Book Review: 100% Photoshop by Steve Caplin

Contains 100% Photoshop, and zero trans fats. High in fiber, too!

Photoshop is used primarily as an image editor: photographers and artists use it to alter photographs, combine them, and so forth. Photoshop is also the most popular application for digital painting: creating images with brushes. In “100% Photoshop,” author Steve Caplin shows how Photoshop can be used to create realistic images without photographs, and without digital painting.

Caplin’s work really constitutes a third category of image-making with Photoshop, and there doesn’t seem to be a name for what he’s doing. Perhaps “technical illustration with a bitmap editor” covers it, though it’s not the most catchy description. Most of the slick cars and gadgets in magazines you see are not photographs or even Photoshopped photographs; they’re illustrations. 

Contains 100% Photoshop, and zero trans fats. High in fiber, too!

No photograph ever looked this good. Vector graphics can make products look better than real. Take a look at the Apple iPod Touch shown here. This is not a photograph. It was probably created from scratch in Adobe Illustrator. As such, it’s a piece of vector artwork. If you’ve used the type tool in Photoshop, or the pen tool to create a path, you were using the vector tools built into Photoshop. Usually, when illustrators need to show a man-made product, they use Adobe Illustrator or a similar program. Steve Caplin shows us, in his new book, how to get similar results using Photoshop as an image creator. And Photoshop turns out to be surprisingly up to the task. Imagine trying to realistically paint an LP record (if you remember what that is). Imagine painting the shiny grooves, the bands between the songs, the label art. A nightmare, right? In Photoshop, as Caplin shows, it’s a piece of cake.

As you can see from this excerpt on the publisher’s website, the book is well-designed and easy to follow. I wouldn’t recommend this book to an absolute beginner, but if you know what a layer is, you’ll probably have no trouble with the exercises. This is a project-based book, and it’s best to proceed in order, chapter by chapter. Each chapter begins with a two-page spread showing the finished project. You can see them all here. Here’s a brief summary: 

Chapter 1: Essential Techniques – All the tools you’ll be using are explained here with clear illustrations and text. Boy, I wish I’d had this chapter a few years ago! 

Just a few bricks in my wall.

Just a few bricks in my wall. Even if you know how to do selections, and use Quick Mask, here it’s all brought together in a new context: how to create the illusion of 3D objects with real-world textures. Caplin gets an amazing amount of information into just a few pages. For example, on one page, Caplin explains Layer Masks, Adjustment Layers, and Clipping Masks, all in a clear, concise way. He shows you how to create a shaded sphere, which tells you everything you need to know about 3D on a 2D surface. The chapter finishes up with a convincing wood texture technique, and a brick wall. I’m quite proud of how mine turned out.

With the basic techniques established, the projects begin, and continue for the rest of the book. 

Chapter 2: Setting the Scene – The scene looks like something from an old Humphrey Bogart movie. Learn how to build a door piece by piece, along with a hall light, light switch, scalloped glass with gold lettering, wainscoting, and a door handle. And dark, gloomy atmosphere, of course. By the end of the chapter you see how to build a complex scene out of basic pieces. 

Chapter 3: Deep Space – Your basic outer space scene, complete with alien saucer, planets, moons, and stars. 

Chapter 4: The Desk Drawer – Speaking of iPods, in this chapter you’ll create a desk drawer jammed with stuff, including an iPod, rubber bands, playing cards, a magnifying glass, a pencil, paper clips, a ruler, and an old-fashioned pocket watch (particularly nice, that watch). I’m sure I missed some things — there’s a lot in that drawer. This is my favorite chapter. 

Chapter 5: Fantasy Art – Here you’ll begin with random noise in the render clouds filter, and end up with a scary metallic-looking mask. There’s a great technique for creating very complex horns. Using Edit > Transform > Transform Again, you can quickly build up some very intricate structures. 

Chapter 6: In the Attic – Starting with the bricks you learned about earlier, you’ll create the attic in a house, and then cram it full of old objects and keepsakes. The cover image of the book shows a portion of the finished illustration. Some of the things created here, like spokes in a bicycle tire, strings on a tennis racket, or a six-string guitar, seem impossibly complex. Caplin leads you through each object, dtep by step. By now you’ll see that you can reproduce anything, simply by breaking it down into parts. Once all the objects are created, you’ll arrange them and add convincing shadows.

Chapter 7: Futuretech – This subject here is a sci-fi control panel of some sort. Perhaps a TV remote of the future? It’s very cool looking. Learn how to make textured metal, shiny glass doodads, and other techy things. Lots of complex, intricate patterns here that I would never have thought you could make with Photoshop. I stand corrected. 

Chapter 8: The Great Outdoors – Caplin applies his techniques to organic objects, and the results are not quite so impressive, to my mind. These techniques work really well when rendering man-made, artificial objects, but not so well for, say, blades of grass. Still, there are some methods here you may want to incorporate into your digital painting. For that old, weathered shed over there by the pond, perhaps. 

Chapter 9: Still Life – A spooky scene, this, with gloomy setting, skull, candle, some old books, draped fabric, a glass of wine, and a metronome. 

This is a big book at 250 pages, and it’s crammed with good stuff. It’s not a book about “how to make a candle,” etc., so much as it is about how to use a set of techniques to create whatever it is you need for an image. Caplin has found some ways of using Photoshop that I never would have thought of, like using the Glass Filter to make bricks. I’m not fond of the dodge and burn tools, which he uses a lot. It seems to lend a rather flat look to his work (shadows are black, highlights are white), which painting with a range of colors would fix. That’s really my only quibble. This is an exciting book that will open all kinds of new possibilities for digital artists. Highly recommended.

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