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Creative Compositing in Photoshop

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This chapter addresses working freely and creatively with Photoshop, including discovering inspiration with the simplest subjects, learning how to treat Photoshop as a digital sandbox, experimenting with blending modes, textures, and effects, and understanding the essentials of image composition.

Note: This excerpt does not include the example image files. The files are available with purchase of the book.

This chapter is from the book

The creative process is simultaneously fulfilling, intimidating, and—in a way—addictive. It involves honing your craft, nurturing your muse, and creating images that express your values, perceptions, and sensibilities. In the process, especially during those times when you run up against a creative block, you may doubt yourself, your ideas, and your abilities, but don’t. Often, we seek the recognition and approval of people we respect, and we know from experience that worrying about what others will think can have a paralyzing effect on working freely. In Chapter 2, “The Creative Process,” we discussed finding your inspiration and turning off that nagging and doubting voice. This chapter continues that discussion and addresses working freely and creatively with Photoshop. In this chapter, you’ll:

  • Discover inspiration with the simplest subjects
  • Learn how to treat Photoshop as a digital sandbox
  • Experiment with blending modes, textures, and effects
  • Understand the essentials of image composition

The Photoshop techniques used in creative compositing are the same as those that have been presented throughout this book—from making selections, to masking, to experimenting with blending modes, to adding shadow and texture. In this chapter we review some key concepts and techniques, and feature several examples to illustrate how they can be used on actual compositing projects. Because this chapter concentrates more on the artistic process and on ways to foster and encourage your creative discoveries, it includes fewer step-by-step examples to work along with than previous chapters. But there’s still plenty of inspiration to give you ideas for your own collages!

Images and Inspiration

Creative inspiration for a collage can come from many places. Some of these may be known sources where you’ve had success finding ideas in the past, whereas others may be totally unexpected. The origins of creative inspiration may be mysterious at times, but what is not in doubt is how you should respond to them. Don’t let an idea for an image pass by without grabbing onto it and giving it a close look under a bright, conceptual light. Write down the idea in a journal or scrapbook. Make a sketch. Determine if it “has legs” by asking these questions: How much does it captivate your imagination? How hard would it be to transform the idea into an actual composite image? The places where you get your ideas can be just as important as the actual ideas. Once you know the location of “the well,” you can return to it again and again as you look for inspiration.

The Personal

Our own story and that of our family is often the story we know best, or the tale that touches us most deeply. The pages of your personal story, the purely historical facts and the emotional currents running through it, can be fertile ground for finding ideas to work into a composite image. Mining the archives of old family letters, snapshots, immigration documents, and school papers and combining them with images of the places where you grew up or experienced significant life transitions is an effective way to work with a project that exercises all of the compositing skills featured in this book and also has personal meaning for you. Brigitte Carnochan followed this approach with her series “Imagining Then: A Family Story 1941–1947,” a meditation on her young childhood growing up in Germany (see the Artist in the First Person sidebar in Chapter 8, “Layer Essentials” for more on Carnochan’s work). You can use digital collage to explore aspects of your story with the intent that they be accessible to a wide audience or only for an audience of one—you (Figure 12.1).

Figure 12.1

Figure 12.1. An image from Brigitte Carnochan’s “Imagining Then: A Family Story 1941–1947” uses old letters, documents, and family photos to illustrate a personal history.© Brigitte Carnochan

Cast-offs and Curios

Every artist and designer we know is a flea-market walker, used-book-sale browser, junk shop gatherer, and inspiration scavenger. We are always on the lookout for an interesting artifact or discarded item that can serve as an element in a still life or be worked into a composite as the main subject, a supporting player, or an interesting texture or background (Figure 12.2).

Figure 12.2

Figure 12.2. Junk shops and flea markets are fertile ground for finding objects to use in collages.© SD

Seán found the old mantelpiece clock case shown in Figure 12.3 in a junk shop in New England. He was interested in it not for the front with the round opening for the face of the clock, but for the back with its little door for servicing the clock. He hasn’t used it yet, but one of these days it will end up in a composite! Finding these items isolated on dusty junk shop shelves or piled into tattered cardboard boxes at a flea market can actually be very conducive to receiving the creative spark of an idea on how to use them.

Figure 12.3

Figure 12.3. An old, battered clock case will be an interesting addition to a future composite.© SD

Because they are removed from their natural context, it is somehow easier to imagine them in the context of a different scene or reality that might be constructed through the magic of compositing.

Natural Forms

In addition to cast-off treasures found in the rummage bin or a local curiosity shop, natural forms such as leaves, roots, branches, seed pods, rocks, shells, feathers, or bones can all become effective grist for your creative mill (Figure 12.4). As strange as it may sound, we’ve even been known to bring home the dried-out carcasses of small animals, birds, and insects that we’ve found in our wanderings (Figure 12.5), which we’ve then scanned or photographed before giving them a proper burial (this falls under the category of suffering for our art, or perhaps more accurately, our spouses suffering for our art!). And for those natural forms that you can’t take home with you, such as a particularly interesting cloud or the curl of water gently lapping on a lakeshore, making a photograph of them allows you to add that ephemeral form to your image archive as source material for a future composite (Figure 12.6).

Figure 12.4

Figure 12.4. A collection of natural objects waiting for a creative collage spark.© SD

Figure 12.5

Figure 12.5. The mortal remains of small animals often find their way back to our studios to serve as elements in a compositing project.© SD

Figure 12.6

Figure 12.6. A detail shot of water lapping on the shores of Lake Superior is transformed into a simple yet calming design through an image-mirroring technique.© SD

Museums, Galleries, and Classes

The source of your inspiration will come in many forms, but one sure place you’re likely to find it is when you immerse yourself in the creative work of other artists. Visit galleries and museums, go to lectures and presentations, take classes, read science fiction, go for a swim, let your mind wander, and look through your archive of images and imagine stories or scenes they might be good for. Our good friend and colleague, the late Mark Beckelman, found inspiration for his work by taking the time to browse through art and design books at local bookstores. He appreciated the abstraction that an illustrator brings to a topic, and it helped him to think outside of the photographic framework.

For Katrin, one of the most inspiring things she does is teach. Once her students realize they shouldn’t be trying to please her, they take off creatively. She looks forward to seeing their submissions for the weekly assignments. Their fresh take on a subject or topic always inspires her to develop assignments that will challenge them, and her, to make better art. Figure 12.7 shows two images created by Alice Meliere Kivlon, one of Katrin’s students in a photo illustration class at the School of Visual Arts.

Figure 12.7

Figure 12.7. Alice Kivlon’s composites create a contrast between the delicate beauty of flowers with the hard and unyielding metal structures that constrain them.© Alice Meliere Kivlon

Travel and Inspiration

Many artists, whether they are photographers, painters, writers, or filmmakers, find inspiration in traveling and experiencing new scenery and different cultures. Being in a new place beyond the familiar topography of your normal environment has long proved to be a creative catalyst for artists. Artist Lyn Bishop appreciates the textures, light, and colors found in the simplest settings of an early morning walk or along a weathered wall. Lyn uses traditional printmaking and painting techniques as well as digital technology to express her inward and outward journeys, creating beautiful images, such as the one shown in Figure 12.8.

Figure 12.8

Figure 12.8. Lyn Bishop likes to discover and combine a variety of sources to create quietly compelling images.© Lyn Bishop

As Lyn explains, “The journey is the integral inspiration that propels my art. Traveling throughout the world, I look for the simple, unsophisticated, and organic details that define the beauty of that culture. I am always intrigued by the differing human elements and visual stimulation that I encounter. The internal artistic journey begins with a feeling or thought until the work takes on its own personality.”

Lyn’s images express her deep respect for the diversity of world culture. Her prints are rich and full of delicate details that you need to see firsthand to appreciate fully.

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