In this monthly series, we take an opportunity to spotlight great designers from around the world. Each month, Designer Passport brings you a new piece of art by a graphic artist we love (created from Shutterstock assets, of course), along with a step-by-step guide on how you can create it (or something equally awesome) yourself.

Justin Maller is a graphic designer from Australia who currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. His portfolio boasts a varied and impressive selection of illustrations and 3D Photoshop, and for this edition of Designer Passport, we asked him to apply some of his unique techniques to our collection of images. Read about his process below, then scroll on to check out his tutorial on how to build his finished piece.

Exotic Photoshop Art Designer Passport Series

“My original idea was to build out an organic structure with lots of plant-based elements. I considered playing with some cool repeating elements that bring about an interesting and teachable action trick. To maximize impact, I figured it would be best to place the setting in a natural scene. I personally believe the design looks good on white, but users will probably enjoy learning how to use adjustments to set and light this in an environment. I wanted to make sure that the piece had a slightly fantastical and esoteric feel by the time I was done, like a faux 3D oasis-type environment populated by more flora and fauna, which helped provide a nice lighting to the piece. I thought of the environment as this beautiful, esoteric oasis that lures animals in, then as a semi-twist, traps them and feeds on them!”

Step 1

Open up shutterstock_38909476. This image is going to set the stage for our piece. Get a good feel for it — it’s deeper than it seems at first glance, and strongly lit by a low-slung sun coming strongly from the left. This will inform all of our lighting and shadows moving forward.

Beginning with the Tree

Zoom in tight and use the pen tool to trace (etch) around the main tree. Use anchor points and ensure you get all the nooks and crannies. When you’ve completed your path, right click and hit “Convert to Selection.” Make sure Feather Radius is set to 0 and copy your selection to a new layer. Name it “Tree” (creative!). Get familiar with this process — I call it “etching” and we are going to be doing a lot of it!

Etching the Tree

Step 2

Open up shutterstock_162309704. We’re going to etch out the large piece of driftwood at the bottom of the image. Follow the same process in and duplicate this layer into your main composition. Name it “Wood.”

Adding a Driftwood Layer

Hit Command-T to Free Transform the Wood layer. Right click to Warp. Manipulate the log so it becomes straighter. Apply the transformation. Free Transform again and lengthen it horizontally. Place this piece just below the middle of the tree.

Free Transform Tool

Step 3

Build out the front of the structure. You can use any shape you like — I’ve used an Icosa platonic object here. Let your imagination run free, but if you’d prefer, you can just replicate this shape. Once you’ve done this, place all the “Branch” layers into a group called “Top.”

Adding Branch Layers to the Tree

Step 4

Open up shutterstock_117951082 and etch the wooden element out. Label the new layer “Corner” and bring it into the main composition.

Adding the Corner of Composition

Place the “Corner” layer over the rough corners of the wooden frame, rotating it to sit naturally over the joints. Hit Command-T and warp the layer’s tips so it flows more with the contours of the frame. Use your discretion here — whatever pleases your eye. Repeat for each corner.

Repeating the Corners of the Tree

Step 5

Select the burn tool and set the range to “midtones.” Carefully burn the right side of each “Branch” layer in the “Top” group to match the lighting of the base image. You might also like to do another pass with the “highlights” range selected to refine the effect.

Highlights and Range

Step 6

Select the lowermost branches and hit Command-M to bring up Curves. Pull down in the middle and the right corners to darken these limbs until they match the tree lighting below. Do the same for each of the “Corner” layers so that they blend nicely into the overall composition.

Adding in Corner Layers

Step 7

Duplicate one of the branch layers. Free Transform it down to approx 70% size. From here, build out the back of the three-dimensional shape, again using my example as a guide, or simply pleasing yourself. Repeat the previous process to light it correctly, keeping everything a bit darker overall. Add all these limbs to a group called “Rear” and position it behind the “Tree” layer in the Layer Hierarchy to create correct depth.

Layer Hierarchy and Depth

Step 8

OK, let’s fill this sucker up! Open up shutterstock_182009753. Use the pen tool to etch the water surface out from the clouds above. Copy and paste this into your main composition. Label it “Water Surface.” Position it beneath the “Top” group, above the “Tree” layer.

Water Surface Tutorial in Photoshop

Hit Command-T and scale the water surface down so it fits inside your structure horizontally. Place this into a new group called “Water.” Use the pen tool to create a path along the edges of your structure. Convert it to a Selection, then add a “Reveal” group mask to the “Water” group.

Step 9

Open up shutterstock_151199351 and make a selection of water beneath the surface — whatever part you like. Bring it into the main composition, label it “Depths,” and place it into the “Water” group above your “Water Surface” layer. Scale it down so it fits nicely within the framework.

Water Surface Layer in Photoshop

Add a layer mask to the “Depths” layer and hide it. Use the pen tool to etch along the bottom of the “Water Surface” layer. Select the “Depths” layer mask and fill your selection with black.

Step 10

Set the Depths layer to 75% opacity. Now add your “Water” group to another group called “Final Water.” Add a group mask to this, and drag a White to Black gradient down vertically from the water level, finishing well off screen. The goal is to create a little transparency in the water.

Adding Water Transparency

Step 11

Let’s thatch the bottom of the object. Duplicate one of the branch elements in the “Top” group. Scale it down so it fits nicely into the bottommost triangle. Put it into its own group called “Thatching,” and position this group beneath the “Top” group, just above the tree. Duplicate and rotate the layer until you have concealed that lower portion convincingly.

Duplicating the Elements

Step 12

Now that our main structure is built, it’s time to decorate! Open up shutterstock_140498608, shutterstock_149083916, and shutterstock_140519125. You can etch them out with the pen tool if you have a lot of time on your hands, or you can use a well-refined Magic Wand tool to speed the process; click, Invert your selection and copy to a new layer. If you go this route, once you’ve wanded them to a new layer, ctrl-click that layer, go to Select > Modify > Contract and do this by 4 pixels. Now Select > Modify > Smooth 3 pixels, invert your selection, and clear away the debris and artifacts for a nice smooth edge.

Close Up Tutorial of Leaves

Etch out as many of the flower images as you like. The more you do, the better the end piece will look — after all, it’s the details that count! Wand or Pen tool, the choice is yours.

Wand and Pen Tool

Step 13

Bring your vines and plants into the main composition and start arranging them — you’ll need to do a lot of scaling and rotating. There’s no precise way to do this — however suits you. Ensure that you place vines above the “Top” group, immediately beneath it, and then below the “Rear” group, as well, to create depth. Scale them down as you move them backwards in the layer hierarchy to achieve depth. Once you have a configuration that you like, use the Dodge and Burn tool to rough in the lighting to your satisfaction.

Dodge and Burn Tool

Step 14

Let’s add some highlight plants. First, to ground these lines a little, open up shutterstock_144448783 and etch the plant out. Bring it into the main composition and position it behind the “Tree” layer. Scale it down so it fits nicely to the ground on the left. Duplicate and flip horizontal — let a little poke out on the right-hand side too.

Duplicate and Flip Horizontal

Step 15

Open shutterstock_148108724 and etch that main plant out. It’s going to take a while, and Wand is not an option, but persevere, my friend! This is going to be our feature “Tempter” plant. Bring it into the main composition, work it into the left-hand vines and name it “Tempter.”

Adding the Tempter Plant

Step 16

Time for some finer details. Open up shutterstock_113586841 and use our Wand > Contract > Smooth technique to isolate the water. Get it on its own layer and bring it into the main composition beneath the “Tree” layer. Title it “Splash.” Use the Eyedropper to select a blue from the water — now hit Command-U to bring up Hue/Saturation and colorize the splash layer with high saturation and a little less lightness. While we’re working back here, let’s add a few extra small vine details too — duplicate existing elements, then shrink and pull Curves down to create depth.

Pull Curves Down to Create Depths

Step 17

Now that our main structure is complete, let’s bring in secondary elements. We’ll lead with the skulls. Etch out the skull and its shadow in shutterstock_146490023 and bring it into the main composition. Scale down and place it right in front of the tree. You’ll want to flip it horizontally so that the lighting matches the tree. Name it “Front Skull.”

Front Skull with Tree

Step 18

Grab one of your vine elements and wend it from the tree over the skull. Add a layer mask. Use the pen tool to create a selection between the nose and eye socket of the skull — fill the vine layer mask with black in this area. The vine will now appear to be growing through the skull. Cool!

Vine Layer Mask Area

Repeat this process with the skulls in shutterstock_116170228 and shutterstock_43620811, arranging around the tree as you see fit. Experiment with fun ways to integrate the vines — this is where you can really use your imagination and have fun with the piece!

Adding the Vines

Step 19

Let’s create our “Mini Icosa.” Etch out the plant in shutterstock_124477549 and bring it on in — name it “Little Plant.” Scale it down and position it near the first skull. Now, Duplicate your original “Top” group and right-click on it, then merge it to one layer. Scale it down and position it over the “Little Plant” layer, then rotate it to create a new angle. Group everything into a “Mini Icosa” group.

Mini Icosa Group in Photoshop

Step 20

Duplicate the “Water” group and, again, merge it down. Scale it to the size of our “Mini Icosa” family. Use the Pen tool to create a mask of the new smaller structure, and mask the water to it.

Step 21

Ctrl-click on the plant and the merged “Top” layer to get their selection. Use the eyedropper to select the color of the shadow cast by the tree in our base layer. Create a new layer and fill with this color. Rotate 90° clockwise and lengthen horizontally to create a realistic shadow.

Step 22

Time for the prey to come to the party! Open shutterstock_129934391 and shutterstock_105341579 — etch these birds out and introduce them to our structure. Duplicate some of the existing vine elements and Warp > Scale them so that they reach for and encircle our feathered friends. This doesn’t need to be precise; do it however best suits you.

Step 23

Etch out the zebra (shutterstock_58076815) and bison (shutterstock_111481139), including their shadows, and bring them in. Flip the bison horizontally so the lighting matches up. Position the zebra to the left of our “Tempter” plant. Use Curves to enhance the shadows of the zebra; use Dodge to spot-highlight on the back and rump to emphasize the sun’s lighting. Scale the bison down and place him off in the distance to the right.

The Full Piece - 3D Art

Step 24

Put everything we’ve made into one group. Hide that group. Now etch out the Dune line in the base photograph. Copy and paste to a new layer named “OG Dunes.”

Step 25

Open shutterstock_173959307 and etch these dunes out. Bring them into our composition and place behind the “OG Dunes.” Flip horizontally and hit Command-L — pull the midtones slider to the right a little to pump the midtones and match with our existing sand. Turn all other layers back on.

Step 26

Now it’s time to create some global atmospheric layers to tie the piece together. First, use the eyedropper tool to sample the darkest part of the dune. Create a new layer called “Shadows” and fill it with this super-dark brown color. Bring it to the top of all other layers, and set the layer mode to “Lighten.” This will create a global shadow point.

Step 27

To emphasize the lighting, create a Curves Adjustment layer. Bring the middle of the curve down slightly to darken the piece. Now drag a White to Black gradient from left to right to darken the right hand side of the piece.

Creating a Curves Adjustment Layer

Step 28

Now let’s create a uniform highlight tone. Fill a layer called “Highlights” with “ffffdf,” bring it to the top, and set the Layer Mode to Multiply. Opacity will work best at approx. 60%. To enrich the colors a bit, create a Color Balance adjustment layer. Drag the shadows approximately +15 to blue, and the highlights -15 to yellow.

Step 29

Create a Channel Mixer adjustment layer. Drag the red channel’s constant to +7, and the green channel to +3. Drag a gradient in the mask from top to bottom to bring out the yellow in the sand. To add the overall tone, create a new layer called “Tone” and fill with “4500ff.” Set the Layer Mode to Exclusion and opacity to 15%.

Layer Mode Exclusion

Step 30

Finally, add all of these global atmospherics to a group called “Atmospherics.” Add a group mask, and drag a White to Black gradient from the middle to the bottom, fading the effects out at the base of the composition — and completing the piece!

Check out all the images used to create the work in this tutorial in the lightbox below »

Explore more international art and inspiration in our Designer Passport series »

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