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Compositing an Imaginary Place with Photoshop

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  1. Compositing an Imaginary Place with Photoshop
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See how an idea for a client turned into a new method for creating imaginary places as Sharon Steuer pieces together digital snapshots in Photoshop to create an original composition.
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Traditionally, artists create sketches to quickly work through compositional ideas. Unfortunately, although you might be able to visualize how your sketch might be transformed into a finished image, clients are notoriously incapable of envisioning anything beyond what they see in front of them. When a client thought she wanted me to create an interior/exterior scene for a folding screen, I decided to try something new. Instead of beginning with sketches, I decided to piece together digital snapshots to create a composition that would both be easier for the client to interpret and could also eventually serve as a reference for me to use in creating the actual painted screen. Along the way, I discovered a method for creating imaginary places. So even though the folding screen project ended up going in an entirely different direction, I completely fell in love with this new way of working.

If you don't have access to a digital camera, you can scan prints instead—it's just that using digital snapshots is so quick and immediate and saves bundles on processing fees. You can shoot shots and assemble later, or you can have a composition in mind and gather material for that vision. Because you move through ideas quickly with this way of working, I encourage you to be less careful and more spontaneous. Don't worry about creating perfect masks until you are relatively sure that this is the final version. Just relax and think of this as a loose sketching process.

I needed source material for creating the interior/exterior composition, and my mother's house was ideal. Her upstairs and downstairs have similar windows and doors, she had lovely decks, water views out the windows, and her furniture and design taste is exquisite. Grabbing my low-resolution digital snapshot camera, I went out for a visit.

I envisioned a scene with the interior at the left, with a glass door leading to the exterior deck to the right, and shot the snapshots accordingly. Back at my computer, I imported the dozen or so snapshots into Photoshop and saved them all with meaningful names so I could easily find them.

To begin assembling your snapshots, chose one of the images as your starting point and open it in Photoshop. Choose Edit> Select All and then Copy to place this image on your clipboard. Next, use the Eyedropper tool while holding down the Option key (Alt for Windows) to choose a color from your start image to be a neutral background color. Looking at your image, decide on how much bigger the canvas would have to be to assemble your basic elements together and don't worry yet about what dimensions you want the final image to be. Choose File> New. With the dimensions of your start image loaded into the new file size, enlarge the dimensions of this document sufficiently to assemble your elements, select the Background Color option for Contents, and click OK. With your image still on the clipboard, select Paste to place your start image into its own layer and use the Move tool to relocate the position of your start image. Then, one at a time, open up the other images that you want to include and use the Move tool to drag and drop them into the larger document (see Figure 1). Make sure to save your large file in Photoshop format as you go to preserve the layers.

Figure 1Figure 1 Choosing a starting image and a neutral background color, I created a new document large enough for assembling the snapshots and used the Move tool to bring them each into the large file and position them.

To form transitions from one image to another, you'll need to create Layer Masks for each of your layers. With a layer selected in the Layers palette, click the Layer Mask icon. White will reveal a layer, black will mask it, and grays will blend your layer with the layers below. You can use the Gradient tool to create smooth transitions, make selections, and Delete to fill with the Background color (Option[Alt]+Delete fills with the Foreground color) or use any of your painting tools. Remember, you can be loose and rough throughout most of this process (see Figure 2).

Figure 2Figure 2 Layer Masks smooth the transitions from one snapshot to the next.

After your first version is flushed out, you'll probably want to make some substitutions from your collection of snapshots. At this stage I swapped in a different picture of my mom and used a Layer Mask to integrate it into the composition (see Figure 3).

Figure 3Figure 3 Along the way you can replace any elements with alternate snapshots.

Depending on how you'll be using the final image, at some point you might need to consolidate your composition. Make certain that your image is saved before you try to radically modify it. Use the Layers palette to hide and show various layers, and if you want to move multiple layers simultaneously, click in the Links column to link layers that you want to move together.

I needed to make the image narrower to fit the proportions of the folding screen. Working first just by eye, I moved the layers around, hid some layers, and adjusted the masks until the composition was closer to the right size (see Figure 4).

Figure 4Figure 4 Moving layers and elements around so that the composition was closer to the right size.

Then I checked the actual proportion that I needed for the screen and decided the best way to make the adjustments at this point was to increase the vertical canvas size. Choosing Image> Canvas Size, I located the thumbnail representation of the image in the center top and added the correct amount of space below the image (see Figure 5). With the canvas sized to the correct proportion, I moved things around a bit more to better fill the space.

Figure 5Figure 5 Using Canvas Size to set the actual proportions for the image and making more adjustments to the composition.

To change the color cast or value of your image, choose an Adjustment Layer from the Layers palette and make any changes you want. I chose a Levels Adjustment layer to make the colors warmer and a bit lighter. If you want to include something in your image that you don't have in your collection of snapshots, try to fake it first to see if you really need it. To simplify my image, I wanted to eliminate some of furniture and try a rug in the foreground instead. Because I didn't have a snapshot of a rug handy I just used patching techniques to assemble a fake rug out of different elements (see Figure 6).

Figure 6Figure 6 After applying a Levels Adjustment layer to change the color cast of the image and patching together a fake rug.

If you decide you like the composition as a stand-alone piece of art, you can experiment with ways to transform your collection of snapshots into something more cohesive. I used Save As to save a flat copy of the image in TIFF format and then applied various filters and Blending modes to the flat version to make the image appear painterly (see Figure 7).

Figure 7Figure 7 Transforming snapshots into a more painterly look.

You might find that your composition moves in directions that necessitate your taking more photos. If you do need to keep working and have to incorporate new elements, ensure you return to the multi-layered file (without the effect applied). At this point in my process, the client had chosen a different direction for her screen, but I liked the composition myself and decided to show my mom. She really loved it but had some requests. The main change she wanted was (if we were to create a composition that she would actually hang in her home) to dress her up a bit. In addition she wanted me to substitute one of her own rugs for the fake one, and she even had some specific flower arrangements she wanted me to use. Because I had to photograph her rug and flowers anyway, I asked her to dress up in her outfit of choice. The flower arrangement wasn't on the table she liked, so back in the multi-layered file, I composited the new elements together using Layer Masks (see Figure 8).

Figure 8Figure 8 Incorporating new photographs into the image.

If you have a number of elements that you always move together, you should probably create a Layer Set for them. I created a Layer Set for the table and vase with flowers so I could easily move them around as a unit. With the layers linked, choose New Set from Linked from the Layers palette pop-up menu. You can then attach a Layer Mask to the Layer Set so that the grouping can be integrated as a unit to the image below. If you need to apply a color correction to the images within a Layer Set, make sure to change the Blending mode for the Layer Set to Normal (from Pass Through). To work on some of the layers within a set, expand the Layer Set and unlink elements that you want to exclude, but remember to link them later if you need them to be a unit again (see Figure 9). I needed to scale the table but didn't want to stretch the vase, so I unlinked the vase while I used the Edit> Free Transform command. Then after I applied the transformation, I relinked the vase and collapsed the view of the Layer Set. My mom wasn't happy with the pose that I'd chosen, so I went back to my collection of shots and found one similar to the original pose. I then had to go back and photograph one last time to capture details such as her floorboards, how the wall met the floor, and the side of the desk.

Figure 9Figure 9 Using Layer Sets to move related layers as a unit and a section of the Layers palette at this stage.

If at any point you want to again transform the look of your image, save a flat copy of your image and apply the filters and such to the flat copy. I used Save As to save a flat copy as a TIFF image and then experimented with new ways to transform this image.

Figure 10Figure 10 The book Creative Thinking in Photoshop by Sharon Steuer covers how to create the final painterly effect, as well as how to apply the same effects to another updated file.

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