Facebook Pixel 4 Steps to Photoshop Artistry Using Fine Art Grunge Techniques

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).

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Sebastian Michaels
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.

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