Create a Realistic Photo Composite From a Sketch

When mixing photos, it’s often helpful to use digital painting techniques to help improve your scene. In this tutorial, we will show you how to combine several photos to create a realistic scene of a locomotive passing through a desert landscape.

This tutorial will begin as a sketch, we will then show you how to combine photo manipulation and digital painting techniques to create finished artwork that looks amazingly close to the original sketch. Let’s get started!

Tutorial Details
  • Applications Used: Adobe Photoshop CS6
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Estimated Completion Time: 3h +

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Final Product What You’ll Be Creating

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.


You can get the brushes I used in this tutorial in the download file that accompanies this tutorial. The first one is to paint details on a sketch. The second one is to draw roughly, and has its Opacity set to Pen pressure. The third one is simply a soft brush. The 4th is the one I use for fog, smoke, steam and clouds. And the last one is used to add some details inside a photo.

Step 1: Basic sketching

I had in mind to create a design with an “old west” theme. So, let’s start sketching some ideas!

Use the same settings as shown below and create a new file. Then, divide the canvas into 4 small pictures on a new layer, simply with a brush constrained horizontally and vertically by having Shift pressed while drawing the lines. That layer will always be at the top of the list.

By using brush #2, start to sketch on a new layer called “Base”, very quickly. Start with the horizon line and some vanishing lines. The key is to be fast, and to focus on the composition. The details will come way later!

Change the “Base” layer’s opacity to about 30%, create a new layer called “Details” and refine the lines with a more precise brush, the #1 one.

And here we are, the first sketch is already done!

I did the same process for 2 other sketches. And I obviously chose the one with the train!

Tip: Always try to have your layers well grouped and organized!

Step 2: Create some helpful layers

Now that we decided which sketch we’ll use to makes our photo realistic landscape, it’s better to put some shapes and values. But we’ll do it later. In this step, we’ll set the basic sketch, and add some special layers that will help you during the whole tutorial. Create a new file with following settings.

Drag the group of the sketch you chose in the new canvas.

Create a new layer called “Thirds rule” and draw 4 lines in a red color which separate the drawing into 9 equals parts.

Select the group of the base sketch we just dragged, press Command/Ctrl + T to transform it and place it. Think about the composition. We need the focal point to be over one of the 4 points of the thirds rule. In my case, I decided to put the right light of the locomotive, which can have some heavy contrasts to attract more the eye of the watcher.

Set the Opacity of the sketch group to 40%. Then, create a new layer called “Composition”, and try to give the direction of the drawing in order to get the control of it! We draw on this layer a focal point, and the direction lines we want on this composition such as below.

Now it’s time to set the perspective. As this is a photo realistic design, we want to have a 3 point perspective. Let’s create a new group (Command/Ctrl + G) called “Persp”. First we create a new layer, “Horizon line”. We take the Line tool (U), set the Weight to 10 px and we draw the Horizon line in a very saturated color, orange in my case, by having Shift pressed to constrain. Then create a new layer called “Point 1”, and draw smaller lines (4 px) from that first point with a different saturated color.

The second point is a little tricky because it is far away. We create a new “Point 2” layer, and draw horizontal lines on all over the drawing. Then put it above the Horizon line with the Move Tool (V).

Then we duplicate this layer with Command/Ctrl + J, and put the new one below. Merge those 2 layers by selecting the one above and by pressing Command/Ctrl + E (Merge Down). Press Command/Ctrl + T to transform the layer. The trick is to place the center of this layer at the same level as the horizontal line. Use those 2 small squares, which are at the middle of the selection. Refer to below.

When the middle of the lines is placed on the horizon line, we can Right Click, choose Perspective and from the corner, drag the mouse in order to get this.

Do the same with the vertical lines on a new “Point 3″ layer. Keep in mind that this third point is really far away. Therefore, your Perspective Transform must be really small.

The canvas and the layers must keep well organized and look like below.

Now close the “Persp” group and set the opacity to about 40%. Do the same for the Composition layer. You can click on the eye whenever you need to, in order to keep a very correct perspective! You can always come back on the “Composition” layer as well, to be sure you keep going in the right direction. Keep the “Thirds rule” layer. You can use it if you want to add a second small focus point for example. Save your work! (always!)

Step 3: Black and white sketching

Now that the “technical stuff” is done, we can focus on the values and shapes. Now rename the “Sketch 3″ group to “Sketch”. Delete the “Base” layer. Rename the “Details” layer to “Base”. Create a new layer called “Details”. Set the mode of the layers “Base” and “Details” to Multiply.

Now draw some more precise details on the new “Details” layer in order to get something like this.

Hide the “Composition” layer and “Persp” group and create a new layer, “Sky”, under the “Base” layer. Fill it with the Gradient Tool (G), with some grays (brightness of 55 and 75). The dark must be at the top, since the sky tends to have more brightness when it goes near the horizon line. Create a new layer over the “Sky” one called “Values” and, with the brush #2, draw some values! You must have in your head “light and shadow”, and “aerial perspective”. Don’t put any detail or any color, only do some quick and very simple shapes. Set the “Details” layer’s opacity to 50% once it’s done.

Here is the result, which is a very quick black and white sketch! I really didn’t put any details, but it still looks pretty good. Now let’s move to the next step!

…and that’s the end of the preview!

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