Depicting the Present and Past in Photoshop
When we asked Nuwan Panditha to create an artwork that speaks to the words “history and memory,” he didn’t simply dash off the first thing that came to mind. Instead, this thoughtful artist considered several possible directions. Panditha describes the winning concept as a “story about us in the present and our relationship with the past.”
The present and the past are represented by two photos of a woman Panditha found on Adobe Stock. “I’m not sure why, but for me, she is perfect for representing our consciousness as a whole,” he says. “I see the photo in which she’s staring at the observer as our present. The present is looking at the observer to catch the attention and when it does so, we’re connected to it. Right behind, there’s our past, which whispers to us and gives us direction.”
Panditha (also known professionally as BlackNull) composited the muse photos and four other Adobe Stock images in Adobe Photoshop CC. Watch the videos below (no sound) to follow him step by step. To try it yourself, download 10 free images from Adobe Stock.
ISOLATE SUBJECTS FROM THE BACKGROUND
Panditha started by quickly collaging Adobe Stock preview images to serve as a reference. The video below begins after he licenses the photos and opens one photo of the Muse in Photoshop. He isolates her from the original background by making selections with the Pen tool and with Select & Mask. Later, he repeats the process for the other Muse image (not shown).
ADD THE ARM
Next, Panditha removes the background from a photo of an arm. “Because this image has very clean edges, the Wand tool can do it quickly,” he notes.
COMPOSE ON A GRID
To create a sense of place behind the Muses, Panditha uses images of curtains and a mirror. The video below begins after that, as Panditha draws on the classical rules of dynamics and symmetry to compose his artwork.
In the first few minutes, you’ll see him construct a symmetry grid using the Line tool. He then turns to the Transform tool to position, scale, and rotate the elements of the composition.
CHANGE THE LIGHTING
Panditha says that lighting is key to turning disparate parts into a coherent whole. The video below shows some of his painstaking work to re-light assets and integrate the various parts. “I do this in black and white to focus on the brightness values,” he explains. “It's probably the phase that takes the most time because I hand-draw shadows and highlights based on direction of the light source.”
To create the shading, he relies on gradients, a soft standard brush, Levels Adjustment layers, and a black-blurred version of some of the layers. “I set all of these shading layers as Clipping Masks to one of the main layers," he says. "This means the main layer below acts as a mask, which makes the process quicker and easier.”
PLAY WITH COLOR
To further integrate the elements of the piece, Panditha applies basic color corrections and then color-balances the elements using Adjustment layers. He also makes masks that, in combination with Color Fill layers, he’ll use to recolor the background.
Panditha applies a wallpaper texture to the background.
CREATE A PAINTERLY EFFECT
To further harmonize the elements and make the photos look more like a painting, Panditha uses Photoshop brushes made by the master, Kyle T. Webster. (They’re a free download for Photoshop and Creative Cloud subscribers.) He begins with Kyle’s Real Oils - Landscaper mixer brush to smudge edges and details. If you try this technique, check Sample New Layers in the Options bar and be sure that Clean the brush after each stroke is active and that Load the brush after each stroke is not active.
You may notice that Panditha is applying these paint effects in a new file, which keeps the file lightweight and his workflow smooth. Afterward, he’ll copy the paint layers to the master Photoshop file that contains all the other layers.
ADD FINAL TOUCHES
Panditha constructs what he calls an “RGB effect” by duplicating the layer three times and, on each duplicated layer, making only one of the RGB channels active. He then slightly nudges each layer’s position and sets their blending mode to Luminosity.
Later, he makes a canvas texture effect with Kyle Webster’s FX Box - Add Canvas brush. He finishes with a vignette created using a Gradient Overlay layers style and a few other final touches, including two Color Lookup adjustment layers.
“I see the final artwork as a painting inspired by traditional art mixed with elements and effects of the digital world,” Panditha says.