How I made Desktopography Valley


An inside look at how I work based on my own opinions, my struggles and decisions.


For some of you my artwork looks quite familiar. Like you’ve seen it somewhere else before. That thought is not false because I have tried to work with this stock for Desktopography 2 years ago as well.

Let me first tell you that I love working with a concept. Almost all of my works have a story behind it, sometimes even a personal one. The concept I had in 2012 was: “The tree of life”. Which still isn’t a very bad concept I think: I was thinking of that everything would be lifeless/dead and that the tree was trying very hard to keep things alive. Think of it as a dramatic sky, water being still to frozen and near the tree flowers would be alive but the further away from the tree, the more dead flowers would appear.

Early concept of 2012
Early concept of 2012


Anyway it’s a great concept. But sometimes it just does not work out.
While I was starting to work on it and while I was working on the tree (which would have had the shape of the logo of Desktopography). I came to the conclusion that:

  • It was not original enough;
  • I only had a tree but nothing else for the eye to explore;
  • My (older) iMac couldn’t handle it so Adobe Photoshop went stuck all the time.  Every line took 3 minutes to paint and I became frustrated.

So a tree and that’s it. It would just not do. And when I am demotivated, my entire piece starts to become very dark (as you can see above).

I decided that even though I spend a lot of time on it and especially the sky part, that I would store it and perhaps, one day, work on it again.




I did not work on it for nothing though, even though it seemed like that when I decided to quit on it. I’ve spend hours and hours in painting the sky, so much that through working on the piece I figured how to paint a sky more realistic.
I had actually never done it before.

Because I knew now how to make a realistic sky, I’ve helped the guys at Postpanic a year later with their upcoming film ‘Sundays’:

See that sky at 00:10? Yup. Thank Desktopography version 1 because of it!
It’s one of the projects that I’m very honored to have helped out with.

This is just I pointing out that even if you do decide to quit on a project, it’s not like you do not learn anything from it. Every time you make something, you set higher values and become more precise. Remember to always set your own bar higher and higher.

Never make yourself regret that you did not do enough, but that what you did, was the best you could do.


1. Starting all over again (2.5 days before the deadline)


Over the past few years a lot of things have changed for me. I’m studying again and my 3rd year internship takes a lot of time. It was difficult for me to find time to work on a piece for Desktopography for the past 2 years. But the thought of working on it again, never left.

While I was looking on it, being 2 years older and on a new 27 inch iMac, I noticed that the sky was good enough. I was still very pleased with it. The rest? My god. The colours, the tree, everything I just couldn’t use.
I decided it was time for a new concept and with that a new approach. This also helped me to get motivated again to work on it.

Original stockphoto
Original stockphoto

It took me a couple of hours till I thought of a new concept. What if I decide to do something difficult, but to completely remove the middle and focal rock and to replace it with the logo in shape of an island?
I took the unedited stock again which I saved and started working on it. It was difficult and it took more than a day to get the technical stuff done.

With technical stuff I mean 3 basic things that need to be absolutely as perfect as possible: - Rendering, Blending and Perspective.

2. Know what motivates you to go on

It maybe sounds silly, but I get very motivated when I first start to set the colours right. This always is a long progress for me, so what you are seeing now isn’t the final result.
I believe everyone has this sort of routine when someone starts working on something. Some begin with a sketch and some need to have a certain kind of music.

I wanted the colours to look retro, to have a VSCO feel. In the end I ditched this idea (will come back to this later).

After I played a bit with the colours I started to remove the big old’ rock.
Whoa and that was difficult. It took a lot of my time, because removing something isn’t really fun for me.

To continue motivating myself and to give myself a clear view of how it would look, I started adding water.


How I did that? Simple. Copy and paste water, blend those in, digital paint, perspective tool and puppet warp.
The perspective tool and puppet warp are two tools I used a lot in this piece, because the perspective was crucial. It could make or break it.

Adding water

3. Making the island

During these technical phases of an illustration, it’s important to keep yourself motivated.
It was high time for me to take a break and get some groceries, take a shower and look at it from fresh eyes again a couple of hours later.
I did had the bad luck that I was fighting against time, because the deadline was coming soon.
Which meant that I was working from 12 pm till 5 am on it, until I couldn’t see it anymore and went to bed to start working on it again the next day.

My friends think that this is crazy. Maybe it is. But it gives me such an adrenaline rush when I’m able to finish a piece. Like you’re on drugs. Well, you guys know what I mean haha.


How I made the island is the same way I made water.
My photomanipulation works are always a combination between painting and stockphoto’s (maybe sort of like a matte painting).
I never just render and try to blend something in while not digital painting around it. Painting it makes things blend as well into the scenery.

Adding the Desktopography logo
Adding the Desktopography logo as a guide

I’ve also decided that the island shouldn’t exactly match the logo. Nature isn’t perfect, so this shouldn’t be either. It should make you wonder. And that wonder part makes people look at your image longer and make them start liking it.

I’ve learned this while I was working full time as a designer and wanted to strive for perfection. But when it comes down to illustrations like these, do not aim for perfection. The imperfection makes it yours.

4. Focus on the details

Adding plants
Adding plants

Above is a clear example of how important perspective can be.
I’ve tried the perspective tool (edit -> transform -> perspective) till it looked right and made these tiny little islands in the shape of the leaves of the logo.
Some are fully covered with trees, some not. Like I said, nature isn’t perfect.


Pay close attention to how things in nature look like.
How edges from an island are shaped, how depth is working et cetera. If it does not look right, ask for feedback.
Even a child from 10 can tell you, with no experience what so ever in Photoshop, if something looks weird or not. He or she could not point out what you could do about it, but can tell you with no-photoshop-eyes that it should look differently. Just a tip I once got as well.

5. And… flip it horizontal

While I was working on it, there was something about the piece that I didn’t like.
It had to do how we like to look towards a viewpoint. You see, now the rock at the left asked for my attention, not the logo in the middle. That needed to change, because I wanted the logo to grab the attention.

What needs to get attention?
What needs to get attention?

I often fix everything that takes the viewers away from the concept/focal point I want them to lay their eyes first one. And with this I mean blurred leaves in front, an eagle (coming back to this later) or in this case a rock.
I’ve also asked two opinions about this decision: to my aunt, who is a photographer and to Mark Vogelaar, also a contributor at OtherFocus.
Both of them agreed that it looked more pleasing for them when it was flipped.


6. Adding my 2012 Sky and starting to change the colours

Adding my old sky
Adding my old sky

I’ve added the sky in it, changed the colours a bit and noticed that my piece was getting darker and darker again.
Sure, it should be dramatic, but I felt it became lifeless due to the colours. Around this time my pet became very sick so I had to go to the vet. This reflected in how I was working on the piece.
The moment he became a bit better and so that I looked at it with fresh eyes again, the moment the piece started to become better. I added more colours to it: made the trees/plants more green and the water and sky more blue.

Remember that before I mentioned an eagle? I bought a, let’s say not very cheap, stock photo of an eagle. It’s absolutely stunning.
Full of detail and it’s crispy sharp. Exactly how you want a stock photo to be, because that makes rendering easier.
I started rendering it (I do this with calculations -> channels and personally find this the best way to do complex rendering) and trying to see where the eagle could ‘fly’.


Adding an eagle, or not?
Adding an eagle, or not?


But no matter where I paste the eagle, no matter how small or big I made it or how well I tried to blend it in within the colour scheme, it just took away the attention.

Remember where I wanted the attention to be? I wanted the eagle to be an addition, not that the viewers see something that looks like an eagle (maybe even wonder if it really is an eagle!) and then see the logo.
Get rid of everything that does not make sense huh…

Decision time again. I got rid of it.

7. Know where the light comes from

A difficult part. There are multiple light sources I this illustration, also because there is a ‘storm’ coming. But right now I wanted to flip the sky and make the left side darker and the right side lighter.



Another trick that I use since I was 14, is adding a gradient with a white circle in the middle where I want the focus to be.
Then I set it on soft light with an opacity of 2-5%. It makes it stand out a bit more.

8. Final touches

Unfortunately it was already Tuesday and in a few hours the exhibition would go live.
This is my favorite part of working on a photo manipulation: the final touches, the final details, the painting. I can go nuts on it for days.

But there wasn’t much time left so I had to set down my priorities: making the water look better by adding reflections, plants, depth, waves, reflection from the sky et cetera.

Painting small details
Painting small details

I’ve also fixed the depth within the leaves by adding light and shadow.
Doing this by digital painting it as well. Just using the standard brushes that are already in Photoshop. I vary from soft to hard brush and set the opacity and flow lower.

Final result

Final result
Final result

This entire progress: the decisions I had to make, how my mood is reflected into the design, which music I listen to while working on it (huge fan of Bonobo),
how I set my colours, how I set my focal point etc. is what I call ‘style’.

So how do you find your style? In my opinion it is figuring out your working routine. Which steps do you continuously repeat? That makes your artwork yours.


Thanks for following my work in progress. Hope you like it!
You can download the wallpaper for your desktop at Desktopography here.

Last but not least, many thanks to Pete Harrison as well, the founder of Desktopography.

Do check out the rest of the amazing 2014 wallpaper exhibition! Hopefully it inspires you and perhaps makes you decide to submit your work next year as well!

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One Response to “How I made Desktopography Valley”

  1. Harish Chouhan

    Wow, thanks for sharing this. Always been a fan of your work, but understanding the decisions behind each steps and the attention to details an artist puts in his/her work make the end user appreciate something even more.