In this tutorial we’ll look at some of the illustration techniques used by Swedish designer and artist Per Gustafsson. You’ll learn how to use them, what to create out of them, and how to tweak them on your own.
See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials
Per explores some of Photoshop’s less well-known tools, including the Polar Coordinates filter, the Exclusion blending mode and the Channel Mixer adjustment, to create striking creative effects that are impossible – or at least tricky and time-consuming – using regular, day-to-day tools.
The tutorial also explains how to add depth to artworks using only Photoshop’s layer tools, without using any 3D or special plugins. You’ll learn about filter effects and ways of using tools you can apply on anything you work with in Photoshop.
Time to complete
Photoshop CS4.1 or later
Starting on a empty canvas, create your first layers. Use the Gradient tool to make a background that shows where your points of light and dark will be. We’ll also use these to enhance your layer effects.
Create a circle on a new layer and fill it with a radial gradient. Duplicate the layer and then move them around the composition in a flowing shape of a body, neck and head. Use some colour adjustments (
Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation) to add variety. Merge these layers.
To get a more distorted feel, we’ll use some distortion filters on a duplicate of the layer. Use the Polar Coordinates effect (
Filter > Distort > Polar Coordinates) to pull the circles into a swirl.
I’ll be using these elements for the background as well as a subset for the main artwork. To create a more muted background from these elements, add a new layer of a solid mid-green, then give the layer a blending mode of Hard Light.
To adjust the tone of this, duplicate the solid layer and experiment with a Hue/Saturation adjustment (
Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation) and the layer’s opacity.
Duplicate the layer with the main circles layers and move the new layer on top of the others in the Layers panel. This will form our dragon.
Select all, copy merged (
Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + C) and then paste a layer on top of everything. Apply an Exclusion blending mode, which applies the colour with a low opacity to all areas, and all of a sudden you’ll have a much smoother image with a totally new vibe.
To further experiment with the overall colour tones, apply Channel Mixer and/or Selective Colour adjustments (
Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer and/or Image > Adjustments > Selective Color). These filters work best when you just get stuck in and play.
Once again, duplicate the circles we started off with, and move them again on top of all the layers. To balance out the contrast, add a solid yellow (#fff199) layer with an Exclusion blending mode to make it all more consistent. Use a Polar Coordinates filter to the latest duplicated set of circles and position it over the dragon’s ‘body’, with some ‘tail’ sticking out.
If you think that the contrast is still too strong, add a solid grey, black or white layer at the top of the layer stack and apply the Color Layer blending mode to it, dropping the opacity of this layer too.
This is a simple but effective way of adjusting contrast in Photoshop, and is also very useful for working with photos.
To improve the depth and add a mystic feeling to the artwork, include a solid red (#d61b4d) layer and use an Overlay blending mode. Also paint the eye of the dragon in a bright purple onto a new layer.
To make the wavy lines, use a thin white brush
and paint freehand onto a separate layers. Apply a Wave filter (Paint some with the red used in Step 10, then add a blending mode of Color Overlay to integrate them into the composition. Filter > Distort > Wave) to some of them.
It’s now time to add details and set a focal point for the illustration. Turn Snap To Grid on (
View > Snap To > Grid) and create a circle on a separate layer by selecting the Elliptical Marquee tool. In the middle point, hold down Alt + Shift to mark up a circle, then try a variety of different strokes and fills. To make it blend in, experiment with different Layer effects until you find one that works. Repeat this process to create multiple circles.
To add more depth to the artwork – and add a ‘wing’ to the dragon – we want to add an element with greater highlights and shadows to give it a more solid ‘3D’ look to it. First, I’ll create a patterned texture for it. Use the Rectangular Marquee tool to select 20-pixel-high row across the whole image. Select
Edit > Define Pattern, then fill a new layer with this pattern.
Apply a Polar Coordinates effect (
Filter > Distort > Polar Coordinates) to the layer twice to get a smaller, more abstract element. Tweak it using the Transform tool, and use an Exclusion blending mode to integrate it into the composition.
The final step always involves playing with details until I’m happy. Clone the ‘3D’ elements and the lines, and move most of them up to the top of the layer stack, so that the dragon appears to emerging from smoke and lightning. Experiment with different blending modes – sometimes duplicating layers with different modes – until you find the right mix of abstract texture and defined form.
Modern Style is a site that features the digital creations of Swedish designer and artist Per Gustafsson. He’s always experimenting with different techniques, and randomly distorts elements, trying to push the limits in digital abstract art. Contact