This month’s tutorial is brought to you by Andre Cook, Co-founder of The design was inspired by ongoing struggles and efforts against deforestation around the world.

Fotolia Tutorial: Nature vs. Machine
by Andre J. Cook
The following tutorial is brought to you by Andre Cook, Co-founder of The design was inspired by ongoing struggles and efforts against deforestation around the world and trying to bring impactful awareness for a more eco-friendly planet.
In this tutorial we are going to create a surrealistic menacing image of a massive mountain that is taking revenge against construction machines below, destroying the forest. A tsunami wave is forming from water rushing down the mountain and about to flood the area… washing away anything in its path and defending what’s left.
The real challenge behind this concept is to find imposing mountain images, which will end up becoming the personality of the main element in this design. Geographical knowledge always helps but we can start by finding some well-known rock formations and mountains from El Capitan in Yosemite, The Na Pali Coast of Kauai, Angel Falls in Venezuela and random leave and forest textures from the Amazon, Knysna Forest in South Africa and other random tropical forest pics. Before jumping into Photoshop spend some good time and search the Fotolia stock for some images that inspire and collect anything you might want to your light box of mountains, rock faces, waterfalls etc. I like to sketch a quick outline of what I will be doing, using a Wacom tablet. It doesn’t have to be an award winning drawing, just something that gives scale and helps with brainstorming.
This tutorial assumes you have a fair understanding of Photoshop and know how to trace images effectively, how to use opacity maps in the layers menu and understanding blend modes.
Step 1: The rough layout
The first thing we want to do is get a rough layout of all images. You can do this by changing the opacity levels in the layers menu and just quickly place the image in rough comp. This helps for scale and general perspective although the warp tool will come in handy later to force perspective on certain objects within reason.
Let’s start by cleaning up the Dozer in the foreground and placing it in the bottom right corner of the screen. I like to use the Lasso tools and then set the “Refine edge” to settings seen below.
Use this as base tracing setting and then run the “Layer/matting/de-fringe” command at 1 pixel. This also works great for tracing hair and leaves so I recommend setting it to a hotkey if you plan on doing this a lot a save some menu time.
Placing the dozer in the corner provides us with a “pseudo” focus point and tells us where the main design focus should be. It immediately leads the eye and now I can start working on the mountain which is the main focus and threat to the dozer in this design.
Let’s throw in some mountain images mentioned earlier. I especially liked the “El Capitan” shots from the famous Yosemite cliff face for forming a steep mountain range. We don’t want people to look at this and recognize it as “El Capitan” so the trick is to add rock textures and mountains into the scene as well, blending it all together with the erase tool and opacity maps.
Do whatever necessary to remove the familiarity factor of this and all other images used in the design. The screenshot below shows where I used this mountain and how I arranged other rock formations around it to remove the focus from the main peak. Also in this screenshot are blended mountains of the Kauai Na Pali Coast and a random image of waterfall cliff I found. This is just serving a placeholder for now and won’t be visible in final image, but helps for depth and scale.

Step 2: Setting the Tone

At this point, start playing around with opacity masks and create some blends from one mountain texture to another. You can see in the top image how I started doing this with 4 different mountain images. Keep the Bull-dozer visible in bottom right corner to force a virtual perspective plane.
Load up some thunder clouds / skies / textures in the background and play around with the blend “Overlay and Darken” settings. The mountains will eventually look like they fade into the background so we want the dark clouds and mountain tops to have a similar eerie color. The sky color will set the entire tone of the image, and although seemingly easy to add it’s also the most important. The sky affects the hue and saturation for every object in the scene and also places the main light source which determines shadow angle.

Now let’s place the woman’s face in position so we can start to add texture with foliage, water and rocks. Always get the highest resolution possible when buying stock photos of this nature. The Na Pali shot is a great example of how that photo can also be repurposed as texture map for putting down the leaves and moss on her face later on. Don’t go cheap on low res shots, you will end up paying double for textures you might need later. The Chinese “Zhangjiajie” cliff shot (also used as inspiration for the movie Avatar coincidentally) is a great example of how those trees and cliff side textures have a dual purpose when working with photo manipulated landscapes.
Once her face is in place, start adding some trees, moss textures, and a placeholder waterfall from the mouth. Adding these objects now gives a sense of scale and size. We want this face to be very impressive and daunting later on with convincing rock texture skin.
Step 3: Textures and Brushes

Above you can see the process of how I added the textures and foliage to her face. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Look at the photos you have at your disposal and figure out what shapes will work best around the mouth, teeth, eyes and skin. I wanted to create an indoor tropical lake in her mouth as you see on far right. Adding detail is important and makes it interesting too look at. Use organic textures to hide hard lines, like leaves and weird shaped branches. The shape of her face allows us to lay out the elements as base model for something we would not have discovered otherwise. If you decided to you use a man’s face the final result will be completely different with the same textures. So even though the main image is not recognizable anymore, it subconsciously helps texture mapping.
Remember to build some custom PS brushes and save them to your library for future use. One of the most powerful tricks in the Photoshop in my opinion is to combine Tablet pressure sensitivity with brushes. The image below shows a few brushes I created on the left and on the right the settings I have enabled for this to work right. (to build a brush, create a square image of max 2000x2000px and then convert it to a gray scale. Go to the “Edit menu / Define Brush Preset” for it to show up un your brush preset menu).
Notice I have Color Dynamics checked as well, which allows the brush to randomly switch between my background and foreground colors as I paint with the tablet. The only way to really understand just how powerful this is, is to play with it and experiment with custom shapes. The accidental results are really amazing sometimes but only if you have a tablet. The mouse also works but the results are more predictable, which is not always a bad thing. Below you can also see some of the brushes on left I use for mist and cloud textures. Understanding brushes is a must in Photoshop, not just for photo manipulation techniques but all graphic design.

Step 4: Finishing the background
Open up the Zhangjiajie Chinese mountains image and cut/trace out the main pillar image with you preferred method. Start placing it along the foot of the mountain range and scale every other pillar to create a sense of distance between them. Place some cut out trees from the same image along the sides and scale them as well. Finally bring in the water fall image of Angel falls and add a few waterfalls for fun. Finally select some of those mist / cloud brushes I mentioned above and just paint across the screen in foreground with brush opacity set to 9%. Having a light opacity level allow you to build cloud layers, so some areas are more dense than others. When you are done the result should look like something similar below.

Step 5:
The Foreground can be time consuming but if enough time is spent and done properly the results can add an important level of realism to the scene. We are closer to the “camera” so detail plays a big role. I added some Frogs behind the grass which just adds some life and helps scale. Most people know how large a basic frog is so showing a familiar object immediately creates a sense of size and how large that oncoming wave really is.

In the closeup foreground we can add some grass and flowers for color, to break the contrast a bit. Applying Gaussian blur to plants is a simple but efficient way to create depth of field in the shot and even bigger sense of depth between the frogs and yellow lily’s. The frogs are now more hidden from view and don’t look so obvious like we just placed them there for show. It creates a subtle sense of realism. Like someone is watching this happen.
Let’s also add some Ferns and other brush in the foreground closer the bull-dozer, barely missed as it approached the river. Adding the greenery gives a sense of what could have been there before the dozer plough everything out the ground.
Step 6: Middle Ground
Adding the middle ground wave will become the transition point from foreground to background. Right now if you we look at the image there is a pretty “hard line” that needs to be covered up and so adding the Kauai North Shore Wave here will solve this problem. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a wave with a long enough break. However the one with 3 kids watching has the perfect shape and color. We need to Photoshop them out and the easiest way to do this is with the Rubber Stamp tool. Below is the before and after of this wave image.

Now we can use the wave on the right and create a longer one by duplicating and flipping it horizontally. Overlap the 2 identical waves (one flipped) and use the erase tool to seamlessly blend it together. Below is the before and after of how we completely blended the background and foreground sections together by introducing a new element. Also notice the shadow added to the wave compared to original because of light source origin mentioned earlier. Adding shadow to all elements in the design is one of the most important aspects of convincing matte painting and concept design.

Step 7: Finishing Touches
The final step is to add finishing touches and details. Most water scenes, especially waterfalls usually have a rainbow visible when viewed at the right angle, so let’s add one without making it seem superficial. You might be able find a good tock photo but in this tutorial I felt it more practical to create one so I could place it in perspective and have more control of the colors. Once you have all the colors in perfect half-moon shape, select all the rainbow layers and convert them to a “Smart Object” in the layers panel. Now use the perspective tool and move the “corner handles” around until it looks like the rainbow is disappearing over the mountain in the distance. Finally add an opacity map to the Smart object layer and add a soft fade to the far end of the rainbow to create the illusion that it’s disappearing in the distance. Set the entire rainbow’s layer opacity to 50% and add in our hovering Bald Eagle.

The scene has serious message so adding the rainbow is risky because of how rainbows are sometimes associated in kids design. However it’s also a natural occurrence as mentioned above with large bodies of water so try to be subtle with placement at the right angle, off to the side so it doesn’t interfere with the main focal point of the scene. In this specific instance the rainbow creates a natural flow in design for the my eye to look at the comp from left to right starting at the plants, then noticing the eagle towards the menacing face and opening up to the final overall scene.

I hope you all enjoyed this tutorial. For a more detailed version of this with added video screen casting, you can also visit
Andre J. Cook
COO / Filter Foundry – Platform Architect