A Tutorial On Making Composited Photo Paintings

Cloud Dancing - Egret photo by Scott Bourne


What I am about to share is a simplified version of my workflow for making composited photo paintings. Along the way, you should assume there are a myriad of ways to accomplish the tasks I perform. At no time am I saying this is the BEST way, the fastest way or the easiest way to do things, nor am I suggesting that you do things this way. I am merely showing you MY way. And I should clarify further that this is my technique simplified, with some minor variations that I assume will make it easier for beginners to understand. Just an FYI.

If you are following me on social media, you know I have been experimenting with what I call “photo paintings” for a good while now. After almost five decades as a photographer, I never get tired of learning new things; coming up with new ideas (new to me anyway) and trying to find new ways to express myself through my lens.

The photo paintings are my latest attempt at all of the above.

The process is fairly straightforward and simple most of the time. The main ingredients are:

1. A photo I want to paint
2. Access to the Topaz Labs software I rely on for the process
3. A background or texture that I will use for my composite with the bird
4. The application of the tools to create the final look


I do not use Lightroom. I use Luminar 4.1 as my main catalog and basic editing program. First, I identify a picture I want to work with, and I use Luminar’s editing tools to make sure the photo’s exposure, WB, levels, etc. are where I want them to be. Next, I have several choices. I can simply export the picture as a .tiff file and then drag and drop it onto most of the Topaz Labs products I need to use. What I usually do (because it gives me a little more control) is I export it to Photoshop Elements. (I no longer pay rent to Adobe.)

Then I call up the Topaz products I need as plug-ins. (NOTE: The exception is Gigapixel A.I. It works only as a standalone.)


If I think the image is too noisy, before I even adjust levels, etc., I export it as a TIFF file and then process it using Topaz Labs DeNoise. It works best if it is applied as the first step in the digital workflow. Once I have fixed the noise, I bring it back into Luminar 4.1 as described above.


Once I have an image picked out, I use Topaz Labs Mask AI. This tool is a time saver. It doesn’t create a perfect mask, but it gets you close enough to get the job done quickly.

When you use Mask AI as a plug-in, it round trips the file from and back to the host application. I usually use Photoshop Elements. When the file is masked, it comes back on a duplicate layer. I often grab the background layer, delete it, and then find myself with only the masked image remaining. Depending on how well the auto mask was made, I may use a combination of Photoshop’s selection tools or simply the eraser or clone tool, to refine the mask.

I’ll post some screen grabs to try to illustrate…

Original photo

Now the original through the masking process…

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.41.35 AM
Open image in Topaz Mask AI
Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.43.11 AM
I use the AUTO-DETECT SUBJECTS method 95% of the time to create the mask…
Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.46.15 AM
As you can see it leaves a areas that have to be masked by hand, but that’s two minutes work…
Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.46.33 AM
The image round-trips to Photoshop and then all that’s left to do is delete the background layer…
Next I find a background that I want to use with the original image. I am making some of my own backgrounds but have also purchased some from https://www.dailytexture.com/

Once I have the masked original and a background I want to use, then I simply drag the masked image onto the background. NOTE: This is where the process becomes a bit complicated because I use several different methods here. Sometimes I just drag the image on top and then apply some additional Topaz filters. Other times, I might use a background AND a texture and then it involves more layer masking, using custom layer modes and a bit of creative touch. I won’t go into much of that here, preferring to teach the basic concepts so you can at least start playing with the idea.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.50.00 AM
Once I have the bird pasted onto the background, I go to Topaz Studio 2 for two essential filters – GLOW and IMPRESSION. I don’t always use both. I almost always DO use IMPRESSION…

Using Topaz Studio 2, you can either paint on a layer inside the plug-in, or apply it to the entire image, round-trip to Photoshop and do your layer masking there.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.51.44 AM
Sometimes, I use Topaz Studio 2 and the GLOW filter to apply some artistic detail to the shot. I mask it off the background and just place it on the bird, then I blend in the opacity to taste, usually between 25-50%…
Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.54.23 AM
After I have created my layer mask and blended in the opacity (in this case 30%) I flatten the layers and go on to the next step…
Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.55.03 AM
Next up, I use Topaz Studio 2 IMPRESSION filter and a preset that I have built for myself. This saves time and helps me keep a consistent look. I apply this filter on a layer and once again both mask and blend opacity to taste…

And the image below is the finished product:

Cloud Dancing - Egret photo by Scott Bourne


This is a simplified version of the steps I take to create most of my photo paintings. I want to emphasize that this process is something I’ve only been doing for a short period of time. I am constantly refining my approach and trying new methods. Some picture lend themselves to both background and texture. Those are more complicated. After I have done this for another month or so I will try to make some screencasts that show various portions of the process in more detail. Until then I hope this has given you a basic idea of my approach. More importantly, I hope it has intrigued you enough that maybe you want to experiment with photo painting using some of your own images.

If you want to try any of the Topaz Labs products I mention here, you can find all of them at bit.ly/TopazPlugins – if you use that link and the code METHODS you can save 15% off any current Topaz product. They are all available as a trial for 30 days so there’s no risk in trying them. I think you will find them to be worth your while.

You can also use these specific links to get the discount and go directly to the software I mentioned…

–This is the program I use to create the initial masks…
–This is a link to Topaz Studio 2 which is where both the GLOW and IMPRESSION filter can be found…

bit.ly/topazgigapixel – and the code METHODS saves you 15%

–This is the program I use to up-res images when the subject is too small in the frame…
bit.ly/TOPAZAIBUNDLE – and the code METHODS saves you not only 15%, but if you buy the bundled products, you save even more.
–You can select the AI bundle if you want to get the stuff I use most often…
bit.ly/topazsharpenAI and the code METHODS saves you 15%

–This is the sharpening program I use and it is $20 off on sale until April 3 (you save 15% off the sale price $59 instead of $79)