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Create dynamic photo illustrations from scratch

Added on Monday 24th of January 2005 01:28 pm EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS, Adobe Illustrator 10/CS, QuarkXPress 6

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


If you’re ever at a loss when creating a compelling image because you don’t have a budget for stock imagery, consider yourself a member of a very large club. We’ve all been there, staring at a blank screen with the clock ticking, the client waiting, and no idea of how to begin the next masterpiece.

Read on because we have good news for you. With all that Photoshop has to offer in its pixel-massaging and vector-stretching features, we can easily transform simple patterns, lines, and shapes into a robust image that captures attention and effectively conveys the essence of the topic or subject matter. And, we can do this time and again with a minimum of raw materials.


Don’t overlook your resources

In this article, we’ll walk you through the creation of an image that, for the most part, uses the image-making features built into Photoshop.

Let’s say our assignment is to illustrate high-speed data transmission and how it provides a world of nearly unlimited information at the touch of a button. We’ll begin by making line and pattern images in Photoshop—distorting and coloring those images to create a backdrop for additional imagery, which we’ll layer and blend to achieve the final design. The final result, as shown in Figure A and adapted for our cover image, shows how an impressive image can come from some humble beginnings.


Figure A:

By creatively integrating images at hand, you can use Photoshop to create some effective composite images.


Inline Note:

Note: If you want to follow along using our image samples, download the file from the URL listed at the beginning of this article. There you’ll find the files for many of the individual pieces used in our example.

End Note


Collect your source material

Your first step is to gather all the images you’ll use for your composite image (the ones you won’t generate entirely in Photoshop). While you can do almost all of the following tasks in Photoshop, our goal is to show you how you could integrate designs from other applications to help create your image. Before you start collecting your images, create an RGB document in Photoshop that’s 8 by 10 inches at 100 ppi with a transparent background, so we have somewhere to put them.


Digital camera

Although the illustration would be effective and engaging without a traditional photograph, we chose to include one to demonstrate how relatively easy it is to obtain a found image. In our example, we played a video of a friend on a small color television and used an inexpensive digital camera to photograph the TV image, complete with scan lines, video noise, and unnatural colors. After downloading this image to our computer, we increased the pixelated look with Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask in the Sharpen filter options, as shown in Figure B. The benefit of using this image, of course, is in the natural appeal of the human face. In our illustration, the presence of an individual also helps convey the idea of the receiving and sharing of information.


Figure B:

We shot this image with a digital camera to add a human presence in our design.


Adobe Illustrator

We chose Illustrator to create the lines shown in Figure C, because Illustrator’s vector tools are easier to work with and the vector files integrate into Photoshop so readily. The additional graphic of thick and thin flowing lines helps balance the predominance of straight and hard edge objects. Placing these images into our Photoshop file is simply a matter of copying the Illustrator vector art and pasting from the clipboard into the Photoshop document on a new layer.


Figure C:

You can use Illustrator or other page-layout or paint programs to produce designs to place into a Photoshop illustration.



If you don’t use Illustrator, you can generate a PDF document (which you can place into a Photoshop document as a bitmapped image) from any number of popular application programs, including Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, Macromedia Freehand, Adobe PageMaker and InDesign, and others. We happen to have QuarkXPress 6 available to us so, in a blank Quark document, we typed a series of 1s and 0s to represent binary code. This version of Quark allows us to export the page as a PDF file. In Photoshop, choose File > Place, navigate to the PDF document, and click Place. Then, double-click on the resulting bounding box to set the PDF image on a new layer.


Use filters to create background textures

With our source material collected, we can start building our image. Go to the Layers palette and click on the New Layer icon new layer. Press [D] to set the foreground and background colors to the default white and black. Then, choose Filter > Render > Clouds to fill the space with Photoshop’s default cloud pattern. The frame is filled with grayscale clouds that we’ll eventually colorize before applying filters and other special effects.

Next, choose Filter > Render > Fibers and set the Variance value to 8, the Strength to 64, and click the Randomize button. Click OK to apply the settings and close the Fibers dialog box. You can only render the fibers vertically, so once you have the effect you want, rotate the canvas 90 degrees left or right to make a landscape-oriented illustration, as shown in Figure D. Duplicate this layer by dragging its thumbnail in the Layers palette to the Make New Layer button. Move it to the bottom of the Layers palette and click on the Eye icon eye_icon to hide the layer. We’ll save this layer for other purposes as we proceed with our composite.


Figure D:

Photoshop clouds can be transformed into a linear texture using the Fibers filter.



Modify the patterns to suit your design



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