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  1. Design & Illustration
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How to Create an Abstract, Psychedelic Portrait Photo Manipulation in Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial we'll create a colorful digital manipulation using minimal stock images. During this tutorial, you will learn:

  • How to create flowing effects using the Liquify Tool.
  • The importance of detailing.
  • How to manipulate layer masks to add color and depth.
  • How to recycle components.
  • Using and abusing the Smudge Tool.
  • How to think about composition and flow.

What You'll Need

We'll be using Adobe Photoshop CC, but this tutorial will work with Photoshop CS2 and above. I also used a graphics tablet (my trusty old Wacom Bamboo Fun) to create this art piece, but it's entirely possible without a graphics tablet. You'll also need to download the following images:

1. How to Select and Render a Focal Point

Step 1

I usually start most of my designs with a focal point. Often, I use either an animal or a person whose eyes aren't visible as this makes for a strong focal point without being too distracting. I've chosen this stock from PhotoDune as it's got good depth and an interesting pose that I can work with, and also it's of really good quality and easy to render!

Selecting an appropriate stock

Step 2

We now need to render the stock. While there are many ways to do this, for a photo manipulation and one with such a neat background, a good first step is simply to use the Magic Wand Tool (W)

Magic wand tool the white outline

Step 3

Tidy up your selection with further use of the Magic Wand Tool (W)-Shift to include white background areas behind her hair. 

Select out other white areas

Step 4

Select the white area around your stock, and then create this as a Layer Mask by clicking on Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection.

Hide selection

Step 5

Place the focal point on a neutral colored background to work with. In this case, I selected the layer mask layer and using a large, hard, round Brush Tool (B), brushed away with black the areas below the model. A compact, floating focal point often acts as a good starting point for a manipulation piece.

You have your focal point

2. How to Create a Colorful Design Element From a Simple Sketch

Step 1

Here's where I incorporate one of my favorite things to do in my free time... doodle! I scanned a doodle into Photoshop, and set the Blend Mode from Normal to Multiply, in order to show only the white background.

A quick sketch I did

Step 2

The doodle is pretty ugly at this point and has not much going for it, but I start playing with its depth and coloring it in with a rainbow colored, pastel palette. To do this, simply add a New Layer beneath the sketch layer. Then, selecting a small brush, start brushing the shape with colors, minding the intersections along this shape.

Coloring in the sketch

Step 3

I repeated this process with a number of other larger sketches. Remember, the sketch should be the top layer on multiply, and the bottom layer is where you shade it. Play around with colors, and if you have a graphics tablet, this is a good time to use it.

Another sketch of mine
Colouring the bigger sketch using the same techniques

Step 4

At this point, I decided that actually hiding the top layer and leaving the colors gave quite an interesting effect. Remember, designing manipulations and creating elements is all about experimentation and finding a combination of colors, shapes, and methods that looks good. Don't be afraid to make a mess. You can always unhide a layer if you prefer the older look of a manipulation element.

Top layer hidden only colors

Step 5

Now that there's some illusion of depth with this coloring, use a tablet to brush in using a black, solid round brush at the bases and turns of the shape. If you do not have a graphics tablet, you can change the layer Opacity to 40% and brush with a mouse to achieve the same effect. 

Here I use a Clipping Mask (Layer > Create Clipping Mask), which essentially allows you to "brush on top of" the shapes from the layer below. Notice how the layer with the brushing is clipped onto the colorful shapes but not beyond it. 

Adding some shading to your colors with clipping mask

Step 6

Coming back to our design, let's try and fit this element in with our focal points. But notice how the element lacks detail and depth. No matter how we change the shape or color of this, it still won't flow with the piece. 

Positioning your design element

3. How to Add Detail to Your Design Element

Step 1

In order to add more detail to your colorful element, add some white streaky bits. In this case, brush using a hard round brush with the Brush Tool (B) in an oblique direction. Use the same hard round brush with the Smudge Tool on 70% setting to create fine detail. This works better with a tablet, but will work with a mouse as well. 

Adding a smudged white effect

Step 2

Layer this new element and your colorful element onto a simple gradient background. To do this, use the Gradient Tool (G), and set it to a radial gradient from a dull green to black. Again, experiment with what background colors work for your palette.

Laying our design on a green background

Step 3

At this point, we want to add more detail to our element before we edit it. Coincidentally I found a perfect jellyfish stock that had a similar green background. 

A favorite trick of mine is to look for animal stocks to lend complexity to your design elements. You can use them in various ways if you get creative—often animals will have complex patterns or forms with interesting flow. In this case, we get lucky with this stock, and it blends well into our overall flow, but not perfectly.

Adding detail using a jellyfish stock

Step 4

Again, using a layer mask, select only a small part of the image by Brushing (B) with a round hard brush in black. I've shown in black what the layer mask should look like. It's important to note I choose an elongated shape that "flares out" at one end, with a tip. This makes it easier to manipulate the shape to one that flows. 

Layer masking out whats irrelevant
Showing selection layer mask

Step 5

Now that we've got the shape, it's time to make it more interesting. Using the Smudge Tool and a round hard brush, set the brush to those settings below. Note that it's a round, hard brush, with a Strength of 70%-80%. The Spacing is set at 200% with a tiny bit of Size Jitter at 10%. 

Following that, go over some of the piece to make the edges less hard and to blend some colors. Again, experiment with this.

Brush settings for smudge
Smudging closeup

Step 6

Now you want to Liquify (Filter > Liquify) the shape to start creating your components. The Liquify Tool is often an under-utilized tool in creating design elements. What I do is use the Forward Warp Tool (W) and the Bloat Tool (B) to manipulate the design and give it curves. Below, you see how the Bloat Tool can be used to "compact" colors and design elements together to increase detail in a small space.

I often do the Liquify on a much larger canvas. To do this, click File > New and just set the pixel size to something like 3000 x 3000. Drag your element into this new canvas just to use the Liquify Tool. The larger canvas allows you to play around more with the design element, and you can move it back to the main PSD file after you're happy with it.

Liquify tool to create a flowing abstract

With some experimentation, this is what the outcome should be. Some parts are blurry, and some colors don't look the most appealing right now, but don't worry, we will be able to tweak this soon.

Completed liquified shape

Step 7

Continuing the theme of manipulating and experimenting with your design elements, you want to get out the Free Transform (Control-T or Edit > Free Transform). After you've done so, right-click on your shape and select Warp. Again, play around with the shape to try and give it some depth. My key tips for the Liquify and Warp Tools are:

  • Experiment. Don't be afraid to hit undo and try again with both tools until you're satisfied.
  • Form is more important than color and detail. The overall shape of the object is tricky to manipulate once set around the focal point, but the details and colors can be easily altered.
  • For both the Warp Tool and the Liquify Tool, try not to let the edges of the element "fold in on themselves". This is tricky to describe, but if you look at the edges of the Warp Tool (small squares) right below, they never really cross too deeply into the warp field. Try this and you'll notice it over-compresses your element and you lose precious details!
Warping the shape

Step 8

Following some trial and error, I finally end up with an element I'm somewhat happy with. It's got an interesting shape, has many waves, has potential for depth, and fits with our focal point. Notice in the second image how I work in Liquify/Warp, always looking back at the focal point to see how I can create an element that radiates out from it.

Finished flowing design element
Notice how it flows out from the stock image

4. How to Duplicate and Recycle Your Elements

Step 1

This is an important theme in my design work. Once I've created an effect I like, I'm not shy of recycling and editing that element to use in other parts of my piece. The benefit of this is that you get consistency of design features.

I decide to edit this element, but I felt that it was lacking in some fine details. So using a small round Brush Tool (B), I stroked white and black onto some parts of this piece.

Adding detail and recycling your design element

Step 2

Again, using the Liquify techniques described previously, we can quickly create more interesting shapes.

Variations from the same element by simply using liquify

Step 3

Realising that one of the shapes fits quite nicely and could flow in our piece, I place it on top of the focal point.

Positioning the element

Step 4 

A neat trick to add depth is to place your element on top of your focal object, and using the Layer Mask function, Brush (B) in black to mask away the parts where you want to hide. Notice how I left the top tail of this shape there on purpose to maintain a sense of the object "wrapping around" the focal point. Notice it's okay not to be perfect as we're going to add some elements later around the ears.

Layer masking for depth

Step 5

Now we can't have two objects with the same color, can we? Create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer (New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation) above your object and create a Clipping Mask (Layer > Create Clipping Mask) so you only change the color of one object. Set the hue to something very different to the original shape color.

Adjusting the color of the recycled element

Step 6

You can then go back and add color detail. Again, follow the previous step to create a Hue/Saturation layer, this time using a Layer Mask, and brush with a hard white brush where you'd like to alter the color. In this case I've decided to set the slider to +129, giving this part of the shape a nice purple hue. 

Using hue and saturation with layer masks

Step 7

Add some shadowing using a large soft black brush. Remember to use the Clipping Mask again on a layer above the layer for the design element. I've shown in an outline where you should consider brushing to add depth.

Shadowing with a soft black brush and clipping mask

Step 8

Again, repeat Step 6 a number of times, using clipping-masked and layer-masked Hue and Saturation Layers to change the colors of segments of the shape.

Hue and saturation small sections of the change

5.  How to Use Attention to Detail to Make Your Element Stand Out

Step 1

Now that we've got the right colors we want, it's time to tidy up some small details that we're not happy with on the design elements. This is an important point—whilst our techniques so far have given us a nice flowing element, I've highlighted in red some of the less appealing parts.

The edge of the bends are unappealing

Step 2

To fix this, I grabbed my tablet and Brushed (B) using a small, soft brush using varying colors over the red circled areas. Using the Smudge Tool also allows you to blend your detail into the design element so it doesn't stand out too much. Notice how you can see the tails of the details are smudged/blurry. This is intentional and incorporates this little design element into the piece.

Tip: If you do not have a tablet to brush, you can simply chop a small part of the shape and liquify and resize it to fit your small detail need!

Brushing and liquifying in some details

Step 3

Again, go back over your shape and add more fine little details. Here I use a soft white Brush (B) and the Smudge Tool to add a shine to the shape. Use a clipping mask as described above to ensure that your detailing stays within the shape.

Adding more details with brush and smudge to your shape

6. How to Easily Add Depth to Your Main Elements

Step 1

Now we're quite satisfied with the way this shape looks, but it still seems a little flat and lacking depth. As it's quite a colorful shape, we want to add balance just by enhancing it with either black or white. 

Duplicate the layer with Layer > Duplicate Layer. With the bottom layer, set it on Color Overlay by clicking the small "fx" icon at the bottom of the Layers panel with your design element selected. Overlay it with a white color, and reduce the Opacity of the layer to 75-80%

Move the now white-colored copy of your design element down and slightly to the left of your shape to create the illusion of depth. 

Add depth by duplicating and make a layer white

Step 2

Let's add a bit of glow to this element. Again, Duplicate Layer the white shape, and then using Filter > Gaussian Blur, add an appropriate level of blur to create this glowing effect.

As an added touch, I used the Pen Tool (P) to add some drips to come off the white shape. Remember it's all in the details!

Adding detailed white drips and glow

Step 3

I repeated steps 1 and 2 simply with the other shape we've created.

Applying the same effects to all your shapes

7. How to Create an Interweaving Contrasting Element 

Step 1

At this point, we've got a lot of whiteness and not much to offset it. Let's create a black element to offset this. I've shown below such a black element—looks familiar? It's simply one of our earlier liquified shapes but with Color Overlay set to Black. Now we need to do two things to this element

  1. Add detail.
  2. Create depth.
Create a black shape with liquify

Step 2

Add detail to this design element. I clipping mask this lovely space stock from PhotoDune over the design element to get this space-type effect. Also, I gave it the same air-brushing treatment in white to highlight the edges that I gave to our large colorful design element to give it that shine.

Brush over the black shape to create a shine again

Step 3

To add depth, use a Layer Mask and brush away using a hard round brush the areas to "hide" parts of the shape behind your main colorful element. A trick to guide your layer masking is to Select the colorful shape. Click on the layer for the colorful object, and then hit Control-A or Select > All. Now select your black shape's layer mask and start brushing within this selection! This helps you brush away parts that are confined easily.

Layer mask away parts of the shape to create depth

8. How to Add Depth and Flow to Your Piece

Step 1 

Taking a step back to take stock of the piece now, we want to create a flow from the outside to the inside, towards the focal point. Notice the asymmetry in the design—this creates an interesting composition with real flow. I also follow the rule of thirds here and keep the focal point offset slightly to the right.

Step 2

Again, recycling a black element as we did in the previous step, I create something with the Liquify Tool. At this point, it looks quite interesting and has a sort of "symbiotic" effect.

Adding a symbiote-like effect to the focals head

Step 3

Again, add small details using the Brush and Smudge Tool to your design element. Here I've added small white strokes throughout the shape to make it pop.

Small details in the hair

Step 4

Remember our flow idea? This element looks good, but it lacks the flow that the piece needs. Using the Liquify Tool's Bloat (B) function, select a large circle and expand the outer edges of your shape.

Liquify Bloat to create flow

Step 5

This step demonstrates a trick I tend to do when I want to manipulate part of my shape without messing up the other parts. Select a part of your shape using the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) and Right Click > Layer Via Cut. I've moved it slightly to show how I've separated both parts of the shape. Doing this allows us to freely liquify this shape without interfering with the middle bits of the design we're happy with already.

Cutting the layer to warp

Step 6

With some liquifying, we've ended up with this shape. As you can see, it's adding to the depth very well. The bonus of liquify is it's now blurred parts of our effect, giving us the illusion of depth.

Finished black element

Step 7 

Now let's build on our effect. Using the Brush Tool again and my tablet, I brush with a black hard brush and the Smudge Tool to create a black effect on a new layer above our model's hair.

Adding more details with brush tool to overlay the brown hair of the focal

Step 8

I erased a bit of the original brown hair, and this is what we end up with!

Erase the normal hair

9. How to Create an Interesting Textured Focal Point

Step 1

Now to detail the focal point itself. The first step I did was to add some depth by "dropping shadows" from our design elements. To do this, Duplicate Layer the design elements, and apply a Black Color Overlay as a layer effect.

Apply the shape as a Clipping Mask over the focal point's layer, and offset it to create depth. Lower the Opacity to achieve a shadow effect like below. I've shown in marquee the two shadows I've added here.

Mask demonstrating areas where shadow is added

Step 2

Next I reduce the saturation of our focal point using Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue and Saturation. Lowering the saturation allows us to add more interesting details.

Desaturating the focal point

Step 3

Add some subtle color adjustments to the focal point. I do this again by using a Clipping Masked number of Adjustment Layers. Here, I applied a Black & White and two Hue/Saturation layers. I brushed them with hard and soft brushes to give it an interesting color. Firstly, the black and white was brushed using a soft brush to reduce the color on the forehead and parts near the ear to give that illusion of blackness sucking out the color.

The other hue layers were to add some interesting soft tints of green and yellow to the neck area.

Multiple hue layers to tint our focal point

Step 4

Add more detail using a very low opacity default Photoshop Brush (B).

Softly brushing on details with a clipping mask

Step 5

To add even more color, I decided to add a stripe of pink with a clipping mask over the top. I wanted a clean line so I used the Pen Tool (P) here. 

Use a combination of soft brushes and hard brushes and shapes created with the Pen Tool to add color and make your focal point interesting.

Add color to your focal

Step 6

Now let's make the eyes interesting. Here, I simply Brushed (B) a pink hard blot onto the eyes, and then using the Smudge Tool, smudged back and forth to get this type of effect.

To add some interesting colors to this, add a clipping mask and either use our previously described Hue/Saturation trick, or just grab a Soft Brush and brush it with another color! Here, I choose a darker purple color.

Brushing pink over the eyes to create a popping effect

Step 7

Here I've just shown the process of adding some detailing to the eyes. You can do this again with a white Brush Tool and Smudge Tool. It helps to have a tablet here.

Detailing in the right eye with the brush and smudge tool

10. How to Add a Second Focal Point 

Step 1

Looking at our piece, an interesting potential theme emerges. Perhaps the model could be seen as smoking as the black smoky effects would tie into this. I decided that an isolated single focal point wasn't as interesting and decided to add a hand. 

Render this the similar way you would to the main focal point as shown earlier, and smudge the edges with a hard brush so it blends slightly better.

The important point here is to realize that often the concept can come halfway or later in the photo manipulation design process, so keep your mind open at each step of the way!

Adding a second focal point o enhance the theme

Step 2

Again, add depth to the piece by using Layer Masks. The red area shows what areas are Black on our Layer Mask.

Layer masked areas of our hand stock image to create depth
End result demonstrated

Step 3

Again, add colors and details using Hue and Saturation layers with Layer Masks to make your design element interesting.

Adding colors with hue and saturation

Step 4

Apply the same techniques to this hand as we have to the other shapes. Give it that white glow dropdown, and don't be shy with the detailing! 

Notice how we're not just recycling elements—we recycle effects and processes that work.

Adding details to our hand by recycling effects we know work with other elements

11. How to Build Your Theme by Reusing Techniques You've Learned

Step 1

Without going into detail, I applied the same process to create, position, and detail dark smoky shapes to build on the theme. 

Build your theme by adding details and design elements

Step 2

Using another one of those shapes we created earlier on, I replicate the process on the right side of the piece in accordance with our visualized flow, and we have a very interesting art piece! Actually we've only really created one design element, which we manipulated over and over again to generate a full, colorful art piece.

Duplicating effects and recycling methods to generate a new flow enhancing effect

Step 3

This is just to highlight some details added to the new shape, namely:

  • Smaller brushings and color changes on the bends of the new colored shape on the left side.
  • Using the same technique of Bloat (B) in the Liquify Tool to add depth with the black element.
Using the liquify tool to enhance depth and flow

12. How to Create an Awesome Background for Your Colorful Art Piece

Step 1

As we've got a very colorful focal point, it seems fitting to have a colorful watercolor background. This is shown in Image 1. To make this fit our piece more, Image 2 and 3 show me Brushing (B) in black with a large, soft brush the edges of the background to keep attention on the focal point.

Brushing the edges gently for color

Step 2

To add more details to the background, let's throw in some interesting space stocks. Using the same space stock we used above, set the Blending Option to Screen and rotate the image so the earth section gives some interesting highlights and stars behind our focal point.

You can repeat this a number of times to get the desired glowing effect.

Brightening up the background with some awesome photodune space stocks

Step 3

Here's where we are with our piece at the moment. You might feel that it's almost done, but there's more we can do to add depth and bring more focus into the center of the piece! 

Almost done

Step 4

Steps 5, 6 and 7 are Adjustments that will help your pieces' colors really pop and make your focal point stand out.

In this step, a large soft white Brush (B) is applied to the center of the piece, and set on Soft Light in the layer's Blending Option, and Opacity to around 20%. This illuminates the focal point.

Softly brushing to enhance the focal points brightness

Step 5

The next thing is to make our colors really pop. Here, play around with the Hue and Saturation and Curves adjustment layers to get the desired contrast.

One tip I love to throw in is to use a Gradient Map of Black to White. Set this to a Blending Option of Luminosity to give a unique contrast to your piece. 

Be creative with the opacities of each of these adjustments to mediate your effects, and don't hesitate to experiment. Hide and unhide the layers to see how each layer contributes to the overall look and feel of the piece.

Increasing contrast and using adjustments layers to make your colors pop

Step 6

Again with a large, soft black brush, I Brushed (B) the edges to create a lighting effect.

Brushing the edges again to bring focus back into the focal

And You're Done!

And there you have it. I've added my own design logos, but you have now learned how to create a colorful, flowing abstract manipulation!

The finished product
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