Happy Halloween

My computer nagged me this week to make something with Mischief Circus elements. So this is what I came up with. I always enjoy making something with no serious purpose—just having a bit of fun. And yes, for anyone who reads the article I just wrote on Luminosity Masks, I did use one on this image. After adding all the textures, it seemed a bit dark and dull. I wanted to brighten up the lightest areas again without affecting anything else. A luminosity mask was the obvious quick solution.

I hope everyone who celebrates Halloween has a great time. I know I’ll enjoy seeing all the creativity that goes into some of those costumes. Full Halloween Image


Luminosity Masking

Intricate selections made automatically

A short while ago someone asked me about the luminosity masks I briefly mentioned in “Retouching Trudie Ann Pt 4.”  Luminosity masks are more difficult to explain than they are to use. This type of mask sounds like it must be part of very advanced image editing, partly because the technique is still relatively obscure, and largely because most people use software that can’t create luminosity masks. It is, however, very easy to get started using them in your photo editing workflow if you have the right software.

Luminosity masks are created directly from an image’s channels. Chances are pretty good that if you don’t have Photoshop, you can’t directly alter the channels in an image. GIMP, the free (and rather geeky) alternative to Photoshop (Win & Mac) does have channels and does allow luminosity masking. Google has plenty of tutorials for GIMP users. I’ve been told that GIMP is more user friendly than ever. Most image editors, however, don’t allow direct access to the channels.

Channels panel with one alpha channel
The Channels panel in Photoshop provides direct access to the channels themselves. Channels are greyscale versions of the image, and masks are based on grayscale. The “New Selection” channel is an alpha channel. Alpha channels are used to create and store masks. A Layer mask will also show up as an alpha channel whenever you have targeted one in the Layers panel.

To make a set of luminosity masks, you need to be able to load the luminosity of a channel and save it as an alpha channel, then add, subtract, or intersect with other channels. If you can also record Actions, as Photoshop can, you can record actions which will then repeatedly create a mask or series of masks with a simple click of a button. If you own Photoshop, you can buy a panel from a developer who has already created the actions for you and provided you with the buttons to click. I own Tony Kuyper’s TKActions panel and recently upgraded to v4, so that’s the panel I’ll show. But if you Google “luminosity masks,” you’ll find not only other panels, but also free sets of actions, complete instructions for making your own, and a lot of articles and video tutorials on using luminosity masks— YouTube is your friend for the videos.

Image of TKActions V4 panel
Panels such as TKActions by Tony Kuyper remove the chore of making all the luminosity masks and you simply push some buttons. TKActions also provides button access to many common functions (left) that help, such as show/hide the marching ants, add adjustment layers, etc. The masks themselves can be created in a variety of ways (right)— using the traditional range of Darks, Midtones, and Lights, the Zone System, individual color channels, and more.

Why are luminosity masks becoming increasingly popular with photographers? Because we often select a range of values, not just color, and the more precisely we can target them without working hard the better. Think of a stand of dark trees against a bright sky, with plenty of areas where the sky shows through the leaves and branches. Trying to select only the sky is extremely difficult, but a luminosity mask that is restricted to just the lightest lights doesn’t select too much, and is feathered according to the image’s luminance, not by an arbitrary pixel amount around the entire edge of the selection. It doesn’t take any time to make the selection, plus you’ll often get the most natural results compared to  other methods.

Detail from original photo
Detail showing the original image opened from Camera Raw before any further adjustments were made. Let’s assume the photo is going to sell the home, or is part of a special memory, and you know it wasn’t really this drab in person. You want a quick fix that looks natural, and luminosity masks will help you with that.

It’s the ability to more precisely target a range of values that makes all the actions sets and panels for luminosity masking so popular lately. The basic luminosity mask generated from a channel when Cmd/Ctrl-clicking on the thumbnail  selects a huge range of values—it divides the image according to values that are either 50% bright or 50% dark. Sometimes that’s useful, especially when tinting an image. But consider the sky example above—if there are any values in the image that are lighter than 50% gray, they’ll all be at least partially selected with that basic mask, even if the sky itself is no darker than 15% gray. Obviously, you’d rather generate a mask that selects only the lightest lights in the image. You need more luminosity masks to target narrower ranges of values, and making them without actions and/or a panel is a lot of work. Now that the actions are readily available in one form or another, photographers are jumping at exploiting their potential.Detail after adding Vibrance

Detail of Zone 3 luminosity mask
Detail showing the result of adding a Vibrance adjustment layer masked with a Zone 3 luminosity mask. White reveals— Black conceals. The lighter colors in this image are untouched, or nearly so, while the darker areas of color get a boost.

Another example of when you might want to use a luminosity mask is when you want to blend two different exposures together in a single image. Today, most people think of using HDR software, which generates the blend from either a series of bracketed images or, in some applications, a single image processed more than once. But using HDR software can be more difficult to get to look natural, usually is best only if you have bracketed your exposures in the camera, and you may find it difficult to adjust the results to your taste. Many photographers prefer, at least some of the time, to blend two  exposures manually. Luminosity masks help make that task both quick and precisely tailored to your vision of what makes the “right” exposure.

Luminosity masking, however, won’t replace all other methods for limiting an effect. Even with a targeted mask, a luminosity section can sometimes be too large. If you want to select just a red shirt or a blue car, you’re not going to choose to select all the values in the image that also show up in the shirt or car. Other selection methods are better for such simple selections. If the selection is going to be more complicated than that, using a luminosity mask for the initial selection, then deselecting part of it, or masking the results more conventionally, often works. And when you’re going to heavily manipulate an image to create photo art using textures and special effects, fine edits with luminosity masks can be overkill. However, since they’re quick to make, they’re also easy to experiment with.Detail of Photo Filter adjustment

Detail of midtones luminosity mask
Here a Photo Filter was applied through a luminosity mask to warm up the midtones and get the building closer to its native color. Later the mask was masked even further by using yet another luminosity mask to create an active selection which was then painted into.

At first you probably won’t think of using a luminosity mask instead of your usual techniques, but once you get used to how easy they are to work with, you’re pretty much guaranteed to start using them more often. Even if your image is going to be heavily manipulated, reaching for a luminosity mask to control an effect will become second nature. In the next article on luminosity masks, I’ll talk about the practical aspects of choosing the right mask for the job. And I’ll demonstrate using the TKActions panel to streamline the process, freeing you to quickly evaluate the choices you have for the effects you want to apply.

Showing Original, Layers panel, and Final image
A handful of adjustments with luminosity masks keeps the edits looking natural and takes very little time, unlike creating masks from intricate selections or tedious hand painting.

Finding Discipline as an Artist

Letting your computer nag you and finding allies

I last talked about the benefits of copying the work of others, trying out different styles and methods, when developing a style of your own. With summer and more activities away from home, I noticed how easily I can be sidetracked by anything and everything when it comes to challenging myself to become a better artist. I always have an excuse ready. Part of being human, its very definition, includes the drive to make art, but we don’t always like doing it, especially when we’re comparing ourselves to the genius of others and feeling vulnerable.

So I can become terribly inventive in the excuses I make for not working at the very thing I want to accomplish. I easily dismiss the importance of what I’m trying to do, saying artists are born, not made (ignoring that famous artists studied and practiced);  I’m really only playing at this; what I do has little value, so something more productive is a better use of my time. Yet artistic endeavor makes us pay so much attention to our world that it doesn’t really matter if what we produce has little value on its own; it’s what it does for us that makes being alive feel better—like getting moderate exercise, eating nutritious food, or taking short breaks from work.

Image of a minimalist painterly style
Working on mastering the painterly minimalism for scrap pages popular with designers such as Anna Aspnes and Jen Maddox. I’m used to the idea that you can never have too much bling, and now I’m trying to learn when to stop.

Even when I’m not negating the value of my efforts, I’m negotiating with myself:  “After I finish this project, I’ll take some time to try this style, that technique.”  What I’m really saying is “I can’t fail with this project. It’s well within my comfort zone.”  I’m substituting being more productive for an endeavor to become more creative, and it all feels so right—we’ve been trained to value productivity since we were children. We like to measure things, and it’s a whole lot easier to measure how many vacation pictures we’ve scrapped than it is to measure how far we’ve come in developing our own style.

Altered Art on an Art Journal Page
One of my first Altered Art images using kits from Deviant Scrap (now Mischief Circus). Beginning with nothing is always difficult. Choosing a scene paper provides a guide that helps start a composition.

Of course there are plenty of times when something else does have to take priority, even if I don’t want to mow the lawn or pay the bills. But once I realized that I was making excuses to avoid getting out of my comfort zone, I came up with a couple of ideas to help shove me past my stopping points. Number one is letting my computer nag me. It loves nothing more than to set repeat calendar events and spread the nag along to all my connected devices—phone, tablet, other computer. . .  So I decided to let it. I picked the time I’m often free to choose what I do, and I scheduled different hurdles on different days—one day for creating altered art, another to try art journaling or digital painting, and so on. I don’t make these activities chores, but the nags remind me that these are the things I want to work on. If I choose instead to scrap a Christmas photo with all the bling I can pile on—a favorite technique—that’s okay. The nag just tells me to keep striving for what I’m not (yet) any good at.  I don’t like to fail—and I always believe no one else ever fails—but nagging reminds me that I can’t succeed if I never try, and settling for not failing by not doing isn’t quite good enough.

Art Journal paper made with brushes and blend modes
Starting with a completely blank canvas to create a background paper is a challenge­, but I learn a lot from working with brushes, blending modes, adjustment layers, and even filters. I only attempt papers once a month or so because it takes me forever to get one done, but it’s always special when I later use it in a project.

The other choice I made to help me get past some of the hurdles was to find challenges created by artists. I took the Photoshop Artistry course not because I needed to learn how to use Photoshop, but because it came with a lot of guided challenges for trying new styles. I then looked around on the scrap art forums and found many of them also create challenges. I keep a folder of challenges I can turn to when my nagging calendar says I need to work on something, but I don’t have a clue where to start. Between the calendar and the challenges, I’m not as plagued by a blank canvas, or by avoiding doing the hard thing just because it’s too difficult to get started. I’m so far from where I want to be, I need fifty more years to get close, but I’m also closer than I was last week.

A Photoshop Artistry course challenge.
I tried a look new to me using a Photoshop Artistry course challenge. There are a remarkable number of ways to turn a photo into photo art, and manipulated photos are perfect to use in an “artsy” scrap page.

To be honest, I don’t always respond to being nagged. On average, two or three times a week I give in, pull out an art journal kit, make an “artsy” element or paper, or try a bit of photo art. I may not be prolific in any of this, or develop creative skills very rapidly, but I have a start on it. After all, I began with nothing, so I can only get better.

This week's art journal challenge.
My response to a nag this week using a kit from Rebecca McMeen & Tangie Baxter. When I’m far out of my comfort zone, I rely upon a kit coordinated by designers to help me compose an image. A little “can’t fail” assistance helps me get over some of the hurdles to mastering a new style, and the close attention I pay to each element helps me understand how the style works to express a feeling or concept.