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Making Sense of the Warp Tool - It's All About the Lines

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Every now and then a project comes along that challenges me to use one of Photoshop's tools more than ever. This particular image was part of a series of ads I was working on with photographer Richard Radstone for a clothing line based in Colombia, South America.

Each of the ads featured a surreal representation of a different region of Colombia and was created by compositing various stock images and photos Richard shot for the job. The challenge with this one was to wrap an accordion around the palm tree like a giant snake.


As we started to work on the image we quickly realized that accordions just don't do what we wanted and so we had to shoot it piece by piece and then warp, morph and tweak each piece into position to create the illusion. This was challenging enough, but after we had accomplished this the client then said "Oh, did we tell you it has to be red? And there needs to be a diamond pattern on the side?" Oh Boy!

It was while adding the diamond pattern that the Warp Tool really started to make sense to me and so transitions us into the tutorial. What we're going to do is pick the image up from the part where we have the accordion sections in place with the red coloring applied to the sides. Then we'll go step by step through adding the diamond pattern to the side of the top wrap. By the end you should have a pretty good understanding of how the Warp Tool works and will be a Warping Master as well.

Final Image Preview

Take a look at the image we'll be creating. 

Step 1

To begin open the file "Tree-Accordion_Part1.psd located in the "source" files for Psd Plus members. As you can see, this image has a few layers in place already, such as the background, palm tree and the five accordion rings with the top section needing to have the diamond pattern added.

The Layer Groups used here help to keep all the layers organized and easy to find. Some very complex composite images can have over a hundred layers so it's important to keep them organized. A side benefit to using the Layer Groups is that if we use the Normal Blending Mode, then any Adjustment Layers we create within that Layer Group will only affect the Layers inside the Layer Group, something we'll use as a last step to adjust the lighting of the tree and accordion so it fits better into the background.

Step 2

Open the file "Diamond_Pattern.psd," located in the "source" files for Psd Plus members. Copy the Layer named "Diamond Pattern" to the first file we opened.

Step 3

Position this Layer at the top of the Layers in the Layers Palette. Then make another copy of the Layer by clicking on it's Thumbnail in the Layers Palette and dragging it down to the icon at the bottom of the Palette that looks like a page with its corner folded over, as shown below. This will make a copy of the Layer that will be named "DiamondPattern copy."

Step 4

Now drag this Layer in the Layers Palette to the position that is just above the Layer named "End Accordion." We're just about ready to start warping the pattern on the accordion section at the top of the tree. To make sure you have the right layer chosen click the Eyeball icon on and off for the "End Accordion" Layer. You should see the accordion piece at the top of the tree and can turn it on and off.

Use the Move Tool to roughly position the Layer named "Diamond Pattern copy" over the accordion piece at the top of the tree.

Since we shouldn't need all eight diamonds for the side of this section let's simplify things a bit by deleting four of the diamonds from the copy of the Layer we just made. Do this by choosing the Marquee Tool (M), then click-drag over the first four diamonds, and hit the Delete key to get rid of the extras.

Step 5

Now the fun begins. Make sure you have the "Diamond Pattern copy" Layer chosen in the Layers Palette, then bring up the Warp Tool by going to Photoshop's menu and choosing Edit > Transform > Warp. That should give you something that looks like the image below.

The grid of lines and dots you see imposed over the diamond pattern are the control lines and handles for this tool. These lines and handles are what we'll be using to manipulate the diamonds into place on the accordion. At each corner there is a control point as well as a control handle that is somewhat similar to the control handles used by the Path Tool.

Then each of the other lines and points represent the places where we can grab the image to push or pull it into place. Pretty easy, eh?

Before we jump in though, there are a few things to keep in mind. The grid formed by these lines and points determine how the layer we're working with will be warped. In many ways, the Warp Tool is all about the lines here. If we want the pattern to look correct, then we'll have to pay careful attention to how these lines and points are placed.

So in the case of warping our diamond pattern, this means making sure the lines on the ends of the grid stay fairly straight and that the lines on the inside follow the plane of the accordion, while staying fairly straight to each other as well.

Step 6

The first thing we need to do is get the diamonds closer to the right position on the accordion. In this case, it's really helpful to know that we can easily switch from the Warp Tool to the Free Transform Tool on the fly just by holding down the Control Key (on the Mac) and clicking anywhere in the image. This brings up a submenu that shows the various options for the Transform Tool. Simply choosing Free Transform here allows us to then drag the diamonds roughly into place without worrying about any unwanted warping happening along the way.

Once we've dragged the pattern and given it a little rotation so the left edge roughly follows the left edge of the accordion bellows we should have something that looks similar to the image below.

Step 7

Once again Control-click to bring up the submenu and choose Warp. That should give you the result shown below.

By doing this without applying any of the steps yet, we keep the placement of the control grid aligned with our diamond pattern in such a way that makes it easier to work with. Note that the lines follow our pattern and now all we need to do is make the lines follow the surface of the accordion we're placing this on. If we had applied any of the transform steps before this, the lines would line up straight to the borders of the image, not the layer we're working with.

Step 8

Starting with the corners for the left side, position each corner's Control Point along the left edge of the accordion bellows. Pay attention to the Handles that come off each corner. These Handles affect two things: the Bend of the line and the placement of the two lines in between the outer edges. You want to be sure the left edge is straight, not bent and that the two lines in between the corners are evenly placed.

Step 9

Now go to the right edge of the Diamond Pattern and do the same thing there. Again pay attention to the Handles and the placement of the lines in between. Just dragging the points to the corners of the accordion will give you something like this (you do need to guess a little about just where the far corner of the accordion lies).

Step 10

See how the Handles at the corner of the Diamond Pattern hang out and make the pattern look bent and distorted? Dragging each one so that it points straight at the other corner will straighten that out.

Note that we have not yet worked on the long sides, this part is just about getting the corners placed correctly.

Step 11

Now we'll work on those long sides. First grab the top line somewhere around the middle and drag it up so it roughly follows the top curve of the accordion's side, as shown.

Step 12

Repeat this for the top line that runs down the middle pattern and pull it roughly into position on the accordion. Keep in mind that this line should follow along the curve of the top line. Since it controls the placement of the upper-middle part of our pattern, it's relationship to the top line is very important to keeping our pattern looking correct.

Step 13

Now take the lower-middle line and move that up into place. Again keep in mind its relationship to the other lines controlling the warp. As you adjust this line you may need to also nudge the line we just moved as well, as shown.

Step 14

The next line we'll move is the line along the bottom. This should follow the bottom line of the accordion's side. As you do so you'll need to move the other lines as well to keep everything looking straight. With a bit of tweaking and nudging you should see something like this.

Note: I want to take a moment here to remind you that the secret to getting this work right is all about paying attention to the lines
for the Warp Tool. If all the longer horizontal Control Lines follow the same curve and keep the right relationship to each other, also the shorter vertical Control Lines stay straight and pretty much parallel to each other, then the diamond pattern should look correct.

Step 15

If necessary shift the positioning of the lines and the diamonds to get the diamonds to lie just right on the accordion. Moving the short lines closer to each other will make the diamonds look more squeezed and moving them farther apart will stretch them out more. You want to make it look like the diamonds are the same size keeping in mind the changing perspective of the accordion as it wraps around the tree.

Here is an example of what it looks like when the diamonds are not positioned correctly.

When you're satisfied with the positioning of the pattern hit Enter to apply the transformation. Since we just finished a complex move with the Transform Tool, it's probably a good idea to save the file right now. I like to save versions as I go along so I can go back if necessary. To do this use Photoshop's Save As command and change the name to something like: "Tree-Accordion Part2."

Step 16

Now that we have the diamonds positioned on the accordion, we'll need to let some of the accordion show through so it looks like it's really a part of the accordion and not just sitting on top of it. To do that we'll add a Layer Mask to the layer we just warped. Next use the Brush Tool to carefully paint black in the Layer Mask where we want the accordion to show through.

Add the Layer Mask by clicking on the Add Layer Mask Button at the bottom of the Layers Palette, as shown below.

Step 17

We want the dark ribs on the side of the accordion to show through so we'll paint black in the Layer Mask along those areas. One trick that can make it easier to see where you need to apply the black paint is to lower the opacity of the diamond pattern to something like 70%, just enough to let you see through the diamonds.

Since the ribs are straight lines, we can get Photoshop to do most of the work of painting the lines for us. To do this first choose a Brush that's about 5 pixels wide, this should match the width of the ribs pretty closely. Then with the Brushes Palette open, make sure the button for Other Dynamics is turned off. This turns off the Pressure Sensitivity for the Brush.

Now all we need to do is click on one end of a rib, then while holding down the Shift Key click on the other end of the rib. Photoshop will automatically draw a straight line from the first click to the next one. Be sure to let go of the Shift Key in between ribs and work your way across the side of the accordion. Change the size of the Brush if necessary as you work, just make sure to keep Other Dynamics turned off.

After the ribs are done, you may need to paint out any areas where the diamonds extend past the side of the accordion. When you're done painting set the Opacity of the layer back to 100% and it should now look like the following image.

Step 18

We're almost there now. For the accordion this is looking pretty good, but we could add a little sense of lighting to the diamonds to really make it look like it's in the environment.

To do this, add a Curve Adjustment Layer and then Clip that Layer to the "Diamond Pattern copy" Layer we just worked on. To Clip this Adjustment Layer to the Diamond Pattern, first be sure you have the "Diamond Pattern copy" selected in the Layers Palette, and then go to the Photoshop Menu and choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. Also, make sure the Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask option is checked.

Step 19

Since the Diamond Pattern is white, we can darken it down a bit by opening the Curves Window, clicking on the White Point in the Curve Window and then pulling it down a little bit as shown.

Step 20

Now choose a large, soft Brush - something around 120 pixels. Set the Foreground Color to Black and make a diagonal stroke in the Layer Mask for the Curves Layer we just made. This will hide the effect of the Curve making the ends of the pattern darker than the middle creating the illusion that it is catching the light in the scene. It should look like the image below.

Step 21

Zooming out to look at the whole image we should now see all the bands of the accordion have the diamond pattern applied.

All that needs to be done now to finish off our image is to selectively darken the tree and the accordion so it looks more like something being backlit by the sunset. To do that we'll add another Curves Adjustment Layer to the top of the Layer Group named "Accord-Wrapping."

Again you can do this by going to the Menu in Photoshop and choosing Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. Since the Blending Mode for the Layer Group was set to Normal, we don't need to worry about the Adjustment Layer affecting the rest of the image.

With the Curves Dialogue open, grab a spot on the Curve and drag it down as shown.

Step 22

Don't worry that the whole tree and accordion look too dark. Just like we did with the Adjustment Layer that darkened the pattern we just placed on the accordion, we'll selectively brush this darkening out to keep it mostly off the accordion. Doing this will also help give the image a little more sense of lighting, which is critical to making everything look just right.

Here is a shot that shows the Layer Mask and the image at the same time so you can see how the Mask I painted looks. The green shows the areas where I painted black in the Layer Mask to hide the effect of the Adjustment Layer. This is a great time to experiment with your own sense of lighting so go ahead and paint away!


When you're all done you should have something very similar to the final image shown below.

So with this exercise we've worked with Photoshop's Free Transform Tool to rough the diamonds into place, switched to the Warp Tool and used that to twist the diamonds so they fit just right, (remember it's all about the lines), and then we've used a couple of Curves Adjustment Layers to
add a sense of lighting to our elements bringing them all together in the
scene. Looking at the position of the sun, I'd say it's not a bad day's work.

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