Design, Photomanipulation

Create an Unbelievable Surreal Abstract Artwork with Photoshop

In this Surreal Photoshop tutorial, you’ll see how to create an incredible surreal abstract artwork with stylistic influences from traditional artistic masters combined with modern, digital and 3D techniques.  You’ll see how to analyze a light source and identify where to place highlights and shadows, as well as how to use the pen tool, burn tool, dodge tool, liquify tool and others.

Additionally, you’ll see how to implement a stylistic concept and execute an image around a specific theme, as well as working with depth of field and other ideas.

Let’s get started!

Tools Used:

  • Photoshop
  • A few stock images
  • Wacom tablet (not required)

Final Image Preview:

Step 1: Document setup and Beginning manipulation

So first off you will need to find a stock image for the background. You should choose one that has a defining light source this will make things much easier. You can find plenty of stocks on, you should also use the maximum size possible.

My stock image is from Shutterstock and looks like the below screenshot.

Once you have your background image its time to take a look at it and figure out your light source. Take the below screen shot as an example, the white arrows (however crudely drawn) represent the beam of light while the black shows where the image will be the darkest.

Next its time to find our model stock, again if your not looking to purchase a stock would be your best bet, however you can find great stocks on Deviant art as well. Much like your BG image, for the model you will want one with a direct light source, this of course is not exactly required but it will make things much easier as you go along. My stock image looks like the below image and like my BG stock it can be found on Shutterstock.

Now we need to start the beginning of the manipulation process. To do this just use your pen tool to isolate out the face. We will be using the pen tool a lot in this tutorial but we will not cover it due to the fact that they’re in such an abundance of pen tool tutorials out there. A great video tutorial on using the pen tool can be found here:

My isolated face looks like the below image.

Now its time to look at our face and its light setup, we will again use the crudely drawn arrows as a reference.

Now its time to take out our burn tool, the burn tool can be accessed on the keyboard by pressing the O key.

Once you have the burn tool selected you will need to set it up as I have done in the below screenshot. Take into account the size of your face when selecting the size of your brush, however no matter what size you use make sure it’s a soft brush!

Now just use your burn tool around the hard edge of the face, be sure not to burn it to much, you don’t want and large black areas! Also take into account the light map we did previously when doing this step. After doing this I painted over parts of my face to tone down the highlights. My face now looks like the below image.

Now just move/free transform your and place it as you like. I would suggest placing the face as close to the primary light source as possible.

Step 2: Shape Creation

Now its time to start our shape creation, you will want to have a base texture. Im using a part of my models skin, you should use part of your models skin if possible, if not you can look on or Deviantart for a skin texture.

Once you have your base texture you will need to grab your pen tool and make a random shape. Make sure your shape has no hard edges, they should be as smooth as possible. Once you have your random shape you will need to go ahead and make it into a selection.

My selection looks like the below screen shot.

Now just copy and past it into your scene! Place this close to the back side of your face, it will be the first and main element of our piece.

Now zoom in and grab your circular marquee tool. With the marquee tool selected go ahead and make a quick selection somewhere in the shape, once you have made the selection go ahead and erase out this selection.

Now let’s look at our light setup once again. The tiny arrows on the bottom left represent where the least amount of light should be present. This should be the darkest area of the shape. The white arrows are obviously where the light should be hitting the shape, making it the brightest part of the object.

So now its time to take the burn tool back out. This time we will start off with it set to burn shadows. We want to start burning the shape from the bottom right (or what your darkest side should be) and then go inward.

Now we can switch the burn tool over to burn only midtones, now you should finish burning the rest of our object. Keep in mind you want the shadow on the shape to fade or ‘gradient’ as it does in a natural setting.

Once you have done this we will repeat this process using the dodge tool Start with the tool set up to dodge the midtones and then finish off the edges by dodging the shapes edges with the dodge tool set to highlights.

My finished shape looks like the below screen shot.

You can see in the below image how my shadows and highlights fade together similar to that of a gradient. This is exactly how you want yours to look.

My document now looks like the below image.

Now we make another shape. This time we will use a simple shape (yet again with our pen tool).

The shape, on its own, is not very interesting at all. However with some simple tweaking we can turn this lonely blob into a whole arrangement of shapes. Say for instance if we applied a twirl filter at about 75 the image would turn out something like the below image.

Now this is all fine and good, but its not exactly what we want and there is no real control over how the object will turn out. A much better solution would be to use the Liquefy filter. The liquefy filters dialog looks like the below screen shot and is quite simple to use.

The main tools we will use in here are as follows:

  • The forward warp tool, much like a super powered smudge brush it is my tool of choice in the filters dialog.
  • The Reconstruct tool, name says it all here, use this brush/tool to revert any changes done while in the liquefy dialog.
  • The Twirl tool, much like the twirl filter, using this grants more control over your object thought; allowing you to apply it to certain sections of the object at a time.
  • The Bloat tools, using this will allow you to increase the size of your object, or the portion of it.
  • The pucker tool, you can use the pucker tool to shrink down sections of your object as you see fit.
  • The Turbulence tool, This tool basically just causes the edges of your object to become rippled. Not the best tool for our objects but its fun to play with none the less!

Now we can take a look at the settings for each of the tools. All of the above tools are applied similar to a brush in that you select one and paint over your object with it, this makes the entire process much easier since you are familiar with the start brush dialog.

Brush size, the name says it all here, up the size or down the size to change the size of your brush.

Brush density, this is essentially how hard your brush will be pressed.

Brush pressure, this is how much of the said effect should be applied at each stroke, think of it as the opacity for your brush tool (or flow for that matter).

Using your liquefy tool its very easy to take a shape like we had previously (before the twirl filter was applied) and turn it into something entirely different. I used the forward warp tool to create the below object.

But this is not exactly what we want. Take a look at the below screenshot using our previous shape. We want to use the forward warp tool to push in the sides (making it thinner) and then pull out the bottom, once that is done we will pull the top section on either side to increase its width and then push down on it to create a flat surface. When pulling down try and make your shape as long as you can, this will make things easier later (after all its always easier to crop something then to increase the size of it).

After doing this my shape looks like the below image.

Now we will take our eraser and erase the top section that was pulled out. Once that is done use your eraser tool to split the top section down the middle, stop about 1/3 of the way down.

Once that is done just round off your edges were you previously erased, this can be done with the eraser tool or the pen tool, the choice is up to you. Once that is done simply liquefy it once more this time pulling the two strand apart (again with the forward warp tool).

Now size it done and place it on the bottom section of your face. This will be its ‘support beam’. Erase one of the ‘arms’ we created previously right were it meets the face, this should give it the appearance of going behind the face. Be sure to free transform your object if necessary.

Now we can yet again look at the light setup. This time our setup is a little different because we need to burn (or create a shadow) the support beam where it appears to be going around/under the face.

Once you have located where the light should be hitting and were your dark areas are proceed to burning and dodging the respectable areas.

Now we can create a new layer underneath the support beam layer this will be our hole. Once you have created the layer make a small selection using your marquee tool as I have done in the below screen shot.

Fill this with black. Now grab your dodge tool (set to midtones) and set your brush up similar to mine.

Now switch over to your background layer and dodge around the side of the hole that faces your light source. This will give your hole a sense of depth as well as making it appear much more realistic.

Once you have dodge this area you can switch back to your beam layer and select the burn tool. Now we want to burn the stick at the entrance to the hole, as if its fading away into the dark abyss.

My stick/hole now looks like the below screen shot.

Step 3: Shapes continued

Now its time to start on some more shapes for our face. This time we will go back to the oval like shape we used previously. Once you have created the shape again just apply the twirl filter like I did (75+).

Once that is done liquefy your shape. This time using again the forward warp tool. You will want to push the shape out and make it longer and then push it in on itself to make a thin line. Once that Is done go ahead and push upwards/downwards in the middle to create a hump like shape in the middle of the object.

Now we just need to place it on our face and burn/dodge it accordingly. I placed mine under the face but over our ‘main’ object. This gives the tube shape a sense of depth as if it is coming out of the face and rapping around the ‘main object’. To do this just place it under the face layer but above the main shape layer, then erase out any sections that go off the main object.

Once you have done this you can repeat this process, this time make one of the ends of the tube like shape larger and curved. I duplicated the previously created tube shape and used it to make the process quicker. I also placed it in the same manner as the first tube shape.

Once you have your two tube shapes pasted in its time to look at this from our light source yet again. As seen in the above screen shots these two tube shapes do not cast any shadows on the main object. This is not good since in reality there would be some shadow. To create your shadow just switch over to a small brush and paint some black under both of the shapes (on a new layer) and then Gaussian blur them.

Now we can take one of our previous shapes (tube 1 or two) and duplicate it again. This time just drag it over to the other side of the main object and round off the end. This way it appears as if tube 1 or tube 2 is leaving the other side of the main object.

Rounding off the end of this shape can be done with the pen tool or the eraser tool, the main idea is that we do not want any hard edges. If yours is too thin feel free to liquefy it once more to increase the diameter of the object.

Now we can go back to our pen tool and our base material and make a new shape this time we want something long with nice curves but thicker than tube 1/tube 2. You want your shape to have a blob head that slims down into a thin tail. If your having trouble creating something you like don’t hesitate to throw it into the liquefy filter!

Now we can drop it into our document and place it wherever you like. Mine is on the back end of the main object.

Once you have placed it take a moment to look at your light sources yet again. I know it may seem ridiculous to keep looking at your objects/scene this way but this is the most crucial part, the correct burning/dodging is what creates the ‘3D’ like appearance of your shape.

As you can see the light source/shadow areas are quite obvious. However the tail is curved upwards facing the light source on my image, thus making this section not pitch black it should have a slight highlight.

Once you have taken your light source into account and decided where the shadows will fall you can go ahead and dodge/highlight as we have done before with the same setup and in the same order (burn midtones -> shadows, dodge midtones -> highlights). Keep in mind we want to create the same gradient effect that we have had on our previous shapes.

My shape now looks like the below image.

Now we can create another shape similar to tube 1 or 2. This time we will have it standing straight up and curving around our newly created object.

Once you have your shape created/placed/burned and highlighted we can continue on to create a hole for it just as we have done with the previous hole.

To make it stand out more I duplicated tube 1, sized it down, colored it red (using the hue and saturation jitter) and placed it behind this new shape. You don’t have to do this but it’s a good way to make things more interesting.

Now just continue making shapes! Create a few more tubes shaped objects to fill up some of the gaps. The next few images will show you my process of placement as well as coloring etc…

An important factor when doing this is the light sources that we discussed previously. Take for instance the below screen shot. Notice the red tube coming out of the hole? See how its darker in the hole and fades to a brighter shade as it emerges?

This is an important factor when placing/creating your shapes. You want it to be as realistically lit as possible. So any shapes emerging from an behind another object should have a shadow cast from that said object.

The one shape I have used that has not yet been discussed is present in the last screen shot, the orb. The orb is the easiest shape of all to create. To create the orb use your circular marquee tool and make a perfect circle.

Now look at your orb and how the light should be hitting it. Once you have done this just burn it and then dodge it as you did all your previous objects and ta da!

My orbs look like the below screen shots.

Once you have created a sufficient amount of shapes its time to create the final effect, the shadow. The entire face/object mesh should be casting a shadow on the ground. To create a shadow simply draw some black lines with your brush tool loosely around and then Gaussian blur them!

To finish my piece off I duplicated some of the previous shapes and blurred them to add depth, then dropped in a moon and some birds. It looks like the below screenshot.

I hope you enjoyed reading my tutorial and wound up with an image you like! Or came out with knowing a few new tricks! If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask.

Also, if you have any ideas for future tutorials please say so!


  1. Joe, this looks awesome. It reminds me of Dali’s work.. I’ve added this tutorial on my blog for my readers to check out. Hope more people get a chance to see this! :)

  2. ive been using photoshop for years now ..but could never figure out the mechanics of light and shadow this explains it,great …thanks , cant wait to try ,with my own pics tut ive seen in a very long time

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