Take 10: Impulsive by Erik Johansson

When you’re open to possibility, a challenge is always good—you learn something whether you succeed or fail. That was Erik Johansson’s perspective when we asked him to tackle a new challenge we’re calling “Take 10”: We give an artist one word and 10 digital images, and he or she must combine them into a new piece that represents the word. Johansson’s word was impulsive, and we think his response to the challenge was a success.

It didn’t come easily, though. “It’s the complete opposite of the way I am used to working,” Johansson explains. Normally, he carefully plans every detail before going out to photograph the individual elements that will make up a collage. For this challenge, he says, “I had to adapt to existing material and include them all, not pick just the ones I wanted. I enjoyed it, but it does look a bit different from the work I normally create because of that.”

Before Johansson touched a single one of the 10 images, he considered the word impulsive. “I’m not very impulsive. I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “I would say that the opposite of impulsive is rational.” The ironic twist? Johansson is well known for his irrational imagery.

While he may not be impulsive, he does tap into the surreal. “To me, impulsive means something that is happening in our brain, a decision or thought on the inside that can lead to an unexpected action,” says Johansson. “I wanted to capture that feeling where we let go and the thoughts flow freely, much like the moment right before falling asleep where we leave the rational behind. In a way, the final image is a self-portrait of my own mind. I constantly try to make connections between unexpected things.”

The 10 images Johansson used are above.

Putting the pieces together

Johansson divided his Adobe Photoshop CC canvas in two. Elements on the left side would symbolize the inner mind, and the right side would represent the rational outer world. The photo of the woman in profile would bridge the two sides. (All the images are from Adobe Stock.)

He realized that he could combine the woman’s hair and the tree photo: “That helped me create the transition from the realistic portrait to the inner world of the mind.” Johansson used a layer mask and blending modes to collage the two. He also copied the tree several times to build a base layer on the left side of the canvas. To introduce variation, he transformed each copy using tools under Photoshop’s Edit menu, including Warp and Puppet Warp. To give the illusion of perspective, he added a haze to the trees that appear to be farther in the distance. He added texture by copying bits of the jagged peaks photo into a new layer and blending it into the trees.

“Impulsive thoughts often come in fragments,” Johansson says. To express this idea, he put the abstract stock image with irregular angles on a new layer and blended that into the background. He then copied the abstract image but offset it slightly from the original and masked out different parts of the duplicate. The resulting effect looks like a crystal reflecting light.

Johansson placed the cube stock image in the upper right corner of the canvas to represent the organized part of the mind. “At this point, I was happy with the image, but I hadn’t used all 10 of the challenge photos. So I had to push myself.” 

He took the image into a dream world. The fantasy came in the form of the fish swimming in the air and surreal bits of stripes, houses, and swooping power lines and poles (culled from the train photo).

Although it wasn’t part of the Take 10 rules, Johansson chose to further test himself by completing the piece in 24 hours. “I normally work on images for weeks or months,” he says. The tight deadline makes his attention to detail even more noteworthy; for example, he decided that he wanted another instance of the irregularly angled, abstract stock image to enhance the glass reflection illusion, but he didn’t want to replicate what he’d already done. So he saved the image file as a map and used Photoshop’s Displace feature (Filter > Distort > Displace) to shift light and dark areas in unexpected ways. Another example: To give the image a little more punch, he increased local contrast with Photoshop’s High Pass feature (Filter > Other > High Pass); then he toned it down by setting the blending mode to Soft Light.


And there’s much more: He dropped in a lens flare; changed the color balance with a photo filter adjustment layer; added a vignette and a little vibrance; and performed what he calls the “secret trick” he does with all of his images, a gradient map that casts a slight green-yellowish glow on the entire image to warm it up.

Finally, he added noise “to make it all come together nicely.” That noise, by the way, comes from a macro that he uses on all of his work. “Somehow,” he says, “it creates a more photo-realistic scene.”

Take the challenge and win

What does the word impulsive mean to you? How would you express it with these images? From February 19 through the end of day on February 24, 2016, you can download the images for free and submit your unique artwork. Erik Johansson will judge the entries, and Create Magazine will award the 10 winners and give them prizes!

Get the download link and all the contest details here.

By Terri Stone

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