Photoshop tutorial: Create glitchy sci-fi art using Photoshop blending modes

Learn how to use Photoshop blending modes and other powerful techniques to create a digital futuristic artwork with lots of pixelated details.


With the techniques explained in this Photosgop tutorial, it is possible to create very detailed artworks. Some of the actions/steps explained can be repeated as often as you like. The more time you invest into some of these steps, the more detailed your final result will become.

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Mart says that before he starts, he always like to create a quick moodboard which helps me to get inspired for the final illustration. His can be found here.

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

STEP 1

Preparation is key in projects like these, we want to make sure we have most of the assets ready before we start. When working on commercial project, this can save a lot of time which is important with tight deadlines.

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I bought two stock photos from Shutterstock that – when combined – encapsulate the artwork's core concept of being 'lost in VR’. However, the style we're going to create will work you can whatever subjects you want from animals to people to places – anything with a clear focal point or central subject.


STEP 2

My canvas size is 5,120 x 2,880 (twice my desktop size) as I like working large and wanted the final piece to work as a desktop wallpaper.

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To create works in this style, I often blend several stock images together to create a digital 'sketch'. This can really speed up your work process.

Perfectly blending the different images isn't that important, but as I'm a bit of a perfectionist, I spent a lot of time on this part. I made sure the sizing of the virtual reality glasses fitted exactly to the face of the  model and removed the fingers holding it. I also extended the strap on the VR glasses so that they wraped around the head of my model.

For me it's important to have a proper reference image, even though the photography cannot be seen in the final artwork.    

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STEP 3

Open the Project Files and go to the Assets folder. Drag backgrounds.psd onto your image, which contains two layers with abstract backgrounds that I created. Resize them if necessary to fill the entire working space.

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Place these underneath the stock photos in the Layers panel and give them an opacity of between 15% and 20% opacity.

Put a black solid colour layer below them. Hide the stock photo layers briefly to see how this looks. We might revisit these layers later depending on what the following steps look like.


STEP 4

Unhide your photo. Now it's time to get sketching.

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This step is very important, as this will define the overall composition that we can rely on later when we will start to place all elements inside our canvas.

I wanted to make the piece seem like the model is stuck in a digital world (a bit like The Matrix), trying to find her way out. With her hands she's touching things that will look like futuristic touchscreens.

Don't waste too much time on this step, you're creating a simple sketch which you can use to guide yourself.


STEP 5

Hide your sketch layer so you can focus on applying the artwork's style to the model. The goal is to make it feel as if the viewer of the image is also within our digital world. Therefore we don't want the stock photography to be visible in our final result.

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To give your 'digital' model a computer-generated vibe, build her (or him, or it) using custom shapes and pixels. Create a new layer called 'white brushing' and start off with blocking out the highlights of our model very roughly with a square white brush. Make sure you try out various settings by playing around with Size Jitter, Spacing, Scattering, etc.

As you might be using a completely different document size it's important to play around with these settings to see what works best for you. As long as your result looks a bit like mine you're good to go. (Having a Wacom tablet with pressure sensitivity helps!)

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STEP 6

Create a new layer above 'white brushing' and paint the darker areas of the model such as the shadows using a black brush. 

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Tip: If you can't see the black while brushing because your model layer contains too much black for you to be able to distinguish your brushing from the picture underneath, it can help to brush in red/blue and change the strokes' colour to black later.


STEP 7

For our next step we're going to create a digital 'glow' around our model. Create another new layer above those and block our the model in white again using the same brush.

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This time do it randomly and don't bother if you draw 'outside the lines'. As we are going for a computer generated vibe, therefor a little bit of randomness in your strokes only makes it look better.


STEP 8

Change this layer's blending mode to Overlay above the other black and white layers we created in Step 5 and 6 – and ta da, we have our glow.

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STEP 9

Repeat steps 5 and 6 a few times using a smaller brush to create a more refined image. Remember to constantly create new layers, so you can edit or remove anything you don't like at a later stage.

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As you might have noticed, the background currently is very flat.

Select both layers, use Edit >Transform > Distort/Perspective to make sure it flows better with your artwork.


STEP 10

Blue is often associated with futuristic images. Fill a new layer at the top of the layer stack with a nice blue colour, change it's blending mode to Color and give it an opacity of 20%.

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STEP 11

It's time to add more colour. Open square_shapes.psd from the Project Files.

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These are based on experiments I've created in the past (which you can see these in unedited_shapes.psd). Here's how I changed one to another.

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STEP 12

Copy-and-paste these shapes into your canvas – we probably won't be using all of them but we will see which we do and later remove the rest.

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Make sure your whole model is covered in these random shapes and then set the blending mode to Color (at 70% opacity). Also make sure there are random bits flying around your model. Go crazy!


STEP 13

Now we're going to do the same as before, but with different and lighter shapes – and only over the brighter spots of our model. Set the blending mode to Lighten at around 65% opacity.

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STEP 14

Repeat the previous step, this time filling the dark parts with dark shapes. Leave this layer's blending mode on Normal with an opacity of 35%.

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STEP 15

Next, add a linear gradient from a light color to a dark one, ensuring these colours fit with your artwork. The light colour should be put where you want a light source to appear.

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Keep this layer's blending mode on Normal, but make its effect sublime by reducing the opacity to between 7 and 10%.


STEP 16

When we look at the artwork from a distance, it looks pretty good. However if you zoom in, it still looks very rough.

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Use the brush from Steps 5 and 6 and start brushing in all the small details from our model in strokes of black or white (depending on if they're light or dark details). Again create two layers for these – one black and one white.

For the screenshot here, I made my black layer red so you can see where I've been painting.


STEP 17

Change the blending mode of both layers to Overlay with an opacity of 70%.

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STEP 18

I want certain parts of the artwork to stand out a bit more, therefore I decided to give each of the hair, VR glasses, skin, lips and T-shirt a different colour.

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I also added a lot of random square shapes at the back of the model and behind her hands to give it a sense of movement.

I put all these layers in a group and set the group's blending mode to Overlay at 25% opacity.


STEP 19

Grab the same brush, this time using a white colour and paint random square bits behind the model to add movement. Duplicate this layer and set both layers' blending modes to Overlay – one of them at 100% opacity and one at 70%.

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STEP 20

The hands and face are the most important parts of this artwork so I decided to work on the shading of those a little more.

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STEP 21

Grab some of the long custom shapes that are placed in the square_shapes.psd file and place them randomly in your canvas.

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Create another layer of these shapes, make them a bit bigger and blur them in the foreground. This will add a little depth of field to your artwork.

Remember to ensure the colours of the shapes match your artwork.


STEP 22

I thought it would be fun to add some random binary code in there, as it fits really well with the style without feeling too cheesy. I used the System font and randomly added the numbers around my model.

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Group these text layers, duplicate the group and then change their blending mode to Overlay (changing one of their opacities to 50%).


STEP 23

It's starting to look good and I'm pretty happy with what I have at this stage. I wanted to add more movement, so I brushed more squares behind the model. Hide this layer and then create a new layer.

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On this new layer go to Image > Apply Image and hit OK. Now create a clipping mask with this layer onto the squares. As you can see in the screenshot I've made the applied image slightly larger.

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STEP 24

As every artwork is different, there's no golden rule on how far you want to push this by adding more elements and effects. For this artwork, I decided to add more deformation behind the model, using several colours and shapes. I've also decided to work a little more on the shading.

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At this point its important to give this part of your artwork all the finishing touches it needs, so we can move on to creating the interface design that we created a quick sketch of back at the beginning.


STEP 25

Select a few vertical parts of your canvas, copy and paste them, then transform them to match the perspective of the rest of the background.

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Give these shapes a Drop Shadow effect so it seems they are floating around a bit.


STEP 26

It's time to work a little on our light source. When looking at the original model shot, it's obvious that there's light coming from above. There also seems to be a bit of light coming from the left.

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Using the standard soft round brush at a size of 4,000px and a blue colour, I painted in some light above and – to a lesser degree – to the right. I set the layer's blending mode to Lighten and adjusted the opacity until it looked right.

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STEP 27

I did the same with a dark purple brush in the bottom right corner to add a little bit of shadow. I set this layer's blending mode to Overlay, at 40% opacity. The effect of this was subtle to say the least, I still like the feeling that it gives.

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STEP 28

Create a new layer and go to Image > Apply Image. Hit OK.

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Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Cutout with the following settings.


STEP 29

While on the same layer, go to Filter > Stylize > Find Edges.

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Create a new layer above this one, fill it with white and set its blending mode to Difference. Merge these layers, then set your newly merged layer's blending mode to Screen at 70% opacity.

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STEP 30

With a round hard brush, remove parts that don't look good – for example where it's covering her mouth.

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STEP 31

For our next step we will open up Adobe Illustrator (or you can use my interface designs from the Project files and go to the next step), where we are going to create the interface designs that our model is touching with both of her hands.

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For inspiration I advise you to check out the work of Ash Thorp. I'd say he is one of the best at this.


STEP 32

Add the interfaces to your artwork and transform them to match the perspective of the rest. Make them both a nice blue colour, group them and then set the group' so blending mode to Lighten at 50% opacity.

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Duplicate the group and set this group's blending mode to Color Dodge at 35% opacity.

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STEP 33

Now let's add blurred, expanded versions of the interfaces around the ones we've just created to give the impression that the person is interacting with them.

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Add in the interfaces again – but this time use the file without the numbers because we will be rotating them and using the one we used for the left hand on the right had this time and vice versa.

Make them a lot larger this time. Group them both and set this group to linear dodge. Blur both layers and reduce the opacity until it looks good.


STEP 34

To further give the impression that she's touching the screens, I made the area where her hands are on the screens light up.

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With a soft brush, I painted some blue over all of her fingertips and set this layer's blending mode to Linear Dodge at 50% opacity.


STEP 35

To make both screens light up more I picked a very large softbrush, brush blue over both screens and set this layer to color dodge at 60% opacity.

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STEP 36

Now, create a new layer and with a red brush start painting some round dots around the interface designs to give some contrast and visual interest.

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STEP 38

Select vertical parts of this layer and adjust the perspective to match the rest of your image.

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STEP 41

At this point, I felt that it still wasn't clear enough that she was touching the screen. So I created a large square which I filled with blue.

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Then brushed away most of it with the Eraser tool.

I set this layer's blending mode to Color Dodge at around 10% opacity. Blur this layer slightly.

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STEP 42

Select the opposite of what you just selected and add a motion blur. Set this layer's blending mode to Darken and reduce the opacity.

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STEP 43

We've come a long way and from here on out I'll leave it up to you to finish it.

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What I did next was some adjustment layers to change colours, a bit more light and some finishing touches – and adjusted the perspective slightly to make it seem more dynamic.


STEP 44

One last thing I realised – why does this always happen when you think you've finished? – if our model should be able to read the numbers on the interfaces, we shouldn't be able to read them.

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So I flipped the image (and cropped in a bit for a more pleasing composition).

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