chasing ideas one layer at a time (a photoshop deconstruction)

I just finished what I call a "monster edit" - one that almost got the better of me, with dozens and dozens of layers, that pushed my ability level a notch up. I was going to do a visual blog about that one ("the Awful Rowing Toward God") but honestly, after spending many days, countless hours with it, I never want to see it again! This moring I thought I would tinker with one that has beein in the works for a few days, taking occasional stabs at it, but thought it would be a simple little image to cleanse the palette after the monster.
I was right and sort of wrong. It IS a simple image, but it was not an easy edit. Here is the finished image for "the Thoughts That Flap and Fly:"
When working without a plan, as I often do, I am given challenges to overcome when I start to edit, and for that matter, when I am shooting also. I have the vaguest notion of theme sometimes, and as I have described in previous blog entries, when I do have the BIG IDEA, it is often a failure I am left with when the model leaves and the camera is put away. As a result I have learned to alter my shoots to accommodate the what ifs that follow in post, and I ask my models for poses, emotions, expressions that can morph, through layers and added elements, into something conceptual at some point. But onto the "why" of this blog, and the visuals…
So here is the starting point, a moodily lit portrait, really, a model in a pose, sitting behind a shitty, cheap card table I bought for photo shoots. The expression made me want to play with this one; what is he thinking, is it sadness, is that a smile or pained expression? Open-ended - I like that.  My preference for classic, timeless clothing, often an issue in terms of budget, meant I had the model dress simply in a button down shirt and suspenders. This could read farmer/Amish/Nineteenth Century - all my preference over contemporary looks:
I go towards the farmer/Amish angle, and pop in a field of grass and flowers behind him:
I add a moody sky…
I even add a newly acquired fence…
Ok, so now it looks sort of farmer, sort of Amish, so now what?

I import a large sun hot spot in from previous projects (these things are hard to make, so why make something that works again when you can just import it?):
Now I have the makings of an environment, a scene, but what's his problem here? Why the pained expression? What's the matter? I don't know, and didn't know for days.
At some point I moved the sun layer over his head, and blending with the shape of his head and white hair, now we have…something. I still don't know what, but it's starting to look a little mystical, a little surreal, all good, in my book. I add a moody blue-green to the overall image:
I try adding all kinds of things to his glowing head: cables, lightening, smoke…no - been-there-done-that:
I create my own columns of light:
I like the shape, I like the vagueness, and then things start to click: His thoughts emanating outward - be they good thoughts or bad. Or maybe he is receiving something - a fountain of information or emotion that is taxing to him - hence the pained expression. Maybe he is an empath. Regardless, into my head pops a line from one of my favorite songs, from one of my favorite songwriters, Karen Peris of the band Innocence Mission, and the song "And Hiding Away." The songs first line is, "I chase the thoughts that flap and fly, in the cloudy, tearing sky." Always wanted to use that in an image, so naturally, birds would be a good addition, or, feathers:
Purchased for under a dollar from a craft store, these feathers, only a few, dropped in one hand and captured with the camera in the other, are added in multiple layers to create a swirl of them descending around the man, from off camera, from above:
So now I have the gist of it, now I have the concept, and I have a column of "thought-light" emanating from him, and the feathers to tie into my title from the song.  With this as the central theme, one has to ask, "why do I need the environment at all? What purpose does it serve? Well, none, except it looked pretty. I do love thick, dense, cloudy skies, and obviously use them a lot. More reason to ditch them though, and again, the scenery is doing nothing to support my concept, so…let's bring him indoors. I need bare walls, this person is stuck inside, whether due to bad weather, fear, agoraphobia, what have you, but I need an intimately lit environment. Well, the scene as shot was lit that way in the first place, so adding some texture to my smooth background paper will do the trick:

Yes, ok, now I have my scene. I was tempted to add a wallpaper texture to the walls - something I do a lot as well, but no, let's not:
I do, however, like the way it is interacting with the shirt, so I decide to create a pattern overlay for the shirt, darkening it up and making it more interesting and textural. I mask it off and I get this:

The only thing left to do really, aside from a lot of patient fine tuning and editing, is colorizing. What palette will serve the mood? As it is currently in my favored green/gold hues, I certainly like the colors as they are, but lately I have also started doing some pieces in black and white - something I am usually not a fan of at all, so I go there first…

I do like this a lot. It seems more intimate somehow, stark and harsh, and somehow darker in emotional tone. But another thing I do often, as it is my preference, is utilize very strong and intense contrast, so maybe this time, I will do something very different in terms of color and contrast, just to shake things up. I add a solid orange layer, blend it strangely (transfer mode of Pin Light, with very little opacity) and then I have this gauzy, soft shadowed color wash, contrasting strangely with the solid green and blue layers that made up my original palette. Greenish pallor made to look a little sickly with the orange would not be my first choice of complimentary colors, but hey, I am going for different, and I do like the subtle unnatural pallor it gives my "thought-light." I decide to use this instead, backing off the saturation, tamping down the vibrancy of the color so it is not overwhelming, using an adjustment layer of "vibrance:"
I add some final touches, like a spray of dust or powder emanating alongside the columns of light (these were created by sifting cornmeal and shooting it as it fell):
Tweaking and fine-tuning the shirt pattern took the longest to get it right, and as natural as possible:
Now I have my finished piece, aside from removing stray threads, stray hairs, dust and scratches on the card table, and deleting some excess feathers and texture scratches on the wall. The piece is open-ended, subject to interpretation, but that is a good thing too, and the simple contents, which, despite their simplicity, made for a complicated and convoluted edit, support my title and idea.
Thanks for reading and I hope this was useful in some way to you.
If you have any Photoshop-type questions, please feel free to send me a message, and I will do my best to answer them!

Michael Bilotta
May 5th, 2013