The Painted Layer

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See the "step-by-step" creation.

A background is usually just that–something that recedes, that doesn't catch your eye because you're too busy looking at an image's focal point. But that doesn't mean a background has to be dull and flat. Just ask artist Steve Campbell (grand-prize winner of 1998's Macworld Expo Digital Art Contest), who puts as much thought into a background as he does into the other elements of his work.

His program of preference is MetaCreations' Painter, well known for its natural-media brushes that let you simulate traditional painting techniques. He began the image shown here–a self-promotional piece–using Painter 5 on his Power Mac 8500, but decided to finish it in Painter 6. He found that the newer version's adoption of Adobe Photoshop-like layers made it easier for him to build this illustration's many-textured background. Instead of compositing layers, previous versions of Painter relied on floaters (discrete images that float above the canvas), which are much more challenging for the user to keep organized.

Campbell started the image's background with a photograph of clouds, to which he added a gradient mask (black at the top and white at the bottom). After adding a second copy of the cloud photo, he heaped on additional layers, applying a distortion filter, two paper textures, a color gradient, and even a pattern he'd created in Terrazzo, a Photoshop plug-in from Xaos Tools. The result is an organic-looking background that suggests translucent glass. It has elements of each layer showing through to create a richly textured surface.

Photoshop F/X

March 2000 page: 104

 Campbell's first step in creating a background for his illustration was adding a cloud image behind his foreground images. To do so, he made a user mask (similar to a Photoshop alpha channel) to mask out the foreground elements, and then he added a cloud photo as a layer. Next, he copied the user mask to that layer's visibility mask (similar to a Photoshop layer mask).


 The rest of the process of making the background involved adding layer after layer of texture. For instance, to produce this image, Campbell applied the Glass Distortion filter to the cloud-photo layer using the settings shown here.



 To add another texture, he produced a black paper texture showing through a black-to-white gradient mask. This required creating a new layer, loading the gradient mask as a selection, choosing the new layer, and finally applying black to the layer using the Color Overlay filter and the Hand Made Paper texture. To make only the lightest areas of the layer show, he combined the layer and the existing background using the Lighten composite method.

 Because the clouds had become almost completely hidden by all the filtering and layering, Campbell reinserted the original cloud photo as a new layer. Next, he copied the original user mask (from Step 1) to that layer's visibility mask. He altered the color of the entire background by applying a dark-blue-to-peach vertical gradient to yet another new layer. He then copied the original user mask to the dark-blue-to-peach layer's visibility mask to combine this layer and the existing background.


 Campbell used the black-to-white gradient mask to create a selection that would allow pixels from other layers to show through the upper area of the background. Then he applied a pattern (which he'd created in Terrazzo) as a fill from Painter's Effects menu.

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