Creative Thinking in Photoshop: Art from the Ashes
Welcome to Creative Thinking -- the new creativepro.com column dedicated to the nonlinear way digital artists really work. As author of "The Illustrator Wow! Books" I appreciate the value of following exacting software recipes to replicate specific effects, but as an artist I'm also keenly aware that we rarely create by simply following a linear string of instructions. Therefore, Creative Thinking will focus more on concepts for being creative and on ways of working -- from digital brainstorming, improvising, and experimenting to integrating digital and traditional tools.
While you'll still get your fill of specific tips and techniques from most of these articles, I hope you'll also be open to how a new approach or way of working might enhance your creative process and expand your creative potential. I'll often have to impose linear constraints on what I'm describing (so you'll be able to follow the narrative), but remember that the actual creative process was likely to have been more meandering and improvisational.
As this introductory Creative Thinking column coincides with the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am compelled to focus on the image that I created in response to the World Trade Center (WTC) disaster, "From the Ashes, September 2001" (see figure 1). In a completely unplanned and nonlinear way, I used Photoshop's Layers, Layer Masks, and Layer Sets to weave new elements into an existing image. Despite the fact that this image evolved improvisationally, you can use variations of this process to insert elements into any existing image.
Figure 1: "From the Ashes, September 2001"
Many things that are impossible within the traditional worlds of art and photography can be magically realized in Photoshop. In this project I rely on the stacking order of Photoshop's layers to control what elements lie on top of others, and then use duplicates of layers and Layer Masks to create the illusion of inserting new elements into an existing image.
To accomplish this illusion of weaving new elements within (not just on top of) an existing composition, I use the Layers palette to sandwich the layers containing the new elements between the original image layer and a duplicate of the original. With the original image as the bottom (background) layer, the new elements exist on layers above the background.
To complete the illusion, a duplicate of the original image resides on top (above the new elements). To control which portions will be seen above the new elements (thus forming the foreground) this duplicate gets a Layer Mask. This project also will demonstrate how I was able to create new layers, move and scale my elements, and even group layers together in Layer Sets, all while maintaining the illusion of items being in front or behind others.
In the first weeks after 9-11, like most Americans, I was incapable of being useful, much less creative. My brother and his fiancé lived just blocks from the WTC site, so much of that immediate time was spent trying to establish and maintain communications with them, and to attempt to stop crying long enough to get anything done at all. When finally I was able to get back to work, I decided that I'd start out by organizing a series of digital images that I'd created in the months previous.
I'd begun these images using a traditional printmaking process called monotype (see figure 2). I then scanned the monotype prints in Photoshop, and reworked them using Photoshop's blending modes and adjustment layers (see figure 3). Methodically opening up each image in turn, I was merely trying to decide which ones I was going to be using for my current project.
Figure 2: One of the original monotypes
Figure 3: Variations on the monotypes using blending modes and adjustment layers in Photoshop
Then something about one particular version made me stop (see figure 4). In the new post-9-11 context, this hazy dark version screamed to me of the video and photographic images I'd seen of people moving amongst the ashes of the collapsed World Trade Center. I decided to table my organization effort and focus on reworking this image.
Figure 4: The variation that inspired the image
I'd been haunted by the cathedral-like ruin of the WTC that remained standing in those first weeks, and I wanted to integrate that tower structure into the scanned monotype. Since the ruin required a more vertical orientation than the horizontal starting image, I needed to elongate the starting image in order to fit the ruin into the composition. After choosing a color from the starting image as the Background color (holding Option/ ALT when clicking with the Eyedropper), I then expanded the canvas size (Image> Canvas Size) to give me more room to work (see figure 5).
Figure 5: After enlarging the canvas
Since I never work on the "original" image layer, I next duplicated the layer containing the original image (by dragging the layer over the New Layer icon in the Layers palette), before using Edit> Free Transform (Command-T/ CTRL-T) to stretch the duplicate taller (see figure 6).
Figure 6: Using the Free Transform tool (top) to stretch the image taller (bottom)
Though the background was now the right proportion, the figures had become large and distorted. So to place the original figures back into this stretched scene, I began by moving the original starting image layer on top of the stretched one. Then I attached a Layer Mask to this top version by clicking the Layer Mask icon. Working into the Layer Mask with the Paintbrush I allowed the smaller figures on top to be visible, while only the top portions of the stretched image showed from beneath (see figure 7). To control whether you're working on a layer or its mask, click on the appropriate thumbnail in the Layers palette. When working into a Layer Mask, black masks out the image layer, white allows the image layer to show through, and grays provide semi-transparent transitions.
Figure 7: Applying a layer mask to make the smaller figures visible against the stretched background
To introduce the WTC's cathedral-like ruin into the image, I created a new layer on top (clicking the New Layer icon) and painted into that new layer. To create a latticework above the shadowy layer of the initial structure I'd drawn, I created a new layer on top and drew with lighter colors. To continue working on the various aspects of the tower, I would click on the appropriate layer, and paint. In this way I could weave elements on top of, and beneath the tower (see figure 8).
Figure 8: Painting into layers above the initial image to bring in the cathedral ruin (top) and then adding lighter colors for emphasis on layers above (bottom)
In yet another layer below this one I used the Clone Stamp tool (with the "Use All Layers" option enabled) to cover over and "patch" some of the areas below where the stretched figures still showed through. I also renamed some of the layers (by double-clicking the layer name) and used Layer> Merge Down (Command-E/ CTRL-E) to replace the original background layer with the stretched version (see figure 9).
Figure 9: The Layers palette showing (from bottom to top) the stretched background, the original image with a Layer Mask, and the first layers of the tower
Deciding that the tower structure was too small, I linked the three tower layers in the Layers palette, then used Free Transform (Command-T/ CTRL-T) this time to stretch just the tower (see figure 10). So that I could continue to act on these layers as a unit, I then created a Layer Set (which looks like a folder within the layers palette) by choosing New Set From Linked from the Layers palette pop-up menu. After adding more detailing (in a new topmost layer within the Layer Set), I then created a Layer Mask for the entire Layer Set to control how the tower layers as a group interacted with layers below.
Figure 10: Stretching the tower by itself and adding a layer mask to control how it interacts with other layers (top shows the image, bottom shows the Layers palette)
I wanted the tower to jump out from the haze, so I tried different filters and settled on applying an Emboss filter to just the tower. Since filters can only be applied to single layers, I needed to make a flat copy of the tower to apply a filter to it. I used Edit> Select All (Command-A/Control-A) -- after hiding the layers below the tower -- then made a flat copy of the tower layers with Edit> Copy Merged. With the "merged copy" on the clipboard, using the Paste command (Edit> Paste, or Command-V/ CTRL-V) places a flat version of the tower into a new layer. I then applied the emboss filter to this flat tower layer (see figures 11).
Figure 11: Making a flat copy of the tower layers (top) then applying the Emboss filter to it (bottom)
After enhancing the emboss effect by applying various blending modes to duplicates of the embossed tower layer, I placed all these new layers within a "tower embossed" Layer Set. Since the embossing effect resulted in the tower on top visually separating from the rest of the image below, I decided that the tower needed to be woven more fully within the entire image. To do this I duplicated the original image layer with the smaller figures and moved this duplicate layer above the tower to form the foreground. Since I ended up creating a number of layers to develop the foreground (using primarily the Paintbrush and Clone Stamp tool) I created a Layer Set with its own Layer Mask for the new group of foreground layers.
By the time the image was complete I'd duplicated the entire foreground Layer Set (from the Layers palette pop-up) and moved it below the tower, added a layer for my copyright and signature, more layers for touchups and Adjustment layers for color corrections (see figures 12). By keeping my Layers palette organized I was able to work fluidly, in an almost a sculptural way, adding and reworking elements within my image.
Figure 12: Creating more layers and layer sets including those for signature and copyright information (top) that results in the final image (bottom)
This is Sharon Steuer's first column for creativepro.com. Read her bio here.
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