SND Photo Illo Throwdown winners reveal their work process

SND asked people to show off their sick Photoshop skills. And now three judges have chosen the winners.

The rules? Download a PSD file of 26 seemingly unrelated layers and make a coherent, crazy, super-cool creation. Entries had to use at least 10 layers but could introduce up to three original images, rearrange the layers in any order and scale and use any Photoshop filters to add color and texture.

The three judges were Martin Gee, design supervisor at the Boston Globe; Andrea Levy, an artist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Joe Zeff, president of Joe Zeff Design.

Third place
Kirk Montgomery

Assistant Managing Editor/Design & Graphics, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Montgomery said he’s been using Photoshop for about 19 years. “I started using it pretty much right after it came out,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.

The judges admired how Montgomery made all the pieces feel cohesive.

“I couldn’t resist this image, drawn by the composition and the overall texture,” Zeff wrote in his comments.

“I love the Diane Fenster vibe,” Gee added.

Montgomery said he spent three to six hours on the piece. He used 10 of the layers. He didn’t include any of his own images but he did add a dark shadow around the edges of the art, a thick line at the bottom and the ray of light radiating off of the stopwatch eye. “I liked the challenge of making the art out of the things I was given.”

Here’s how Montgomery created his piece: “First I collected all of the elements that seemed to have some potential and sorted them by preference from most to least interesting. I knew I wanted some human elements in the art, and I liked the head in profile, so I started there. I added the anatomical figure next, and dropped a flag in the background. After that came the stopwatch, which morphed into the figure nicely. The other images fell into place around the main elements. After organizing the artwork I used filters and textural effects and adjusted the transparency of certain layers to unify the art and make the lightning work properly. I added a warm color over the top of it all to unify the colors and give the piece an aged look.”

Second place
Albert Lee

Producer, Los Angeles Times

Lee has been working in Photoshop for 19 years. He worked on the piece for about two hours and used 11 of the provided layers.

“I wanted to create an ‘illo’ with a loose narrative that invoked themes that would be relevant to our times,” Lee wrote in an e-mail interview. “I also decided to challenge myself by sticking to the images provided.”

The judges all agreed that Lee’s restraint is what made the piece so effective.

“The restrained color palette is very effective as it conveys a sense of confidence that the underlying idea is powerful enough without relying on color for impact,” Zeff wrote. “As a result, the faintly shaded map in the center packs a significant punch. There’s a 1950s bomb shelter feel to the illustration, reinforced by the distressed texture, sepia tones and bomb-like orientation of stopwatch stems. The baby’s expression works very well, as does the composition.”

“Nice restraint in choosing which art to use. He saw the unique potential connections between the various images,” Levy wrote. “It’s both compelling and ominous. He offers a kind of directed room to wonder.”

Lee described how his piece came together.

“The photograph of the baby caught my eye because of the great expression in his face, wonder or something special. The stopwatch was repeated and overlayed to create an ongoing watch, infinite time. Within the watch is an inner ring of cloud images that represent the elements or nature, this was bent to a circle using the polar coordinates filter in Photoshop. Within that ring is a ring man and animal, achieved using the same polar coordinates technique. In the center of this is the world with the flag of the United States of America overlayed in a color layer. The red white and blue of the world is giving way to green swirls of green…. I wanted to give this image an interesting background so I used the provided background and overlayed duplicate layers of the background, I repeated this till a faint patterns started to appear in the background, the patterns appeared almost mystical or magical in form so I knew the background was what I wanted.”

First place
Troy Oxford

Graphics Director, Dallas Morning News

Oxford can’t remember exactly how long he’s been using Photoshop. “I’ve been using Photoshop since version 3. How many moons ago is that?” Oxford wrote in an e-mail interview.

The judges were impressed by Oxford’s evocative angle on a topical issue.

“It’s humorous and has a fun take on a current topic,” Gee wrote in his comments. “I love everything about it from the face’s expression to the x-ray. ”

“It makes me uncomfortable, which really nails the issue,” Levy wrote.

“The facial expression — always the first place that the reader’s eye lands — sets the tone for a terrific piece of photo illustration,” Zeff wrote. “There are a lot of artists out there working in this style, but not a lot who do so with such effectiveness. Bravo!”

Oxford spent about three hours working on his piece. He said the biggest challenge was the concept.

“I started to combine different elements into an interesting composition, but there was too much disconnect,” Oxford wrote. “I saw a challenge of making something cohesive and conceptual out of the unrelated images. At the time, TSA screening was a hot topic so I decided to illustrate the issue with a bit of humor. There are examples of scaling and distortion but also toning and color adjustments to create mood and harmony.”

He used 17 of the provided layers and didn’t use any additional images. The x-ray frame and text were created in Photoshop. The sleeves were pulled from image 16 as shown in the image below.

The winners of SND’s first Photo Illo Throwdown showed not only talent with the software but also cleverness in conceptual thinking.

First place won $500. Second place won a free registration to the annual workshop in St. Louis, Mo. And third place won a free one-year SND membership.

You can see all of the entries here.