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Creative Devices: JOEL AARONS provides tips on creating composite artwork in Adobe Photoshop.

When I first started my Media Arts program back in 2016, people thought I was mad teaching Adobe products to primary students. I got raised eyebrows from industry professionals, who felt that they were way too complex to teach to young children, and fellow teachers alike. I particularly remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine, a graphic designer, who said this to me:

It's a bad idea to teach industry-standard products to students at ayoung age, because it will take [up] all your time explaining the intricacies of the programs and how they work, and less time for the kids to be creative on their own. Give them an easier program to work with. Leave the industry-standard programs to industry.

I could see his point. Take Photoshop, for example. It's an extremely complex application that has a lot of power and scope to edit photos. Adults, myself included, grapple with the program, so how could children be expected to cope with it?

And then I realised a fundamental truth that pushed aside my friend's concerns: he's not a teacher. That's important, because it's with the right teaching--which focuses only on what students need to know, rather than the entire program itself--that children can be introduced to such a program in a carefully planned-out and structured way.

Introducing layers

The key to understanding how Photoshop works is to understand layers. Whether you are editing photos or creating composite artwork (as we are doing in this article), Photoshop's power lies in the ability to add and manipulate layers.

How do I explain this to children? Easy. I print out three pages: one with a photo, one with a coloured rectangle that I cut out and one with some text, which I also cut out. Each of these three elements is laminated (Figure l).

By putting these pages on top of one another (Figure 2), I can explain layers in an easy, visual and hands-on way. Each element is created in isolation, so that each layer can then be manipulated independently of the rest. In other words, if I want to change the rectangle to red, I can do that without it affecting the photo or the text. Similarly, if I want to delete the text and write something else, I can also do that without it 'cutting into' what is behind.

I also explain how the order of the layers is important. If I put the text at the bottom, and then the photo and the rectangle on top, the text will not be visible. It's still there, but it's at the bottom of the stack, and therefore obscured by the rest of the picture.

Thus the basics of Photoshop can be explained. A simple project to start with is to create similar pictures to those in the previous example. Choose a photo, import it into Photoshop, draw out a shape to use as a lower third and add a text layer on top. Once that has been achieved, we can be more ambitious and dream up some composite artwork.

Designing composites

To me, composites are simple to define: a composite is a piece of artwork containing multiple pictures that have been blended together to create a special effect. The special-effect part of it is something I am particularly keen on, because, for this project, I encourage students not to think of something that could be easily shot with a camera on its own (for example, a student hanging from a tree). Instead, we want something special. Something fantastic. Something unreal.

The example I always remember, from the very first class I did, is this: a student took a close-up photo of something very ordinary--a one-hole metal pencil sharpener--and then had a friend take a photo of her sprawled out on the floor. She then cut herself out in Photoshop, reduced her size and put herself into the sharpener so it looked like she was trying to escape.

Making the ordinary extraordinary: to me, that's where the joy of this project comes--not from lessons on the best ways to cut things from pictures and blend them together, but from seeing what ideas students come up with. Some of their ideas are honestly better than anything I could have told them to do.

So my instructions to them are simple: have a plan before you take the camera out. Decide what the end result is going to be ahead of time, so you will know what photos you need to take--think of something extraordinary. You will need, at the very least, two photos: the background, which doesn't change; and the foreground layer, which does. We've been lucky to have a green screen in the classroom, which has made 'cutting out' a lot easier in Photoshop than it would have been if we didn't. Having a solid, single-colour tone behind a subject will make it easy for Photoshop to distinguish the parts you don't want from the parts you do.

Preparing images

The example I'm giving here is very simple, but it's a good way to introduce Photoshop to a newbie. My idea was to create an image of me as a giant towering menacingly over our school hall.

I needed two photos for this. The first is the background image of the school hall (Figure 3). I needed to frame the photo in such a way that there was sufficient room above the hall to put the giant version of myself in (you can see how planning is important before the students rush out with the cameras--you have to be ready to take the shots you need to in the way that you need to). The second picture, obviously, was of myself, trying to look scary (Figure 4).

This was something I spoke to the students about before they started: that their project would succeed if they can 'sell' it. That doesn't mean make money; what it means is that it looks as real as possible. In my example, I needed to look scary in order for the image to look good, just as the girl in the pencil sharpener needed to look scared in order for her image to work.

Your composite will also benefit from making a careful selection before you cut. My photo, although not done with a green screen, was relatively easy to work with, since the background is a single colour of more or less the same tone.

Working in Photoshop

The first thing you do, once you have your photos shot and transferred to your computer, is to import them into Photoshop. The order is important: in this case, the background of the hall needs to go first. This is important not just because the hall is the background, but because the first picture you open determines the size and resolution of your composite image.

First, I click on the FILE drop-down menu, select OPEN and click on my background hall photo. I then want to bring in the picture of me inside the current file. If I went to FILE / OPEN again and chose the photo of myself, then it would create two separate files. That's not what I want. Instead, with the hall file imported, what I want to do is go back to the FILE menu and select PLACE. Photoshop gives you two choices here: PLACE EMBEDDED, which means the photo will be part of your file, so that even if you copy the file somewhere else, the photo will be there; or PLACE LINKED, which brings your photo in as a 'link'--this can be useful if you need to reduce the size of your file, but problematic if the file later gets moved. I always choose FILE / PLACE EMBEDDED.

From here, you can scale the picture if you need to before committing to the placement. In this case, I have no need to resize it, so I can just go ahead and press the 'tick' button at the top to accept the image (Figure 5).

Now you can clearly see that I have two layers in the document (Figure 6), and in the right order. The next step is to, with the top layer selected, choose the area that I want to cut out. You could do this in two ways, and it really depends on how difficult making the selection is. If the photo of me was just generally in a classroom setting with who knows what behind me, it might be easier to select myself, invert that selection and cut away everything else. But in this case, it's much easier to select the white wall background.

There are two tools I'll talk about here that you can use. The first one is called the Magic Wand Tool (Figure 7). This is used to select an area of roughly the same colour. With this tool selected, I can now go ahead and click on the wall. I then hold down the 'Shift' key to add to my selection, and click on other areas as needed. If I accidentally select something I don't want (for instance, part of myself in this picture), I can release the 'Shift' key, hit the 'Option' key and subtract from my selection.

Every photo is different, so you might find that this works well for you. However, I found the Magic Wand Tool didn't work as well in this case, even after several attempts at trying to refine the selection. As you can see from the picture, the placement of the 'marching ants' (as they are called--the moving dotted lines representing the selection) is by no means perfect (Figure 8). Thankfully, Photoshop still has several tools available to resolve this.

Next up is the Quick Selection Tool, which can be found alongside the Magic Wand Tool. You can access it by holding your mouse button down on the Magic Wand Tool symbol in the toolbar (Figure 9). This tool works by Photoshop attempting to find the edges as you are making a selection. I have also selected the 'Add to Selection' option, the one at the top in the contextual menu with the little plus symbol (Figure 10). Using this tool, I can click on the white wall several times in order to make a good selection.

In this instance, I almost succeeded, with only the right hand not making the selection. To clarify, what happened here is actually that the right hand is part of selection--but that's not what I want. Remember, what I'm trying to do is to select the parts that I want to cut out. This is rectified simply by holding down the 'Option' key while carefully clicking on the hand to deselect it. It's also worth pointing out that the white circle in Figure 10, which represents the size of the brush being used, can be increased and decreased using the left and right square-bracket keys.

Now that I have the selection that I want, I first need to make sure the layer is editable. Because the image of me was placed, it becomes something called a Smart Object. For our purposes, all you need to know is that, before cutting anything, you need to right-click on the layer and choose RASTERIZE LAYER. Then you can go ahead and press the 'Delete' key, which will get rid of everything selected.

The final step is to move and resize my image so that it goes where I want it to. First up, press 'Control', 'Command' and 'D' to deselect what you had. Then press 'Control', 'Command' and 'T' to get Photoshop ready to 'transform' that layer. Again, since we are working on two different layers, the bottom image of the hall is not affected. I can click and hold inside what is called the Bounding Box to move the image in front, and drag the corner handles diagonally to resize it down.

I should point out that I deliberately had a photo taken of me that cut me off at the waist. Now you can see why I did that: so that the bottom of the image matches the straight line of the roof of the hall (Figure 11). All that remains once you have the layer where you want it is to press the tick button at the top to accept the changes you have made.

Just by learning these relatively simple techniques involving layers, selection tools and transforming, you can make your own extraordinary Photoshop composite artwork. If you would like to have a play and see what you can do, you can download a free seven-day trial of Adobe Photoshop at <>, and you can also download the photos I've used at <>.

Joel Aarons is the Media Arts and STEM specialist teacher at Camberwell South Primary School in Victoria. He is also an Adobe Education Leader and a Microsoft Education Expert. Joel has a blog at <>. where many of the lessons here are gone into in more detail, and has published an interactive ebook that contains video tutorials and downloadable resources for all his lessons. He has also presented and spoken at many conferences, and can be reached on Twitter @mrjoelaarons.
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Author:Aarons, Joel
Publication:Screen Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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