Mastering Elemental Textures in Photoshop

Excerpted from Adobe Master Class: Advanced Compositing in Photoshop (Adobe Press)

By Bret Malley


Being able to bend and alter textures and colorful elemental forces is just one of the fascinating and addicting aspects of working with Photoshop—and the genesis to Control. In this project I mixed my wife’s face with water, added fire to a piranha I photographed while in Peru, and borrowed the eye from a frog hopping around the Erie Canal. Although this may sound like a Frankenstein-esque composite, color control and textures helped me blend everything to create a surreal play on humankind controlling and manipulating the rest of the natural world.

This project is also a good study in being inspired by source images rather than working to some initial plan. Sometimes in compositing you can go out and shoot what is needed (as I did for the face), and sometimes, you can work around imagery that you already have that inspires you and begs your Photoshop sensibilities for additional creativity (as the piranha did). In this project you will see how I worked from both directions to come up with a fun experience and satisfying end result.

Step 1: Fish for Inspiration

It can be a great idea to look through your photos and get inspired to create something new! My inspiration for this image began with the shot of the stunning gold piranha.

This shot of a gold piranha caught in the headwaters of the Amazon was the central inspiration for a surreal creation.

Once I began looking at the fish for a potential scene, I sketched out an idea of a face close up, but it really didn’t come together until after looking at my source imagery for other ideas and textures, such as old pictures I took of shallow river water over granite during a camping trip.

Shallow water running over sunny granite or other rocks can create a multitude of interesting shapes and forms for this kind of project.

Looking at these two shots I could see how I might mold the water into various shapes around a close up face and hand. After that idea, the composite just needed a good balancing element, which of course led to my images of fire. A bit more searching of the archive yielded a frog that would add to the surreal theme and some metal with a long and rusty history to serve as a backdrop.

This fellow was quick, but my shutter speed was quicker. Nature shots also often require immediate action, so don’t hesitate when you have the opportunity.

Metal textures can have a plethora of uses; an abstract and dynamic background is definitely one of them.

To supplement the composite material found within my archive, I still needed to shoot original content for the face and hand. I planned the lighting based on the sketch and brainstorm of surreal light more or less coming from the glowing fish. For the shots shown below, however, I wanted the key light to be generally coming from the direction of the fiery fish to add to the effect of the fish glowing as well as provide a good amount of contrast between the hand and background. So, armed with a meager clamp light and CF bulb, I put up a dark sheet behind my wife Erin and fired off a few shots with her face and hand fairly close to the light.

These shots only had to follow the imaged lighting scenario of a glowing fire fish without worrying about the same kinds of seamless issues of other composites.

Tip: For close up images like these that aren’t showing how they are connected, shoot them separately as you have more control and better mental focus on what needs to be changed or adjusted for each. Get the hand just right, for example, then concentrate on the face.

Step 2: Get Organized

Because this composite’s source images hailed from vastly different sources, I wanted to see the workable images together for better comparison and pre-visualizing. I first compiled individual photo palettes for the fire and water images. I also created black-and-white copies of the of the water images for better discerning of shapes and obscuring the original tinted content. Having grayscale copies of the water let me look for natural forms more objectively as the patterns are easier to pre-visualize and connect. For the remaining elements, such as the background texture and subject, I picked the best shots in Bridge and brought them into Photoshop individually.

The categories of fire and water let me look at the textures separately, keeping my workspace clutter free and tab free as well.

Tip: Pull the photo palette’s tab down and to the side if you have the workspace. For example, I keep my photo palette document open on one of my monitors and piece things together in the composite document on my second monitor.

I made a group folder for each section of the composite, as shown below.

In prepping your composite file, make sure to include both group folders and subfolder when necessary.

Finally, I brought in the main elements of the composite by copying and pasting them from their own documents, then moving each image layer into its proper place within the composite image.

Once you start a group folder scheme, make sure to stay with it and don’t leave any important layers in the wrong group.

Tip: Create group folders within folders you already made for those times that you need an extra level of grouping and separation. This would work for subcategories within a larger category, like drops of water within the water category of images.

Step 3: Convert to Smart Objects

To work with the main images as nondestructively as possible while scaling and doing other transforms, I decided to convert them to Smart Objects. This way I could later finesse the composition and scale based on the actual source objects to see how they looked next to one another. When you use Smart Objects, most edits like transforms and filters have better quality control and flexibility as you can return to the edit and keep adjusting it right where you left off—and simply there’s no quality loss. Converting to Smart Objects before masking is important, because during conversion Photoshop will unfortunately apply any mask you made before the layer became a Smart Object and in effect erase the masked out content (not very nondestructive, eh?). The best approach is to convert your main layers to Smart Objects as soon as they are brought into the composite. With this in mind, I converted the hand, face, and fish to Smart Objects by right-clicking on the layer title in the Layers panel, and then selecting Convert to Smart Object in the context menu.

Smart Objects are a great way to transform a layer and apply filters nondestructively.

Tip: If you need to rasterize your Smart Object for any reason (such as small edits or some specific filter use) right-click the layer’s title within the Layers panel and choose Rasterize Layer from the context window. You can do this at any time, and the layer will still keep whatever mask you made for it while it was a Smart Object. This will, however, make filters and other edits permanent to that layer. Rasterize wisely!

Step 4: Mask the Fish

All the extra backgrounds of the source elements needed to be masked out to give me a better idea of the layout—and a good place to start was by making a good selection. I used the Quick Selection tool for the fish because it had good clean edges for the tool to cling to as I selected around the scales.

Quick Selection does wonders selecting images with a reasonably clean edge on the subjects, such as this fish.

I then refined my selection edge using the Refine Edge button in the options bar. From there I made some adjustments to feather the edge ever so slightly and shift it inwards to avoid any extra halo that might show up.

Using Refine Edge on a selection allows for edge feathering and biting a little amount into the selection to avoid any halos by accident.

Tip: If the Quick Selection tool mistakes vaguely similar pixels and includes far too much in a selection, hold down Alt/Opt and notice the cursor gains a small minus inside the brush area. Now you can deselect areas you do not wish to retain.

Next, I added the mask by clicking the small Add Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel . As you can see below, the mask worked pretty well, but the fish definitely needed some scale reconstruction around where the fingers were holding it, but we’ll get into that in step 6.

Once a mask is applied from a selection you can always adjust it by painting with black and white.

The rest of the images required similar selecting, refining, and masking.

Note: The more times you go over an area adding and subtracting, the more discerning and particular the tool becomes as it can tell you are trying to select something specific.

Step 5: Scale the Smart Objects

Working with something as a pre-visualized and loose concept is vastly different than seeing the actual images together and adjusting them to fit better, so its a good idea to always stay flexible in your planning and execution—that’s why I turned these layers into Smart Objects back in step 3.

As mentioned earlier, converting the main layers to Smart Objects can greatly help with nondestructive insurance. As Smart Objects, a composite’s layers can then be altered repeatedly in all kinds of ways without destructively editing the original content. They are superficially limited (only because it adds an extra step) if you want to start touching up the actual raster pixels of the layer (never a preferred edit as it is destructive), but short of that they can be scaled, warped, stretched, have their blending modes changed, and even have most filters applied to them (in the latest versions of Photoshop), plus you can always go back to re-adjust your edits. In short, they are amazing for composite work. This feature is especially handy for a nondestructive workflow and staying flexible with the project and image sources.

Note: In older versions of Photoshop, Smart Objects are more limited and may not have the same abilities as shown in Photoshop CC. So test out your own version to make sure it’s working in the ways that you need it to, especially with masks. You can always revert them to a useful raster layer. Seriously, there are many professionals out there that can live without Smart Objects and still do great work, so don’t feel left out! But if you can use them, definitely do so to keep edits even more nondestructive.

To make room for the hand and face I shrunk down the fish a little and also played with the scaling, positioning, and rotation of the hand and face until the composite felt right and had a good compositional balance (FIGURE 10.14). Finding that sweet spot is a very subjective process but there were a few things I was specifically looking for within the composition: Eye-flow, creating a sense of motion, and imbuing a sense of balance to an image are all part of the process and key for thoughtful consideration. Such extra finessing will definitely be noticed in the final result!

Scaling objects as Smart Objects lets you keep adjusting throughout the entire project history without diminishing the original quality of the layers.

Step 6: Give the Fish a Froggy Glare

The real fish eye from the gold piranha was intense looking, but not as wicked and menacing as the frog’s eyes from the Erie Canal, so the fish definitely needed an eye-job to look this disapproving. Plus, it needed to be moved over a little. In fact, he needed more eyes altogether. I decided to swap out the fish’s own eye for three copies of the frog’s eye in decreasing sizes.

To ensure the original would be unharmed if my surgery went wrong, I made a copy of the fish layer and deactivated the original’s visibility by clicking the Visibility icon next to its thumbnail; this is akin to storing away a digital negative of the layer that we can always return to if things get too experimental even for a mutant three-eyed fish covered in flames.

Duplicate the operational layer; keep one to edit and one to save as an invisible backup.

Because the fish had been converted to a Smart Object, I double-clicked the fish thumbnail in the Layers panel and clicked OK in the resulting prompt, which told me that I could edit the layer in a separate document. Photoshop then opened a new document just for the Smart Object where I began my eye operation. Each time I saved this new document (Ctrl/Cmd+S, not the Save-As function, just Save), Photoshop updated my composite with the new changes. This ability can definitely take the complexity of projects up another notch as you could even have Smart Objects within other Smart Objects—pure genius. Sometimes called dynamic linking, this is a workflow godsend for certain projects. Back to the one at hand, I drew a selection around the original fish eye using the Lasso tool. A right-click brought me the context menu, where I selected the Fill command. (Alternatively, pressing Shift+Backspace/Delete will do the same.)

Fill-Content Aware is great for those instances of needing to replace an object that stands out with a nearly seamless background based on the selection’s surroundings.

In the dialog box that opened, I chose Content Aware and clicked OK; the selection filled in quite nicely and was all prepped for adding on some frog eyes. Afterwards I saved then closed the document. Back within the main composite I could see that my newly copied fish layer had been updated accordingly.

Content Aware found the surrounding scales and blended them in nicely (for a mutant fish about to be set on fire).

Tip: You can also use adjustment layers while editing Smart Objects in a new document, and Photoshop will save these layers as part of the Smart Object. When you go back to your main composite, you will see the adjusted layer as a single Smart Object. Return to editing it once more by right-clicking the layer’s name in the Layers panel and choosing Edit Contents from the context menu. The adjustment layer will be hanging out with the rest of the Smart Object layers.

With the fish now eyeless, I needed to obtain a donor eye from the frog image. Quickly masking out everything but the bulging eye itself, I made two copies of the layer by selecting the Move tool (M) and Alt/Opt-dragging the image within the canvas workspace. Rather than just moving each eye as the Move tool typically does, Photoshop instead created clones that could immediately be transformed to create a bit more variation.

Copy multiple instances of a layer by holding down Alt/Opt and dragging the image to a new location.

Because Photoshop CC can apply clipping masks to folders, I was able to place all the new eye layers into a group folder. To do this I selected the layers then pressed Ctrl/Cmd+G, then created a Curves adjustment layer clipped to the folder (select the Curves adjustment then press Ctrl/Cmd+Alt/Opt+G). Doing adjustments to multiple layers this way is much more efficient as opposed to making three new curves, each doing the same adjustment. In the Curves adjustment layer I lightened the lights and darkened the darks, moving the two control points on the Curves line until each eye popped with the same contrast as the fish.

Other fishy operations included adding some copied scales to where the fingers were pressing against it. This worked in much the same way as the eyes: I masked and copied material from other parts along the edge of the fish to keep a decent continuity. Knowing also that the fish would soon be covered with fire, I didn’t spend a great deal of time striving for seamlessness by limiting the appearance of duplicated scale patterns.

Tip: The more you can use clipping masks in clever ways the more time you will have for spending on other work. Your use of them steadily increases as you realize their potential.

Step 7: Harness Fire and Water

Fire and water are mesmerizing in their own right, but control their shapes and color by morphing them into something impossible (and just a hint wicked), and you have the ingredients for purely riveting visuals that can be applied to any scenario. When using fire and water as textures, forget what you know about physics. Try to see the images for what they are: a fascinating mix of light and dark shapes, gradients, patterns, and random variations. Look beyond the obvious and concentrate on what you see in the images not what you know about fire and water to find and harness pieces that match the main composite elements, meaning the curve of a face, hand, and shimmering scales of a fish for Control.

Starting with the fish, I wondered how glowing scales might look wreathed in fire, so I studied the fire photo palette and singled out shapes that seemed to match the contours and flow of the fish.

Fishing through the fire photo palette, I found a piece (a) that seemed to fit perfectly around the fish head as a glowing exterior element (b).

Hot Tips Setting Subjects on Fire
As you look for fire pieces to combine with parts of another object, keep these strategies in mind:

  • Match shapes by ignoring the angles at which they were shot—very much like a jigsaw puzzle, keeping a piece oriented exactly as you picked it up doesn’t help fit it in place. The Rotate tool (R) is your ally in this task; it’s very helpful for working at different angles without having to transform and rotate the actual layer. Press R, then simply click and drag the curser as if you are rotating a puzzle piece by hand. Double-click the Rotate tool icon to return to the default orientation.
  • Get with the flow and movement. Fire acts much like water, and water, like skin, conforms and covers any shape. When we see a subject and perceive forward motion, however, matching the flames to this expectation can have a positive result. In this case I found the edges and tips of some of the flames and matched them to flow behind the fish.
  • Try flames as filler, but don’t over plan where they fall. Part of the illusion is it not looking too perfect so that viewers will buy into the randomized quality of natural fire.
  • Experiment with limited scaling, making sure the flames feel consistent and not so varied that the result is collage-like. When some flames are larger, the edges may be noticeably softer compared to flames that have been scaled down and have sharp edges to them. Our eyes pick this up and the illusion gets disrupted.
  • Be absolutely sure to mask out all flames not associated with the subject you are covering (in this case the fish). You can help control this by placing all the layers associated with the subject into a group folder and add a mask to the entire group to find those stray bits of hot digital grease.

Scooping up the water sources and moving them into place was much the same as working with the fire. When searching out the water, I again concentrated on the form of the pieces and matching shapes to the ripple. Sometimes I would see a section that could work as an underlit fingertip with the right warping or the glowing curve of a knuckle. The process was definitely a squint-athon that needed heavy-duty imagination processing power, but again, I only had to find water approximately close to what was needed to match up as I would later warp these images to perfection. In the end I found a few pieces with ripples that alluded to a three-dimensional form, which I could easily mask and warp to match the subjects’ forms.

Finding the ripples that looked like they curved around a form took some careful searching, but had great results once pieced together.

Tip: Take your time looking for matching textures and work on a small scale, piecing the composite together like a 1000-piece jigsaw rather than a 100-piece puzzle!

To ensure the water or fire pieces shined rather than obscured, I changed the blending mode for each fire and water layer to Screen. Everything in the layer that was darker than the composite disappeared and everything lighter came through brilliantly. This technique is especially helpful with any image in which the background is truly dark and the lights are nice and bright.

Changing the blending mode to Screen makes fire flash and water glitter by visually removing their darker portions.

Step 8: Transform with Warp

Photoshop shines at bending reality, and offers the Warp tool for just this purpose. With the pieces scaled and positioned roughly into place already with the Move tool (V), I repeatedly used Warp to transform selections of water and fire to become perfect curves in the wrist, chin, thumb, and elsewhere.

Warp enables you to stretch and bend pixels based on a three-by-three grid and Bézier curve handles (FIGURE 10.22). To access this feature, I selected the Move tool and a layer intended for warping, then clicked on the edge of the bounding box to activate the transform mode. I then right-clicked the image to bring up the Move tool’s transform options (FIGURE 10.23). From this context menu, I selected Warp and began warping each layer as needed by pushing or pulling the Bézier curve handles as well as dragging across the grid to squash or stretch the image as necessary

Warp is a good tool for bending pixels to fit exactly how you want.

Note: Show Transform Controls must be toggled on in the options bar for you to access Warp and the other transform features of the Move tool.

For better results using the Warp tool, especially for such textures as water, keep a few tips in mind:

  • Think of dragging the parts you want pushed and pulled like smearing bits of clay. The parts under your finger (or in this case the cursor) move the most dramatically while the rest move less so but are still clearly connected.
  • Control the outer edges and the general shape of the layer by moving the warp handles that adjust the curve strength and direction of the outer edges. To bend a layer like this to fit a finger’s curve, for example, I move the outer handles toward the direction I want the edge to bend, which gives me a great element of control.
  • Don’t overdo it! Warping something that already has dimension to it, such as the water texture, can cause the layer to start looking a little flat and you’ll loose what you originally found interesting about its texture.

Step 9: Cool the Fiery Fish

Although enveloping a fish, the fire still looked normal at this stage and was not pushing far enough into the surreal and mysterious for my taste. To defy viewers’ expectations (and physics) a bit more, I decided to swap the fiery warm colors for their polar opposites: the cooler blue-violet tone of deep, icy water. A Hue/Saturation adjustment layer was just the tool I needed for color-changing magic. For me, keeping the scene more monochromatic lent itself to a more dream-like setting and has a nice continuity effect—plus it’s always mesmerizing and visually fascinating as warm colors suddenly become cool.

For further continuity, I decided to adjust color for the group folders containing the fish and fire shots altogether rather than working on the elements piecemeal. I selected the Fish group folder, which contained everything fish related, and created a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (click the icon in the Adjustment panel) just above the folder. I shifted the Hue slider far left until all the fire and fish became the same cool blue-violet. To make sure the change affected only the Fish folder I then clipped the adjustment layer to the folder below it by clicking the small Clipping icon within the Adjustment Properties panel.

Adjusting the hue can be fun to watch, but the secret is in clipping the adjustment to only affect the layer or folder directly underneath the adjustment.

Note: As you are working with many new layers and groups, remember that new layers always appear above the layer you currently have selected—unless the folder is the top-most layer, then it falls into it.

Step 10: Control Color but Retain Depth

After adapting the fiery fish to the cool end of the spectrum, I needed to fine-tune the entire composition’s look and feel with some global edits. These are the kinds of edits that, for the most part, are best to perform once the arrangement, positioning, and specific edits of the individual elements are more or less locked down. Part of this global editing process is getting a good idea of continuity as it can seriously help a composite. With this in mind I decided to create a layer that turned the rest of the composite into rich blues and violets to match the flaming fish.

Why not just turn everything blue-violet all at once? Although it may seem like an extra step, the best practice is to get the colors of each section close to your final intent before doing a global color adjustment and masking. This way the color alterations don’t have to be shifted quite so dramatically at the very end of the project causing it to look flat and less rich with subtle varieties. In that case of the fire, it’s best to use the natural color gradient of the flames and scales, shifted to a range of cool colors, rather than making it a flat global color adjustment.

To control the composite colors as a whole and match the fish’s cool colors while also giving them additional accents and richness, I created a blank new layer and dropped it into the Effects group folder. I then filled the entire layer with royal blue by clicking once with the Bucket tool (G)—a bit dramatic and shocking. The first time you do this is a bit unnerving, as it feels like you knocked over a can of paint across the canvas. Luckily, a simple change of blending mode finishes the effect. Specifically, I set the blending mode of the new wall-of-blue layer to Color; instantly my other images came back, only bluer (FIGURE 10.25). Changing a blending mode to Color like this adds the layer’s colors to the composite even where there was no color or very little to begin, such as desaturated areas with more gray tones like the desaturated water. Initially the color always comes off too strong and needs adjusting in either opacity or masking (as in this case) to sit better within the composite, so always bring it back below 75% to start with. For Control, I attenuated the fill to a pleasing 64%.

The Color blending mode is wonderful for infusing your own custom color, but can come off a little strong, so it’s always a good idea to back off the layer’s opacity a little.

Because the fish already had its own cool alteration with subtle variations created by shifting the hues of the flames and scales, I also needed to add a mask to this Color layer so it applied to only the background, face, and hand, but not the entire fish. When comparing the variety of hues created from shifting the color versus spilling a flat color with a Color blending mode, the blending mode method feels forced and flat as we expect flames to have a more dynamic and varying look to them—even blue ones!

Note: At this point in the composite I had settled on the scale and positioning of each main element and could safely do some global effects and masks tailored to fit the entire composite. Alternately, you could always apply one of these layers to the folder of each group and clip it for more isolated control as I did with the fish.

Other colors I added in a similarly controlled manner (masking and changing the blending mode) were a vibrant and deep red and a very regal violet each on separate, additional layers.

Three main layers control the composite’s overall color. Each had its own mask for better isolation.

With these two layers, however, I changed the blending mode to Overlay rather than Color to control tones in addition to color and because Overlay is not as aggressive with color changing. Having each color layer separated out this way allowed me to paint just on their masks with black and white, flipping back and forth efficiently by pressing the X key (be sure to press D first to reset these black and white defaults). I used masks heavily with these two layers starting with an inverted mask (invert by pressing Ctrl/Cmd+I after creating the layer or by holding down Alt/Opt when clicking the Add Mask icon) so that there would be better control and conservative placements of each color and again not cover the fish.

Step 11: Brush in Magical Lighting

What surreal image is complete without some magic wind-spirits flying about? To brush in these flowing wisps for the mouth and hand, I first created a blank new layer and placed it within the Effects folder, making sure it was directly below the Color layers so that whatever I painted using white would be colored to match the scene. To create the scattered brush effect, I started with the basic soft brush and toggled on Shape Dynamics, Scattering, and Transfer within the Brush Properties panel. Painting with a Wacom tablet (or other tablet with pressure sensitivity), I was able to change my pen pressure to control the shape and opacity of what I was painting, which was perfect for streaking small controlled waves of this brush around the image.

Even a simple round-and-soft brush can be modified within the Brush Properties panel to become something dynamic and interesting.

An added small Outer Glow layer style effect also helped complete the look. With it each little scattered burst of white paint from the brush had an added glowing effect contributing to the fantastical and surreal nature of the piece, helping the brush stroke feel less flat. I added the layer style by clicking the Add Layer Style icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.

When using Outer Glow, don’t go too far overboard with the effect; keep the size limited to a gentle coloring and thickening of the brushed dots.

Tip: If you want to create a dynamically changing brush without the luxury of a tablet, change the Shape Dynamics Control option to Fade with a value of 100 and the Minimum Diameter set to 20%. This won’t exactly replicate the look that you can achieve with a tablet, but will create a tapering effect that can be stroked first in one direction, then the other.

Step 12: Glow

Although it may not be the glowing waterfalls of Tolkien’s Rivendell, the composite definitely needed to have some of its sharp edges softened and made to feel as if glowing light was blooming from the lighter elements.

For the final effect of the composite, I again created a new blank layer within the Effects folder and labeled it Glow. Switching brushes back to the simplicity of the soft, round brush, I gently painted (with opacity between 5% and 10%) around the bright and sharp areas that needed an extra glare and softening to them, such as the hand and face and various lighter parts of the water. This helped increase the feeling of bright glowing light, made it more dreamlike, and softened up the edges in a subtle, but pleasing way.

Compare the image before and after adding the final Glow layer—a small layer with a big impact!

Tip: Making the glow slightly uneven can add a subtle effect of shimmering. When a glow is overly even it loses this shimmering quality as everything appears equal all the time.


Working with textures, especially fire and water can be daunting and always meticulous, but so very rewarding in the end. This project is a good example of how regular, everyday photography can be used to inspire a new world of imagination, one where controlling a strange, fiery, frog-eyed fish is as easy as blowing in its face with glowing breath. The main concepts to take away and apply to other projects, however, are the power of color control over textures, such as water and the rest, and the potential of finding inspiration in a strong initial image. What was very much the everyday banal soon became the extraordinary and intriguing in Control. Have the digital courage to chase down your surreal dream and bring it to life piece by piece.

The final image.

Excerpted from Adobe Master Class: Advanced Compositing in Photoshop by Bret Malley. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Adobe Press.

Don‘t miss the next Photoshop article on Get the newsletter in your mailbox each week.