This tutorial will guide you through the process of creating a complex surreal photo-manipulation artwork. The guide will also reveal some tips and tricks in creating stuff like this. The artwork was a collaboration between me and Flash. Flash did most of the postwork while I did the composition and effects.
Note: This tutorial assumes you know your way around Photoshop.
STEP 1: Sketch out the concept
For something like this, it’s vital to think out a concept and a concept sketch of the composition of your elements before you open up any design programs. If you aren’t good at sketching the exact shapes or form, just make the sketch at a very small size – i.e. a thumbnail sketch that gives you a general idea of what you’re aiming for.
If you’re interested in creating a surreal look, don’t be afraid to go crazy with the concept. Think “What if?” and just try stuff that seems illogical.
We started out with a concept and a sketch that goes like this – “What if there are predators in heaven – i.e. girls that look sexy wearing animal skin, exotic predators like eagles and cheetahs.”
STEP 2: Create the postwork
Gather all the stocks you need for your manipulation and cut them out using Photoshop. If you have a buddy helping you do this it could help ease the workload as long as he’s good at what he’s doing. If the edges are too sharp don’t forget to Refine Edge (CS3) / Feather it a bit.
For this piece, after we had almost everything cut out and the main elements placed, we decided to create the road first and insert it into the composition. It was fairly simple, just take a stock of some roads and cut them out. Path the surreal shapes you want and fill them with the according colours. Finally, texture them with the textures from the stock of the roads.
STEP 3: On to composition
This is a huge step and it’s where you would define the form and positioning of them to create a fluent composition. You’ll need patience.
One of the most important things to remember is visual hierarchy. If your design has a lot of different elements like mine has, be sure to define a clear visual hierarchy so it does not seem as messy. In mine, notice how the main girl is large and the rest of the elements are smaller because they are less important.
If you’re designing a surreal piece that appears somewhat realistic, make sure the perspectives and angles of the stocks makes sense. Don’t be afraid to use the Perspective, Wrap, Skew transform tools to get it right. Also there is a filter called Distort -> Sheer which could help.
The stock’s default lighting is also a concern; but it won’t be if you have great dodging / burning & brushing skills.
Right now, it will be a good idea to match the contrasts and brightness of the stocks in the image as you place them in the composition. Use Levels adjustments to achieve this.
For stuff like clouds, make sure you use a layer mask. Brush onto the layer mask with a soft black brush set on a medium opacity for that blended appearance.
If you’re wondering how I did the floating islands, they’re just mountains flipped vertically while the top side is from a stock of cliffs. Blend them together using that layer mask method for the clouds and voila.
Also at this point, it’s optional to add effects. I made the angel statue in the middle completely white and duplicated him for various blurs. Also I smudged him a bit on a new layer with a funky edged brush set on scatter to create a smoky effect. I added some glowing star effect near it as well; this is easy just grab a soft tip brush and modify the Spacing, Scattering and Size Jitter in the brush engine.
STEP 4: Blending
Blending is obviously really important for this sort of graphic to look consistent. For good blending you will need to match the elements so that they look as if they belong in the same image. You will need to match the colour, contrast, depth, brightness and it is also important to make sure anything isn’t too sharp edged that they might look out of place (feathering or blurring would help).
One of the easy ways to add to the blended look for my image was to get stock of clouds and add them in set on Overlay or Lighten/Screen between the elements. Doing so, whether it be clouds or any other texture could make your elements have more of a connection between them.
One of the best ways to achieve a decent blend in colours, contrasts and brightness is to use adjustment layers. In mine, I have used Levels, Curves, Colour Balance, Gradient Map (set on low opacity), Photo Filter, and Channel Mixer. No need to worry if the result you get is a little dark, because you can fix that later with good dodging. It actually allows you to experiment more with lighting later. Also keep in mind that you can brush onto the layer masks if you think the adjustment layer did good to one area but not another.
Beware if it’s too contrasted, it won’t be a good idea to fix that later so be sure to get the contrasts how you like it right now.
STEP 5: Lighting & Shadows / Sharpening & Blurring
This is a very important step in developing realism and depth in your work. I’m not going to go over it in detail because I’m sure this step could be a whole tutorial alone.
There are a lot of different methods for this but I chose the easy way out. For lighting and shadows, I just got a new merged layer of the whole thing and used the dodge and burn tools. Make sure that you use a soft brush and experiment with the options such as Highlight / Midtones / Shadow. I used the dodge tool set on highlight a lot. Dodging the glowing stars creates a nifty effect. Just burn the places where there is a likely shadow from the light sources.
One thing to make sure is that you create lighting in places where you want attention.
For sharpening and blurring, just use the sharpen and blur tools but make sure you don’t go overboard with the sharpen tool because it can create unwanted artifacts. Blurring the distant places and sharpening the foreground elements can emphasise depth.
STEP 6: Finishing up
At this point, if you’re running out of ideas to improve it but still think it’s not finished yet – go take a walk outside or wait a day or two before continuing it. Grab a milkshake, that always helps!
To finish this piece up, after taking a break I spotted a few more areas that could be improved on and so I did further adjustments to it. Don’t be afraid to make a new layer and brush with low opacity with a soft brush of a matching colour to add more depth or distance to your elements. For example, I used a soft blue brush set on low opacity to brush on the left floating island to create further distance.
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And that’s it! The steps described aren’t easy and require artistic talent to pull off but if you spend time as if you were a great traditional painter like Leonardo DaVinci, anything is possible. It took us about 40 hours to complete this piece but I’d say it was well worth the effort.
Founder of Anothera.net, has been using design programs for 8+ years. What had started as a hobby, design and art had became a real passion and a way of life. Achieved the Graphic Design Advanced Diploma qualification.