In this tutorial I’ll show you how to create an abstract skull inspired by the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday paying respect to beloved people who have passed away. A sugar skull is one of the most popular symbols in this holiday, with colorful decorations and makeup.
Using Adobe Photoshop, we’ll take some popular elements used for a sugar skull, such as flowers and floral elements, a spider and a web, and we’ll combine them with painting and watercolors to achieve an abstract and colorful result.
The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial:
- Flowers 1
- Flowers 2
- Floral Vector
- Halftone images
- Watercolor 1
- Watercolor 2
- Watercolor 3
- Watercolor 4
- Watercolors 5
1. How to Add a Texture Background
Create a new 1400 x 1200 px document in Photoshop with the given settings:
Open the texture image. Drag this image into the white canvas using the Move Tool (V) and lower the Opacity to 50%:
Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance and change the Midtones values:
Use a Curves adjustment layer to make the canvas much brighter:
2. How to Add the Skull
Isolate the skull from the background and add it to the middle of the canvas.
Create a new layer and set it as Clipping Mask. Use a soft round brush
with the color
#eeddc3 and Opacity and Flow about 34-36% to soften the
skull surface, making it look finer.
Use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and change the Master value to -49:
Make a Color Balance adjustment layer to change the skull’s color:
Create a Curves adjustment layer to darken the top of the skull. On this
layer mask, select a soft black brush to erase the lower area to
restore its brightness.
3. How to Make the Face Shapes
Create a new layer and activate the Pen Tool (P). Make sure the tool mode
is Shape so you can change the color and shape any time later. Pick the
#54af23 and draw a shape following the form of the cheek. Press Control-J
to duplicate the layer and go to Edit > Transform Path > Flip
Horizontal. Move this shape to the other cheek.
Change the mode of these layers to Multiply 100%:
Draw more shapes on the face: the chin area with the same color, and
pick the color
#ed8d1c for the ones on both sides of the top of the head.
Change the mode of the layers to Multiply 100%.
Draw two small shapes under the ones on both sides of the head using
#e9e022 and alter their layer modes to Multiply 100%.
Make a shape on the top of the head using the color
#b87e03, Multiply mode 100%:
Duplicate this shape and flip it vertically. Move it onto the nose and
cheek areas and change the color to
#ed611c. Click the second icon at
the bottom of the Layers panel to add a mask to this layer. Use a
medium-hard black brush to remove the bottom area and leave some dark
space around the cheeks to create some shadows.
Add more shapes on the nose and the forehead using the colors
#d3be2e. Use a layer mask on the nose to make it fade out.
4. How to Decorate the Eyes
Make two separate layers and use a medium-soft black brush to fill the eye sockets and the holes under the cheeks.
On another layer, use a soft black brush with a low Opacity (about 30-40%) to paint the soft shadow around the eye sockets.
Make a new layer and hold the Control key and click the eye sockets fill
thumbnail layer to load its selection. Go to Edit > Stroke and pick
Double click this layer, and choose Bevel and Emboss. Change the Highlight color to
#df5258 and the Shadow to
Add a mask to this layer and use a soft black brush to erase the stroke
on the right eye (we’ll add more makeup to this eye later).
Create a new layer, change the mode to Overlay 100%, and fill with 50% gray:
Use the Dodge Tool (O) with Midtones Range, Exposure about 30-35% to add
some light to this stroke. You can see how I did it with Normal mode
and the result with Overlay mode.
Make a new layer and change the foreground to black. Choose a hard brush
and lower its size to 2-3 px and paint several small lines around the
eye’s stroke to break it into parts.
Open the spider web image.
Use the Magic Wand Tool (W) to isolate the spiderweb from the white
background and place it over the left eye area. Use the Free Transform
Tool (Control-T) with the Warp mode to change the spiderweb’s form.
Add a mask to this layer and remove the part outside of the skull.
Double click this layer, and choose Drop Shadow.
Create an Invert adjustment layer to change the spiderweb color from
black to white. On this layer mask, use a soft black brush to restore
the black on some areas and make the effect more interesting.
Use a Curves adjustment layer to increase the visibility of the spiderweb.
5. How to Add the Floral Vector
Open the floral vector image. As it has a transparent background, just
use the Move Tool to drag it onto the canvas and the skull and warp it
to fit the skull’s face.
Use a layer mask to erase the floral parts outside the skull and on the
chin and cheeks, leaving it visible only on the nose, the left eye, and the middle
of the forehead.
Apply the Drop Shadow and Color Overlay effects to this layer. Pick the
#6bbb2a for the Color Overlay and
#1f4508 for the Drop Shadow.
Duplicate this layer and move it downward. Use a layer mask to make the effect visible only on the chin.
Make a new layer and use a small hard brush with a bright yellow color
#eff243) to paint some short lines around the floral vector and the
a new layer, change the mode to Overlay 100%, and fill with 50% gray.
Use the Dodge and Burn Tool to refine the light and shadow on the skull,
especially on the forehead, nose, and cheeks.
6. How to Add the Hat
Open the hat image. Cut out the hat on the head of the dog and place it above the skull.
Create a new layer and use a soft black brush with the Opacity about 40% to paint the shadow of the hat on the forehead.
Make a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and change the Master and Cyans settings:
Add a Curves adjustment layer to darken the hat a bit.
Here are the areas to apply the mask.
7. How to Make the Branches
Isolate the branch from the background and place it in the main
document. Go to Filter > Liquify and choose the Forward Warp Tool.
Use this tool to tweak and bend the branch, but don’t change its form too much.
Flip it horizontally and move it to the right. Use a layer mask to make it appear behind the skull and mask.
Use the same method to tweak the branch and duplicate it many times.
Arrange the results around the skull, make some branches growing out
from the holes on the skull, and use a layer mask to erase the unwanted details.
Select all the branch layers and press Control-G to make a group for
them. Change the group mode to Normal 100%. Add a Curves adjustment
layer to darken the branches a little.
8. How to Add the Spider
Cut out the spider from the dark background and add it to the socket of the left eye.
Use a Curves adjustment layer to brighten the spider a bit.
Make a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and bring the Saturation value down to -77.
Use the Dodge and Burn Tool to refine the light and shadow of the spider.
9. How to Add the Flowers
Open the flowers 1 image and isolate the flowers using the Magic Wand
Tool. Select a rose from the image and add it to the lower branch on the
Add more flowers to the branches and the top of the hat from the flowers 1 and 2 images.
Add a flower to the chin area and lower its Opacity to 70% to blend it with the surface.
Use the Liquify Tool to tweak some of the flowers as we did with the branches.
Use a layer mask to hide their lower part behind the hat.
Paint shadow for one of the flowers on the hat.
Use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer for a flower on the right. Change the Reds and Yellows settings.
Make a group for the flowers and use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to make them more yellow.
Use a Curves adjustment layer to make the flowers a little brighter.
Cut out the rose and place it onto the dark socket of the right eye. Duplicate it and move it to a branch on the left.
Use a layer mask to cut off the right rose a bit to make it appear to be inside the eye socket.
Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and change the Saturation value to -59:
Use a Color Balance adjustment layer and alter the Midtones settings:
Make a Curves adjustment layer to increase the shadow of the rose inside the eye.
10. How to Make the Watercolor Effect
Add the watercolor 1 image to the lower part of the canvas and change the
mode to Multiply 100%. Use a layer mask to remove the white edge and
make the effect subtle. Place this layer under the skull layer, above
the texture image.
Add the watercolor 2 image using the same method. Place this image in the top middle of the canvas.
Duplicate this layer and rotate it to the other side. Apply a layer mask to make the effect appear subtle and less obvious.
Add the watercolor 3 image to the right eye and then use a layer mask to
delete the white edges. Place this layer on top of the other layers.
Use a Curves adjustment layer to increase the visibility of the effect:
Duplicate this layer and move it to the black hole beside the mouth.
Use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to turn the effect’s color from red to green.
Import the watercolor 4 image to the main canvas and remove its edges using a layer mask.
Make a Curves adjustment layer to change the effect’s color.
Open the watercolor pack (watercolors 5). Use these images (or you can
choose the ones you like) to add to both sides of the skull.
Change the mode of these layers to Multiply 100% and apply a layer mask
to each of these layers to cancel any white edges remaining.
Apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to the one on the lower right:
Use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer for the one on the top left and change the Master settings:
Create a Curves adjustment layer to decrease the effect’s visibility, making it more subtly blended.
11. How to Add the Halftones and Wireframes
Select one from the halftone images pack and add it to the bottom of the
skull. Change this layer mode to Soft Light 100% and use a layer mask
to reduce its visibility:
Duplicate this layer and move it to the top right.
Use an Invert adjustment layer to brighten the effect.
Duplicate this layer and the Invert adjustment layer twice, and move it
to the lower left and the top left. It helps to connect all the elements
Use the wireframe image you want and place it on the left of the skull.
Alter the mode to Soft Light 100%. You can duplicate it as I’ve done, but it totally depends on your taste.
Make an Invert adjustment layer for each of these layers.
12. How to Make the Final Adjustments
Make a new layer on top of the layers and use a soft brush with the
#d4c7a9 to paint on and around the skull to bring some light to
these areas. Change the mode of this layer to Soft Light 100%.
Create a Color Fill layer and pick the color
#020b22. Change this layer mode to Exclusion 100%.
Add a Color Balance adjustment layer and alter the Midtones values.
Use a Curves adjustment layer to enhance the color and effect. Take a
soft black brush with a very low Opacity (20-25%) to paint around the
middle area to make a subtle vignette effect for the final result.
Congratulations, You’re Done!
I hope that you’ve enjoyed my tutorial and learned something new. Feel
free to share your ideas or comments in the box below—I’d love to see
them. Enjoy Photoshopping!