Photoshop Like An Action Hero! Here’s How To Turn Photos Into A Comic Strip

The alcohol-free 12-step program for turning photos into comic art

This is a deconstruction of techniques I used to turn photographic images into a comic strip, using only filters and adjustment layers, with the final result emulating ink on gouache. Photoshop familiarity is recommended for this demonstration.

Step 1: Modifying the photos

The original images are screen captures of a scene from the TV sitcom, Parks & Recreation. For Step 1, all three panels are processed individually.

Original video screen captures of Ron Swanson ordering breakfast.
The original images used for this demonstration.

Shadows/Highlights

Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights pulls shadows closer to the midtone range while also slightly flattening color gradations. This is a great starting point since these images are dark and muted.

Shadows/Highlights bring clarity to shadows of a dark image.
Shadows/Highlights helps bring muddy detail closer to the midtone range.

Levels

Color levels were adjusted with Auto Tone Image > Auto Tone, then the Levels dialog box Image > Adjustments > Levels.... This neutralizes shadow & highlight tones, and brightens midtones.

Levels improves contrast, and brings clarity to what was otherwise a muddy image.

Unsharp Mask

The line art effect takes shape with Unsharp Mask Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask... at a very high setting. This creates a “halo” effect around edge detail, which forces adjacent pixels to increase contrast. In other words, edges around objects become dramatically pronounced, which gives the appearance of inked line art.

Using unsharp mask at a high setting creates an inked line art effect.
Using unsharp mask at a high setting creates an inked line art effect.

Color adjustment layers

I took a couple of extra steps to make the subject more distinctive. The background and jacket were masked, then adjustment layers applied to both.

The muted colors of Ron Swanson's clothing were converted to a primary color to give him better contrast with the background and better emulate comic art.
Additional modifications visually emphasize the subject with bolder colors and a muted background.

These steps are repeated for the other two panels.

Action enhancements

Ron Swanson pumps his fist in triumph after his absurd demand is granted, so we’re driving that point home by highlighting the action. For this, a couple of vector graphics were added over the background.

Graphic elements, including rays line art and a dot pattern were added to the background of the third panel to help convey action.
Graphic elements were added to the background of the third panel to help convey action.

Action elements layer blending

The dots and rays look pretty lame as-is, so I blended these layers  Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options... into the background. Photoshop’s layer blending capabilities are a powerful tool for mixing foreground and background objects without requiring complicated masks or filters.

I kept the color palette fairly simple for this comic strip: mostly blues, greens, and yellows. To offset Ron Swanson’s blue jacket, I added a yellow-green color overlay Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color... above the background graphics, and blended through all three channels (red, green and blue) to mix it in with underlying elements.

Advanced layer blending was used within the channels of each layer to mix colors with the background.
Advanced layer blending was used within the channels of each layer to mix colors with the background.

Step 2: Assembling the story

Create a new document

Everything is put together in a new layout document: File > New.... I replicated  newspaper with a new fill layer Edit > Fill.... I gave this an off-white color and light paper texture with a pattern Layer > Layer Style > Pattern Overlay....

The comic strip is assembled in a new document with a newspaper texture background.
A new document is created to assemble the comic strip, using a color fill and texture to emulate newspaper substrate.

Laying out the story panels

Next, each panel was copied into the comic strip panel:
Select > AllEdit > Copy Merged, then Edit > Paste.

Then they were resized, cropped with layer masks, aligned, and outlined with a layer stroke. Sizing and layout proportions take experimentation, so Image > Canvas Size... and the Crop Tool were used to make adjustments.

Images are imported into the comic strip document, resized, with a mask and border applied to each panel.
1. Images are imported into the comic strip document, 2. resized, masked and aligned, and 3. a border is added to each panel.

Creating speech balloons

The Text and Shape tools were used to add speech balloons.

Speech balloons are created with text and vector shape layers.
Speech balloons are created with text and vector shape layers.

Creating a title panel

Next, I designed a title panel. This was assembled using a combination of a photo, filters, adjustment layers, shape layers, type, and layer masking.

The title panel design utilizes a combination of all techniques previously described for this project.
The title panel design utilizes a combination of all techniques previously described for this project.

Step 3: Finishing touches

Action is louder than words

A couple of enhancements for the last panel make it a little more dynamic. First, I wanted to have Ron Swanson’s head extend out of the frame: in the original video still the top of his head is cropped out, but this is made possible by cloning details from the first frame and adjusting as needed.

Also, stink lines were added on a separate layer to accentuate the fist pump, using the Brush Tool.

Enhancements to an action panel, including motion lines and cloning to extend artwork outside of frame.
A couple of enhancements were added to the last panel to add emphasis. This includes extending the character’s head out of the panel and motion lines.

Emulating offset printing on newspaper

Finally, I added two more layers to emulate the look of a printed comic. For 4-color process offset printing, anything that is white is really the substrate. Newspaper is also pretty absorbent, so paper fiber shows through. This was easily accomplished by copying the paper texture layer, and positioning above all other layers.

Also, I added a mask to the second panel’s speech balloon to recede it into the frame. Skip doesn’t have strong opinions; he just works here.

Texture and layer blends to knock out white and emulate the look of offset printing
Two layers are included to emulate offset printing on newsprint. One to knock out white, and another to give the appearance of newsprint.

The final product

And there you have it: the tale of a hangry dude at a greasy spoon, told in comic strip form. I hope this demonstration was interesting; let me know what you think!

Final rendered design of the comic strip, "Ron Swanson Orders Breakfast"
The final design for this project. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Author: Chris Mattingly

Graphic Designer/Web Developer with two decades of print and web experience for publications, marketing and commerce.

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