Compositing and Painting in Photoshop CC

Final Literacy Poster

Final Reading Poster Using a Composite of 5 images.

In lieu of a video I decided to put up another behind the scenes tours of one of my composite pieces. I’m going to give you a sense of how this poster came together. This isn’t a tutorial per say, but rather a tour of the file for those that enjoy working in Photoshop.

The image is essentially a composite of five shots:

  1. My son in bed with a book
  2. A plastic dinosaur my son has
  3. A plastic dragon he has
  4. An old shot of the moon I had in my collection
  5. A picture of jelly fish I shot this summer at Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto

Now naturally I did a bit more than just compositing/Photoshopping the shots together, but I will hit some of the highlights of the piece.

The Initial Shot of My Son

My son has a pretty sweet bunk bed setup so that made getting a low angle easy. Because I wasn’t at all concerned about the background (as I was planning on replacing it) I just had him climb into bed and sit cross legged. I had him place the largest book we could find on a pillow on his lap. With one hand I had him hold a flashlight and with the other, to hold the pages just slightly open as I figured this would make it more obvious it was a book. IN retrospect I would have preferred a smaller book with white pages, but I always nit pick that kind of stuff. I then draped a blanket over him because the whole idea was that he was reading under the covers.

I selected a fairly wide Canon EF 20-35mm f/2.8 L and played with the focal length a bit while shooting. I basically wanted to keep the whole book at the edges of the shot. I shot quickly as my son’s patience is short after 7 years of me posing him, and he usually will only sit for a few minutes before he gets too goofy. He’s a great model and nailed the expression, but I only ever get a few shots with him to try before his expressions go to the world of melodrama.

Initially I shot trying to illuminate his face with only the reflection of the flashlight off the book, but this proved problematic as the flashlight wasn’t bright enough for a decent ISO on my old Canon Mark II. So I took my flash, wrapped the head in plain old print paper to diffuse the light and placed it with a Yongnuo trigger in his lap. I figured I could get low enough to hide the flash. I was wrong, you can see it if you look closely. But in the end I think it works anyway. Sure the flash is there, or more specifically the paper, but I don’t think it’s too distracting. My goal was to have a small light source with as much diffusion as possible. I shot dark on purpose as well to highlight the effect of the book being the light source. Here is the final shot:

Initial shot from literacy poster shoot

Initial shot from literacy poster shoot

Monsters and Dragons

I really wanted to put some fantastic creatures in the back, and one of my specialties is painting on photographs to enhance them or give them a hyper real appearance. Basically I work highlights and shadows and colours. Being a painter outside the computer helps as well. I suppose I could have painted the monsters from scratch, but on a timeline that wasn’t really an option. So instead I dove into the toy-box to find some figures I could use. I looked for some that I could pose opposite each other and create a framing effect on my son. As well I wanted one to have a head high and the other low to create a diagonal that would create some interest and add some movement to the composition. Both needed to be in dynamic poses. THe T-Rex was a great find.

I also shot these very low and tried to replicate the shooting conditions of the shot of my son, just in miniature. So again wide lens, low angle, single dramatic light source, intentionally dark. I ended up shooting them on a glass table surrounded by black foam-core with my flash directly underneath the table. Below is the shot of the dinosaur. I rarely nitpick or spend a lot of time with these kinds of shots because I know when I bring them into Photoshop I’ll be painting them anyway, they are more just models for the eventual illustration. As well they help me see where the light is going to fall. Here’s the final shot, nothing special:

Dinosaur toy shot on frosted glass table with black foam core background, quick and dirty.

Dinosaur toy shot on frosted glass table with black foam core background, quick and dirty. Click to enlarge.

Painting the Creatures

I took both images I had shot of the little plastic figurines and busted out my Wacom Bamboo tablet and got to work. Starting with the dinosaur I used the brush and the smudge tool  to add the teeth:

Animation showing before and after of teeth painting.

Animation showing before and after of teeth painting.

And then did some detail work as well. Knowing I would be using a blue background I added these highlights. And what’s gonna make it really pop is the appearance of wetness. This led to me adding a tongue, the roof of his mouth and of course the drool. Can’t have a dinosaur without copious amounts of drool can we? When I start these things they more often than not end up with me completely repainting the thing. I guess this would be akin to me using a projector to sketch out the under drawing for a painting (a common technique). The difference being I’ve taken it even a step further and rather than take pencil and try and replicate photo-realism, I guess I kind of work in reverse, I start with photo-real and make it look painted.

I then got to work on the body and removed all and started to emphasize the lighting. The final came out like this:


Final Dino artwork

Final look for dinosaur after painting and tinting.

The same was replicated on the the dragon. I added some fire for the dragonas well, as though the whole dragon were burning. But in the end it was too much so I removed it, the orange of the flames drew your eye from the rest of the piece and blue flames were just too….well…too much blue.

The Background

The background was pretty basic. Using a moon shot I took like 5 years ago and a background of stars I combined them. I then used a layer mask with gradients to create the top lit moon effect. The original shot of the moon is just a shot of the full moon, no shadow. I wanted the moon lit from the top because, well you wouldn’t see it otherwise, but it also creates depth. Because it appears to be lit form another source than the remaining subjects that emphasizes the depth. Why a moon? Well it implies that the scene takes place at night and  takes my son out of his room in his imagination. The circular shape also is great for framing and directing the viewers eye. I then added an adjustment layer to the background to give it a blue tint, and on a whim added the jellyfish. I’m still not sure why, except that I wanted to use something from my shots at the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto I had shot a few weeks before.

Here is the background with the dinosaur:

Background of poster

Background moon with Dino.

The Flying Words

I then wanted to add text that curled. This was simple enough, I skipped over to Adobe Illustrator and used text on a path. I simply created curly paths and typed on them. I tried to use a font that matched the typical font found in books. I also selected quotes from some of my favorite childhood books. “Treasure Island”, “The Land of Xanth”, and one from “How to Train Your Dragon” (my son’s favorite book series).

Final Touches

Then to wrap it all up I added a favorite literacy quote that kind of inspired me to do it in the first place. Naturally I then went to work on final touches, looking for other problems that I missed and making some final tweaks to the whole thing. There are some other effects, lighting and whatnot around the flash light and off the book, but those are just painted in, so pretty self explanatory.

Hope that explains most of it. If you have any questions about anything please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer it.

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy the behind the scenes on how I created the image below. Just click here.

"Splash Dance" final.

“Splash Dance”


Happy Photoshopping,


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