Photoshop tutorial: Create a deep-sea feel using Photoshop blending modes

Jono Hislop demonstrates effective ways to meld elements from outer space into an image with a distinctly subaquatic feel.

The use of Photoshop’s blending modes is not technically difficult. Where the magic lies is in the conceptual ideas you bring to their use. Jono Hislop wants you to have room to breathe your own inspiration into blending modes, so his tutorial makes repeated use of them.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Alongside techniques for Photoshop, Jono also reveals how he has trained himself to notice useful areas in photos that may otherwise not have grabbed the attention – and how to use these to add dynamism to an artwork.

Jono says that this is especially useful as he prefers to work in a freestyle fashion, immersing himself in the moment. “Sure it’s great to pre-sketch your ideas,” he says, “but my preference is to go with the flow and include whatever pops into my head while browsing the web.

“It’s creating art that surprises even its creator.”

Time to complete

4 - 5 hours


Photoshop CS5


Start with an A4 RGB portrait document at 300dpi. Place an image of a model, shot against a black background, across the whole of the canvas. Note that there should be plenty of empty space above the model’s head, for reasons that will become clear later.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

For this tutorial, we’ll be using a lot of blending modes. When using modes such as Screen, colours have more density against black backgrounds, bright colours retain their opacity, and darks and midtones are more transparent. The opposite is true when using the Multiply mode on a bright background.


We need some cosmic elements, such as shots of nebulae from For each of these, set its blending mode to Screen.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

If any of the images have artefacts, go to Image > Adjustments > Levels (or hit Ctrl/Cmd+L) and pull the black input slider left. You can also reduce the opacity and paint out unwanted areas with a Layer Mask.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Duplicate the model layer and use a Hue/Saturation adjustment (Cmd/Ctrl + U) to crank the saturation up to +100. Apply a heavy Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) to create an ambient light that follows the model’s contours. Set the layer’s blending mode to Screen. Adjust this layer’s colours into the same range as the nebula using another Hue/Saturation adjustment, this time using the Hues slider.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Press V for the Move tool, and use the arrow keys to offset the layer so the light appears to cast off the model in the direction from which the original photo is lit. Reduce the opacity to make the effect more subtle.


For this step you’ll need a stock photo of jellyfish. With the Lasso tool, cut out one of its tentacles. Use the Warp command (Edit > Transform > Warp) to contort it to form a sort of eyebrow.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Now create some light trails using your camera. One unusual way to do this is to create a striped image on using two to four block colours on your monitor or smartphone screen, then take snaps of it using long exposures while moving the camera around a bit. Cut the stripes out and repeat Step 2 to bring them into the composition. Use them to create the hair and eyes.


Get yourself some more free cosmic shots from, and use these to apply an ‘alien’ texture to the face. Cut small sections from the images and build them up to create the texture, repeating the technique detailed in Step 2 to integrate them into the composition.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below


Place all of the skin textures in their own layer group, and apply a Curves adjustment layer (Cmd/Ctrl + M). Play with different tones by adjusting the RGB channels individually.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

I settled on a nice blue hue, then added another layer where I used a brush with 0% hardness to paint magenta streaks above the head. Setting the layer’s blending mode to Color created a seamless effect.


Working my way down the arms, I applied the Burn tool (O) to add shadows to areas I felt needed more depth. I use a brush at 20% pressure to maintain control when painting highlights and shadows; you may or may not want to do this, depending on your model shot.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Repeat the Warp command to wrap more cosmic elements around the body. I’ve used a layer with a Color blending mode to paint some of the stars pink and purple so they stand out against the blue cosmos.


With images such as these, you often need to bring out the edges of darker areas of the model’s body so they’re not lost behind cosmic elements. Use the Sharpen tool to create crisp edges before applying the elements.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below


To create red specks to the left of the head, find an image of a bubble and erase its top and bottom. Add a red colour overlay, brightening it with a Shadows/Highlights adjustment.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

To add more detail, I took a stock shot of fireflies at night and shrunk the image 90 per cent until it became an unrecognisable bunch of lights, then repeated the process from Step 2. This adds atmosphere to the piece.


Group all of the layers of cosmic elements – including the skin textures. Duplicate this new group and merge its layers (Cmd/Ctrl + E). Select Filter > Blur > Motion Blur to create a kind of light trail effect (the pink glow), ideally upwards. Give this layer a Screen blending mode.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials


We want a deep-sea vibe for this artwork so add some bubbles above the head, using the stock shot at Reduce the stock shot’s saturation to 0, then do a Levels adjustment and pull the shadows and highlights input sliders towards the midtones to help the bubbles contrast with the background. Add the shot to the composition, setting its layer’s blending mode to Screen.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below


To add to the deep-sea feel, add a stock shot of a hole in sheet ice at the top of the composition. Desaturate the colours.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

To match the colour scheme of purples and blues, create a new layer and, using a soft brush, paint in these colours. Set this layer’s blending mode to Overlay.


Let’s finalise the colour scheme. Select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. This will affect all layers below the adjustment layer, spreading the same feel across all your elements.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

I want to bring some sea greens into the model’s skin, and blues into the background. The curves above indicate how I did this.


With the piece nearly finished, it’s a good time to use a high-pass filter on the whole piece for extra ‘oomph’. Select all your layers, then hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to create a new merged layer at the top of the stack. Select the new layer, hit Filter > Other > High Pass and use a number between 2 and 4 for a subtle effect. Set this layer’s blending mode to Overlay.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

I also added some monochrome noise (Filter > Noise > Add Noise) to give the composition an aged photographic look. Always use noise subtly – the amount should be no more than 5%. Use a layer mask with an opaque brush to bring back detail in areas where you feel the noise is too strong. It’s good to add variety to the opacity of noise throughout your piece, too, so it doesn’t look like a one-step filter addition.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, Jono is an freelance illustrator who’s primary work is in CD/EP covers. Recent clients have included Tiki Taane, Falinox & The Upbeats.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials