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Telling Stories with Photoshop Composites

By Victor Gavenda

When you upgraded to Adobe Photoshop CC 2015.5 (first available in June 2016), you probably noticed its splash screen: a vertical slice of the ocean twisted into a brain-befuddling shape, all rendered in exquisitely impossible detail. The photo composite is the creation of a young Brazilian known as Jack Usephot. More about the image later; first, let's get to know this self-taught artist.

Born Jackson Nunes, Jack took “Usephot” as his nom de pixel after he fell in love with Photoshop. He had been dabbling with digital imagery a bit (he has no formal art training) when he found Behance and was drawn into the site’s selection of surreal composite imagery, especially the work of Swedish photographer and Photoshop retoucher Erik Johansson. Inspired, Jack set out to learn the fundamentals of compositing. Fellow Brazilian Hugo Ceneviva mentored him, sharing photo-retouching tips and artistic guidance. 

These photo composites are examples of Jack’s Aquarium series: On the left, Bonaire Island; on the right, LUMA Pictures Isometric Composition.

The sea plays a large role in Jack’s visual imagination. His love of skin diving, in particular, shows in his “aquarium” images, which depict three-dimensional blocks of aquatic scenery. At the beginning of his career, trying to break into the field without academic or professional credentials, he challenged himself to create images that would prove his mettle. Out of that drive grew the desire not only to create cross-sectional views of the ocean, but to plop them onto the landscape as three-dimensional, free-standing blocks—or fit them into a 3D projection of a 2D shape.

M.C. Escher would have understood Impossible Sea.

The artwork on the Photoshop 2015.5 splash screen was aquarium-themed with an added splash of M.C. Escher. Instead of a simple 3D block, Jack used the Penrose triangle (a pseudo-geometric figure that looks plausible in detail but is actually impractical) as the basis for his Impossible Sea (above).

Geometry aside, the creation of Impossible Sea was surprisingly straightforward. First off: While it may look like the ray-traced rendering of a high-end 3D program, Jack did everything in Photoshop: the way the light fades as it travels through the water, the rays of light that seem to fill a volume, and the caustics seemingly projected onto the seafloor by light passing through ripples on the surface.

Zoom in on the details of Impossible Sea.

Take the tall, vertical wall of water at the far right of the image. From the seafloor to the surface, the image appears to change color, transparency, and illumination, getting brighter toward the top. The principal imagery comes from stock photography taken underwater. Even in his fantasy composites, Jack prefers to work with photographs of the real world; they contribute to a more consistent and realistic image overall. 

Click to watch a time-lapse of Jack building up the layers of the Impossible Sea photo composite.

Jack produced the effect of light filtering through the seawater by layering two underwater photographs over a flat geometric shape. He applied a Multiply blending mode to the top Photoshop layer to intensify the subtle variations in the liquid.

To create the overall fade of the light with depth, Jack applied a Curves adjustment layer, dragging the center of the curve downward to darken the water. To add undersea rays of light that penetrate the gloom just under the floating island, Jack added a transparent layer, filled it with black, changed the layer’s blending mode to Color Dodge, and painted beams with white using a soft brush set to 20% Opacity and 40% Flow.

The pattern of refracted light on the seafloor is another underwater image, added to the composition with the Multiply blending mode. To support the illusion of waves lapping at the walls of an aquarium, Jack added shots captured with the camera half underwater to the edges of the ocean.

For the artwork Muscle Car Racing, Jack challenged himself to learn another advanced technique. His goal was to master clouds of particles: namely, the dust (of which he’s particulate-ly proud) kicked up by the tires of a speeding Ford Mustang. 

Click to watch the Muscle Car Racing time-lapse. 

No fancy particle generator plugins were used in the creation of the composite image. Jack combined stock photos of a car drifting on the desert (which provided the dust) and photos of white particles floating on a black background. Jack used Photoshop’s Channels to cut out the background, leaving the white particles, which he then placed in the scene and recolored to match their surroundings. He painted with brushes made from cloud photos to tie the disparate elements together and applied various levels of blur to the ground to reinforce the illusion of speed.

The Hill is a richly nuanced scene of a solo traveler arriving in a disquieting landscape. Jack credits mentor Hugo Ceneviva for the insight that an image is more effective if it tells a story or inspires the viewer to imagine a series of events that led to the scene. To Jack, The Hill evokes feelings of both sadness and hope. The lonely cottage perched on a windswept hill and the lost cowboy establish a melancholy atmosphere, but at the same time, the warm sunrise offers comfort and safety. Jack imagined a lonesome cowpoke, searching for home, a safe path through the mountains, or a direction in life.

What story do you see in The Hill?

Much of the emotional impact of “The Hill” comes from the care Jack lavished on details, such as the plants he placed around the scene. He used Photoshop’s Pen tool to extract them from their photographic backgrounds, sometimes employing the Channels panel, as well. He then applied a blur to each plant—more to those in the foreground, less to those far away—to help add a sense of depth to the image.

He applied Curves layers to individual objects to adjust contrast: more contrast for objects close to the viewer, less for those far away. The time-lapse video below shows his experiments with different ways of adding adjustment layers to finesse the shading on individual objects as well as for the scene as a whole. 

Click to see the layers that make up The Hill.

To tweak the color scheme, he added a Color Lookup adjustment layer to boost contrast and shift the colors toward warmer tones. He used a Curves layer to further enhance the contrast and a Selective Color layer to add warm lights to the greens. Lastly, he boosted Vibrance and Contrast across the entire scene to unify the composition and bring it to life.

Though Jack now has enough commercial Photoshop commissions to support himself, he still finds time to create art for pure the joy of it. Among other personal projects, he makes fan art posters for TV shows, including Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead

Although Jack’s aesthetic choices are often driven by his love of color, these fan art examples have a more restrained palette.

You can learn more about the work of Jack Usephot on his website, his Behance page, and on Facebook.