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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Photo Manipulation
Design

How to Create a Dramatic Mermaid Photo Manipulation in Photoshop

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Difficulty:AdvancedLength:LongLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Today, we will be putting together a vibrant and dynamic underwater dance scene between two mermaids! With this photo effect, we will take a close look at lighting and shadows, creating simple underwater backdrops and learning how to create a mermaid tail from scratch—no stock images needed. 

While we will be using digital painting techniques, I have specially formulated this process with the non-digital painter in mind! 

What You'll Need

To complete this project, we are using the following resources:

Find more resources on Envato Elements!

1. How to Create an Underwater Background

We'll start by creating a simple underwater backdrop. Leaving the background clean and straightforward will help keep all of the focus on our two subjects. 

Step 1

Create a 3076 x 4359 px canvas.

Change it to a 300 Resolution if you intend to use this for prints. 

Step 2

Create a Color Fill layer filled with a dark blue #0f1219.

Step 3

Create a New Layer set to Overlay. 

Using a large, soft round Brush, paint blobs of white light towards the top of the canvas.

Set the brush to a low Flow Rate, 1-15%, to slowly build up the light to avoid any harsh edges. 

Use multiple layers, set to Overlay or Soft Light, to layer orbs of light over each other. Doing this will give you more control over the light's opacity as well. 

Group all of the light layers together, naming the group "Light."

light

Step 4

Repeat step three, adding even more light to the canvas. 

Focus on creating light all over the canvas, not just the upper portion. 

Group the layers, naming the group "Light Enhance."

more light

Step 5

You might notice a lot of color banding; there's a quick way to fix this using the Noise Filter! Even if you don't have any notable banding, I suggest adding this as it adds to the foggy underwater feel of our background. 

Create a New Layer and fill it with Black.

Bring the layer below the two "Light" groups.

Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

Noise Settings

  • Amount: 5
  • Distribution: Gaussian
  • Monochromatic: Checked

Bring the Noise layer's Opacity to 53%.

Add a light 0.5px Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to the noise if it feels too harsh. 

noise

Step 6

Create a  New Layer setting it to Overlay.

Using the same techniques as in Step 3, paint more blobs of light.

Focus on creating smaller, more stringy light paths towards the upper portion of the canvas. 

more light

Step 7

Create a  New Layer setting it to Soft Light.

Create shadows using the color Black and the same techniques as in Step 3. 

Step 8

Create a Color Lookup layer.

Color Lookup Settings

  • 3DLUT File: TealOrangeContrast 
  • Opacity: 62%
color lookup layer

Step 9

Create a New Layer.

With a medium, soft, round Brush, paint light beams coming from the top of the water's surface. 

Paint with a low Flow Rate to build up the light slowly. 

If you're having a hard time getting the light rays to look smooth and slanted, try adding a Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. 

light rays

Step 10

Create a New Layer set to Screen.

Paint a pop of pale Orange #d8966e in the middle of the light ray. Bring down the opacity of the layer if needed. 

light rays

Step 11

Bring in an image of Underwater Coral.

Place it towards the bottom of the canvas, flipping it horizontally. 

Using the Patch Tool, remove the fish located towards the bottom of the coral. 

coral

Step 12

Add a Layer Mask to the coral. 

Mask out the top portion of the coral image with a large, soft, round Brush.

coral

Step 13

Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and set the settings as follows. 

Settings: 

  • Colorize: Checked
  • Hue: 193
  • Saturation: 29

Create a New Layer with a 4% Opacity.

With a large, soft, round Brush, paint a very light fog towards the top of the reef. 

coral

Step 14

Create Color Balance, Vibrance and Color Lookup adjustment layers, ordered from bottom to top. 

Color Balance Settings

  • Red: -17
  • Green: -35
  • Blue: -46

Vibrance Settings

  • Vibrance: +40
  • Saturation: +21

Color Lookup Settings

  • 3DLUT File: Crisp_Warm
  • Opacity: 17%

Group the three adjustment layers, naming the group "CC."

Group all of the background layers together, naming the group "Water."

final layers

2. How to Remove Clothing From a Subject

Next, we will be extracting and placing our subjects into their new environment. Our primary focus will be removing the unwanted clothes from our soon-to-be mermaids! 

Step 1

Extract the subjects using your preferred method. Find my favorite way in this tutorial!

Don't worry about either of the subject's legs—as you can see below, I didn't even bother doing the male's!

subjects

Step 2

Next, we are going to use the Clone Stamp Tool to remove the seam going down the side of our female mermaid. 

I like using a semi-hard brush when using the Clone Stamp Tool to keep as much of the original texture as possible!

remove seam

Step 3

Next, I am going to use the Mixer Brush Tool to remove some of the cloth and unwanted texture on the bodysuit and the armpit area. Do this by dragging the soft Mixer brush over the areas with the most amount of texture. You can also use this to smooth out shadows and highlights. 

The more you use the Mixer Brush, the better you'll understand how it works! 

Mixer Brush Settings

mixer brush

Step 4

Create and clip a New Layer into the subject layer. On this layer, we are going to cover the seam of fabric located on the woman's thigh. 

We will be covering the seam by painting skin over the area; the process is much easier to do than it is to explain, so bear with me! 

First, let's set up our Brush settings. 

Brush Settings 

  • Size: Medium (Change as you go)
  • Hardness: 0%
  • Flow: 10%

Using the Eyedropper Tool, sample colors from the same area you are painting—in this case, the thigh area.

Slowly paint over the area of the seam, building up color gradually. Sample colors as you go, making sure everything is smooth and there is a natural transition. 

If you are having trouble hiding the seam completely, duplicate the layer you are painting on. Do this will increase the overall opacity of the colors. 

Use a soft Eraser brush to get rid of any harsh edges and additional color/paint. 

Step 5

Repeat Step 4 on the arm and chest seam.

remove seams

Step 6

Create a New Layer set to Overlay.

Using a soft, round Brush, paint White over the subject's natural highlights to enhance them.

enhance highlights

Step 7

Create and clip a Brightness/Contrast layer into the subject layer. 

Brightness/Contrast Settings

  • Brightness: -12
  • Blend If:
blend if
brightnesscontrast

Step 8

Create and clip a Curves layer into the subject layer. 

Curve Settings

curves
results

Step 9

Create and clip a second Curves layer into the subject layer. 

Curve Settings

curves
blend if
results

Step 10

Duplicate the above Curves layer to enhance the effect.

Bring the layer down to 50% Opacity.

add shadows

Step 11

Clip a Water Reflection image into our subjects.

Set the layer mode to Screen with the Blend If settings seen below.

Blend If Settings

blend if
water texture

Step 12

Add an Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation to the "Water Surface" layer.

Brightness/Contrast Settings

  • Brightness: -6
  • Contrast: 21

Hue/Saturation Settings

  • Hue: +180
  • Saturation: -67
water texture

Step 13

Add a Layer Mask to the "Water Surface" layer.

Use a large, soft, round Brush to mask out the edges of the image.

Step 14

Duplicate the water surface so that it's placed over the male subject as well. 

Group all of the current subject layers, naming the group "Subjects."

final layers

3. How to Create a Dark and Vivid Color Grade 

When creating mermaids, I like to set up my colors and contrast levels early on! I set my "Color Grade" folder above all the other layers, where I can quickly turn it on or off and adjust it as I continue to paint.

These layers are ordered from bottom to top so that each layer will go above the previous one!

Step 1

Create a Color Lookup layer.

Color Lookup Settings 

  • 3DLUT File: FoggyNight
  • Opacity: 25%
  • Blend If:
blend if
results

Step 2

Create a Curves layer.

Curves Settings 

curves
curves results

Step 3

Create a Color Lookup layer.

Mask out the top half of the layer using a large, soft, round Brush. 

Color Lookup Settings 

  • 3DLUT File: FoggyNight
  • Opacity: 24%
  • Blend If:
blend if
blend if results

Step 4

Create a Color Lookup layer.

Copy the previous layer mask onto this layer. 

Color Lookup Settings 

  • 3DLUT File: EdgeyAmber
  • Opacity: 14%
color lookup

Step 5

Create a Curves layer.

Curves Settings 

curves

Step 6

Create a Curves layer.

Curves Settings 

curves

Step 7

Create a Curves layer.

Curves Settings 

curves
results

Step 8

Create a Color Lookup layer.

Color Lookup Settings 

  • 3DLUT File: DropBlues
  • Opacity: 51%

Group all of the adjustment layers together, naming the group "Color Grade."

final layers

4. How to Create a Mermaid Tail in Photoshop 

Now to the star of the tutorial: the mermaid tail! As mentioned above, I specifically created this technique for non-digital painters, and as with everything, the more tails you create, the better you will get at them.

If it's your first time, it's best to start slow with simple shapes, colors, and textures. Then from there, you can continue to grow to more complex, photo-realistic shapes and textures, adding much more movement and detail!

Step 1

Create a New Layer. 

With a hard, round Brush set to a bright color like white, sketch out your tail. Just worry about the general shape—no need to make it perfect! 

The sketch is just a general guide for our tail; you will likely change it as you'll see below.  

sketch tail

Step 2

Create a New Layer under your sketch.

Now, using the Pen Tool set to Shape, trace your sketch. 

Once you are generally happy with your path (don't worry, you can adjust it later), create a Light Brown #685550 Color Fill layer.

The color fill layer will take the shape of your path, making it so you can change the base color of your tail at any time. 

Note!

While you won't always need to do this, for this particular mermaid, I suggest splitting the tail in two. So you will have two shapes, the thigh portion and the bottom portion. Each piece will follow the same process! 

shape tail

Step 3 (Optional)

If you need to edit the shape of your tail, select the Pen Tool set to Path. 

On the upper Pen Tool Toolbar, to the left of the Shape button, you will find the Path Operations options. 

To Add to Your Tail

If you need to add to your tail, to make it longer for instance, then you will want to set the Path Operations to Combine Shapes. 

When set to Combine Shapes, paths will add to the shape of your tail. 

To Subtract From Your Tail 

If you'd like to subtract from your tail, to adjust the width or shape, for instance, set the Path Operations to Subtract From Shape. 

This option will make it so that the path will subtract from the shape, without creating new shapes. 

Use these options to adjust and shape your tail until you're happy! 

Step 4

Using the layer mask on the thigh portion of the tail, mask out the top inner area of the tail, blending it into the thigh of the subject. 

remove edges

Step 5 

Next, we are going to shade and light the upper portion of our tail. 

Create two New Layers and clip them into the thigh layer. Name one "Light" and the other "Shadow."

With a soft, round Brush set to a very low 1-10% Flow Rate, paint some highlights onto the "Light" layer and then shadows onto the "Shadow" layer.

Use the Eyedropper Tool to select colors, using the subject as the Eyedropper's reference. 

Tips

  • If you don't have a graphics tablet, use the Smudge and Mixer Brush Tool to smooth and taper out the edges.
  • Sample the colors from the subject's high, mid, and lowlights; however, feel free to adjust the colors as needed.
  • Build up both the shadows and light slowly. Setting the brush to a low Flow Rate is essential for this.
  • Keeping the lights and darks helps you have more control and a higher room for error. 
  • Use the subject as a reference!
  • Use as many layers as you'd like so you can adjust opacities and play with layer modes!
  • For light and highlights, use Screen, Color Dodge, Overlay, and Softlight.
  • When painting shadows, set the layer modes to Multiply and Soft Light.
paint thigh

Step 6

Download and install these free Photoshop Brushes for Painting Fish Scales.

Create a New Group.

Hold Control and Click your thigh shape to create a selection of it. With the thigh-shaped selection, add a layer mask to the new group.

Rename the group "Scales" as this is the group we will be creating our thigh scales on. 

Step 7

Create a New Layer inside the "Scales" group, setting it to Overlay.

Using a mixture of a small, soft, round Brush and the "Pixelstains Fish Scale Brush 03" from the downloaded brush pack, paint a Soft Peach #fdc79b color all over the thigh.

Focus the scale texture towards the top of the thigh, keeping the texture small. 

color thigh

Step 8

Create a New Layer set to Darken.

Using the same "Pixelstains Fish Scale Brush 03" brush, paint Dark Brown #4a2618 scales onto your mermaid's thigh. 

Tips

  • Focus on adding scales to areas where the light hits the most. Darker areas should have fewer scales.
  • Be aware of the direction of the scales.
  • Create multiple different layers to paint on, and make good use of Control-Z!
  • Find some fish or other mermaid illustrations for reference. 
  • Add a Filter > Shaper > Smart Sharp to the scales to increase details. 
add scales

Step 9

Create a New Layer set to Color Dodge, placing setting it above the "Scale" layers. 

Add color to the scales using the "Pixelstains Fish Scale Brush 03" Brush. I used a mixture of a Tan #9b8058 and Green #819058 color. 

Bring the Opacity of the layer down if needed. 

add light

Step 10

Create a New Layer set to Overlay. 

Continue to enhance the light and color of the tail by building up more of the Tan #9b8058 color on the thigh. 

Use a soft, round Brush set to a 1-15% Flow rate. 

add more light

Step 11

Repeat step 10 until you are happy! 

Looking at references is my biggest tip for this step, along with focusing on building and enhancing the highlights that already exist. 

Use a mixture of Overlay and Color layer modes to keep layering on the light.  

add color and light

Step 12

Finish off the scales by creating a New Layer set to Overlay.

Bring this layer below any "Scale" layers.

Using a small, hard, round Brush, paint white highlights on the edges of the most prominent scales, going down the middle portion of the side of the thigh.  

Group the  "Scales" group in with our "Thigh" layer, naming the new group "Thigh Tail."

add highlights

Step 13

Remember how we split the tail into two shapes? Well, we are going to repeat the process above on the bottom portion of the tail!

The steps are the same, only you will be working in a looping motion this time. 

Once you are happy with the bottom portion of the tail, Group everything together, naming the group "Bottom Tail."

Then Group both the bottom and thigh portion of the tail together, naming the group "Tail - Woman."

bottom tail

Step 14

Create and clip a Selective Color adjustment layer into the "Tail - Woman" group. 

Selective Color Settings

Yellows 

  • Cyan: -56
  • Magenta: +64
  • Yellow: -22
selective color

Step 15

Create and clip a New Layer set to Overlay into the "Tail - Woman" group.

Using a soft, round Brush, further enhance the highlights of both the top and bottom portion of the tail.

As always, it's a good idea to layer lighting using multiple layers!

Step 16

Create and clip a Color Balance adjustment layer into the "Tail - Woman" group.

Color Balance Settings 

  • Red: +70
  • Green: +53
  • Blue: +90
color balance

Step 17

Repeat the steps above with the male subject! 

final layers

5. How to Create Fish Fins 

To finish up our tails, we will be adding our fins. Soft, flowy fins are the easiest to work with, so that is what we will be adding, but incorporating hard fins like dorsal fins is a great way to create more visually appealing/edgy mermaids! 

Step 1

Drop the Betta Siamese Aquarium Fighting Fish 1 image onto the canvas. 

I suggest keeping all of the fish stock images as Smart Objects so that you can copy and resize them as needed, without having to worry about distortion or pixelation! 

Set the fish stock to Lighten, placing it over the female subject's tail. 

add fish

Step 2

Using a soft, round brush, mask out the fish's head and body. 

Step 3

Add an Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation to the fish stock.

Feel free to adjust these settings for all of the different fins we will create from this fin later on!

Brightness/Contrast Settings

  • Brightness: -80

Hue/Saturation Settings

  • Hue: -11
  • Saturation: -10
blend fish

Step 4

Repeat Step 3 until you are satisfied with the number of fins! 

Use both the Transform and Warp mode to differentiate the fins, along with Layer Masks. We don't want the fins to look too repetitive! 

You can also experiment with using the Screen layer mode along with the Lighten layer mode. 

It's also best to use at least two different stock images like Betta Siamese Aquarium Fighting Fish 2.

finish  fins

Step 5

Create a New Layer set to Multiply, placing it below all of the fin layers but above the subject layers. So if you placed fins below your mermaid layers, you would have to create a second layer for those fins.

Let's finish up the fins by painting a dark blue base underneath them; this will make the fins feel more substantial. 

Use a semi-hard round Brush to achieve this effect. 

add fin shadows

Step 6

Repeat the above steps for the male subject as well! 

final layers

6. How to Create a Lens Flare Photo Effect 

Next, we will be adding a bright light coming from the surface of the water. Using lighting and lens flares is a great way to add contrasting yet complementing colors to your work!

Step 1

Create a New Layer set to Screen.

With a very large, soft, round Brush, paint a Light Orange #ff9259 blob of light towards the upper-middle portion of the canvas. 

add orange light

Step 2

Drop in image "8" from the Vintage Polygon Light Backgrounds texture pack. Set the layer to Screen.

Add a Filter > Blur > Shape Blur.

Shape Blur Settings 

  • Radius: 70 px
  • Shape: Hexagon 

Use a very large, soft, round Brush to mask out the bottom edge of the light texture. 

add texture

Step 3

Repeat Step 2 with the Suns and Rays lens flare pack. 

add texture

Step 4

Create a New Layer set to Screen. 

Using a soft, round Brush set to a very low 1-5% Flow, paint a glow coming from the bodies and tails of our two subjects. 

Sample colors from the areas you are painting over. For instance, paint light blue over the female mermaid's tailfins, and a light peach or orange color over her body. 

Feel free to bring in other colors as well, like greens or golds! Bring the Opacity of the layer down if needed. 

final layers

7. How to Paint Dark Shadows 

Next up, we will be painting some dramatic shadows to match our rich light source. 

Step 1

Create a New Layer right above the "Water" group, setting the layer to Multiply. 

Using a medium, soft, round Brush, paint a Dark Green #0e1509 color behind your female subject. 

The shadows should be slanted, not too soft, and located logically. Creating defined shadows will often produce more dynamic lighting! 

Create a New Layer above the previous layer, setting it to Overlay. 

Paint a very subtle, soft, faint glow around the woman's face and chest.  

add shadow

Step 2

Repeat Step 1 above, only this time place the layers above your subject's. 

Whether you place them above or below the fins is up to you—you will likely have a mix. 

Paint shadows on multiple different Multiply layers, building the shadows as you go, and adjust the layer's Opacity as needed. 

Use Filter > Blur > Motion Blur to add more slant to your shadows if needed as well!

Also, use the Blend If function to keep shadows out of highlights. 

add shadow

Step 3

Is there an area you want to catch more light? You can use a Brightness/Contrast layer.

Use a layer mask to keep it confined to the tail fin.

Brightness/Contrast Settings 

  • Brightness: 41
  • Contrast: 79
final layers

8. How to Create Underwater Bubbles and Hair

To finish everything off, we will be adding some underwater bubbles and adding some movement to our subject's hair.

While you can paint your own bubbles, you can also use these premade Colorful soap bubbles!

Step 1

Open up the Colorful soap bubbles PSD, and drag and drop the whole "Wiggling Bubbles" group full of bubbles onto the canvas. 

Making sure the "Wiggling Bubbles" group is below the "Lens Flare" group, shrink the bubbles substantially!

Set the group to Screen. 

Step 2

Use the Move Tool to position each bubble around the canvas individually. 

You can copy, paste, flip, enlarge, and shrink the bubbles as needed. Variation is key, so try not to make any single bubble look the same! 

Step 3

Create and clip a Brightness/Contrast layer into the "Wiggling Bubbles" group. 

Brightness/Contrast Settings

  • Brightness: -150
  • Contrast: 100

Next, to get rid of 100% of the color of the bubbles, create and clip a Gradient Map layer above the "Brightness/Contrast" layer. 

Gradient Map Settings

  • Color: Black to White 

To add even more bubbles, without having to copy and paste each bubble individually, try the trick below! 

Step 4

Duplicate the "Wiggling Bubbles" group, along with its clipped adjustment layers. Bring the new group above the original group. We want to keep our two types of bubbles separate!

Merge the duplicate group and its adjustment layers together, making sure to reset the layer mode to Screen. 

Flip the merged bubbles both horizontally and vertically, as well as shrinking them down. Place the bubbles where desired—I placed them in the upper right-hand corner.  

If you find that your bubbles aren't bright enough, duplicate their layers!

Step 5

Repeat step 4 until you're satisfied! I added two new sets of bubbles, for a total of three. Again, try to avoid making the bubbles look repetitive! 

Use the Eraser Tool on any of the bubbles that look out of place. 

Step 6

Finally, add some depth by creating foreground bubbles. 

Start by repeating step 4. Significantly enlarge the new bubbles, positioning them on the right side and bottom portion of the canvas. 

Add a Filter > Blur > Shape Blur to the bubbles to remove any pixelation caused by enlarging the bubbles.

Shape Blur Settings 

  • Shape: Circle 
  • Radius: 25 px

Group all of the merged bubble layers together, naming the group "Merged Bubbles". You should have a "Merged Bubbles" group and a "Wiggling Bubbles" group!

Step 7

Next, we will want to add some flow to the hair. I personally like to work with the existing hair of the subject, simply adding to it and giving it more motion. 

Create a New Layer. 

Using a hair-strand brush, like the one I teach you how to create in this fashion portrait tutorial, paint strands of wavy hair extending out of the subject's current hair. 

Use the Eyedropper Tool to pick the colors as you go. 

Step 8

Create a New Layer, setting it to Overlay.

Using a soft, round Brush with a 1-10% Flow Rate, paint white highlights in and on the hair strands. 

Lower the layer's Opacity if needed.

We've Done It!

These mermaids are just a jumping off point, here to help you cover the basics; there are so many different directions you can go and so many more details you could add compared to what we did here today! And the best part is that the more you create, the better you'll get, going from simple shapes to full-blown complex masterpieces. 

Take this opportunity to think of all the different kinds of underwater creatures you could create using these techniques as a starting point. Never be afraid to think outside of the tutorial!

So, as always, keep experimenting with different techniques and practicing, and don't forget to post your version below, along with any questions, comments, or critiques!

Finished

Looking to learn more? Why not check out the following photo manipulation tutorials:


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