Create a Fantastic Environmental Awareness Composition

In the ongoing environmental disaster caused by the British Petroleum oil spill, one of the largest areas of promotional artwork and awareness has been for the environment and for the eco-friendly movement.  Although it has been an ongoing trend for years, the recent oil spill has led to a resurgence in concerns over oil drilling across the world.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to create a fantastic environmental awareness composition that fits a specific theme, namely the BP oil spill.  You’ll learn how to develop a plan of attack for the image, and then combine various stocks to create an environment, then populate it with various sea creatures, then finally you’ll learn how to create the illusion of an oil spill using stock images and painting techniques.

Let’s get started!

Tools Used: Photoshop

  • Tablet (or your mouse)
  • Stock images




Jelly fish:

Sea Gulls:


Underwater Scene:

Smoke/Oil texture:

Final Image Preview

Step 1: Document Setup and scene prep

To start off we need to create a new document with a size of about 2000*3000 px. You can adjust your document size based on your needs but this is the suggested ratio. Once that is done we need to fill the background with black to prepare it for our water. Once your document is filled you will need a stock like the below image, I obtained mine from Stock Expert however there is a nice substitute on SXC.  But of course if you have your own stock, or a stock from somewhere else that will work fine as well.


Of course if you use the substitute your left with two options, one is to leave the sky and water as they are and two being to isolate the water. I would suggest using the sky and ocean as it is and just build upon it but the choice is up to you.

Step 2: Background/Sky creation

Create a new layer and click and hold the paint bucket icon, this will display another icon called the gradient icon. Click the gradient icon and select your colors, go with a light blue to dark blue and fill the layer going from one corner to the other. To ensure your top left or right corner is the darkest go ahead and do a edit rotate 180, rotate horizontal or rotate vertical if need be.

Now create another layer a fill this layer with another gradient. Set up your gradient as a dark blue (not as dark as the first layer) to white to the same dark blue. Once you fill the layer, set it up as a multiply layer at 19%.

Now bring your wave/splash back up and drag it atop your sky layer and just erase all of your sky that is beneath the splash. Your blending mode should be set to screen for your splash. However if your splash is too bright you can use a 30px soft brush on a new layer beneath the splash layer to darken up behind it which in turn will make it more visible. However if you do this be sure to clean up after yourself! You do not want any stray black smudges and blobs.

Step 3: Sea creation

Now we need to open our sea life stock and drag it into our canvases.

Once you have dragged the stock in you will notice its far too large. So you will need to free transform it to fit under the splash or at least partially under the splash. Once you have it free transformed and placed under the splash/wave go ahead and erase all of the ocean that comes above the splash/wave.

Your scene should look similar to mine at this point.

Now we need to make a selection of our ocean, to do this hold CTRL on your keyboard and click the layer. Once that is done we will create some photo filter layers, we will use these layers to give our fish and water a more underwater feel.

So to start off we will go to the Layer drop down menu and go to Adjustment layers > Photo filters, once you have clicked this a new dialog box should appear with a few presets we can choose from as well as the opacity or Density of the layer. We will click the drop down menu and choose green with a density of 41%. Then just press ok!

Now with the ocean still selected we will create another photo filter layer, this time however we will use the underwater preset with a density of 25%.

Your canvas should now look similar to mine in the below screenshot.

Step 4: Sea life and Birds

We will start off with a clown fish which can be found in the above links or here
So head over to Sxc again and grab and drop this into your document as I have done.

Now we can use the magic wand tool just like we did with the phone. So to start off we will press W on the keyboard to grab the wand tool once again, we will leave its tolerance at 25% as it was with the phone. With the magic wand tool enabled we can start clicking around our fish, if we hold the SHIFT key down after the initial click we should be able to keep the current selection and only add to it. Once you have clicked all around the fish your selection should look similar to mine in the below screenshot.

Now we can apply a layer mask and then press CTRL I just as before to make the fish visible. And then just clean up anything left behind with your eraser and your fish should look similar to mine in the below screenshot.

Once your fish is isolated just drop him under the two photo filter layers and place him wherever you like.

The next stock fish we will use is located on deviantArt which can be found here

Once you have copied and pasted the fish into your document we will start by pressing M on our keyboard to bring the marquee tool back up. With the marquee tool back up we can make a selection around the top right fish. Once you have made a selection around him you can press CTRL C and followed by CTRL V this will copy what we had selected and then paste it. Once we have pasted the duplicate of our fish we can hide the original layer by selecting the eye icon on the layer toolbar. With the original layer hidden we can begin isolating our fish with the magic wand tool. So press W on the keyboard to bring the magic wand tool back up and select the white around the fish, once you have selected the white you can press DEL on your keyboard to remove it and now our fish is isolated!

Now just place him as before.

Our next fish is on Sxc, so we will head over to Sxc once again and grab this stock

We will isolate this fish out the same way we isolated out our previous fish. You will see it really only takes one click to isolate the little fish. Once you have grabbed it with the magic wand we can press the DELETE key on our keyboard to erase that selection out.

Now place this fish as well. I have it twice as you can see I the below screen shots.

So we can now go head over to Sxc to grab a jellyfish stock
Now just copy this jellyfish into our document in Photoshop so we can begin editing it into our piece.

Now we can press E on the keyboard to grab the eraser tool; we will then right click and grab the standard 300px soft brush, we want to change the hardness to 100% rather than 0. Once we have our brush set up we will just quickly erase all the debris that are floating around in there with him. Try and get the strange over saturated red patches as well as all the little floating things. Once you have erased all you can see your image should look like mine below.

Now to further enhance the jellyfish we will be doing a manual edit of the levels. To do this we will need to pres CTRL L on the keyboard, we will be moving the far left triangle over to the right a little bit and then pressing ok or ENTER on the keyboard. Doing the manual adjustment will darken all the blacks in the scene and cause the grays to become pitch black which is a very good thing.

Once the levels are fully adjusted we can then change the blending mode for this layer to screen, this blending mode does not allow any black to be shown which means we are done with our isolation of the jellyfish! So just place him wherever you like and your done with him!

Now just repeat the above process with the fish/jellyfish using the stock links at the top. Once you have isolated and placed a good bit of sea life we will move on to the next step. The following images will show you were I placed my fish to give you some ideas of size/placement you can use. Also note that all of the stocks that I used were isolated using the above techniques.

My document now looks like the below screenshot.

Now we can grab the two sea gull stocks and isolate them in the same manner as the fish. Once they are isolated you can place them in your sky as you like.

Step 5: Oil creation

To start off we will need to head over and grab our barrel stock.
Once you have it and have placed it in your document you will want to isolate it out the same way we did our fish using your magic wand tool.

Once that is done you will need to free transform your barrel so that its on its side. Then drag your barrel under your splash and your photo filter layers. Once that is done just place it floating In the water as I have done in the below screenshot. You can see how the photo filter layers adjust the highlights on the bottom of the barrel; this is exactly what we want!

Now we need to duplicate the layer and place another barrel in the top center of our image. This barrel will need to be free transformed so that it appears to be pouring out our fluids.

Now we will get down to the gritty parts, painting our oil! So to start off create a new layer and grab the standard 3 px hard brush and make sure your color choice is black.

Once you have grabbed the brush and created a new layer start off by making a V. the top of the V should be where your drip meets the canister and the bottom should be were our oil is dripping.

Next close your drip at the bottom.

Now start darkening your drip in.

Now switch your color over to white and draw the highlights on your oil.

Once you have done this your scene should look similar to mine, but do not worry if your drip looks a tad different. Not all drips look the same in real life!

Our next step is (while still using the 3px black brush) to draw a tear drop shape falling from the massive oil drip. Once that is done draw a little black hump looking line on top of the water that looks like the oil is settling into the water. If you like you can also draw some tiny orbs flying up as if the hump is actually a splash but this is just a suggestion, it is not required.

Now we will start adding the oil into our water. The best way to do this is using a smoke or ink in water texture. So head over to SXC and grab the smoke stock located at

Just drop it into your document just grayscale it (CTRL SHIFT U).

Now we will do another manual edit to increase the blacks. So open up your level editor (CTRL L) and set it up as mine is in the below screenshot.

Your stock should now look similar to mine in the below screenshot.

Now set the blending mode to multiply and place it! I choose to place it right around the barrel floating in the water right beneath the wave. You can use the soft 300px eraser to clean it up and to create an opacity gradient of sorts.

Also take note that you will need to duplicate this layer multiple times to cover this much area!

Now we need to paint the oil onto our fish. We will paint this with our 3px hard brush as we did with drip. The only real difference this time is that you want to only cover the fish, you do not want any of the oil covering something other than your sea life, for instance there should not be a chunk of oil floating about!

So create a new layer on top of all your other layers and zoom in a good bit and start covering up parts of your fish. The next few screenshots will show you how I covered my sea life and how you should as well.

Now we can switch over to our white brush and paint on some highlights!

If you want to you can do this to the wing of your bird as well. However with the bird you will need to almost paint a drip flying backwards as if the oil is flying off the wing due to the speed of the bird.

And now we are done! The below screenshot is my final image. I hope you enjoyed reading this tutorial and it has helped you understand a few concepts or at least showed you some techniques you did not know.


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