Composite Line Drawings

Composite line drawings are a fascinating study of a specific location or a subject using line art.
With Elements you can easily duplicate this really interesting look.

Some Background

Together with the work of other photographers, Idris Kahn's photographs, featured im the New York Times in their March special for the run-up to the Olympic Games, show the iconic landmarks of London through overlaid images.

Each landmark is made from a series of different perspectives as line drawings superimposed.  As landmarks dominate the sky line, they also dominate your impressions of the place.  Your memory becomes a blurred collection of those different perspectives.

In this Photoshop Elements tutorial we will build a composite line drawing from a series of different perspectives as line drawings.

You will need at least three different images of your subject taken from different perspectives.

The ultimate composition is your choice; Kahn overlaps his images; one image runs into and over another; I’ve chosen to isolate my images slightly.

The four stages in this tutorial are ...

  1. Conversion of the individual images to line images
  2. Assembling the composition
  3. Converting the composition to the final line image
  4. Toning the image

Conversion - Image to Line Image

For each image which you’ve selected to be part of your composite you’ll need to carry out this process

Don’t convert them to greyscale; keep them as RGB 8 bit; save each of the images as a separate TIFF file to call on them later.

For each of the images in turn Filter > Blur > Smart Blur, Quality to High, Mode to Edge only

The original image is 4500+ pixels wide, so I needed to choose a radius of 48.2 and a threshold of 62.2, but you’ll need to experiment with the settings.

composite line images original
composite line image smart blur dialogue
Smart Blur Dialogue

composite line image smart blur

As you can see, the Smart Blur filter creates a rather amazing line drawing which stands on its own!

Anyway - save the file as a TIFF and close the image.

Now do the same with the rest of the images you've selected and save them as TIFF files as well.

Following the same steps, the following are the second and third images that will be used in this tutorial.

composite line images city

composite line drawings

Assembling The Composite Line Drawings

This is where your WACOM tablet comes in useful; you can use a mouse but precision placing and adjusting of the images is easier with the tablet. Should you need to make slight changes to the line images, the pressure sensitivity of the "brush" can be put to good purpose.

Many of my images are 4500+ pixels; I made a blank new image of 5000 by 5000 pixels. File > New > Blank File to make a new base layer.

Filter > Adjustments > Invert to convert this bottom layer to black (It's a good idea to change the Background to black so that any mismatch when you line up the images can be hidden).

Open the TIFF files you created.

Drag the first image into the working area from the tray. CTRL-A selects the image, CTRL-C copies the image and CTRL-V pastes this copied image as a new layer.

Set the blend mode to SCREEN

Repeat this until all of your images are pasted in.  At this stage it is a good idea to save this file as a PSD file; then close the TIFF files.

If the Photo Bin is open then just drag each of the TIFF files onto the new Background. 

lcomposite line images layers

Using the MOVE tool, move and adjust the size of each of the layers to make your composition.

Kahn overlaps his images; I chose to separate them; a triangular arrangement is dynamic; a linear arrangement is calm. Use the brush tool to paint out in black parts of layers you want to ‘lose’.

TIP – to make it easier to move the layers, click onto the “eye” symbols of the layers you are not moving to hide them.

At this stage it is a good idea to save this file as a PSD file under a new name – just in case you need to go back.

composite line image merged composite

Building the Final
Composite Line Drawing

Now flatten the layers using Layer > Flatten Image and move on to the toning secion.

composite line image iverted merged composite

Toning The Image

Toning is a matter of preference, that is, you either like the black and white look of your composite line drawings or you would like to experiment with some toning.

With Elements 10 there are a couple of different methods you can use to tone your composite line drawings. Simply, the ‘shadows’ are your black lines, and the ‘highlights’ are the paper areas.

Terry's Suggested Method

You can make the tones very sophisticated using the method that was fully explained in the Variations tutorial.

I went for the simple approach. Open the dialogue with Enhance > Adjust Color > Color Variations.

composite line image color variations

  1. Select Shadows and move the Adjust Color Intensity to maximum.

  2. Click on Increase Red and then on Decrease Blue to give a slight brownish tone. A couple of clicks on each might be needed to get the tone you want.

  3. Select Highlights and move the Adjust Color Intensity to 25%.

  4. Click on Increase Red and then on Decrease Blue to give a slight yellowish tone.

composite line image toned inverted merged composit

My cityscape was Auckland, New Zealand.

Rich's Gradient Maps

A Gradient Maps Adjustment layer is an amazing method to do a whole lot of different things, including toning the composite line drawings.

Here are the steps ...

After inverting the image go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Maps ... to bring up this adjustment panel. 

cli-gradient maps

Now click on the area inside the red box to bring up the Gradient Editor.

composite line drawings gradient panelThe default is the black to white gradient which is pretty much what we've got already.

The idea is to change the dark part of the gradient to some other color.

To do that first click on the black color stop (the left one below the gradient - circled in red). 

This makes the color picker available - click on the color swatch (outlined by the red elipse) and now you've got access to thousands of colors and a whole bunch of different gradients.

The great thing about this is that as you select a new color, it is instantly applied to the composite line drawings.

When you find the one you like the best Click OK to exit the Picker and then OK to exit the Gradient Editor.

Now flatten the whole thing with Layer > Flatten Image.

At this point you can modify the Levels if you feel it is needed.

Here is a quick toning done with the Gradient Map ...

composite line image ferry

And here's another one - the Gradient Map adjustment layer makes toning very easy!

composite line drawings gradient map vintage

Other Composite Line Drawings

Fernilee Control Tower

Two other examples here are the control tower of Fernilee Reservoir in the Goyt Valley, UK. 

composite line images fernlee 1

composite line images fernlee

composite line images 3 fernlee

The Composite Line Drawing of Fernilee

composite line images fernlee composite


As a true Kahn, the various stages in the opening of a flower bud of Rhododendron var plena flores. The latter being blue grey toned.

composite line drawings rhodo 1

composite line drawings rhodo 2

composite line drawings rhodo 3

composite line drawings rhodo 4

The Merged Rhodendron Image

composite line drawings rhodo merged

Rhodendron Extension

This technique can be used to create quite complex line drawings. We can tone each of our line image layers a different colour before merging them.  If you have specific colours in mind you may need to refresh your memory about colour theory.

In this part of the tutorial we will ...
  • Look at the way in which any of the colours may be changed by the process.
  • Tone each one of the layers separately.
  • Merge the tone into the layer.
  • Merge the layers iinto a single image.
  • Produce the final image.
Look at the way in which any of the colours may be changed by the process

Since the final step involves making a negative image, all colours will become reversed

This colour line               
In the final step, becomes

When the layers of lines are merged using the ‘Screen’ Blending mode, the areas in which they overlap will change colour.

This colour line
Over this colour line
The intersection
becomes this colour
Then this colour
when reversed
Magenta-purple Green
Cyan-turquoise Red
Cyan-turquoise Blue
Cyan-turquoise Red
Magenta-purple Blue
Magenta-purple Green
Cyan-turquoise Red
Magenta-purple Red
Cyan-turquoise Green
Cyan-turquoise Red
Cyan-turquoise Red
Magenta-purple Green
Cyan-turquoise Red

Tone each one of the layers separately

In turn click onto the layers in the stack, and then click the Create new fill or adjustment layer button *that's the one outlined in red below).

composite line drawings layers palette bottom

Choose ‘Gradient Map’.

composite line drawings gradient map adjustment panel
composite line drawings gradient editor
Adjustment Panel
Gradient Editor

Click on the Gradient in the Adjustment Panel (inside the red box, top left screen shot above) and this will open the Gradient Editor (right screen shot above).

Now click or tap on the white colour stop (the little colour stop on the bottom right as shown above).  Now move to the bottom left and click on the white colour at the bottom left to open the Select Color Stop dialogue (a different name for the normal colour picker).

composite line drawings gradient color picker

Select the colour you want for the LINE part of the layer, click OK to exit this dialogue and OK again to exit the Gradient Editor.  Your lines should now be the new colour you've chosen.  Don’t edit the black stop.

Layer > Merge Down for the Adjustment layer into the layer to which it belongs.

Do this for all of the layers. one by one.

Merge the layers into a single image.

composite line drawings rhodo gradient maps

When all of the adjustment layers are merged into their respective layers, set the blending modes to Screen.

Now we need to bring all of the layers together. 

CTRL-left click (Windows) or Cmd-left click (Mac)  onto all of the layers in turn will select them all.

Layer > Merge Layers converts the layers into a single layer.

Produce the final image

Filter > Adjustments > Invert or Ctrl-I (Win) or Cmd-I (Mac) turns the composition into a multi-coloured on white image, so that you can see your final results

composite line drawings final coloured rhododendron


Line Drawing and Gradient Map Video

Composite Line Drawings Page Links

Some Background

Conversion to Line Drawings

Assembling The Composite

Building The Final Composite

Two Examples

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