4 Steps to Photoshop Artistry Using Fine Art Grunge Techniques


Image by Sebastian Michaels

This post is by Sebastian Michaels creator of the course – Photoshop Artistry: Fine Art Grunge Composition (currently on special for dPS readers).

One question. Do you sharpen just about all your images? If so … you should stop. As photographers we tend to want our images to be perfect: perfect exposure, perfect white balance, perfect sharpness. But aren’t you a little tired of being so perfect all the time? Let me clue you in. Art doesn’t always have to be so darn pretty. What if instead you let yourself RELAX a bit, lighten up, and have some fun? What if you let yourself get a little messy? Maybe not full-blown grunge. But how about “fine art grunge”?

Start here: a little more blur, a little more noise, an unexpected angle or crop, perhaps some striking effect of light combined with a subject you never would normally have thought to consider.


Photo credit: Catherine King (course student)

Sometimes we forget that at our core we are ARTISTS. Owning a Canon 5D Mark III rig and enough lighting gear to stage a Pink Floyd reunion tour doesn’t change that. Just because we spend so much time trying to capture the perfect shot doesn’t mean that we can’t switch it up now and then and treat our images (even our mistakes, even our botched shots) as nothing more than the starting point in more elaborate artistic compositions.

Here’s a mental trick to get you started. Think of some of your favorite shots. But instead of imagining your photos all printed pretty and perfect, imagine them layered-in and composited with other images and rendered as a painted canvas.

Think paint on canvas. Not that you need to simply run a paint filter on your photos. That’s not going to cut it here. Think instead of paint on a canvas in the sense of a wild-eyed painter with oil paint in his hair, brushes sticking out of his pockets and one clenched between his teeth – attacking a canvas in a frenzy of creativity and passion. When was the last time you approached your photography with that kind of intensity? When was the last time you let yourself step outside of your serious photographer role and actually felt like an ARTIST creating a great canvas?


Photo credit: Li Li Wee (course student)

That kind of artistry is in you. Let’s look at how you might begin tapping into it.

STEP ONE: Take More Chances With Your Photography

I mentioned a little of this earlier. You might already have some shots that you would otherwise delete out of hand just because they are blurred or the contrast is screwy. Give those a second look. Maybe there’s something artistic you could do with them. Maybe you could crop them in a creative way.

When you are shooting, try some angles you normally wouldn’t even attempt. For that matter, try shooting some subjects outside of your usual comfort zone. Take a walk down a dark alley (or a woodland trail) and see what you come out with.

Maybe enlist some models you normally wouldn’t have chosen, or stockpile some odd objects and lug them out to quirky locations. In other words: experiment more. Get out of your comfort zone and try something new. Take some chances for your art.

STEP TWO: Throw In Some Blend Modes (and Maybe Some Textures)

It’s surprising how much more interesting an image can become simply by slapping a Curves layer on it (or even simply duplicating the background layer) and assigning that layer a Blend Mode. Give it a try and see.



Your best bet is almost always with Multiply or Screen blend modes, or alternately with Overlay, Hard Light, or Soft Light. I recommend memorizing the keyboard short cuts for those so you can toggle through them quickly and pick the best. You might also want to lower the opacity of the layer (or you might want to duplicate that layer with Cmd/Ctrl+J, doubling up the effect, or giving that duplicate layer a different Blend Mode of its own).

You might also want to stick a Layer Mask on there and paint in precisely where you want that effect to show. Every image is different, and layer Blend Modes can create rich results.

I recommend also trying out some textures combined with Blend Modes and Layer Masks. A texture or overlay might be as simple as a photo of a grungy patch of concrete, or it might be a scanned watercolor wash. It could also be an intricately layered piece in and of itself, comprised of scanned swatches of paint, scratched up paper with coffee stains on it, colorized with a Hue/Saturation layer and given a dark vignette. When you decide to explore photo-artistry, you begin collecting a lot of these kinds of textures and overlays.


But whatever you use, you drop it in over the image and give it a Blend Mode; again, you might tweak the opacity or employ a Layer Mask. Already your image is likely looking more dramatic and artistic. It’s probably a bit “grungy” at this point, and that’s okay. Embrace it. You might already find yourself astonished; discovering something in the image you never quite knew was there until this moment.

STEP THREE: Get More Dramatic With Your Lighting or Experiment With Some Filters

You never know where an image is going to take you. All you can do is try a few things and see if one of them looks especially cool. One approach you may want to try is to slap another Curves layer on top of the image (or Brightness/Contrast if you’re working with Elements) and deliberately darken the entire image. Go back in with the Brush Tool to paint over the Layer Mask at a low opacity and, in essence, paint in the lighting where you want it. Be sure to use a soft-edged round brush at only about 20% opacity, layering your strokes while using black and white and toggling between the two by pressing the “x” key.

Here you are painting in where you want light. But you can do something very similar with any of the effects in the Filter Gallery. Here’s how:

  1. Go to the top layer of your layer stack and execute what has come to be known as “The Move”: Cmd-Option-Shift-E on a Mac (or Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E on a PC) to “merge everything visible” onto its own new layer.
  2. Select the new layer you just created and press Cmd/Ctrl+J to duplicate it.
  3. Run a filter from the Filter Gallery on that layer. Go ahead and try out one or more of the painting filters, but experiment with the others as well, and how they interact. LayerMaskShortcuts
  4. After you apply the filter to your duplicate layer, stick a Layer Mask on it and again use a black or white soft-edge brush at low opacity to paint the effect in or out as you like. Try masking out the effect a bit in the areas of greatest focus, leaving everything on the edges more enhanced. Experiment and see where the image takes you.

STEP FOUR: Go Ahead and Add an Edge Effect and a Signature

Now that you have an interesting artistic image, it’s nice to give it some kind of artsy edge treatment. There are half a dozen ways to do this (you can even pick up OnOne Software specifically built for the task of creating edge effects), but we can leave the pure Photoshop methods for the next tutorial.

You might even want to stick a more artistic signature on the corner of the piece, because you’re likely excited at this point, since you are now looking at a work fit for canvas.


Photo credit: Irene Hofmann (course student)

You took some chances and it paid off. Next time maybe you’ll get even grungier, because by now you’re seeing that “grunge” is just another way of saying “artistic.” Above all else, whatever your tools, and whatever your approach, you are first and foremost, an artist.

For walk through of this process and a better idea of what the course is like, check out this video:

This post is by Sebastian Michaels creator of the course – Photoshop Artistry: Fine Art Grunge Composition (currently on special for dPS readers).

Read more from our Post Production category

Sebastian Michaels is based in Asheville, NC, and continues to inspire over 10,000 students worldwide with his acclaimed "Photoshop Artistry" course. Sebastian collaborates often with legendary instructors like Dave Cross and Phil Steele, and even publishes a monthly magazine (Living the Photo Artistic Life) featuring the extraordinary digital artwork of his advanced students. You can learn more about Sebastian's upcoming projects on his popular Photoshop Artistry page on Facebook.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Excellent, excellent, new thing for me to learn again ;). Can i become your online student for free 😉

  • Can’t take on any private students, unfortunately, but love to have you in the course. You get lifetime access to over 60 training videos (and more than 5 gigabytes of pro-designed bonus content). I think you will have a blast with it. And right now you can get in at 2/3 off with the Digital Photography School (Snapndeals) promotion:


  • Phil Steele

    These are excellent tips for starting to play with artistic effects in Photoshop. And of course it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sebastian’s Photoshop Artistry course totally changed the way I look at my photos and the possible ways of using them. Highly recommended!

  • Mercurius

    I began Sebastian’s course about a year ago, and I must say… it’s AMAZING! I’ve always loved photography, and my worldwide travels left with me with thousands of photos, but I never really fancied myself an artist. I could edit photos, sure, but after that my photos just sat there, boring and bland.

    This course has taught me how to take them much, much further. With my new skills I can create interesting, layered, dynamic, and completely one-of-a-kind works of art, that truly WOW my friends, families, and clients.

    Now I actually get recognition for my work with my printed canvases appearing in galleries and in my own home! And with the growing course community, I can always ask for critiques and advice, giving it a whole extra layer of interaction.

    Totally recommend it to anyone!

  • Katie Fisher

    Sebastian’s Photoshop Artistry course completely blew me away. Before I joined the course I had never used Photoshop and now I feel as though I’m a Photoshop expert!

  • Jillian

    I had been using Photoshop for 10 years before taking this course, so I really didn’t expect to learn so much, but Sebastian’s Photoshop Artisry course blew me away. Sebastian has a teaching method that goes beyond just showing you how it’s done. By the short time it takes to watch one of his tutorials, you have the process memorized. I’ve learned so many new techniques and applications and shortcuts, and it opened the flood gates for my inspiration!

  • Mike Jones

    Amazing results, I like the artistic effects that this tips brought, excellent techniques wlan repeater!

  • Pfaff

    This course it’s amazing! Nähmaschinen fully recommend it to anyone!

  • asim khattak
  • peter hamlin

    Very useful and relevant tips, A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed. This feeling can be only develop through Photography techniques and skills.

  • Wonderful stuff, really impressed, may have to take the plunge!

  • Jake Bain

    Very impressive post. I’m considering this course but the discount is no longer available. Using the tips on this page I have created a couple of pictures. I would welcome critiques from any members or perhaps, dare I ask from the illustrious poster himself?

  • Happy to respond! The image you posted looks really good, although I think you could probably improve it by employing a layer mask to limit some of the softening around the eyes, nose, and lips. The other image is also quite nice. You’re on the right track for sure.

    If you would like to get in on the course at a discount, this is the best promotion running right now (and the lowest it will ever be offered at in the future):


    Love to have you join us!

    – Sebastian

  • Fernando Coutinho

    Excellent tutorial.
    Fernando Coutinho

  • Jenny

    how much

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