Happiness Is A State of Mind – The Art of Photo Compositing

by Theresa Jackson

When creating a composite, the most difficult step is usually the first one, getting started. My head is full of questions and uncertainty. Where do I start? What’s it going to be about? Does it need to mean something? What if this concept has been done before?

Getting Started

I had one goal and some vague concepts to get started with.

I’ve spent years creating commercial composites that require my Photoshop editing to be imperceptible.  With Happiness, I challenged myself to break out of that comfort zone.  I wanted to show off what Photoshop can do, not hide it. The layers, masks and image blends all needed to stand out while also working together to create a single image.

I knew I wanted to create a tree, and I wanted my image to be some sort of diptych. I wasn’t sure why.

Step one: Find a cool tree image.  I created a Smart Collection in Lightroom for keywords containing the word “tree”. While I was there, I created another Smart Collection for flowers because I had been doing a lot of yard work, and flowers were on my mind.

I found the perfect tree immediately, a photo taken five years ago in Balboa Park, before I knew what camera raw was. As a jpeg image, the photo wasn’t worth much to me on it’s own, but it was perfect to get my composite started.

Step two: Decorate the tree. I cut and pasted flowers into the tree image, then I masked each flower using the Lasso tool. Drop shadows were added for depth. Eventually I filled the tree with flowers, (CMD or CNTRL J) duplicating layers and (CMD or CNTRL T) to transform them, which helped disguise the repetition.

Somewhere during the hypnotic process of decorating the tree, a concept started to form. I thought about how people decorate or landscape their homes to create pleasing surroundings, but there are times spent traveling through environments with which we have no control. These places became the tree mirror. I wanted it to be darker and different, while still retaining beauty. The title Happiness Is A State of Mind evolved out of that thinking.

Step three: Create the mirror. First, I duplicated the composited flower tree document, and renamed it for the bottom half. I left it right side up to work on. The pixels for every flower layer were deleted, but I left the layers, masks and drop shadows. Using another Lightroom Smart Collection, I found images of architecture. I pasted architecture pieces above the empty masked layers. Using (CMND or CNTL E), I merged each architecture piece to an empty layer, preserving the layer mask. When I was done, all of the flowers were replaced by architecture, but all of the layer mask shapes and positions were retained from the flower tree composite.

Step four. Add texture to the tree trunks. Working in a separate document, I cloned out the fence and added texture to the tree trunks.

The place away from home, the one we have no control over, needed to feel more fragile, so I used glass tiles to create the architecture tree trunk’s texture. The flower tree trunk’s texture was created from stone blocks.

When the trunk textures were complete, I brought them back into the tree documents. Using a combination of hard light and screen blend modes, I blended in the textures. I finished the trunks by painting additional length to strengthen the overall composition.

Step five: Create the architect tree background.  The background was created from freeway traffic images, blended with the “Darker Color” blend mode, and colorized with a vector shape layer set to the “Color” blend mode.

Step six. Put the pieces together. The architecture tree was added to the dark city background and colorized to match.

I increased the canvas size on the flower tree to make room for the architect tree. The architect tree and background were flipped vertically using Transform, then brought into the flower tree document.

I created the flower tree background with iconic looking neighborhood images. I used images of cork, stucco, linen and clouds to create texture. Then I gave it a warm golden color, which to me feels happy.

Creating background textures is a lot like painting. You add a little color, a little texture, mix a little, blend a little, and eventually it just feels right.

Step seven. Final touch. As the composite came together it started feeling like a tapestry, so I finished it off with a linen texture border.

Summary You don’t need expert Photoshop skills, or professional photographs to create a compelling composite, you only need a creative vision. The vision may even be clouded in a fog before starting, but the creative process will lift the fog and along the way you will discover some things about Photoshop and maybe even yourself.

Make sure you check out Theresa and her portfolio here on the NAPP site at http://members.photoshopuser.com/theresaj/photos/

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