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Blend photos and painterly graphics in Photoshop

Create a show-stopping image using Photoshop to combine illustrative elements with an energetic photo

In this tutorial we will learn how to combine illustrative elements, such as paint-based textures and traditional linework, with a highly energetic photo, creating a powerful, artful illustration. We don’t need to do any real prep with this style of image; just dive straight in because, like working with paint, the process needs to flow from start to finish.

Inspiration for this kind of work comes initially from the photo itself – namely the high energy that it gives off. This should make us want to start playing around with effects such as paint-based textures and traditional elements, which are a sure-fire combination for success, particularly when working with sports imagery.

Photoshop is definitely the application of choice for this tutorial due to its flexibility, editing options and the speed with which we can start seeing results. We’ll also be using a number of custom brushes that are essential for working efficiently.


Cut out the image

Open your image (we’re using Dreamstime’s ‘18369570’ here) in Photoshop and, with the Pen tool, begin cutting around the subject’s body. Hit A for the Path Selection tool and, with your path selected, Ctrl/right-click and choose Create Vector Mask. Hold down Cmd/Ctrl and click to invoke the Direct Selection tool, then go in and adjust the anchor points to clean it up.

Make a new document

Create a new document at 235 x 302mm. Fill the background with black, then drag your cutout onto the canvas. If it’s too large, Ctrl/right-click on the vector mask, select Rasterize Vector Mask, then Ctrl/right-click again and Apply Layer Mask. Scale the image to around 80% and position the subject roughly in the centre.

Highlights and shadows

Next, create two Curves adjustment layers and clip them to the subject layer with a clipping mask, with one for highlights and one for shadows. Move the slider to the extreme for each then fill the mask with black. Using a white brush at varying sizes, with the Flow and Opacity parameters set low, brush onto the mask to reveal both lighter and darker areas of the subject.

Enhance lighting and colours

We need to add more adjustment layers. Create one each for Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation and another Curves. First increase the contrast, then darken the subject overall with the Curves. Lower the saturation slightly, boost the lights and darks a bit with Levels and add a little more blue, cyan and yellow with Color Balance.

Apply illustrative linework

Now we’ll focus on the illustrative part of the process. We’re using a Wacom Intuos4 tablet for this, but you can use the Pen tool and then add a stroke to the path. Using one of these methods, we want to add linework around the subject’s body with a small hard-edged brush. This will define the figure more and is the first step to a more traditional treatment. Place this layer above the subject in the stack.

Background texture

We need a slightly textured background so all of our elements stand out nicely. Open ‘background_texture.jpg’ from the resource disc, place it underneath all other layers, then scale it up a little so it fills the canvas. It’s currently too light, so go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels and set the Black Input level to 45. This will darken it nicely, but keep it subtle.

Initial watercolour texture

We’re now going to add the first dose of watercolour texture to the project (find ours on the CD). Open it and call up Levels with Cmd/Ctrl+L. Boost the white to get rid of any darker paper texture left over from the scan. Now go to Select>Color Range and, with the Eyedropper, select white at 200 Fuzziness. Now double-click the layer to unlock it and hit Delete.

Add a mask

Apply a white Color Overlay to this layer, bring it into the main document, then scale, rotate and position it. From the disc, load ‘WG_Watercolor_1.abr’ brushes into Photoshop. Apply a layer mask to the watercolour texture and fill it with black, then use a number of different white-coloured brushes to bring in parts of the texture around the subject. Using the same brushes, create new layers and apply more white watercolour with masks until you achieve a nice balance.

Select watercolour options

Choose two colours that go well together. Load ‘destill_watercolour_brushes.abr’ from the CD and, underneath the white watercolour layers, create a new group for some similar elements. Start adding in a variety of coloured brushstrokes around the subject and build up until you have a good balance of colour. Don’t forget to attach masks to some layers, modifying the appearance of the layer to best suit its position on the canvas in relation to the subject’s body.

Background paint splatters

To make the illustration more dynamic and painterly, we’re going to add some paint splatters. Source some hi-res splatter brushes online – there are tons out there and a quick Google search will find plenty. On a number of different layers underneath the watercolour layer from the last step, place some splatters, but try and keep them subtle so they don’t distract attention away from your figure.

Foreground paint splatters

To start blending the subject in with the paint effects, create a new group above the subject layer and again, on different layers, brush in some white splatters. Try to position them around the contours of the figure’s body. You can also try and lower the opacity of some of the layers in case the effect is too strong in areas. Repeat until you achieve relatively good coverage.

Place watercolour effects

To blend the subject in with the painterly effects further, we need to apply watercolour texture over the top of it. Using a mix of the brushes from step 9, start adding in paint around your subject. You will need to apply Edit>Transform>Warp to some layers and move the anchor points to fit. Continue building up layers until you’ve covered a decent amount of the subject.

Draw shapes for movement

Now we have a nice base of painterly effects, we can build in more flow and energy by drawing some custom shapes. Create a new document the same size as our main one and fill with black. Creating new layers for each, start drawing shapes suitable to your subject’s pose. For convenience, we’ve used a graphics tablet to draw them, but the Pen tool works just as well.

Integrate the shapes

Drag in all the layers, grouping or merging them first if you haven’t already, and place them just above the illustrative linework layer created in step 5. Position, scale and rotate them to enhance the flow of the image. Duplicate them twice and repeat, but position on a different part of the subject. Move around some individual layers within the group for variety.

Paint effects for the shapes

The shapes we’ve created all have crisp, clean edges, so to blend parts of them in we’ll add some paint. Create a new layer above the shapes and, using step 9’s brushes, work into this layer. Now scale, rotate and warp the layer to position it nicely along one of the filled shapes. Repeat this a few times with different colours and spread it out over the canvas.

Alter the shapes

In step 13 we drew a number of filled shapes, but also some shapes that are just line art. They are nice on their own but, to enhance and bring certain parts more attention, we will add some thin brushstrokes over them. Repeat the previous step, but instead of applying to the filled shapes, apply to the line art shapes instead. This step is all about boosting the subtler details.

Finer watercolour detail

Clip another layer to the model using a clipping mask. Using brushes of your choice, apply white to the areas of the subject where you judge more is needed. Also group the subject layer and all its adjustment layers and apply a mask to that group. Using a brush with a Flow of 30%, erase parts of the figure to let some colour show through from behind.

Final tweaks

To wrap things up, first create a new Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer above all others and increase the Brightness by around 5 and the Contrast by around 10. Depending on your colours here you also may want to add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and bump up the saturation to intensify the vibrancy of the colours. If you’re not happy with your colours, you can create a Selective Color adjustment layer and play around with the sliders until you are satisfied.