Digital Collage Technique


I've been getting quite a few questions in other threads about the actual technique I used for and it seems appropriate to start a specific thread covering the techie side of it. So, here's the thread for it...


Graphics Software

I have had a small amount of professional training in Photoshop when studying Multimedia, but I'm mostly self-taught at "pixel-pushing".

I am predominantly a web developer and artist. I've been using computer-based graphics since the early 1990's (dPaint on an Amiga, for you other geeks out there). Until I got the contract with US Games, though, I had never worked commercially at print resolution - so to the people who ask if I'm a graphic designer, the answer is no!

If you have a good eye for detail and are reasonably confident with computers, anyone can use graphics software.
Experimentation and practice are the most important thing.

Photoshop has so many functions that it's difficult to know where to start, and beginners often get carried away with conspicuous gimmicky effects. That wears off pretty soon, luckily. Or alternatively, use less flashy software:

I currently use PaintShop Pro instead of Photohop. It's vastly cheaper to buy, less RAM-hungry, and has all of the functionality I need with a lot less bloating & wizz-bangery. You can even try it out for free for 30 days: - that should be long enough to get you hooked :)

There's some technical advice for graphics-software beginners linked from my site in the "web rescue" section.



The main key to digital collage is layering.

Each element of the collage can be placed on a separate layer so you can manipulate each item independantly. eg, move it around, make it bigger, tilt it, make it more yellow, darker, whatever. This allows you to make elements from different sources "match" much more easily than is possible with traditional paper & glue techniques.

You can turn layers on and off, so it's easy to have alternate versions from the same file. For example, I might have used a white dog and a black dog in a card and be unsure about which looks best. It's dead easy if each is on a separate layer to switch them on & off until you decide which you prefer.

Most of the files in have about 20 layers, some containing just a single hand, or a pattern superimposed over an item of clothing.

File formats that support layering are not web-compatible, and they're huge files anyway, so once you're happy with the composition, you take a copy and 'flatten' it - for example to make a gif or jpeg. I always keep my original layered versions, though, so it's easy to change any element.


i really really appreciate you sharing this information w/ us. i'm taking some graphic design classes and photoshop and illustrator hasn't made a heck of a lot of sense to me. i looked at the paintshop pro site and watched part of the demo there. looked a heck of a lot simpler than photoshop. my main concern about downloading it for the trial is that the trial stays in your hard drive. i'm having a hard enough time right now keeping the memory uncluttered. i really want to try it but not if there's a chance it'll make my computer crash.

any suggestions?

would you mind sharing some more graphic design sites w/ me? i've got to collect them for my principles of design class. i'd really appreciate it! thanks!


PaintShop Pro memory usage

Hiya Truthsayer,

If you manage to get hold of an earlier version of PaintShop Pro, it used to be very, very small. eg, the trial version they still have on their site for pre-Windows 95 - version 3.0 I think - is about 1/10 th of the size of the current version 7.0 which is about 30meg in size. Of course the older versions have a lot less functionality, but it might be an option if you're *really* strapped for space. I think RAM usage is probably more of an issue for most people now, since extra HD has come down so much in price, and I find that even the current version 7.0 uses a lot less RAM than Photoshop.

Just *where* you could get hold of an old version of PSP I couldn't say - maybe ask around on some graphics sites? I know my first version (2.0 I think) came free on a magazine cover-CD and was fully functional, not a trial. Unfortunately I think I lost that CD years ago, sorry! Should have kept it for people with very old computers.

RAM usage will depend on the size of the files you're working with. When doing Golden Tarot at print res, I had to borrow some extra RAM as 64meg just wasn't enough when working with large, high-res multiple-layer files. If you're only working at screen resolution, that won't be a problem.

There are some other graphics sites linked off my Web Rescue at appropriate points, or do a google search for "Paint Shop Pro tips" or similar. A LOT of webmasters prefer PSP to Photoshop, as it's really easy to work simultaneously with both your graphics and authoring software without running out of RAM. I recommend buying a book, too. I've found "Visual Quickstart Guides" by Peachpit Press really good to for peopel to use to teach themself. I'm sure they do one for PSP, and they're reasonably inexpensive and to-the-point.

The very best way to learn, if you get the chance, is to spend a few days just watching an experienced user go about their normal business. I'd taught myself for years at home, but I picked up some wonderful tips (mostly from watching other students with graphic design backgrounds) in the brief time I did do formal study. The real problem with learning graphics software is that it can do SO much, it's hard to know where to start & what's really important - which is what I tried to cover on my how-to site.

I actually prefer the uncluttered nature of PSP, although I do still use Photoshop when I'm working in clients' offices etc.

With PSP, being able to customise the toolbar (from version 6.0 onward) is wonderful. I have toolbar links to the functions I use all the time, which is a lot quicker & easier than using menus. With version 7.0 you can add a wider range of functions to the toolbar, eg: feathering a selection, increasing Gamma, using Gaussian blur, inverting a selection, flipping, mirroring etc.

Depending on the project I'm working on, I change my toolbar. For example for a web-based project, I regularly have to change between full colour and a 256 colour palette so I put that button on the bar. When I'm working on a print-based project, I don't need that so I ditch the button and add something more useful. You can still get to everything through menus, but it's so fab having the choice of what you can do at the single click of a button.

Hope some of that helps. Push those pixels!


Oops forgot to mention

You *can* uninstall the PSP trial, although as they warn you, if you just let the trial run out, it will stay in your HD. Set youself a note to uninstall it before then (or, more likely, to decide you want to keep it & pay for the key to keep it working).

I'm pretty sure that works, anyway. Not that I'm terribly good with sys admin type stuff!

Although of course I recommend you BUY the software :)

There's a free program called the Gimp if you can't afford to buy one.


Tips for making a selection

(This relates to using PSP or Photoshop on a PC)

Being able to accurately select the exact area you want is critical to digital collage.

Here are a few simple tips that might help. Maybe they're obvious, but maybe not. I didn't know the first one for at least a year (being self-taught) and it's pretty important:

It's very difficult, if not impossible, to make an exact selection perfectly in one go even using a graphics tablet & stylus, let alone a mouse. To overcome this, you can make your selection in stages. You can add-to or subtract-from an active selection using any selection tool by holding down "Shift" for add-to and "Ctrl" for subtract-from. This means you can use multiple selection tools in succession to select the area you want (such as lassoo and magic wand).

Secondly, ALWAYS do your manipulation in full colour (not 256 colors or less). Many functions will only work properly in full colour, and some won't work at all without full colour. You can drop it back to less colours if needed when you finish the fiddling.

Thirdly, zooming in really helps. The bigger the pixels, the easier it is to see exactly where to make the selection and which tool would be best to use (eg, lassoo to manually draw around the required area; magic wand to select based on colour tones or lightness/darkness).

Fourthly, feather the selection before you do anything to it. This will soften/average the edges of your selection, making whatever you do to it blend in more subtly with the area around it. The amount of feathering you need depends on things like the resolution you're working at, but 3-5 pixels is a good place to start.

Fifthly, once you've made the selection you're happy with, promote it to a new layer (if you're working in a format that supports layers, that is). That way, you always have the original underneath in case you stuff up whatever it is you're doing to the new selection.

Sixth, do whatever you're doing to the selection/new layer in small degrees. Say you're trying to make a skin tone from the head of one figure match the hands you've taken from another. With the head on it's own layer, you could experiment with the RGB (red green blue) colour balance to try to make it look the same hue as the hands. I always do that sort of thing in the smallest possible increment (say 1% +/- at a time).

Seventh, UNDO is your best friend. If you do something wrong and it looks horrible, as long as you have enough "undo" space set, you can go back to a time before it turned to poo. If only Life had an undo function ;)

Hope some of that makes sense to others - or may even be helpful....


Retrokat, thank you for starting this thread!

I appreciate the information.

Please keep posting. :)


I thought I knew *everything* about my best tool PhotoShop! I knew you could add with 'shift' but 'ctrl' removes - excellent info!

Keep it coming fellow West Aussie RetroKat! :D:D:D


What a great thread, retrokat!

It's also nice to see that the tools that I have been using for years are also used by an artist that created a 'to-die-for' fabulous tarot deck! There's hope for me yet! :D

I've used Paint Shop Pro for years, and have recently started using the Visual Quickstart Guides. Both the program and the books are great for people that want to start using stuff right away, but don't want to be limited by a too-simple tool or book.

You are right about layers, too! I don't know how I was able to create anything before I discovered layers! Now I'm experimenting more with Layer Transparency, which opens up a whole other world of possibilities.

For example, I'll attach a card, the Ace of Disks, that I created before I knew about Transparency. If I were to do this same card now, I would make the tips of the flames more transparent so they flow into the clouds better.

Alas, I cannot 'touch-up' this card, I can only redo it from scratch. Unfortunately, I did not create enough Layers to allow me to redo a single element, such as the flames. Live and learn! :D




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