How to Create Surreal Artwork Using the Warp Tool

Learn how to create surreal artwork using the warp tool in Photoshop with Graphic Designer and Matte Painter, Diogo Sampaio

How to Create Surreal Artwork Using the Warp Tool
Diogo Sampaio
Hello everyone, my name is Diogo Sampaio, I’m a former graphic designer currently developing a career as a Matte Painter. I work on both personal and commissioned projects with clients all around the world and have had the pleasure to collaborate with names like Adobe, Asus, Imagine Dragons, Rolling Stones and various other artists and brand identities.

My work can be described as surreal scenes created by combining different photos. In contrast to traditional photography, I don’t capture moments, I capture ideas with the help of my camera and imagination. The goal is to make it look as realistic as possible even if the scene itself contains impossible elements. In the end, it all comes down to problem solving; finding a way to capture the impossible.

Are you ready to dive into the surreal side of photo manipulation? Let’s go!

The Creative Process

Did you ever think about one killer technique you wish you knew when you started? I do. A lot. The technique I wish I knew years ago was mastering the Warp Tool and taking advantage of the distortion to create the kind of artwork you see above.

Over the years, I was asked hundreds of times (literally) how did I achieve this level of distortion using just Photoshop, and you’re about to see how simple it can be. It all depends on your creativity!

Step 1 - Find your reference

First you need to find your starting image. This can be from MattePaint or any other Stock Photo website. Search for pictures of natural environments like a forest or a swamp if you want to recreate this particular effect. Cityscapes can also work, so go grab an image!

My starting reference image

Step 2 - Preparation of Perspective

Start by duplicating the layer and flipping your image vertically. You can do this by pressing CRTL+T and then right click on canvas to make the flip option appear; Or Go to Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical

Depending on your image, you may have to adjust the angle's slightly so that it looks correct. Basically we are wanting our canvas to look like a mirror image at this point.

Step 3 - Initial Blending

Create a Layer Mask on your top Layer and use a black brush to get rid of the parts where the image starts to blend at the center of the image.

At this point, you want to make it impossible to tell where the top image is merging with the bottom image. In this particular image, I needed to pay special attention to the trees, so for that, I simply used a round brush with low opacity and masked them to make it look like they belong to one image only.

The more time you take here to make it as realistic as possible, the better the end result will be. So don't rush this process!

Step 4 - Patches and Final Blending

In this step, I removed the person from the top part and made the trees a little bit more straight in order to give a bit more credibility to the picture.

Aligning Trees

Since the tree are not symmetrical, I used the Liquify Tool to straighten them. It doesn't need to be a straight line, as nothing in Nature is perfect, but it needs to be realistic in order to get a cool result at the end.

Character Removal

I used Photoshops powerful Content-Aware Fill Tool to remove the character from the top part of my image. You can find this tool in Edit > “Content-Aware Fill” or also by pressing Shift+F5.

Remove all of the imperfections

We want to make the bottom and top different from each other so it doesn't look so repetitive. You can flip the image vertically to make this easier and then use the clone stamp tool, I took my time to fix the red circled areas. I fixed the grass as it was too repetitive, branches, tree textures, and other small details.

Once again, this part will be a bit of a time consuming because you need to straighten the trees and do the plate clean up.

In my image, I had to pay special attention to the way the sunlight bloomed around the trees and I needed to keep that nice gradient and make it look real!

Step 5 - Warp Tool!

The image is looking good and surrealistic already, but let’s take it to a step further and bend the whole scene!

How do you do this? With the power of the Warp Tool! With your image selected, press Ctrl+T and Right Click the mouse on the canvas to have access to this option; OR, Go to Edit > Transform > Warp.

If you are using the Photoshop 2020 version, the controls are slightly different but the principle is exactly the same.

This is the fun part where you can basically explore lots of different positions and proportions by pushing and pulling the handles of the Warp Tool. Try to avoid any distortion of the human or any other relevant element because you can easily get too excited with this and ruin the composition. If the image starts to look pixelated, you might want to readjust it.

Have fun with the process, take your time to make 2 or 3 or even more different versions!

Step 6 - Final Integrations

The final touch for me was working on the Sunlight. I simply sampled a color from the Sun (yellowish / orange) and used a soft brush with low opacity to paint the light through the whole scene. It is important to mention that the layer was on “Color dodge” mode, but feel free to use any other mode that you feel works for your specific image and then play with the opacity. Don't go crazy with the light painting, it must be very subtle.

Step 7 - Colour Adjustments

I wanted the final image to be a bit colder than it was at the beginning because I felt the light was too strong and too orange. This is completely up to you on how you want to do the final adjustments and corrections.

I like to use the Camera Raw Filter (found under the Filter menu) to change the colour temperature. You can also find a lot of other cool options in this area for making final adjustments.

Here are some other examples of my surreal artworks. You are only limited by your imagination with this kind of work, so just get stuck in and give it a go!

If you try this technique for yourself I would be very happy to see your results! You can share them directly with me or in the MattePaint Discord Community or the MattePaint Facebook Group!

Once you get comfortable with this technique, you can go crazy and make imagery like the examples I created for Adobe. Also, if you like posting stuff on social media, this will grab a lot of attention, especially on Instagram!

I hope you learned something and hope you have fun with it! My name is Diogo Sampaio, see you guys around! If you would like to see more of my work or connect with me, follow me here:

Artstation | Linkedin | Behance | Instagram

~ Diogo Sampaio