Using Photoshop Elements 5.0
Uses Color Fills, Gradient Maps, Levels, Brightness/Contrast
Level of Difficulty: Intermediate
If you're reading this tutorial, I expect that you understand the basics of Adobe Photoshop Elements (ie where everything is). Unlike previous tutorials, I will not explain exactly how the tools work; moreso I will explain why I chose the techniques I did. If you're a beginner to Photoshop Elements, you're welcome to look and learn, but this specific lesson was designed specifically for people who consider themselves intermediate and comfortable. I have explained Levels, Gradient Maps, etc. in my previous tutorials if that helps you.
I suggest planning ahead. My idea was to have a subject against a crest background, which is easy to do with Harry Potter images. Since I had that in mind, I picked out my images: Cedric and the Hufflepuff Badger. Think about your composition, but start with the main subject, first. You're going to have to cut around it, so do not put in the background until you've cropped the first image. I started with this on a blank icon.
Next, I sized down the second image. To position it where I wanted, I ran out of picture. Because of that, I duplicated it, flipped the second half upside down, and positioned it to fill in the leftover blank space. I merged them. Now you have to take some time. Bring your first image to the top. Cut out your subject. There are various different methods in achieving this, but I favor the poly lasso tool; that's the one I've used the most and the one I'm most comfortable with. Take your time. Depending on what tool you use, this might take a little while. Just be careful not to cut off anything important. Importantly, I suggest not to get rid of the background you'll receive from it. Make it invisible and put it away for now. It might help you out later. Now, sharpen where needed, and you'll have your base to work with. Keep the layers separated.
Select the background layer (in my case, the Hufflepuff Badger). I wanted to make this look much lighter and have almost a wallpaper effect for a background; to distinct it and give contrast between it and the subject. The first step, and arguably one of the most important for this step is to choose the main color you want it to be. For me, that was gold. I created a Color Fill layer, and selected a very pale gold, almost a beige, and set it to Multiply. You'll see it'll give a flat wash of color over your background, but the lighter the color you choose the less likely it's going to become too dark to work with.
Next I needed to create the solid, soft, lighted layer over it. Screen and its affiliates created fills that were too light to work with. So, I chose Exclusion. We all know about Exclusion, but often we ignore lots of colors that can help benefit the icon. Blue would not suit me here, neither would red. Since I am working with golds, my choice of Exclusion was to stay around the browns. You can see the flat effect it gives.
I wanted to enrich the colors again without sacrificing the Exclusioned layer. For this, Gradient Map set on Hue at a controlled opacity worked. Again, you need to know what colors you want to work with. You can always play around and see what you get. Since I'm working on warms, I chose warm colors (red, yellow) for the Gradient Map layer.
If you're satisfied with your results, you can now begin working on the icon as a whole. Select your subject, and begin.
This step I chose only because I discovered it by chance and decided that I liked how it looked. I took that old background that was cut away from the subject. After it was blurred (either regular or Gaussian), and set to Color Dodge, I brought it to the top and positioned it around the subject. Suddenly, there was a light source, more specifically around the area where the subject had been cut out. This may not be the case for you. If it is not, it's easy enough to replicate with a texture or light flare. I trust you, by this point, know how to use those.
Next, choose a texture. With a gold-centered icon, I picked one that was green/blue in color to give opposite contrast. This way, it does not blend. It sets on top of the icon, even set to Soft Light. I also suggest picking one that has some whites mixed in, and that the textures are not hard (no sharp points). If you do not see anything that you like, just work with the Soft Lighted Color Fills. After it all, mine looked like this.
From experience, I know how dark and image will become when you begin working with coloring enhancers. So, do not underestimate the idea of creating a Screened layer. I wanted a solid Screen over everything with a lot of control, so Levels was the best tool to use in the situation. I focused on controlling it in the RGB by sliding the black arrow input to the right. Afterwards, for my particular picture, I needed to use the Reds and Blues (those specific white input arrows). I chose Reds for enhancing the golds (yellows would have been too bright and overpowering) and the Blues to cool down the brightness. The Screened layer needs to be subtle because you're going to use an important step next that is going to more than lighten the image. So, keep the opacity down.
This is, quite possibly, the most important Color Fill layer in the entire tutorial, if you're going for an effect like mine. It's a Linear Dodge layer, an option that's not used too often. Pick a dark color. Not too dark. Keep the same track of mind that you used for the earlier Multiplied layer. I stuck with browns, but this time leaned slightly more gray. Neutrals are great when working with warms. In this case, a dark gray/brown will keep the Dodge from overtaking the entire icon.
Next, a Levels at Normal will help set in those colors that you want. Do not go too deep, on anything. There was nothing on my icon at this point that needed a drastic enrichment in color for what I wanted. So, again, little movements are the keys here.
Now is the time that you want to create a Brightness/Contrast layer. Focus more on the contrast, because your icon at this point is probably bright enough without anymore extra help. I always say, this is a powerful tool when set to Normal. It does not take a lot of movement when you slide to the right to get what you want. I hardly ever have to exceed +15. I only wanted to make just enough contrast to set Cedric out from the lighted background just a tad at this point.
Finally, fill out those colors. The icon was now not as golden as I wanted, so Gradient Map set at Soft Light was the perfect help. Try working with a Gradient that has both a warm and cool together (blue,orange). I find they keep each other in check without having one color overturn.
There is where I wanted to stop.
Again, this was written for intermediate photoshoppers, so I did not go into as much detail about how the tools worked as I have been.