Life & Style tutorial: Seamless compositing

Learn how to fake unbelievable fantasy images, like this giant warrior lizard, using some clever Photoshop trickery.

No matter how many tricks and shortcuts you know, Photoshop has plenty more, making complex and fiddly tasks far more straightforward.

In this tutorial, Jericó Santander shows how you can make use of a few of these tricks to create a stunning surrealist-style image, giving a chameleon a Mad Max makeover and making him stalk through a mountain range.

Santander says that the tutorial is far easier using a graphics tablet, and although the tutorial will teach you plenty about lighting, volume and painting, it’ll be far easier if you already have some basic knowledge of the principles.

For copyright reasons, we can’t distribute the five source images used here, but all are available for a small cost from iStockPhoto. You can buy the source images by following these:,,, and Or try the techniques here using your own images.

01. First of all, assemble your images. Open the chameleon image and cut it out: first create a path layer using the Pen tool (P), tracing the contours of its body point by point. Once the path is closed and the shape is correct, right-click (Ctrl + click) and choose ‘Make Selection’. We need to invert the selection to eliminate the parts we don’t want: choose Select > Inverse, then press Delete.

02. Open your sky image and create a new Photoshop document, making it 23.9cm wide by 17.52cm tall, with a resolution of 240dpi; name it main.psd. On your sky image, select the entire image (Cmd/Ctrl + A), then copy it (Cmd/Ctrl + C) and paste it (Cmd/Ctrl + V) into main.psd; make it the bottom layer. Open your image of mountains and copy and paste that in, too, on a different level. Create a layer mask with a vertical gradient so that it blends with the sky. Now we should have a structure with the main elements. Copy in the chameleon, too.

03. Next, let’s create the chameleon’s helmet and other armoured elements. Open your image of a motorbike, and repeat the cut-out technique on the bike’s pipes. Copy those into main.psd and duplicate the layer it’s on (Cmd/Ctrl + J), move those elements around and arrange them around the chameleon’s head, as shown here.

04. Return to your bike image and cut out an area as above. Use the Warp tool (Cmd/Ctrl + T on the image and right-click/Ctrl + click on the selected box) to deform the bike and create different shapes, then set the pieces over the chameleon to get a better idea of the chameleon’s shape and dimensions. There’s no need to make yours identical to this picture – play with different layers and construct your own armour and helmet; you can also use metal pieces from your own photos. Don’t worry if the light and volume don’t match – we’ll fix that later.

05. For the crest, we’ll need to create a Photoshop Action to create the smart element repetition this needs. Go to the Actions panel (Window > Actions) press the Create New Action button, and press Record (the circular shape). With Record pressed, duplicate a layer (Cmd/Ctrl + J), move it slightly and rotate as in the image. Then click the Stop button (the square); your action should now be ready for repeating. Click the Play button (the triangle) several times until you have a decent crest. Now, select all the new layers generated by the Action and merge them (Cmd/Ctrl + E). Use the Warp tool to make them fit the chameleon exactly.

06. It’s time to add the mountain on the creature’s back. Open the rock image and use the Pen tool to select the area you want to use. Copy and paste this into your image. With the help of the Warp tool (see Step 04), it can be fitted closely to the chameleon. Create a layer mask, select the Brush tool and press F5 to make the Brushes panel appear. Go to Brush Tip Shape, and select a brush with a 5-10mm diameter, and a hardness of 30%.

07. Use this brush to start painting sandy areas over the mountains, until you feel that they blend seamlessly into the image. Use reference images to get more realism. If you want to add in a city, as in the main picture (page 42), find some pictures of buildings, and bring them into the artwork, being careful to make the sun position and lighting direction always match correctly.

08. Now we’re going to use the Burn and Dodge tools to add light and shadows. Check the image to see how it looks before and after adding some strokes with these tools. Take the Dodge tool and select Highlights, with a 25% exposure and a soft brush. Make some strokes over the layer border where the lighter part should be. Next, use the Burn tool to select midtones with a 25% exposure, painting over the areas that need to be in shade. We also need to ‘burn’ some areas to get a good volume effect and to get rid of that flat look. For this, we’ll need the Burn tool again: mess around and experiment, but try not to Burn the image too much or get too imprecise – the more controlled the strokes, the better the quality. Never forget where the light is coming from.

09. To make things really interesting we’re going to need some details, especially to make the creature blend better with the mountains. Create a new layer, and paint some horizontal lines along the reptile’s legs in a colour similar to the shade of the bottom clouds, with a big, soft brush (hardness 0%, opacity 10%). Be careful not to paint over the mountains in the foreground, since we want to create depth with this.

10. Now we need to make the chameleon’s legs fit with the mountains, so it doesn’t hover. Go to the mountains layer, and with the Clone Stamp tool press Alt to select the area you want to clone, then create the mountains you require.

11. Repeat Step 03 from earlier to create more pieces of armour, and play with volume and light. Start adding more details and pieces to keep the image looking interesting and refined.

12. We also need to add a layer with a new chrome eye. For that, return to the motorbike picture and take a circular selection from a part of the pipe. Select Filter > Spherize, and repeat this twice with the amount set to 100%. Once this has been done and placed on your image, you can place a vertical line for the pupil.

13. The image is already pretty cool, keep refining the armour and lighting. Just keep on detailing and being creative until you’re happy with it.

Who: Self-taught freelance illustrator Jericó Santander comes from the Canary Islands, Spain. He particularly enjoys experimenting with Photoshop to create compositions that are heavily influenced by his favourite art style, surrealism – “with a good dose of colour,” he adds. Santander moved to Madrid several years ago to work as a designerillustrator; in the Spanish capital he also started painting digitally.
Software: Adobe Photoshop
Time to complete: 7-10 hours


Elsewhere on IDG sites

Read Next...