Photoshop Tutorial | Graphic Thoughts: Creating Great Backgrounds in A Snap
Posted Sep 1, 2008

Recently, I had the chance to go with my in-laws to City Museum in St. Louis. What an amazing place to get lost in by crawling through inventively designed tunnels that go underground to many stories below the city streets. The most impressive thing to me was how the place was constructed—they used everyday items, such as metal storage bins, bottles, and gears (plus what looked like a million other items) to create elaborate mazes of artwork.

The museum’s website gives the following description: "Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, the museum is an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects. … CITY MUSEUM boasts features such as old chimneys, salvaged bridges, construction cranes, miles of tile, and even two abandoned planes!" Check it out if you get a chance at

So with the "found objects" theme in mind, I’ll show you how I often create usable backgrounds when I need something quick (the key is QUICK!) and there isn’t a predefined image to choose from in my arsenal. This is about as simple a tutorial as there is, but it’s no less effective.

Step 1: Choose a Usable Image
Generally, my approach is to find an image (regardless of the content) and look for colors that appeal to me. That’s about as unscientific as it gets when it comes to choosing an image, but again, this is all about experimentation—there are literally no rules when searching for the image you want to use!

In this example I’m going to show you three different images, and for each I’ll use the exact same technique to show you just how different an image can look with two simple adjustments: one on the vertical, another on the horizontal (Figure 1, below).

figure 1

Step 2: Add a Motion Blur
Open your image in Photoshop. From your top menu bar, choose Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and set the Angle to -90 degrees and the Distance to 250 pixels (Figure 2, below).

figure 1

Now adjust the Distance to 500, 750, and then to 999 to see if any of the other settings are better suited to what you are looking for. What you’ll see is a nice blend of your image.

Try doing the same thing as before, but set the Angle to 0 degrees. That’s it! (I told you it was simple!)

Step 3: Finish Your Title Screen
To finish off my title screen, I opened the photo I took at the museum, and then, using the move tool (V), I dragged it into the colored background image. Next, I double-clicked beside the layer name of my photo and added a drop shadow, then a stroke (I used a white border and stroked to the inside for hard photographic corners). Finally, I added a title using my text tool (T) (Figure 3, below).

figure 1

Once again, the beauty of this technique is that you can easily try any number of filters within Photoshop, and if you’re so inclined, give it a whirl in Adobe After Effects with some added motion. As I mentioned, this is all about taking literally any image and making it a cool background without a lot of complex button-pushing.

Sometimes, the sweetest looks come from very simple techniques.

Lance Gray (lance at is the chief creative pixelmonkey at PixelPops Design, LLC. For questions, thoughts, or ideas simply email him.