Behind the Curtain

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” is one of the classic lines from movie history. It is brilliant and captures a universal truth.

If you don’t remember, or if you’re young enough to never have seen The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends are terrified and fascinated by the projected image of an imposing wizard with his booming voice. But her dog Toto pulls a curtain aside and reveals an old man who is controlling things through levers and buttons. He tells them to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain to try to deflect attention from what is really happening.

Once revealed, the magic is not intimidating anymore. This is very true in most things. Even the Wizard of Oz turns out to be a nice guy.


The famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is also very true and we are effectively surrounded by magic all the time. For most of us, the internet is magic, making a phone call is magic, even getting in our car and driving it is magic. These and many others around us everyday are marvelously advanced technology products that few people really understand. We use them but don’t understand how they work.

But everyone who uses a tool or product forms a mental model to help us understand how it works. Some of the models we make are wild hallucinations with no basis in fact. These incorrect models quickly break down when we venture into new or advanced territory. They no longer allow us to predict behavior, which is the purpose of the model.

The way to counter this is to learn more accurate models of what is really happening. Learning the reality in effect lifts the curtain and lets us see how the thing really works.

Maybe it is not as romantic and fanciful to learn the reality, but it lets us become more expert in the thing we are using. The magic becomes just technology that now serves us well.


I want to use Photoshop as today’s example of magic. I’m afraid that to many artists Photoshop appears to be magic. This is an invitation to get over that by starting to peak behind some of the curtains.

I will not downplay it or dumb it down. That would not be treating you like an adult. Photoshop is very complicated. At first it seems like looking in the cockpit of a jet aircraft. I have been at it since about Photoshop 4 (it’s on version 21 now) and I have been fortunate to have the benefit of live and video instruction from some master teachers such as Ben Willmore, Dave Cross, and John Paul Caponigro. But every week I study it more and learn new abilities and ways of combining things.

But there is a good side to all this complexity, too. All that capability to learn means all that capability that can be used creatively for your art. I rate Photoshop as one of the finest software products ever created, and I have used a lot and I developed software for many years.

It is almost true that Photoshop is not magic. Content Aware Fill and Content Aware Move and a few other features may actually be magic. But for the most part it is just a collection of relatively simple tools that can be combined together to create artistic results.


Demystifying is what happened with the curtain. It will happen for you with Photoshop if you burrow into it and get past the fear factor. You will eventually have a moment when the mists lift and you understand how people create with tools like this and how you can use the tools to realize your own vision. This is a moment of enlightenment. There is no right or wrong way.

If you just try to memorize all the tools and settings and features you will go crazy. There are an unimaginable number of combinations. It is important to first learn the principles of how to work in it. I’m just going to discuss the Photoshop features that are most important to photographers.


I can’t teach you to be a Photoshop expert here, but maybe I can help point out some important concepts. There are basically 2 things you can do: transform pixels or blend and combine them.


One of the most important capabilities you will use is layers. Get very comfortable with them. A layer is just what it says. Think of it as a perfectly clear sheet of plastic. You create stacks of layers and each one can contain pixels or mathematical operations on pixels. A layer can be an image from your camera or things you have drawn or painted or many other things, including all or parts of other images. You can add or delete or rearrange layers at will. The image you see in the main window is the view looking down through all the layers. You can never see layers. You just see the pixels on the layers.

Pixels on a layer can just hide ones below or they can be combined with pixels below using what are called blend modes. Blend modes can cause the pixels of a layer to lighten or darken or influence just the color or luminosity or contrast of pixels below.

In addition, a layer can have a mask. The mask can block parts of the layer from view. A phrase you will hear often is “black conceals; white reveals”. The black areas of a mask prevent the pixels of this layer from being seen in the stack. This lets us be very precise in making changes to select parts.


Operating across all the layers and masks you have a large set of tools. These are like paint brushes or erasers or means to select certain areas to operate on. The tools let you manipulate the layers and masks to work some of the magic.

While layers hold pixels, tools allow us to do things to the pixels. Pixels on any layer can be added or removed or colored or sharpened or blurred or moved around to almost any level. Same with masks, which are also just pixels but just function differently.


Focus on these concepts. They are some of the powerful principles that make Photoshop such a marvelous tool for manipulating pixels. When you get comfortable with these basic things you will be surprised how much you can do in Photoshop and how simple it starts to seem.

So the reality is that Photoshop is “just” a large collection of fairly simple tools. The beauty of this is that these tools can be used and combined in near infinite ways to modify or create digital art. Each user has complete ability to express his vision without being constrained by the tools to look all the same.

There is no lack of training available in books or on the internet. Look around and find some that work for you. I recommend Ben Willmore and Dave Cross as excellent instructors to start with. They can present powerful concepts simply and make all this wondrous capability accessible to you. Buying some courses on CreativeLive is one way to get their training.

Living without magic

The adult world has less magic than you had when you were a kid. A side effect of growing up is there is less magic in your world. In a sense this is good. The tools we use to create our art should be just tools. No matter how powerful they are, they are just things to be wielded in our creative process.

Save the magic for your creative vision and spirit of adventure. Keep a sense of wonder as you go through the world. You are surrounded my magic. Don’t make it less important by viewing your tools as part of the magic.

What you see and perceive and create is the magic.

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