Life & Style tutorial: Creating surreal landscapes

When it comes to creating out-of-this-world images, the only limit is your imagination. Justin Maller shows you how to get flawless results.

If you ever had a poster of Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks or spindle-legged camels on your student bedroom wall, you’ll recognise this picture’s influences immediately.

The blank, open landscape, the juxtaposition of semi-random elements, and even the colour palette can be traced to surrealism. Another thing that the image has inherited from Dalí is close attention to detail and a high level of polish: while the images are random, the craftsmanship is meticulous.

In this tutorial, Justin Maller guides you step-by-step through the often painstaking process of compositing a convincing surreal landscape. While some of the images, such as the girl and the abstract ribbons, are provided on the disc, there are also tips for sourcing good background and texture images yourself.

01. The first task for a composite scene is selecting a workable background. Surfing stock sites is an inevitability when it comes to this kind of work; patience is everything. The key ingredients are width of shot and depth of focus – you want an image that offers a large plane to work within. I have selected a beach scene, but you can use anything that suits your style. Try and find something attractive, but uncluttered. Alternatively, open similair.jpg from the cover CD.

02. Remember that you never have to ‘make do’ when it comes to a piece’s environment. This particular shot lacks a memorable sky, so I’ve searched for one I find more attractive and pasted it in. Free Transform (Cmd/Ctrl + T) the ‘Sky’ layer so that it covers the area neatly, and add a layer mask. Drag out a black to white gradient that begins at the horizon, and use a soft, large brush (100 pixels, 100% Opacity, 25% Flow) to neaten the edges.

03. Let’s start building our organic structure. We’re going to build the rest of the illustration around this, so take your time finding the right image. To go with the sand background I’ve selected, I’ve found this interesting rock form. Zoom in on the form and use the Pen tool (P) to carefully trace around the edge of the rock and its shadow. Hold and pull anchor points to get curves; Alt + click anchors to trim paths and change direction sharply.

04. Once you have a perfect trace, right click (Ctrl + click) in the middle of your path and select ‘Make Selection’. Ensure that your Feather Radius is set to ‘0’. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + J to copy your selection to a new layer, then duplicate that layer into the main composition. Place it on the left hand side of the piece, quite near the edge.

05. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + U to bring up the Hue/Saturation dialog box; reduce saturation by around 20% so that the rock matches the background. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + L to bring up Levels, and shift the middle slider slightly towards the right to balance the contrast levels. Now add a layer mask, and carefully brush the lower area of the rock and shadow to integrate it with the background.

06. We need extra space to build a convincing structure, so expand your canvas size by around 10%, anchoring to the right so expansion occurs to the left. Duplicate your masked Rock layer, and move it down and to the left. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + T to Free Transform the layer; make it considerably wider and shorter than the original.

07. We need to give this rock a new texture, so it’s not an obvious duplicate. Duplicate the original rock, and place it above the lower one. Cmd/Ctrl + click the lower rock layer in the Layers palette to get its selection, and click the ‘Add Layer Mask’ button. Use a black brush to take away significant portions and smoothly blend the two surfaces together. Repeat this technique to create a central rock form behind our two original ones.

08. Open woman.jpg from the cover CD. This wonderful image comes courtesy of Holly Bynoe (, and serves as an excellent example of how images can be blended together no matter how different their original context. Use the Pen tool (P) to carefully trace around the model – it is a complex figure and will take time. Be patient and careful.

09. Bring your completed trace into the main composition. Select the Brush tool (B) and bring up the Brushes palette. Select the ‘Dune Grass’ preset, and reduce the tip size to around 12 pixels. Now, select two dark colours from the figure using the Eyedropper (I) and start to brush in some fine hair detail about the head and dress area. This is a handy little trick, as it helps to avoid the ‘cutout’ feeling.

10. Open abstract.psd from this month’s CD. Duplicate the ‘main’ abstract layer into the main composition, and position it behind the rocks to continue building the organic structure. Duplicate and flip it horizontally, then reposition behind the lower rocks. Aim for a balanced look.

11. Now bring in the ‘swoop’ and ‘main2’ layers from abstract.psd, and start assembling them behind the central figure. Flip and rotate these layers as you duplicate them, to create difference between sections. The ‘Swoop’ layers can be most easily manipulated by flipping along the horizontal axis, rotating slightly and then experimenting with the ‘Distort’ tool (Edit > Transform > Distort). Pull the edges of the swoops to the places you want them to begin and end, keeping their perspective in mind. There is no exact path here: use your gut to find what sits right.

12. Now it’s time to start adding shadows. The key areas for this are the rock area and the main figure. Cmd/Ctrl + Click the figure layer to get its selection, and fill with black in a new layer. Apply a strong Gaussian blur of around 40 pixels, and move the layer behind the figure in the layer palette. Position it down and slightly to the left. Repeat this process for the rock forms, using layer masks where necessary to confine shadows to the ground and other objects.

13. Now that we have the rough outline of the piece complete, it’s time to balance it. Bring the figure layer to the top of the layer palette, and add a Levels Adjustment Layer beneath her. Move the middle slider to around the .77 mark and the Highlights slider to 245 to increase brightness and contrast through the midtones.

14. With the levels balanced, it’s time to bring colours into harmony. Add a Color Balance adjustment layer over the top of all other layers, including the main figure. Move the Shadows and Midtones sliders slightly (around +5) towards Blue, and the highlights towards Yellow.

15. Add a Channel Mixer adjustment layer now. In the ‘Red’ channel, move the contrast up by +3. Leaves the Greens alone, and move the Blue contrast down by –2. Hit OK, and set the layer mode to ‘Lighter Colour’. Now add a layer mask, and drag a black to white gradient from the bottom right corner of the piece.

16. Now it’s time for the most fun part of the creation process: detail. The foundation is built, the piece is balanced, all you need to do now is set your imagination loose on the piece. I’ve chosen to add the birds and hourglass illustrations, but there are no rules at this point; just remember – less is frequently more.


Searching for a stock image using ‘rock’ as a parameter will often give you prohibitively broad results – think outside the box and use search terms like ‘dunes’ or ‘desert’ – you may find what you are looking for more quickly.

Who: A graphic artist from Melbourne, Australia, Justin Maller has been working as a full-time freelancer since graduating from university. He is a co-founder and creative director of the collective, a site where graphic artists from across the globe post their work.
Software: Photoshop
Time to complete: 1-2 hours
On the CD: Files for this tutorial can be found on the cover CD.

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