Create your reference in photoshop tutorial for begginers with advanced method


Needle chucking Ninja
Staff member
I will try to put together a tutorial for beginner photoshop user and I hope I will know how to explain stuff easy way. It is
Robbyrockett2 fault for this thread lol

Here is a little photoshop tutorial, which will give you possibility to combine multiple pictures, so you can make your own reference piece for your airbrushing art. This will be basic tutorial, but we will learn something which is called mask or masking. Usually they don't teach beginners how to mask, but it is very similar to airbrushing and it will give you the most control in your future. I use wacom tablet, but you can get the same results with mouse, you just need to work for it.
Why I picked masks instead eraser tool, selection tool and similar tools which are recommended for begginers? Because if you learn how to use masking, you don't destroy any art, and you can always reuse it or modified down the road later. It also gives you more control and if you learn how to mask, you will be able to make your own reference photos in the future no matter what.
Off course there are art pieces which are more complex and you need more than just masking like for example fur on animal or hair, but this would need a whole new tutorial and it also depends what are your goals. If your goal is to make great picture(photoshop manipulation) in photoshop, then masking will not be enough. But, if you need it for reference purpose, masking is more then you need.

What is masking?
Masking is a way how you show or hide parts of pictures, just like when you do airbrushing, but with a little twist. When you guys are using masking in airbrushing, you have 2 options. First one is to hide what you need, the second is to show what you need. In photoshop when you apply mask you hide art on layer where you apply your mask so layer which is under is visible. In photoshop you have much more control then with airbrush masking. Almost the same principle but with much more control. I can mask in transparency values. For example: I can mask an eye with 10% transparency, nose with 20% transparency, ears with 30%t transparency. You can also make hard or soft edges when masking, not like when you do your airbrushing, when your option is only clean lines with scalpel or cutter.
But why would you need that you may ask? You get the ability to recreate realistic effects just like when you spray your airbrush art.With masking? Yes, photoshop masking is very special little beast.

Here is a simple black background where I will show you what masking is. We will use 2 layers. One is the default one, which you get from photoshop and it is white color, the second one is new one, which I created and I colored the layer in black color.
Imagine layers like stacks of paper. So bottom layer is default one. Like you would have a piece of a4 white paper on your desk. The second layer(black one) is the same, like you would put black paper on top of your a4 white paper on your desk.

You can see what I am talking about on those pictures:
Masking black layer

And the same example, we just used black layer on the bottom and white colored layer on top.

This would translate to real world like this: first example white paper on bottom on your desk and we put black paper on top of it. In the second example we have black paper on your desk and we put white paper on top.

You can mask on top of the masking which you already created. Here is an example. I will use only black color, but It is the same no matter what color of layer you are using.
So here is the big question. How can we apply what we talk about so far in real photoshop scenario?
From this pictures I created this. This is not profesional work. It was made for fun, while I was gaming with my friends years ago. We had a topic on forum about one german tank and they were looking for ideas. Not to mention lightning is off and bunch of other mistakes. This was meant as a joke with permission from wot stuff.

Materials which I used:
[] destroyed tanks, world war ii 156242.jpg BlackWidow_1654486a.jpg Skull_of_Alexander_Pearce.jpg url.jpegtunisia-wreck.jpg worldoftankslogo2.png Wargaming.net_Logo-1024x704.png wot_logo_metal.gif tank.jpg
To be continued, I hope lol
I noticed I have typo in title. Probably I got bunch of them in my posts lol
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So for a furry animal or something that wont mask easily, as a handicap method, could I use clone tool to put him in one of the layers? Or could he only be added on top successfully?
So for a furry animal or something that wont mask easily, as a handicap method, could I use clone tool to put him in one of the layers? Or could he only be added on top successfully?
When I am doing with fur I do it like this( I got best results that way): I delete all those little hairs around dog for example. Then I make another layer and I use smudge tool to recreate fur.
So lets get started. We will find maybe some more pictures and add them later. Don't have energy to go hunt on internet for good photos. But good rule when you hunting photos is, that you find photos which will work together. The angle from where photo was taken is the most important part, so you don't have issues down the road. You can transform pictures to a degree, but you can't show something which doesn't exist in a first place. As we see from a photo of skulls and spider, shooting angle is quite similar, so I assume those 2 pictures will work together.
You can have problems with lightning, cause each picture has it's own source from where the light comes and hit the subject, like skulls or spider here, and you can deal with that, but this would need a total new tutorial and I will not cover that in this tutorial. You all are experts in airbrushing, and you can spray light sources, even if you don't have the correct ones on your reference photos :p But at least you will learn how to set up stage with multiple subjects and see if that stage would work for your airbrushing art. And you will get your file which you would be able to use as a stencil. That's the plan, I sure hope I can do that -.-

So let's start making stuff and I explain all about masking while we doing our tutorial.

Create new document: File/new/ and you get bunch of options to chose from...

If you are doing photoshop file for the web or for your monitor you will pick those settings:

Document type:default photoshop size
Width: pick your width
Height: pick your height
Resolution: 72 Pixels/Inch
Color mode:rgb , 8 bit(you don't need more for your purpose)
Background Contents: Leave it at default white color

This is also usefull if you have crapy comp and you would like to play with this tutorial and follow with me. Or you just need to see your reference on your monitor, without printing it.

But our plan is to make stencil out of it so we need another settings. Settings for our printer.

Name:you can name it or not, I don't care. I never do, I rename it later :p
Document type: International Paper
Size a4
Color mode:RGB(I know it sounds weird, but if you leave at rgb you have more tools(filter gallery-which can be quite handy + few other very good tools which you can find under tab named: Filter) available while you working and you can always convert your file to cmyk later if you need to). CMYK is what printer uses. Leave it to rgb. We will convert to cmyk later if needed.
Background Contents:White

You also get Advanced option(this is very handy if you have monitor and printer calibrator). Cause I assume you don't have it we will set this to most used color profile:
Color profile: Working RGB: sRGB IEC61966-2.1
Pixel aspect ratio: Square Pixels

So our settings will be(press OK):
slika 1.jpg

Don't be bothered by millimeters on the picture. You can set that to whatever you like. I am from europe so I will use mm. Set it to inch if you wanna.

And we get this:
slika 2.jpg

Now we will rotate canvas(''white paper on your desk''):
Go to: Image/Image rotation/90degrees clockwise
slika 3.jpg

And we get this(our file is ready for our tutorial):
slika 4.jpg

Now we will make small adjustment to our Layers panel, so you will be able to better see, what is happening on layers while you are masking.
Find your Layers panel and press on that little icon on right top corner:
slika 5.jpg

Pick panel option:
slika 6.jpg

Pick the biggest Thumbnail size(leave the rest on default) and click OK:
slika 7.jpg

You can see the difference in Layers panel. Other panels are not interesting for you except Layer panel. I got bunch of them opened, but don't let them bother you. We are playing witl Layer panel now.

As you can see, thumbnail is much larger then before, this will be usefull when we do the masking, cause you will be able to see on thumbnail what you are doing and what is happening while you doing the masking.
slika 8.jpg

Now we are set to start with our project. This tutorial is noob friendly, so if you are more advanced user and you can get few new tricks good for you. But don't be disappointed if you don't find usefull info :p
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Thank you for this, I know It takes a lot of time to organize and put together. Its really appreciated!
I was thinking if I should record tutorial and put a video, but my english would be with russian accent...and I would probably forgot to mention bunch of stuff, which doesn't seem important to me, but some new photoshop user can benefit from them.
So I go with screen shoots and text. lol
I was thinking if I should record tutorial and put a video, but my english would be with russian accent...and I would probably forgot to mention bunch of stuff, which doesn't seem important to me, but some new photoshop user can benefit from them.
So I go with screen shoots and text. lol
Personally most of the time I dont like videos for any kind of tutorial.
It is much easier for me to go through a page of text and pics, Often I only need one or two parts of the info. Either because its the second or third time through it, or because half of it i already know. So videos become a pain.
I think with text and pics It can written for a complete beginner and still not bore someone with a little experience to death.
IMO anyhow.
Lets do one more thing before we continue. I renamed my file, while I had break from making tutorial, so you guys will do the same. Just in case new user will not be confused. I renamed it, while that photoshop file was not opened in my photoshop. I just went on that file on my disk, right mouse click and I rename it to :tutorial. You can do the same, but it is not needed, if you will not be confused.

The next step is to download that skull on your hard drive or ssd.
Here is a link:

go for free download. Unfortunatly picture will be quite small, but we are not doing graphic design for customer, we are learning how to mask, so this will be good enough.

Now we need to place skull picture on our canvas("a4 paper on your desk"). There was quite a lot of changes with photoshop cc so we will do it the old way, and you can do it, even if you have older versions of photoshop.

If you are more interested about changes about placing images in photoshop cc, you can read it here:

Lets do it.While you have your tutorial file opened(The one on which we are working) we go to:
File/open/ and guide your computer to the skull file which you downloaded. That file which is on your hdd or ssd. Click on it and press open.

You will get this:
slika 1.jpg

Now, click on the name of skull file with left mouse and hold down that left mouse button
slika 2.jpg

And drag outside of photoshop, untill you see your picture of skull is detached from photoshop
slika 3.jpg

Now go to Layers panel and click on mouse layer with left mouse and drag it to the tutorial file(that means we drag it to the white layer which we see on our screen):
slika 4.jpg

when we doing this looks like this:
slika 5.jpg

when we release mouse buton file get dropped and we get this:
slika 6.jpg

Now we can close skull file. Press on x on skull file:
slika 7.jpg

We are left in photoshop with this:
slika 8.jpg

Picture is quite small. There are few reasons why. First we took the free skull, which was small picture from the beginning, the second reason is, we are doing a4 file for printing, which has much more pixels then file which is mean for web or your screen. Remember on the beginning of tutorial when we selected new document/ international paper/a4/resolution 300? If we would chose settings for web, picture of skulls would look much bigger, but our print would be crap(small in size).

How do we combat this? Usually when designer is doing print file, he uses big size and quality picture from a start. There is also an option to blow image up in size. We call that interpolation. What is happening while we do interpolation is, that photoshop creates pixels based by their neighbour pixels. Quality of picture is not the same like if you start with big original. And you can do it like we will , fast easy way good enough for our tutorial.

If you interested in interpolation and upsampling you can read about that here:

before we do this, we will make backup of our original file just in case. Click left mouse button on layer 1(layer with skulls) and drag it to the icon named: Create new layer
slika 9.jpg

we get:
slika 10.jpg