Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Composition - using PS Elements to help with design

This post is about using tools in Adobe Photoshop or PS Elements to help with your composition.

I'm going to start with a photo of a waterlily which I took last summer. This is good of the flower and the shadow it creates but needs adjusting to create a better format as it commits the 'composition crime' of having petals 'just' touching one of the four edges of the picture plane.

I'm then going to do a quick run through of how I can change this photo. I'm using the PS Elements 5.0 menu for navigation directions.

Working with shadows

The first rule of working with photographs is don't copy the photograph!

For a start, photographs do not record values well and often also distort colours! You'll probably be familiar with the black holes known as shadows which you will often see in photographs.

Values are critical to good design so I usually start by looking at the quality of the shadows. If you have a black hole problem you can lighten the shadows.
To access the dialog box in PS Elements, choose Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadows/Highlights.

Try lightening the shadows. This is what the waterlily looks like with the shadows lightened by 25% and 50%. As you can see, by lightening the shadow we can start to see the pink in the reflections.
This doesn't make the values in the rest of the image right - but we know cameras have a tendency to darken values so lightening them in this way enables us to see into them and the colours which are actually present and which you could see if sat next to it painting plein air.

Working with levels

I didn't find the levels tool for ages but now use it all the time. To access the dialog box, choose Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels. You can also get to this through Control+L

The levels tool works with the RGB input (the red green blue colour channels). Each has a completely separate profile.
The Levels dialog box is a powerful tonal and color-adjustment tool. You can make levels adjustments on the entire image or a selected portion............You can do any of the following with the Levels dialog box:
  • Set the shadow and highlight values to make sure that your image uses the full tonal range.
  • Adjust the brightness of the image’s middle tones without affecting the shadow and highlight values.
  • Fix a color cast by making grays neutral. You can also enhance an image by adding a slight color cast, for example, by adding a warming effect on a sunset.
  • Target shadow and highlight RGB values if you are preparing images for commercial printing.
  • Adobe - PS Elements Help
I use Levels to either get a more accurate and realistic image or to see what would happen if I pushed colours in a particular direction - just one of the many tool in Elements which allows you to flex colours. Basically it enables me to play and visualise different options. A word of warning though - I find that using Auto Levels often produces the most awful images!

The left of the profile deals with shadow values, the middle part with the middle tones and the right hand edge deals with the highlight values. I find that pulling in the outer edges to the edge of the profile is usually the fastest way of getting an image which is more accurate in both value and colour terms. This photo has had its profile tweaked.

Working with grayscale

The greyscale option enables you to see what the pattern of values looks like. To access the dialog box, choose Image > Mode > Grayscale.

You can then see whether your image is using the full range of values or has all its values in the mid range.

This grayscale image shows that the image reads when in grayscale and that the shadows help with seeing the overall form.

Working with the crop tool

The crop tool has the advantage of having some of the standard formats for paintings (and frames!) set up and ready to go.

I almost always use the crop tool. It takes a very expert photographer to get the best image in the shot. I find I can almost always improve on what is there by fiddling around with the crop tool and seeing what other options exist.

You can locate the crop tool by following Image > Crop. This is the crop I decided to work with having selected a square format. I was thinking in thirds and also moving the four most important lines around to avoid the problem of tips of the leaves 'just' touching the edge of the picture plane.

Working with the cut-out tool

I've only recently started working with the cut-out tool. It's partly been prompted by my starting to study the woodblock prints of Hokusai and other Japanese artists.
The Cutout filter portrays an image as though it were made from roughly cut-out pieces of colored paper. High-contrast images appear as if in silhouette, while colored images are built up from several layers of colored paper. You can set the tonal levels, edge simplicity, and edge fidelity.
Adobe - PS Elements Help
You can access it via Filter > Artistic > cutout. It's very helpful for developing notan-type images. Using the cutout tool can train your eye to see how to be able to create notan without the help of digital software.

This is the image I then produced. Cutout merges and simplifies both colours and values - and can change colours. It's a good idea to try tweaking the number of levels and the edge fidelity to get simpler and simpler images and/or to see what sort of results you get.

Then finally - using the cutout image as a reference to work from, I started to develop my drawing - and this is what I produced.

Waterlily - notan in colour
coloured pencil on Arches HP, 5" x 5"

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Personally, I think I maybe drew this too small and it needs a bit more space. Or maybe I'm thinking this could be improved if I could use some of the pink pencils I discarded after the coloured pencil screening!

At the moment, I think I prefer my digital notan image best of all!

I hope you found this quick overview useful. If you've got any queries please leave a comment below.


  1. I do, I do find it useful!! I have such a strong resistance to learning about PS. I can't stand technical jargon (though I could and do read advanced French grammar books, for example, for pleasure. Go figure.) But your way of explaining and showing is right up my alley. And with your instruction, I get what I'm interested in--not lots of totally useless-to-me information. This latter is why I balk at picking up my PS instruction manual again. How about writing a simple PS manual for artists (in your spare time;D) ? I'm sure not to be the only one who needs this info in the way you've presented it.

  2. Well you have in fact spotted one of the other reasons behind some of my posts this year.

    I'm currently sticking toes in the water exploring what people might find useful in terms of short books available as e-books or as pdf files on CDs. It also helps me work through issues to do with HOW to write about things. By the end of the year I'll be splashing around in puddles with any luck!

    I'm working on the principle of sharing basics and then doing a more worked up version as an e-book. I've written manuals before so some of it is not too difficult - but what I do need is feedback. So comments like yours are really really helpful. :)

  3. I really appreciate this post. I have done quite a bit in PhotoShop, but I have yet to figure out levels. Following your instructions, I may have better luck. I also like the way you explained and used the cutout function. I will have to try it this weekend. Thanks.

  4. You know, there are tons of books for photographers using Elements but none that I can find for Drawing and Painting. This is a very helpful article as I've just discovered Levels and how helpful Elements is for what you describe and also for cleaning up and Tweaking my watercolors. Especially my Illustrations. Thanks, Greg

  5. I totally agree with you. Photoshop is such a great tool. I use it quite a bit in the same manner you have shown us here. For color and values and even changing compositions. I admit I use it every day for my design work so it does help that I'm familiar with it and I do understand the challenges of learning new technology.

  6. I second the "give us more" murmurings. PS has so many features and the manuals and tutorials do their best to hit everything, but it ends up an overwhelming, superficial book of confusion.

    I have picked up that manual several times, but never get very far. Even when I have pushed myself to keep with it, I haven't really understood how to use the functions myself.

    I think you ought to do a book on composition, with PS examples and techniques in it. That would be composition for the new century. Same principles as of old, flashy new technology! :-) OK, I'll back off now...

  7. Katherine, thank you for yet another wonderful tutorial on PS. I've always shied away from using levels, because I didn't know what in the world i was doing. Ok, I still don't but learning so fast!Thanks for what you do!!

  8. Wonderful simple, clear instruction, Katherine. I think Rose is spot on with her suggestion that you combine composition and Photoshop in your ebook - it would be a big hit.
    I have a number of Photoshop How To books and magazines and life just isn't long enough for me to make sense of them!

  9. great post! full of good clear information :>)

    I love PS for playing like this ... and for creating images that simply exist in digital form as well.

  10. An excellent post Katherine and I agree with all that's been said. I have a love-hate relationship with Photoshop and need to learn more about it. You have highlighted areas that are useful for artists and explained it in a clear, straightforward way - thank you.

    I'm now off to play with Levels;)


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