When people see one of my abstract/surreal images, they often ask ‘How did you do that?’

So, in this post I unpack some detail about the process of creating one of my Photoshop Creative readers’ competition entries. This is not a tutorial (I may produce some of these in the future), but rather I’ll show you some key points in the process of generating this artwork.

The challenge!

Each month Photoshop Creative magazine holds a competition for readers. Recently the challenge has been to take four random pictures that the magazine has chosen and turning those four images into a creative piece of artwork. You can use your own images if you like, and you don’t have to use all the images. However, I prefer if possible to set myself the challenge of trying to combine all four images supplied.

For this composition I only used the four supplied images and manipulated them.

The original images

Below are the four originals that were supplied – this shows you the entire image area that was available:

Photoshop Creative challenge originals

1. The first stage

I spent some time looking at the images, their quality, size, subject matter so I could consider how I could combine them to make something that worked. I did a couple of very quick line sketches of various ideas in a few minutes as the ideas came to mind. Some worked, and some didn’t, so I decided on an idea that made some sort of sense of the images when combined and left the viewer the opportunity to imagine a story around the final composition.

I settled on creating an image centred around the idea of the girl wearing a multi-coloured hat with a bright light attracting butterflies from all around – hence the title ‘The Butterfly Catchers’ Hat’. I imagine this could perhaps be the book cover for a novel.

2. Getting started

Once I had settled on a particular idea, I knew (as is often the case) that I would need to do a lot of isolating and cutting out of original pictures supplied, so I then began isolating the various elements I knew I was going to need from each photo.

At this stage I also knew that I was probably going to need a complete circle from the CD image to create a hat, so I built that up by using Photoshop’s cloning, scaling, duplicating and masking from the section supplied – once I’d isolated it from the black background. The CD wasn’t quite flat-on, so I recreated the outer black rim so that it was consistent and neat. The cutouts and built-up CD are shown below:

Photoshop Creative challenge originals cutout

3. Building the background and isolating the model

The next stage was to create the background and isolate the girl. I knew that the supplied image of London was relatively low resolution, but had decided that I could blur the image to give a depth-of-field effect in the background of the final composite and this would help reduce the quality issues on enlarging the background to fill the entire background. This step was very simple as all I needed to do was use Photoshop’s blur tool. Likewise isolating the model from the black background was relatively easy except for the fine hair. In this case it didn’t need to be pixel perfect!

model and background

4. Building the hat

Building the hat was quite difficult – it needed to look 3D and to sit on the model’s head realistically. I used the full CD image I had created in step two for this, as the idea was to have a mutli-coloured hat which had a bright light shining out of the top attracting the butterflies.

To construct the hat, I used Photoshop’s warp, scale and distort tools in stages to hold the quality of the distortion a little better. I had the girl’s head below on another layer so I could visually see how the hat was sitting on the girl’s head. To make the cone of the hat, I needed to imagine where the girl’s head would fill it, and warp and distort the centre area of the CD to make the 3D effect. This is how it looked after I’d done the distortion:

Warped Hat

I did do additional adjustments to the hat later in the process, just to help it sit better in the final artwork. Often an image will evolve and more detail will be needed to make things look like they belong in the same space.

5. Building the butterflies

I didn’t want to have one butterfly repeated several times, so using Photoshop’s copy, paste, select, clone, distort, scale, warp, hue, saturation, exposure, levels and curve tools I created the following variations shown below from the original. I also added some blurring to make some of the butterflies look like their wings were flapping and others were settled.

Various digital butterflies

6. Bringing the elements together

I now needed to bring the elements together, and although I had a rough idea in my head how the final artwork should look, sometimes the individual elements don’t work in the positions first chosen. However, with everything on it’s own layer, I can have the freedom to adjust elements until I’m happy with the composition. Below is a ‘rough’ that I did to help visualise placement of elements.

Photoshop Creative idea rough version

After establishing the basic possible placement of elements, I started to create the final artwork refining the composition to end up with this:

Final with no Shadows

7. Adding the all-important lighting and shadows etc

The last stage is to add all the other touches like shadows, lighting effects while keeping an eye on the overall composition and how the individual elements sit in the image and how the image is cropped. This can help to make a picture more realistic or dramatic. Sometimes I will start adding these items earlier in the process depending on the image.

I hope you’ve enjoyed journeying with me on the key points of the process that went into creating this final image:

Final Photoshop image

Thanks for reading, and please let me know what you think – you can comment below! Many thanks.