Sometimes our artwork can look a bit flat and two-dimensional, but there is a quick fix for this! I will show you how using Photoshop's default soft brush (with a few minor tweaks) and Layer Masks, you can create the illusion of depth of field in your artwork.
What Is Depth of Field?
Here's Wikipedia's definition of depth of field:
"In optics, particularly as it relates to film and photography, depth of field (DOF), also called focus range or effective focus range, is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image. Although a lens can precisely focus at only one distance at a time, the decrease in sharpness is gradual on each side of the focused distance, so that within the DOF, the unsharpness is imperceptible under normal viewing conditions."
Before and After
Here is the artwork before any blurring has taken place. As you can see it looks quite flat, with most of the assets appearing on the same plane.
Here we have both images side by side—before and after. The changes are subtle, but the effect gives depth and volume to the dragon and a sense of atmosphere. Let's take a look at how we can achieve this. It's easier than you think!
What to Blur and Why?
Areas you want to be the focus of the piece should stay sharp. In this case we want the face to stay in focus, and to create an undulating body for the dragon we will blur sections his tail and tummy.
1. The Plan
Here I've made a quick plan of what I would like to be blurred. The arrow tips show where I would like the artwork to be blurred the most.
Because I knew that I was going to blur some areas of this illustration I kept these parts on their own layers. Make sure that Lock Transparency is not active on the layers you wish to blur. This is the checkerboard icon next to the word Lock.
I'll start with the end of the tail. Here's how the tail looks without the layers above shown.
Create a copy of the tail layer by dragging the tail layer onto the square New Layer icon next to the trash can.
With the top layer selected, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to bring up the Gaussian Blur dialogue box. Play with the Radius slider until the element is blurred to your liking. In this case I have blurred it to 10 Pixels.
The reason I use Gaussian Blur rather than the Blur Tool is that I get more control, and also I find the Blur tool rather RAM-intensive.
See how that looks with the rest of the piece by turning the hidden layers back on. I think this works, so now on to the next step of creating depth with a mask!
With the Brush (B) selected, press F5 to bring up the Brush Dialogue. Change the spacing to 1% and ensure that Transfer is selected. This is so we can create a soft edge when painting in our masks.
On the blurred tail layer create a Layer Mask. You can do this by having your chosen layer selected and pressing the icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, which is a rectangle with a circle in the middle.
Select the Brush (B) set to 50% opacity, and use black to paint in the Layer Mask. Painting in black will hide areas, whereas white will show. Grey areas will show varying amounts.
3. The Dragon's Lower Tummy
Duplicate the dragon's lower tummy as before and repeat the blur process. To use the same Gaussian Blur settings, press Control-F. However, if you'd like to adjust the blur, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur as before.
Paint in a mask with black where you want the lower tummy in focus.
4. The Dragon's Upper Tummy
Repeat the process with the dragon's upper tummy. Remember: black to hide, white to show. The great thing about masks is you can change them as much as you like without destroying the artwork.
5. The Dragon's Neck
Repeat the process with the dragon's neck.
6. The Dragon's Glorious Whiskers
Carry on the duplicate, blur and mask process.
This time, holding Alt, click and drag the Layer Mask onto the sharp whisker. This should create a copy of the mask on the sharp whisker.
Next press Control-I to invert the mask. This give a greater, deeper blur as there is no in-focus part behind the end of the whisker.
7. Flowers and Petals
To bring up the Gaussian Blur dialogue, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Blur the flowers that we selected in the plan. The more you wish them to be out of focus, the greater the blur.
Move the petals around if you feel that the composition can be improved now the elements are in their final states.
On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) above the blurred sections, I lightly paint over with the sky colour. I do this by pressing Alt while having the Brush (B) selected, and add in some atmosphere. This helps to push these parts further back in space.
This can be achieved in pieces by using elements of dust, leaves or water particles, depending on your artwork.
In the far background I have some clouds which need to be out of focus. Using the Gaussian Blur I blur these and lower their opacity slightly. Next I add some atmosphere in front of one of the feet.
Our Glorious Sky Dragon!
I hope you have enjoyed my quick tip on how to create depth in your illustrations. You have learned about using masks and blurring to create depth of field simply yet effectively.
I really enjoyed creating this tutorial, and I hope you enjoyed reading it.