Create a Conceptual Monochromatic Composition in Photoshop

Today we will create a conceptual monotone composition based on the idea of breaking our own boundaries. We will use stock photos, a bit of imagination and of course, Photoshop. The tutorial is well explained, with high quality step pictures.

Along with creating this, you will learn how to:
– use channels to create advanced selections
– make use of adjustment tools
– combine various tools
– create shading and lighting
– use blending modes
– use adjustment layers
– adjust tones in a picture
– create a more clean look for your image
– use shortcuts for a smoother work flow
– tips and tricks for cool compositions

I will also explain WHY you use certain commands, because it’s important to get an in-depth understanding of what you are doing. This way you will be able to develop your own style, which leads to that thing every designer is craving for – originality.

model by Marcus J. Ranum
egg by thermwox
cracked egg 1 by pink-stock
cracked egg 2 by pink-stock
beach by cherry189
sky by mdreamer-stock

Difficulty: Beginner – Intermediate
Completion time: 2 hours
Tools: Photoshop CS3

Final Image Preview of the Conceptual Monochromatic Composition


Create a new document (File > New…) of 1680 x 1050 px in RGB color mode at 72 dpi. I use this size because it provides a decent quality for the final image.


Select the pictures and click-drag them into Photoshop. Then go to Window > Various___1_by_mjranum_stock.jpg. In the Layers palette (F7), double-click the lock near the layer thumb and hit OK. Unlocking the layer will allow adjustments on the Channels.


Go to the Channels window (Window > Channels), select the  “Blue” channel and right-click > Duplicate channel… . Now you have a new “Blue copy” channel.
From all channels, Blue has the highest contrast between the model and the background.


Grab the Crop Tool (C) and crop the picture as below, leaving out a part of the right side.


Grab the Path Tool (P), set it on Paths and make a rough selection of the hair. Since the overall tones in the channel are different, we will work on areas of the image to bring it to the same tone.

Here’s a neat trick: when you use stock photos, they tend to by a bit blurry, so when you want to make cutouts, zoom in until you can see the pixels and trace over the pixels where you see the actual color of the object you want to cut, and not the transition pixels between the object and the background.


When you finished tracing (make sure you have a closed path), right-click > Make Selection. Then go to Image > Adjustments > Curves (CTRL+M). Use the settings below and hit OK.


Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels (CTRL+L). Use the settings below and hit OK.


Repeat STEPS 6-7 until you obtain a nice high contrast between the hair and the background.


Go to Select > Inverse and use Image > Adjustments > Curves (CTRL+M) and Levels (CTRL+L) to obtain maximum contrast.


Grab the Brush Tool (B), set Hardness to 100% and paint over the white spots on the hair. Use “[“ and “]” to adjust the brush size. Go to Select > Deselect (CTRL+D).


Grab the Burn Tool (O) and darken the hair tips, but don’t overdo it. Use the Brush Tool (B) to clean up any imperfections.


Go to Image Adjustments > Curves again and use the setting below. This will help clear the extra light tones. Grab the Brush Tool (B), hit X and paint over the remaining gray tones, mainly on the body. Now it should look like below.


CTRL+click the “Blue copy” channel thumb, go to the Layers palette, select the layer and copy the selection (CTRL+C). Then go to Window > Untitled-1.psd and paste it (CTRL+V).


Go to Window > Egg_on_White_by_thermwox.jpg Grab the Path Tool (P) and trace the outline of the egg. When you closed the path, right-click > Make Selection, copy it (CTRL+C), go back to our document (Window > Untitled-1.jpg) and paste it (CTRL+V).


In the Layers palette (F7), double-click the layer’s tag and name it to “egg shell”. Do the same for the model: name the layer to “model”.


Select the “model” layer, go to Edit > Free Transform (CTRL+T) and click-drag one of the corners to resize it. Hold the SHIFT key to preserve the proportions. Do the same for the egg shell.


Go to Window > Stock_205___Egg_Shell_by_pink_stock.jpg, grab the Path Tool (P) and trace the edge of the broken egg shell. Right-click > Make Selection, copy it (CTRL+C), go back to our document (Window > Untitled-1.psd) and paste it (CTRL+V).


Go to Edit > Free Transform (CTRL+T), resize it and rotate it to fit like below. Hit Enter.


Go to Layer > Duplicate Layer (CTRL+J). Go to Edit > Free Transform (CTRL+T), rotate it and place it like below, then press CTRL+[ to send it behind the original.


Go to Window > Beach_by_Cherry189.jpg, select all (CTRL+A), copy it (CTRL+C), go back to our document (Window > Untitled-1.psd) and paste it (CTRL+V).


Hit CTRL+T to enter Free Transform mode, resize it to fit the  entire canvas and hit Enter. Press CTRL+SHIFT+[ to send it to back, then click the “Add Vector Mask” button (the gray rectangle with a white circle in its center).


Grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and select the sky. Then grab the Brush Tool (B) and paint over the entire selected area. This will mask that flat sky, we will add a more interesting one.


Go to Window > Place117c_by_mdreamer_stock_by_mdreamer_stock.jpg. Grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M), select the sky and the land, copy it (CTRL+C), go back to our document (Window > Untitled-1.psd) and paste it (CTRL+V).


Go to Edit > Free Transform (CTRL+T) and resize it to fit the masked area of the previous layer. Doesn’t have to be really precise. Right-click > Flip Horizontal, hit Enter and hit CTRL+SHIFT+[.


Go to Window > Stock_205___Egg_Shell_by_pink_stock.jpg and cut out the egg shell piece shown below. Copy it and paste it into our document. Place it as shown below.


Select the “model” layer. Then go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance, Levels, Brightness/Contrast and Black & White. Use the settings shown below for each. Make sure you check the “Use previous layer to create clipping mask” box. I use multiple adjustment layers for a more precise control of color tones.


Select the “model” layer again and go to Layer > Duplicate Layer (CTRL+D) and place it above the adjustment layers. In the Layers palette (F7), set Blending mode to “Screen” and Opacity to 27%.


Select the “egg shell” layer. Go to the Layers palette (F7) and click the “Add Vector Mask” button. Now Grab the Path Tool (P) and trace the area shown below. Leave out the thickness of the shell. When you’re done tracing, right-click > Make Selection


Grab the Brush Tool (B) and paint the entire selected area. Make sure the layer mask is still selected.


Repeat STEPS 28-29 for the model’s legs or simply place the egg shell layers above the “model copy” layer.
Using layer the layer mask however will give you more practice with this technique and I recommend using it until you master it.


In the Layers palette (F7), select the top-most layer and go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White. Use the settings shown below. Then lock the layer.

Since we will create a monotone composition, this layer will remove any influences you might get in time from the colors. We’re only interested in the tone, not the color.


Go to Window > Stock_208___Egg_Shell_by_pink_stock.jpg. Grab the Path Tool (P) and trace the piece of egg shell shown below. Go back to our document (Window > Untitled-1.psd) and paste it. Place it below the “model” layer. Resize it as shown in the image below.


Grab the Path Tool (P), set in on Shapes and draw a shape like below. In the Layers palette (F7), set Fill to 0%.
At 0% Fill, the shape will be invisible, but don’t worry, it’s there!


Click the “fx” button in the Layers palette and select Blending Options. Use the settings below.


Grab the Path Tool (P) again and draw a shape like below. Then hold the ALT key and click-drag the “fx” icon to the “Shape 2” layer. This will copy the effects created for “Shape 1” onto “Shape 2”.


With the Path Tool (P) still selected, click the vector mask of Shape 2 and set the tool to “Subtract Path From Area”. Then draw the area shown below.


Repeat STEP 34-36 for the shape below.


Place the “Shape 2” and “Shape 3” layers below the “egg shell” layer or bring the “egg shell” layer above them. If you want to tweak the shape, grab the Direct Selection Tool (A), CTRL+click the shape and click an anchorpoint. Drag the directional arrows to adjust the curves.


Grab the Selection Tool (V), check the “Auto Select” feature and click on the sand. Create a new layer (CTRL+SHIFT+N) and set Blending mode to Multiply. Now grab the Brush Tool (B), set Hardness to 0%, Opacity to 40% (press the “4” key) and draw the shadow on the sand. Make it more intense the closer the body is to the ground. Do this for the other objects that drop a shadow on the ground.


Repeat STEP 40 to create the rest of the shadows. ALT+click between the layers to create the shadow only on that specific object.
I wasn’t happy with the dark tones blending and I added a Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid color below the Black & White locked one with a dark mauve tone and Blending mode set to “Soft Light”.


Select the Black & White layer and unlock it, then double-click its thumbnail. Move the “Red” slidebar to the left until you create some nice darktones on the model’s body. Hit OK.

Why the “Red”  bar ?
Because skintones contain tones of red and yellow. If you darken the Yellows, you will modify the lights on the body, not the shadows.


Go to Layers > New Fill Layer > Solid color. Use the settings below for each.

As a finishing touch, I added the “5” counter lines, to suggest the idea of the days remaining before breaking out.


Select all artwork (CTRL+A), copy merged (CTRL+SHIFT+C) and paste it in the same document (CTRL+V).


Go to Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen. The image is large enough to not get destroyed by such a simple filter. For smaller images, duplicate layer (CTRL+J) and go to Filter > Other > High Pass, give it a 1-2 px and set Blending mode to Overlay.


Playing around a bit, I noticed it also looks cool without the “Black & White” adjustment layer. Even after I got to the result I wanted, I was still eager to see more versions, to go beyond the barrier I’ve set at the beginning.

Feel free to add vignette effect using the same techniques as for the shadows or adjust to soft tones as you like. Experimenting is the key to learning!

Brett Widmann
This was a really helpful tutorial! Thank you for sharing.
Interesting; however, there is one thing throwing this all off for me. The clouds in the back indicate that the light is coming in from the left off in the distance; however, the foreground objects like the woman and shells are indicating more of an overhead light or light from the right. Perhaps reversing the background would make it feel right? Anyhow, thanks for the tutorial.
In a composition, the physical world rules do not apply. The sky is like that from two reasons: 1. The white egg shell stands out more because it has a dark background. 2. The model's hair stands out more, since the dark hair contrasts to the light gray background. Perhaps this link will help you understand more about artistic compositions :)
i like your blog specially the design thanks for the idea
fantastic work. hope i can get this good x
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[...] 21. Create a Conceptual Monochromatic Composition in Photoshop [...]
Petra Kar
thanks so much, this will help me a lot.