Reflecting Details for Realistic Digital Art

Making things look real is what I always strive for in my work. I never guess at how something should look: I really look at things in the world around me. You might be tempted to make it up, but if you’re off by even a tiny bit, that mistake will stand out and make the image look wrong. So, if you want to create something realistic, study the world around you. Understanding how things should look is a matter of going through life with your eyes open.

It’s all about reflections
In my studio, I have many objects and toys that serve as models when I’m trying to figure out how something will cast a shadow and how it will reflect other objects around it. And reflections are what we’ll focus on in this issue.

How you handle the surface of an object that you’re creating in Photoshop will be determined by what it’s made of. Photoshop isn’t a 3D application: it won’t automatically create shadows or reflections within a scene. Sure, there’s a layer style that creates drop shadows, but these are shadows cast by an object onto a surface directly behind it. In a three-dimensional space, shadows take on a shape of their own. For instance, an object sitting on a tabletop won’t cast a shadow onto the air behind it; the shadow will travel along the surface of the table. Also, if an object falls within the area where a shadow’s being cast, the shadow will change direction and follow the shape of the object blocking it. But let’s talk about reflections (we’ll cover the concept of shadows in more detail in a future issue).

If an object is made of glass, polished stone, or shiny plastic, it will reflect other objects that lie beside it. There’s no layer style, easy trick, or button to push to accomplish this. This detail needs to be handled with a little effort and skill. You might say, “I’m a photographer, not a painter!” But what if you’re combining two of your photographs into one and they contain reflective objects? If a reflection doesn’t exist, the image is lost and you’ll have to go in there and create the reflections.
Many times, it’s simply a matter of making a copy of the object and flipping it horizontally to make your reflection. Other times, you have to take your time and do a little manipulation to make it look right.

Window/glass reflections
When the reflections are on a window, then they need to be subtle so as not to clutter the scene behind the window. Just a hint of a reflection might be all that’s needed. This painting, Pic n Pac, at the top of the next page, was the first I created after I moved to California in 1993.

The store has big, plate-glass windows in front and, in the closeup of the window facing the viewer, you can see the interior of the shop.

There’s also a reflection from some object outside that’s out of our field of view. It’s not necessary to create that reflection from scratch. Here’s the layer for the reflection: a rough drawing I made with the Brush tool, depicting a reflection of me standing by my car taking the picture with my old Nikon camera. As you can see, there’s not much detail; just enough to get the point across.
In the Raven painting, the movie theater has a ticket booth that faces the street. It’s glass and of course, it’s reflective. How did I create that reflection? If you take a good look at the closeup of the ticket booth, you’ll see that I took the Pic n Pac painting and flipped it horizontally for the reflection. (Fortunately, no one has sent me an email [to date] complaining that there’s no such place across the street from the Raven movie theater.)

Manipulating a reflection
As mentioned above, there will be times that require some manipulation to make a reflection look right—the painting, marble and matches, at the top of the next page, is one of those instances. In the closeup, you can see that a reflection of the matchstick is visible along the edge of the marble that faces it. The marble is smooth glass; the matchstick is right next to the marble; therefore a reflection is needed.

The surface of the marble is rounded so it will distort anything that’s being reflected onto its surface. Don’t believe me? Go look at a marble!

Here’s how to manipulate this: Duplicate the layer containing the matchstick onto a new layer (Command-J [PC: Ctrl-J]). Then apply a spherical filter (Filter>Distort>Spherize) to the duplicate layer. One important consideration is that the Spherize filter creates the distortion outward from the center of the overall shape of a layer or selection. So, to get the proper distortion of the matchstick, place it at the far right of the layer being distorted before going into the Spherize filter.

Next, lower the Opacity for the layer of the distorted matchstick and place this layer in the Layers panel above the layer containing the marble. Use the Move tool (V) to position the distorted matchstick where the reflection should be in the marble. Then Option-click (PC: Alt-click) on the line between the matchstick and marble layers to turn them into a clipping group and complete the effect. This will “clip” out any of the matchstick outside the marble.

Manual modification
At other times, it might require some handwork to modify the layer for a reflection. Say you wanted to show someone looking at himself in a mirror. If you duplicate the layer with the person on it and flip it horizontally, you’ll get that reflection; however, if the mirror is being held at an angle, then you’ll need to distort the reflection. And if the mirror is below the person, then you’ll need to do some major work, because you’d see the bottom of the person’s chin and the nose in the reflection.

In the example, the Shoe Repair painting shows a neon sign with the word “PAUL’S” suspended over orange plastic, which is smooth and thus reflective. The basic reflection was easy to create: I simply duplicated the layer containing the neon tubes and offset it to the right, then lowered the layer opacity and clipped it with the layer containing the orange plastic letter shapes.

But…there are places where the neon tubes are bent to either travel under other tubes to form the letters or to connect them into the sign. In these cases I had to do a little modification to the reflection layer. The closeup below shows one of these instances.
Notice that the neon tube is bent to travel beneath another tube and then connect into the sign. The original reflection traveled in the same direction as the tubes. The reflection of the tube being bent toward the plastic has to look as if it’s being reflected outward to meet the reflection of the bar connecting it to the sign.

Another factor in this example is that you’re looking at it from an angle, which will cause the shape visible within the reflection to appear longer than the tube that’s being reflected. Try this: Hold your finger against a mirror so that it’s pointing at an angle similar to the tube in the painting and you’ll notice that you can see more of the finger reflected in the mirror than you can see of the actual finger. In the closeup, the angle and size of the tube has been modified to look the way that it should.

So, is there a science to all this? Do you have to go out now and study physics? No! Just study the world around you. Open your eyes and look at how things work. The answers are all out there.