Mike Campau recreated a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel using only Adobe Stock images and Adobe Photoshop CC.

Photoshop Master Remakes a Masterpiece

By Terri Stone

Pity Mike Campau. When we first approached him about re-creating a lost painting using only Adobe Stock images, we showed him a Rembrandt portrait as an example project. Campau agreed. Then we sent him Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Cathedral Towering Over a Town, which includes the titular cathedral, plus a village, a harbor, a few boats, dozens of people, and a dramatic sky. But Campau pulled it off with panache, thanks to his compositing skills in Adobe Photoshop CC

Before he could begin to re-create the painting (completed in 1813 but destroyed by fire in 1931), he first had to find appropriate images. After building up the sky (“Easy!” says Campau) he turned to the cathedral, the focal point of the painting. “Adobe Stock has a lot of photos,” he explains, “so when I used the search terms church and cathedral, the results were too broad. I quickly researched Schinkel and learned that the kind of architecture he specialized in is called Gothic. When I entered gothic architecture into the search field, the results were more similar to what’s in the painting.” 

This time-lapse shows Mike Campau at work

Click to watch a time-lapse of Mike Campau building the Photoshop file.

A few Adobe Stock steeples resembled the painting so closely that they needed only a bit of modification in Photoshop: for example, Campau cloned arches and copied existing windows and pasted them into other locations. To match the lacey look of the original towers, he added layer masks to conceal parts of the structures so the sky could peek through. Because the architecture has squared-off lines, he could quickly make selections with Photoshop’s Pen tool. When he required a more organic mask, he made selections using either Channels or Color Range combined with the Refine Edge tool.

The red areas in the screengrab above are a mask Campau added so the sky could shine through the tower.

Campau says that the people in the painting’s foreground were the toughest challenge. “Schinkel was an expert in painting architecture, not people. His people had goofy poses, like someone sitting on the ground with their back to the viewer. You don’t normally take pictures of that for stock photography. It got down to where I was looking for an arm, a sleeve, a hand—pieces that could make up a pose.”

To better understand the way Campau re-created the people in the painting, let’s break down the figure of the woman on the harbor steps. “The face, dress, and boots are all from separate stock photos,” he says. “The arms I found weren’t in the right position, so I modified them in Puppet Warp. I used Liquify on the bonnet to get the right shape.” 

After the pieces of the figure were in place, he unified their colors. He first used Curves to get the tones more in sync, and then added an overlay paint layer, brushing on the tone from surrounding pieces. He also had to make all the pieces look as if they were being lit from the same direction. To change the perceived light source, he flattened the file, then painted overlays of light and dark and highlights and shadows.


Campau used bits and pieces of more than 150 Adobe Stock assets to re-create the scene from Cathedral Towering Over a Town. After he had finished the compositing, it was time to make the texture, tone, and lighting of the pieces look as cohesive as the original painting.

He merged the layers, slightly blurred the resulting image, and added a layer of brush strokes. “It’s very subtle, but it adds blotchiness and texture,” says Campau. To bring back some detail and contrast after the blurring, he applied Photoshop’s High Pass filter (Filter > Other > High Pass).

The final step was to age the image. “Everyone’s used to seeing classic paintings,” notes Campau. “Their blacks are a little faded, their whites are a little dingy. I achieved that with color tones and overlays, like bringing violets into the shadows.”

To give the appearance of old paint, he found a cracked plaster image in Adobe Stock. “I duplicated the plaster image, inversed it, and nudged it off a bit to give the cracks some depth.” Campau used a delicate touch, always keeping the transparency levels of the final effects low.

Mike Campau used a photo of cracked plaster from Adobe Stock to artificially age his recreated masterpiece.

In this close-up, you can see the crackling of the “paint” in the digital re-creation, most notably in the lighter parts of the water. Campau achieved the effect by layering a photo of cracked plaster from Adobe Stock on top of the merged file.


Campau was one of four artists we challenged to re-create lost paintings. Visit the Make a Masterpiece website to learn more about this piece and three other artworks.  

July 29, 2016