Steve Caplin


With Photoshop’s Smart Objects you can combine multiple layers into one, distort them, mask them, add adjustment layers, and most importantly, change the contents at a later date. And when you duplicate a Smart Object layer, any changes made in the original are reflected in the altered version as well.
This tutorial is split into two halves. First we’ll see how to create a Smart Object and distort it to match the shape and position of the existing sign in this bathroom; then, we’ll look at adding masks and adjustment layers to blend the signs into the background scene more effectively. 
The original scene

Here’s the starting shot of the bathroom sink. The sign has been placed behind the tap, and the flimsy laminated card bends as it leans against the wall. Reproducing the reflection in the shiny tiles will provide a separate challenge later.
Create the design

Make a new layer for the placard itself. Draw a rectangular selection the same shape as the card, and fill it with the color of your choice. Add all the extra text and design elements on additional layers above this one. You can add as many layers as you like.
Make the Smart Object

Select all the layers that make up the new placard, by clicking on the bottom one and then holding Shift as you click on the top one. Alternatively, hold Command (Mac) / Ctrl (Win) and click on each layer in turn to add it to the selection. Once they’re all selected, click on the tiny menu icon at the top right of the Layers panel, and select Convert to Smart Object from the pop-up menu (or just choose it from the Layers menu).
The Smart Object

Turning all those layers into a Smart Object makes them appear to be a single layer, as seen in the Layers panel. Only the small icon in the bottom right corner of the thumbnail preview indicates that it is something other than a regular layer. Note that the Smart Object always takes the name of the topmost layer when the Smart Object was created; you can change this name if you wish.
Distort with Free Transform

Use Edit > Free Transform to distort the sign. You’ll find it easier to see what you’re doing if you reduce the opacity of the layer slightly, so you can see through it. Hold Command (Mac) / Ctrl (Win) as you drag each corner independently, moving them so they align with the corners of the original placard.
Distort with Image Warp

Click the Image Warp button on the menu bar, and the nine-segment envelope grid will appear. Drag the Bézier control handles from each corner so that the sides of the sign match the curved sides of the original placard.
Move the internal handles

You’ll need to move the four internal handles of the envelope as well, so that they follow the curve set by the outer shape. If you don’t do this step, the sign will always look wrong.
The distorted object

Hit Enter to apply the transformation, and bring the layer back to full opacity. Here’s how it now looks; the shape matches that of the original sign.
Create the reflection

Duplicate the placard layer, and drag it to one side. Enter Free Transform mode and you’ll find the handles in exactly the same place as you left them when working on the original placard. Unlike regular layers, Smart Objects remember your distortion positions. Go into Image Warp mode, and choose None as the warp style from the pop-up menu on the Options bar. This will remove the warp effect, leaving just the original Free Transform distortion.
Match the reflection

Flip the layer horizontally, and follow the same procedure as before: first lower the opacity of the layer, then use Free Transform to drag each corner to the right location. Enter Image Warp mode, and change the warp style from None to Custom. This will reset the handles, so you can adjust the shape of the curved edges. Finally, don’t forget to move those inner handles into place. 
The image so far

Press Enter to apply the transformation, and return the layer opacity to full strength. Here’s how the montage looks so far: both placards are now correctly distorted to match the shape and position of the originals. Of course, this is very far from being a convincing effect; in part 2 of this tutorial (coming Friday), we’ll complete the illustration, with appropriate shading and masking.

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