then go to Select > Same Fill Color and hit Delete – so only the black fill remains. Select All and Copy to the clipboard.

Step 20

Switch back to Photoshop and create a new document, accepting the Clipboard's Preset. Now Paste As, selecting the Path option.

Step 21

Go to Edit > Define Custom Shape, label it, then disregard the Photoshop file. Now repeat Steps 18 – 21 on your remaining ink/straw scans.

Step 22

Once your done adding all your paths as Custom Shapes, they can be saved, reset and loaded from the Preset Manager as explained in Step 16. Alternatively, load the "PSD+ink_straw_shapes.csh" from the "source" folder.

Step 23

Add a new folder labelled "YELLOW SHAPES" below the "TIGER." Pick a pale yellow as your foreground color, then set the Custom Shape Tool (U) to Shape Layers and begin adding your shapes within the folder. Now set their Blending Modes to either Multiply or Darken as shown. Also, feel free to Transform the shapes as required.

Step 24

Following the same method, add some red shapes in Multiply mode within another folder called "RED SHAPES."

Continue adding more shape layers, again in Multiply mode – but experiment by lowering their Opacities to build up some depth.

Step 25

Add a new folder above the "FLOWER" folder and label it "WHITE SHAPES." Set your foreground color to white and begin to add more shape layers into the folder to frame the edges, apart from the base – where the paint drips off the canvas.

Open the vector sample in Illustrator, select the tree, giving it a fill of white and Copy to the clipboard.

Now Paste As a Shape Layer within the "WHITE SHAPES" folder, positioning bottom right. Duplicate the layer, then flip horizontally and move to the left as shown.

Step 26

With your foreground color still set to white, add a new folder at the top and label it "TOP WHITE." Place a new layer within the folder and use your spray brushes sparingly around the canvas edge.

Step 27

Add a another new layer and use a medium, soft-edged, white brush around the canvas edge as well.

Step 28

Revisit your "WATERCOLORS" folder and add masks to selective layers, then use a variety of soft-edged brushes on the darker overlapping areas to reveal any hidden detail in the tiger.

Step 29

Open the first bird image, then use the Crop Tool (C) to get rid of the excess sky. Now go to Select > Color Range, set the Fussiness slider to 86, check the Invert option and the Quick Mask Preview and hit OK. Next, fill the selection with white and Copy.

Step 30

Create a new folder called "SMALL CREATURES" at the top of the stack and Paste the selection within it – this is only a temporary layer, so don't worry about it's size and position yet.

Step 31

Choose and target one of the layers in the "WATERCOLORS" folder (I used "Wash 14"), then Select All and Copy. Now target the temporary layer and Command-click its thumbnail to generate a selection. Next, go to Edit > Paste Into (Shift + Command + V). You can now name the resulting layer "Bird 1" and delete the temporary one.

Because the layer mask is not yet linked, you can Transform and position the layer content independently. When you're done click between the layer and mask thumbnails to activate the lock icon – you can now Transform and position both the layer content and mask. Finally, set the layer's Blending Mode to Multiply.

Step 32

Open the second bird image and select the bird with the Magic Wand Tool. Now follow the same method to Paste a different watercolor wash into its shape. Also, experiment with different Blending Modes – here I used Linear Burn.

Step 33

The first butterfly image requires a little more effort to create a decent cut-out – as well as some retouching. First create a rough selection around the right antenna and hit Command + J to float the selection as a new layer. Flip the new layer horizontally and position over the missing left one, then hit Command + E to Merge Down.

Next, we'll create a density mask; switch to your channels palette and cycle through each one in turn to determine the one with the most contrast between insect and background – in this case it's the Blue channel. Duplicate it by dragging its thumbnail into the Create new channel icon. Now add a Levels Adjustment to the channel as shown.

Use a small, hard-edged brush to fill the remaining white areas within the butterfly. Generate a selection from the channel, inverse it, then go to Select > Modify > Expand and enter 2 px. With the selection still active, switch to your layers palette, fill with white and Copy.

Step 34

Follow the same techniques used on the birds to place the watercolor butterfly into your composition. Cut out the second butterfly using the density mask method and add as another watercolor wash layer. Now try setting some of these Blending Modes to Darken. Also, feel free to duplicate and Transform these layers as required.

Step 35

The composition is almost complete, but looks a little over saturated. Drop in a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer above all the folders and use the pull-down Edit menu to select the Reds, Yellows and Magentas and modify as shown. Now reduce the effect by lowering the adjustment's Opacity to 65% and the Blending Mode to Color.

Step 36

Now we'll add the hand-drawn elements; open your first doodle in Photoshop and carry out any Levels adjustments to make the blacks denser and the whites pure. You may also need to paint over any specs the scanner may have picked up. For those of you who want to skip this part, jump to Step 39.

Step 37

Double-click the background layer's thumbnail to release its transparency. Choose the Magic Wand Tool (with a Tolerance of 100) and check the Add to selection and Contiguous options. Now select the background, then click again on the inner holes, adding to the selection, then hit Delete – to leave white just behind the doodle linework.

Step 38

Ensure your scan is RGB Color (Image > Mode > RGB). Now add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and use the settings shown. Merge Down the adjustment layer and Save. You can now repeat steps 36 – 38 on all your remaining doodle scans.

Step 39

Drag/drop your first sketch (or use "Sketch_1.jpg" from the "source" folder) into a new folder labelled "SKETCHES" below the "SMALL CREATURES" folder. Transform/position, then duplicate/flip horizontal a couple of times and place around the canvas. We're aiming for a fairly subtle effect here, so set their Blending Modes to either Overlay or Soft Light and adjust their Opacities to taste.

Step 40

Place your second sketch (or use "Sketch_2.jpg" from the "source" folder) and use the same techniques as the previous step

Step 41

Add a mask to the "SKETCHES" folder, then generate a selection from the "TIGER" mask. You can now hide any doodles that overlap the tiger by painting within the active selection on the mask.

Generate a selection from the "Flower 1" layer and use the same method to mask any overlaps here too.

Step 42

Now's the time to fine-tune any areas you're unhappy with. To make the right-hand flower slightly more prominent, rename it "Flower 1 screen," duplicate it and position below the original. With the duplicate layer selected, change its Blending Mode to Hard Light and Opacity to 32% – then rename it "Flower 1 hard light."

Step 43

Add a layer above all the folders, then select the Clone Stamp Tool. Set it to sample using Current & Below and also to include the adjustment layer; now fix any areas you're unhappy with – I worked over the dark areas just below the tiger's chin. I also ran the Dodge Tool (O) over his snout and chin on the "Tiger lighten" and "Tiger vivid light" layers. To wrap things up, adjust any layer Opacities/Modes until you're happy, then it's finished!


I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial and learned some new techniques – as well as being inspired to create your own mixed media illustrations.

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