Want to know how to create a surreal portrait in Photoshop? Adam Lacarino shares how he used Envato Elements to create this incredible Einstein portrait.
Adam Lacarino – a contemporary digital artist from Annapolis, USA – knew he wanted to be an artist from the moment he picked up his first Goosebumps book. Inspired by the vibrant colors, fantasy elements, and exaggerated perspectives of the young adult series book cover designs, Adam began experimenting with surreal art and illustration from a young age. He focused on creating visuals that made people feel something, leading him to specialize in creating wild fantasy scenes and bold compositions
He’s been creating incredible artworks for over 18 years, originally on pencil-and-paper, before switching to digital when his hero and illustrator of the Goosebumps books – Tim Jacobus – began exploring digital illustration in his work. Adam has grown into a true digital-art pro – honing his impressive self-taught skills in Photoshop, Illustrator, Procreate, and Lightroom using online art courses and YouTube tutorials.
The covers of the Goosebumps books are the reason I wanted to be an artist (for anyone not familiar, they’re worth a Google). As a kid, I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain why they were so impactful, but I remember not being able to sleep whenever a new book came out – I was so excited. Throughout years of drawing, I’d show my best friend Randy everything I created. If I saw an emotional reaction, I knew I was moving in the right direction. I quickly learned it wasn’t about being perfect but about provoking a response.
Admittedly, I became so used to paper and pencil that, as a young adult, I was hesitant to do anything digital. When Tim Jacobus (the illustrator of the Goosebumps books) came out with new digital pieces, I saw the perks of using digital interfaces. Even though his digital projects were very different from Goosebumps, his art was still recognizable and made me feel something.
I’ve since worked in the digital space for about seven years, and I love all the possibilities and creative avenues digital allows. Ultimately, whether I have a full Photoshop setup with three screens and a tablet or am aimlessly drawing on a napkin, my goal of connecting with my audience is the same.
My work expresses how I feel and encourages others to do the same. Whether hopeful, inspired, reflective, or fearless, my mission is to encourage my viewers to look at themselves and the world around them. It’s mind-blowing that pixels on a screen can elicit such a reaction, but I know it’s possible as I’ve felt it myself.
I’m blown away by the impact that my work has. Social media platforms – such as Instagram and Deviant Art – have allowed me to post my art publicly and reach a wider audience. The messages I’ve received have driven me to keep going. I’ve received messages from people I’ve inspired by my work to quit drinking, leave a toxic relationship, or go back to school, I’ve noticed that the response is genuinely incredible whenever I post a piece with a triumphant message. I’m proud of the impact of my work and how it inspires others to face their fears.
I created the Einstein piece to show the timeless nature of science and discovery. Scientific laws founded hundreds of years ago before the age of modern tools and technology still apply today, and that’s impressive to me. I mean, imagine if Einstein had a computer!
Aside from his famous theory of relativity, which is brilliant, Einstein also discussed human nature and his views on the social climate in his era (he was born in 1879, keep in mind). I was surprised at how relevant his views still are and created the concept of a “modern “Einstein” with an “E=MC2” tattoo to symbolize the permanence of his theories.
The significance of the backpack, chalkboard, and books was to symbolize the idea of continuous learning – another belief of his. Atoms are the unseen glue that holds everything together, and I wanted to incorporate them to convey the nature of scientific law being all around us.
He had a way of seeing things we didn’t see, so I wanted to show that there was more to our world and that Einstein was our portal to it. To modernize it further, I approached it with a caricature style to exaggerate key features and add a lighter aspect. If I had taken it too seriously, it would’ve looked stiff and ridiculous, so I chose a style that said, “yes, I know this is nuts.”
My favorite thing about Envato Elements is the 3D selection. They’re available at any angle you want as PNGs – what more could you ask? I searched for “science” and instantly found a perfect atom image. It’s so rare to search for something and instantly find something usable! I then searched for “school,” and the books, desk, backpack, and chalkboard immediately popped up. It made it so easy! I could focus on the art and not waste my time and energy looking for the right assets. I initially chose them for their adjustable angles, and they instantly matched my vision.
I always start with a sketch in Procreate on the iPad and then import it into Photoshop. If I’m not finding the suitable polish with the Camera Raw Filter, I’ll import the final image into Lightroom for finishing touches. I also added an oil painting Photoshop action from Elements at about 25% opacity for a smoothing/smudge effect.
It all starts with a sketch. It’s crucial that everything in the piece either steals the show or supports the focal point. For example, while the giant Einstein head was the piece’s focus, I also placed relevant objects around it to create a more exciting scene. I ended up blurring the large atom in the foreground to blend it in, and then it came time to find the rest of the assets.
Regarding photo manipulation, it’s essential to know how to warp, liquefy, color, or modify things to be precisely how you want them. It doesn’t matter how beautiful a picture is on its own – some images don’t cooperate, while others perfectly capture the essence of what you want. For Einstein’s head, I knew I would have to replace the eyes and warp the image like crazy, so I was looking for assets with the signature “Einstein” features – the crazy white hair, the wrinkles, and the mustache. Once I had those, I knew I had to “cartoonize” them to add the fantasy element.
Besides the space background, the young tattooed body, and the Einstein head, everything else came from Envato’s 3D Assets. The angles were crucial for supporting the position of the main character. Once everything was in place, I matched them, starting with a light source and then using “Exposure” to highlight. I then used “Selective Color” and “Color Balance” on each object to match it to the main subject.
I replaced the eyes with 3D “eyeballs” that I found on Elements to create a more saturated, surreal effect. I made the eyes prominent to symbolize Einstein seeing new things through his scientific discoveries. I used “warp” and “liquify” on his head, face, eyes, nose, lips, and chin to exaggerate his features and caricaturize him. I used the smudge tool all over his face to soften his features and then used “Hue/Saturation” with a mask set to a blending mode of “color dodge” to highlight.
It’s also worth mentioning that I used a Wacom Intuit tablet for coloring in specific details. My goal was to “modernize” an old figure, so more modern colors like pink and blue helped bring him into the current century. I accentuated the body tattoos by sharpening them and softening everything around them. I also added the “E=MC2” Tattoo with the “Text” tool to converge the head with the body. From there, it was just a matter of adding the appropriate highlights, shadows, and a “Linear Dodge” effect around the Earth’s atmosphere. To finalize the piece, I utilized the Camera Raw Filter. I made sure not to be too aggressive with the color grading as it was already quite saturated.
The main techniques used were warp, liquefy, smudge, and bright color-dodge highlights. I learned these skills mainly through art courses and YouTube tutorials – I’m a big fan of Envato, PiXimperfect, PhaseRunner, and SandFlake’s Channels. (Top tip: I watch their speed art videos on .25 speed so I can see what they’re doing!) I genuinely admire SandFlake’s style and how he brings cartoon elements to life – much like my Goosebumps hero, Tim Jacobus. I find anything colorful, exaggerated, or over the top fascinating. PhaseRunner is so “free” skill-wise and knows how to pull what he wants out of any picture.
My favorite way to get experimental is to take my own pictures. I did a concept Batman poster not too long ago, and no one realized that they were all toys! They came to life using lighting, blending, and scale. To me, experimenting means taking control and manipulating aspects of your process in a new way. Messing around with the lighting, the perspective, or the focus can be a lot of fun, and even if it turns out hideously, you’ll learn what not to do next time.
I also have “go-to” items from Elements, such as vectors or oil paint actions. Anything that polishes your work or helps to get your point across is a must-have. As for must-have skills, I categorize them as technical and artistic. For example, the result won’t be effective if you’re proficient at using the pen tool but have no creative intuition (or vice versa). Learning the basics comes first. Study images that grab you. What do you like about them? For example, I appreciate an interesting light source, defined shadows, fun colors, and depth. So, I learned how to technically execute these adjustment layers tastefully to achieve what I wanted to create.
If your piece tells your story, you’ve created high-quality art. When creating “high-definition” digital art, try not to manipulate the pixels anymore than necessary. Find a hi-res image, then cautiously warp, distort, and liquefy it. If you overdo it, hit undo or start over – don’t bother saving something that’s ruined beyond repair.
Also, always convert to a smart object before resizing – this will preserve the life of the pixels. Occasionally clients will provide you with images, and they aren’t always hi-res. In these situations, I like to blur or smudge artistically to make it look like the low-definition areas of the image are on purpose.
Instagram has benefited my art, print sales, and commissions in a big way – for which I am incredibly grateful. I’d been doing commissions for friends on Facebook here and there over the past decade (logos, tattoos, flyers, etc.), but about a year ago, I switched to Instagram. I posted my first image in June 2021, and it got 25 likes (a special thank you to my mom and her book club for that!) I started engaging more with fellow artists, which gave me insights into what other artists were doing. I noticed that joining Photoshop contests and utilizing the appropriate hashtags was a great way to grow. I decided to enter a Halloween art contest last October held by @mr_23_design, and much to my surprise, I won first place! That helped to boost my followers from 500 to around 5k. I then posted a picture that generated 36,000+ likes, which took my follower count from 5k to about 10k in a few weeks.
I’m well aware that in the world of Instagram, 10,000 followers isn’t crazy, but when you calculate the percentage of people buying your prints or asking for artwork, it adds up. I’ve found that posting regularly, paying attention to what does well, and engaging with new artists by liking, commenting, and sharing their stories have helped grow my account.
I would love to be just like the titans that inspire me, but I can’t – my inability to create like my heroes makes it “me.” I’ve learned to embrace my style and make my work artistic in its own way. There is no “best” in a creative space – the preference spectrum is too vast. So, do what feels good and recognize that there is an audience out there for you. The greatest lesson I’ve learned was to be real instead of perfect.
We hope you enjoyed this interview with Adam Lacarino! While you’re here, learn how to create surreal digital art in Photoshop with Daniel Artx or how to create dreamy designs in Photoshop with Sofia Aguilera. Or, head to Envato Elements and start creating today!