In this holiday-themed exercise, we’ll take some simple shapes and create a custom winter scene in the style of a multi-layered paper cutout effect. With just a few shapes and some simple layer styles you can craft a scene with realistic lighting and depth. You can use stock shapes or your own custom shapes to create a variety of scenes or even a series of holiday scenes.
Step One: Start by going to the File menu and choosing New to create a new blank Photoshop document. Obviously, you can create whatever size you need but, for our purposes, we’re going to keep it small at 1100×1100 pixels to create a square canvas. Set the Resolution to 100 ppi, leave the Background Contents set to White, and click OK or Create when done.
Step Two: Create a new blank layer, and then click the Foreground color swatch near the bottom of the Toolbar. Select a red color, and click OK to close the Color Picker. Then, press Option-Delete (PC: Alt-Backspace) to fill the new layer with the Foreground color.
Step Three: With the red fill layer still active, click the Add a Layer Style icon (fx) at the bottom of the Layers panel, and choose Gradient Overlay. Click on the Gradient preview thumbnail; choose the Black, White preset; and click OK to close the Gradient Editor. Set the Style to Radial, and check on Reverse so it creates a vignette effect. Set the Angle to 135°, the Blend Mode to Multiply, and adjust the Opacity and Scale as needed. The result will start to give a sense of subtle lighting and depth in the scene. Click OK when done.
Step Four: Select the Ellipse tool (nested below the Rectangle tool [U] in the Toolbar), and in the Options Bar at the top, make sure the Tool Mode is set to Shape. Also, set the Fill to white and leave the Stroke color set to none.
Hold down the Shift key and drag out a circle in the canvas area. Make it large enough to contain the scene we’re creating. Once the shape is created, center it in the canvas by switching to the Move tool (V), pressing Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to select the entire canvas area, and then clicking the Align Vertical Centers and Align Horizontal Centers icons in the Options Bar. Press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to deselect.
Step Five: Once the shape is in place, make sure the Ellipse 1 layer is active, and with the Ellipse tool selected, click on the Path Operations icon in the Options Bar (it looks like a white square), and choose Subtract Front Shape from the drop-down menu. This will simply reverse the area of the shape to outside the circle, revealing the red background inside the circle.
Step Six: Remember that Gradient Overlay we applied to the red-filled layer? We’re going to use that same layer style again. One really quick way to reuse a layer style is to hold down the Option (PC: Alt) key, and click-and-drag the fx icon that appears to the right of the layer’s name to the target layer (Ellipse 1 in this case). Done!
You can also Right-click on the red layer and choose Copy Layer Style, and then Right-click the Ellipse 1 layer and choose Paste Layer Style.
Step Seven: Applying the Gradient Overlay to Ellipse 1 adds the subtle light and depth effect to the white background. To create even more depth to the circle, let’s add a Drop Shadow layer style. Double-click the ƒx layer style icon on the Ellipse 1 layer to open the Layer Style dialog, and then click on the words “Drop Shadow” in the Styles sidebar to activate it and switch to its settings. Here we’re using a rather soft shadow effect using the settings shown here. Make sure to turn off Use Global Light. The Drop Shadow adds more to the lighting of the scene and enhances the depth. Click OK.
Step Eight: Now that we have the base of the scene in place with the background and the frame element, we can start building the scene itself. As the great Bob Ross said, “We’ll start with some happy little trees.” Here we have a collection of vector trees from Adobe Stock. As I’ve stated many times before, when looking for generic stock graphics, try to find a collection like this. You get much more for the cost of one image. You can create your own custom silhouette shapes, as well.
If you’d like to download the low-res watermarked version of this image to follow along, click this link, log in with your Adobe ID, and click the Download Preview button to download the image to your computer. Navigate to the downloaded image, drag-and-drop it onto the Adobe Photoshop CC application icon, and click OK in the Rasterize EPS Format dialog to open it in Photoshop. (Note: If you download this image to your Libraries panel, and then double-click it to open it, will actually launch Illustrator since it’s an AI vector file.)
While there are many trees from which to choose in this document, for this scene, we’ll just use the two trees shown here. Don’t go crazy building a large forest of different trees. All you need are two different trees to build the scene. Set the trees aside for just a moment; we’ll get back to them.
Step Nine: Back in the main design document, go to the Toolbar and choose the Pen tool (P). Click the Eye icon next to the Ellipse 1 layer in the Layers panel to turn it off. As before, set the Tool Mode to Shape in the Options Bar. Drag out a corner of the document window to reveal the work area around the canvas edges. We want to draw a hillside horizon across the entire canvas, so start by clicking just outside the left edge of the canvas to start a new shape layer. Click-and-drag the next point inside the canvas area. As you drag it will change the curve of the path. Once you have the curve you want, release the mouse button, and then click-and-drag outside the canvas area on the right to create another curved portion of the path. Continue to draw the shape around the outside of the canvas area until you get back to the starting point. Click the starting point to close the shape. Drag this Shape 1 layer below the Ellipse 1 layer in the Layers panel.
Step 10: Go back to the trees file. If you downloaded the full AI version of the document, or you’re using your own custom vector shapes, use the Path Selection tool (A) to select one of the trees. (If you’re using the low-res preview file of the trees from Adobe Stock, jump to the next paragraph, and then come back here.) Press Command-C (PC: Ctrl-C) to copy it to the clipboard. Go back to the main image, make sure the Shape 1 layer is active in the Layers panel, and then click on the white horizon shape in the document with the Path Selection tool to select it. (You have to have at least one shape active in a shape layer when pasting another shape; otherwise, the pasted shape will replace all the current shapes on that layer.) Press Command-V (PC: Ctrl-V) to paste the shape and add it to the shape layer. (Note: If pasting a shape directly from Illustrator, you’ll be prompted as to how to import the shape. Be sure to choose Path.)
If you’re using the low-res preview file of the trees from Adobe Stock, switch to the Magic Wand tool (nested under the Quick Selection tool [W] in the Toolbar), and set the Tolerance to 50 in the Options Bar. (If you’re using an actual AI vector file, and you followed the steps in the previous paragraph, you can skip to the next paragraph.) Click on the tree you want to use to select it. In the Paths panel (Window>Paths), click on the Make Work Path from Selection icon (it’s the fourth one from the left at the bottom of the Paths panel). Then, go to Layer>New Fill Layer>Solid Color, and click OK in the New Layer dialog. In the Color Picker that appears, choose white and click OK. That tree is now a shape layer in the Layers panel. Click on it with the Path Selection tool, go back and follow the instructions in the first paragraph of this step, then return here to complete this step.
Even though the shapes appear to be combined you can still edit them individually. Click on the tree shape with the Path Selection tool, and use Free Transform (Command-T [PC: Ctrl-T]) to scale and place the tree on the horizon like you see here. Press Enter to commit the transformation. If the tree is showing the red background where it overlaps the horizon shape, select the tree, go up to the Path Operations drop-down menu in the Options Bar, and choose Combine Shapes.
Step 11: Repeat the previous step to bring in the second tree element into the scene on the same shape layer. I also duplicated this second tree. Turn the Ellipse 1 layer back on, and then position and size all of the trees to better fit the composition within the frame as shown above.
Step 12: Now just copy-and-paste the layer styles from the Ellipse 1 layer to this tree horizon layer using the method from Step Six. This will keep the lighting consistent, but if you see any areas that need adjusting you can double-click either of the layer style names in the Layers panel to open the Layer Style dialog and adjust the settings as needed. You can see how we adjusted the Gradient Overlay and Drop Shadow settings in the images shown here. While the Gradient Overlay settings are active, you can also click-and-drag directly in the document to manually move the gradient around. Click OK when done.
Step 13: Select the Pen tool and repeat Step Nine to create another shape layer of a hill in the foreground. Remember to draw the shape all the way around the bottom and click on the starting point.
Step 14: Now let’s add an image of a deer. Here’s another shape from Adobe Stock that you can find by clicking here. (Yes, it was from a set.) As we did with the tree in Step 10, bring this animal shape into the main canvas and add it to the shape layer (Shape 2) with the new horizon that you created in the previous step. Again, use Free Transform to scale and position the shape in the composition relative to the other elements. If the bottoms of the deer’s legs aren’t white, select him with the Path Selection tool and select Combine Shapes in the Path Operations drop-down menu in the Options Bar. Lastly, copy-and-paste the layer styles to this layer as we did before. Noticing a pattern here?
Step 15: We’re going to add another layer with some tree trunks in the extreme foreground. Start by using the Pen tool again to create another horizon layer on a new shape layer as shown here.
Step 16: Here we have a collection of vector birch trees. You can find this image by clicking here. Just as before, we’ll just bring a couple of them into the main scene. (Remember, if pasting from outside Photoshop, make sure you choose Path in the Paste options.)
Also, remember to copy the layer styles to finish the layer. With all of the elements in place, use the Path Selection tool to move the elements around so they all fit into a nice balance within the frame.
Step 17: Now let’s add some snow as a final touch to our winter scene. Start by creating a new blank layer and place it just below the Ellipse 1 layer in the Layers panel. Press Shift-Delete (PC: Shift-Backspace) to open the Fill dialog, select 50% Gray in the Contents drop-down menu, and click OK. Then, go under the Filter menu, to Noise, and choose Add Noise. Set the Amount to 400%, the Distribution to Gaussian, and check on Monochromatic. Click OK.
Step 18: Next, go under the Filter menu again, to Blur, and choose Gaussian Blur. Set the Radius to 7 pixels, and click OK.
Step 19: Press Command-L (PC: Ctrl-L) to open Levels. Push the highlight and shadow sliders below the histogram all the way to the center, and you’ll see the noise become larger clumps of white. Click OK.
Step 20: Run Levels again to push the contrast so there’s little-to-no gray areas. Click OK. Instant snow!
Step 21: Finally, just change the layer blend mode near the top left of the Layers panel to Screen, add the layer styles as we’ve been doing, and there you have it. For a final touch, I added some simple text with the same layer styles to finish the overall design.
Click here to check out a video for a bonus tip on how to animate the snow for a GIF. I hope you’ve enjoyed this technique, as well as all of this year’s “Down & Dirty Tricks.” I wish you all Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!
This article originally published in the December, 2019 issue of Photoshop User magazine.