Categories / Tutorials

Design it Yourself: Surreal Collage

Liam McKay June 15, 2021 · 11 min read

Collage art is seen by many as a contemporary, rebellious art form that looks to radically combine existing drawings, photos, text, newspaper clippings, textures, and patterns in new and exciting ways. Without a doubt, collaging has enjoyed a lot of popularity in recent times, but the experimental art form is a lot older than many people realize.

The term ‘collage’ itself, which comes from the French word ‘coller’ meaning ‘glued’, was coined by Baraque and Picasso around 1910, and there are even earlier examples of collage art that can be found across the world dating as far back as 200BC.

Artwork: Oops by Artem Shcherbakov

Creating a collage is something that I’m sure most of us have tried at some stage, either as a creative outlet or as part of a school project once upon a time. Collaging can be a whole lot of fun, but without doubt, it can be a very unforgiving medium; you might only have one original source to work from, and one wrong tear can spell disaster. Of course, the very nature of collaging means that even misplacing an element or making a wonky tear can actually add to the rough and ready style, but sometimes you want a bit more control over the outcome and composition. For that reason, many people are instead turning to digital tools to create modern collage art.

Being able to create a collage digitally gives you a whole lot more freedom to experiment with creative ideas and layouts before committing to a final look. Lots of tools can be used to achieve this, but for me, this is one of the areas where Photoshop shines.

Collaging encourages rules to be broken and for different elements to be combined in unintended ways. Because of this, surrealism within collage art is a common theme. So let’s explore some fun and easy ways to play around with assembling different elements to create some Surreal Collages of our own.

Designing Your Own Surreal Collage

Source materials for your collage art can come from anywhere, but this step is one of the more time-consuming aspects of any collage design. Deciding upon your subject, your direction, and your message requires some thought and some planning.

Having a solid understanding of design principles will help you to put your collages together more coherently. We particularly want to pay attention to the shape, size, space, color, texture, and harmony of the elements on your canvas to create something surreal but still visually pleasing. Collages can look messy, but more often than not, there is some method behind the madness, so keeping basic design principles in mind can help you keep control of your work.

When it comes to surrealism, there are a few themes that are common within surrealist work that we can look to use, a few of these are as follows: Oxymorons and juxtapositions, Dreamlike imagery, Vibrant colors, Metaphors, Negative Space, Liberation from the ordinary and logic, and Abstraction. We will keep these in mind as we assemble our own surreal collage.

Here’s a quick overview of the basic steps we are going to take to design our own collage:

1. Source Elements
2. Define Subject & Idea
3. Experimenting with Compositions
4. Add & Modify Colors
5. Finishing Touches & Elements
6. Adding Texture

1. Source Elements

Working digitally means that you can always give yourself an advantage by using pre-made collage elements, and this is exactly what we are going to do today — we’ll walk through the process of using a collage design template kit to create and customize unique compositions.

I will begin by using the Ultimate Collage Art Elements Bundle as the base for our own little tutorial here today. This gives us 500 cutout graphics to work with that we can combine in fun and interesting ways in Photoshop to make our own little surreal piece of art. Having the elements already cut out will save you time processing and extracting images and graphics of your own.

Finding unique source Photos, Textures, Patterns, and other Graphics to work with will give you more room to experiment with your final result too.

2. Define Subject & Idea

Once you’ve found your source images, you’re now just on a mission to find those one or two images that spark an idea that can act as your main subject. Start to think about elements that wouldn’t normally fit together and think about unique ways to combine them.

In my example, I wanted to combine something ordinary with something that is out of this world. Here’s what I’ve settled upon as my main subject images:

My initial idea was to take something like a canoe and put it in a slightly different setting so that we had a familiar-looking landscape and then objects and elements that were just used slightly out of context so that it felt like it was something from another world.

3. Experiment with Compositions

Once you have your basic idea in mind, this is where the fun starts. The reality is, there is no set formula for what works and what doesn’t in a collage. You simply need to experiment with placing elements together until you find something you like or that is visually pleasing. You’re looking to find a good balance between how the elements interact with each other; this can be improved by changing the scale and spacing of the elements too.

Here’s how I ended up placing my key elements together for this scene:

I used the road to define the placement for my little canoe images. Then I liked how the pose of this vintage cutout of a woman relaxing with a newspaper interacted with the shape of the mountains in the distance, so I decided she could be a giant in this world.

I also cut out the sky from the original landscape image just so that it gave me a chance to experiment with some different sky images or textures.

4. Add & Modify Colors

Once your main composition is in place, you might want to inject some color, depending on the results you want and the sources you found. For my example, I really wanted to twist the colors slightly into something more vibrant and playful, so I decided to bring some pink into my grassy landscape using a gradient overlay.

I wanted to add something that felt like a sky, but that wasn’t just a normal sky photo, so I settled on using an underwater photo with an almost starry appearance and didn’t look too out of place. I also layered in some organic-looking textures from the Orbicular Seamless Patterns Set – just to take some of the focus off the sky, keep it on the foreground instead, and add a hint of texture.

Tip: Blend If
When I added the pink colors to the grass area, I didn’t want the whole landscape to become pink, just certain parts of the landscape. I managed to achieve this by using the ‘Blend If’ settings. To achieve a similar look, simply add a new gradient fill Layer > New Fill Layer > Gradient … and choose some color combinations that you want (you can adjust these colors later too)

This should give you something like this:

This colorful gradient effect might already work in a collage setting, but for me, we still want the landscape below to be visible. One thing many people might try here is simply to change the blending mode or the opacity so that the landscape below shines through, but by using ‘Blend If’ instead, we can tell Photoshop to only show this colorful layer on the light or dark parts of the image below. Essentially you can target certain light values within your image and have your gradient only show on those areas of the image.

To achieve this, find your new gradient layer in your Layers Panel and right-click it to go to Blending Options … and inside the window, you will find at the bottom a little section called Blend If.

By default, this should be set to Blend If Gray. Then you can begin to move the sliders around on the Underlying Layer section. You can also hold the ALT key to move the slider handles individually to give you softer blends. You will see your changes previewed live, so you can experiment with different values until you find a blend that you like.

Here are the values I used to give you some idea:

From my settings, you can see that I’m avoiding the darkest areas with a gentle fade into some of the mid-tones, and I’m also asking it to clip the very lightest parts of the layer underneath. So our gradient will only appear on certain parts of the image below. I then painted out the road with a layer mask so that the gradient was only really visible in the grass and the river area.

Tip: Global Color Adjustments with LUTs
After I had some playful colors added to my scene, I wanted to unify things a little by adding a global color correction to the whole image. I did this by using a vintage style LUT. Photo LUTs are essentially like filters that you can use to add pre-made color adjustments to your image in one click. Once you’ve added a LUT you like, you can just lower the opacity of the LUT so that the color adjustments are more subtle.

5. Finishing Touches and Elements

Once my core idea was in place, it was time to add the finishing touches and secondary elements to help to set the scene. Once again, there is no right or wrong here; it’s just a case of playing around inside Photoshop and trying different arrangements until you find something that you like.

I wanted to add to the feeling of this existing in another world, so I added some planets in our sky. I tidied the layout up by dropping in a frame that matched our background color. Then I added some depth and playfulness by allowing some of those layers to creep outside the frame.

Tip: Pattern Fill
Adding some abstract elements of your own can be as easy as creating a new shape and filling that shape with a pattern layer. In my example, I used these Brush Dots & Strokes Patterns inside a triangle shape that I added and those turned out great. Just a simple tip to add some abstract elements easily, play with different patterns and different shapes for unlimited outcomes.

6. Adding Texture

Given that collage art has historically been made by hand, you may lose some of that ‘hand made’ feel when working digitally. There are a number of things you can do to address this, but adding textures into your collage is one simple method of giving your digital collage a bit of real-world texture to emulate what you might have seen when taking clippings from a magazine or newspaper, for example.

In my case, I used some of my own Seamless Grunge Textures to add in a couple of layers of texture overlays. I also added some VERY subtle cloudy sky texture from our collage pack to our main pink background just to add another dreamy element without drawing too much focus. These changes are very subtle, but I think they do a great job of making this feel less like a digital piece of work and brings it closer to looking like a vintage, handmade collage while still giving us the benefits of staying fully editable!

Rinse, Repeat, and Remix

So there we have it, the basic steps I took towards creating a very quick surrealist art piece using existing collage materials. The method in play here is not a static recipe for how to create a collage. The reality is you need to experiment over and over, have some fun, work with lots of different sources to give yourself more options and creative possibilities, but hopefully, it gave you some insight and some tips that might give you the confidence to experiment with this style yourself.

Final Result

More Surreal / Collage Resources

If you are a fan of this style and want to start exploring more ready-made resources just like this to help with your own collage-making adventures, then you’ll be glad to know there are many creative collage packs just like this in the Creative Market marketplace for you to explore, here are a few of the favorites that I collected along the way:

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Liam McKay

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