'Escaped' by Joseph Xerri

My Creative Process – From Idea Generation To Finalizing Awesome Photo Composites

I'm always fascinated with when and how ideas come to me. Sometimes I'd be driving, or just woke up from a dream, sometimes I'd be sweating at the gym, or having a shower, and BAM! – I'm struck with a great idea for a cool piece of artwork.

Joseph Xerri

Joseph Xerri

A digital artist with a passion for photo manipulation and co-founder of Pigeon Pixel

Joseph Xerri

Joseph Xerri

A digital artist with a passion for photo manipulation and co-founder of Pigeon Pixel

Whether consciously or not, our mind is continuously collecting information from things we experience daily. It could be a great movie scene, an artwork that gave us goosebumps, or even something that someone said – it could be anything. And although we might not remember these things, they still leave an imprint in our brain. Fascinating creative ideas come from a combination of these past visions. The trick is to be able to dip into this pool of data later when we need it.

So how do we do that?

There are several ways to generate ideas, but today I’m going to share with you the idea-generation process that I use to create my photo manipulations (or photo composites). Remember, the aim here is to come up with something new, fresh, and different every time.

Only once that I adopted this approach is when I really started coming up with ideas for kick-ass digital artworks. 

I’ve been refining this method for the past six years, and today it’s my go-to process.

After reading this post, you will understand why it is crucial to allow yourself enough time to generate an idea, and only then move to its execution.

My motto is; 80% idea generation, 20% execution.

STEP 1: Daily Research

People often ask me, “but where do you get your ideas from?” My answer is always one strong word – RESEARCH. Research is the creation of new knowledge. Through research, you pile up visions in your mind, and it helps you trigger those visions you have gathered in your brain to come up with something new.

Every day, when I first open the browser, the two websites I always check out before anything else are Behance and Pinterest. You can find all kinds of inspiration on these two websites, and I suggest using them to compile your inspiration boards.

I use these two platforms to get inspiration, research coloring, composition, styles, and anything else related to photo manipulation. I mainly use Pinterest, where I have collected around 3,000 pins.

By the way, I also regularly check what my idols are creating – Everyone has their idols, right?

Even if I turn on my laptop to do something not related to my work, I still check Pinterest and Behance first. I prefer spending my time on those sites instead of wasting too much time on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. After some time, it becomes a habit or, in my case, an addiction. They are full of awesome stuff!

STEP 2: Use Your Notebook or Sketchpad

If I have an idea for a concept, the first thing I do is write it in my notebook. For example, ‘a child looking up at a flying whale’ or ‘dinosaur on lava with volcanoes on the back’.

Writing ideas down will help you remember them later on. If you know how to sketch, do so on a sketchpad – this will enable you to visualize them better. I don’t know how to draw, so instead, I look for relevant stock imagery. I save these photos in a folder called ‘assets’ and then try to create a quick mockup of what I have in mind. This helps me visualize the concept better and works just as well.

First sketch done for 'Lost'
'Lost' by Joseph Xerri

Don’t cheat yourself. Make sure you sketch or write your ideas down, even if you’re not 100% convinced or think it’s a crap idea. Trust me, you won’t remember every concept you think of, and it might come handy in the future. Not everything I come up with is necessarily brilliant, but I still write it down.

Here’s an example of why I do so:

One time I had this idea of a child dancing in a cage. The concept behind it was to portray the innocence while creating awareness of the world we are creating for them. I had put it aside as I didn’t think it was good enough and that I could do better.

After some time, I read a book that made me realize how most humans live like robots, working from 9 to 5. I immediately ran back to the ‘child in a cage’ idea and changed it to a dancing woman in a narrow tunnel, white doves flying around her. The final Photoshop artwork ‘Caged’ below, ended up being featured on the Wacom Gallery a few months later.

If I hadn’t written the child idea down, my artwork ‘Caged’ would have never seen the light of day, and definitely wouldn’t have been featured on the Wacom Gallery. This is why it is essential to write down all of your ideas. There is no such thing as a stupid idea at this stage of the process. A ‘not so good’ idea can trigger an extraordinary idea! It’s like brainstorming on your own. I also sometimes find myself combining many little ideas to create one strong concept.

'Caged' by Joseph Xerri

STEP 3: Idea Development

There are no words to describe my feelings at this stage of the process. Literally, I act like a child arriving at Disneyland. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing your ideas come to life.

I mostly use stock imagery in my artworks, so when I have an idea that I’m almost sure it will work, I start looking for the right images on stock websites like DeviantArt, Shutterstock, or Unsplash. I try to find images that have matching Light and Perspective for what I have in mind – these are 2 of the Three Pillars of Photo Manipulation.

When searching for stock imagery, I start referring to different artworks that I have pinned for inspiration. This helps me visualize the end-result and identify what I need to do so that my artwork stands out. I use these references for composition and color grading etc.

This is where my Pinterest library I mentioned before comes handy. With my inspiration boards in one place, I can quickly scan through the images and find the inspiration I need in a matter of seconds. Without my pin library, the development stage would take me much longer.

In the meantime, I start building a quick composition and taking notes of any details that I can add to the artwork later.

As strange as it may sound, when developing creative ideas, I use a tool that I’ve learned while studying for my degree in Engineering called SMART Analysis. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. This analysis is used to help you specify a goal or an idea.

You can read more about this in my blog post:

How a Project Management Tool Helps Me Develop My Creative Ideas Quicker

STEP 4: Start Executing

An idea without execution is just that – an idea. So once I’ve developed the idea into a strong concept which I know will work visually, I jump to the execution stage. Now it’s time to sit at my computer, fire up Photoshop, and start creating the artwork.

At the execution stage, I work in-depth on the final composition. If I’ve done my homework well during Step 3, I should be able to composite the images that I found earlier and create an artwork that tells a story and leaves an impact on the viewer.

You can use various Photoshop tools to blend images together; mostly I use basic ones like Adjustment Layers, Layer Masks, and Digital Painting. I use the latter to enhance lighting and paint shadows to make the artwork more realistic. It’s not about which tools you use though, but more about the knowledge and skills you apply when putting everything together.

While executing, I must keep in mind how much time I want to dedicate to the particular piece. The detail and effort I put in each artwork depend on what the scope of the project is. Am I going to refine this and sell it as an art print, or is it just a one-hour image composite to learn new techniques and develop my skills?

‘Whimsical’ by Joseph Xerri done in 1 hour.

Either way, this is where I get my satisfaction, and it’s where the magic happens. I can finally start seeing my idea come to life!

Besides working with the main images I mentioned earlier, I also add any missing elements needed to complete the picture and help with telling the story. Before moving to the next stage, the artwork needs to be close to the final, but not 100% complete. I don’t usually finish a Photoshop artwork in one day as I like to come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes.

Step 6: Finalize

The ‘finalizing’ stage plays a significant role in my working process. It can turn a good photo manipulation into an extraordinary one. Unfortunately, some digital artists are too hasty and skip this part altogether.

I’ve realized in time that details are present every time I look at someone else’s artwork I wish I did myself, and this is what drove me to spend time finalizing and refining my artworks. That, and being a perfectionist.

Adding final details can add realism to a point where the viewers have a hard time believing it’s a photo composite (depending on the style). For example, I was about to publish the artwork below, but then I took a step back and added one more small detail – the saliva on the dinosaur’s teeth. Sometimes it can be a very small or subtle thing, but it adds a lot in terms of quality and finesse.

Without the 'saliva' detail.
With the 'saliva' detail which was added in the final stage.

Details are everything; they are what will help you stand out from the crowd. Pushing yourself to go the extra mile and add detail and refinement will turn your idea into a high-quality piece of art. Spending time on detail will get you to the level that you want to be.

STEP 7: Publishing

It’s time to show your art to the world. No matter what skill level you’re at, don’t be afraid to share your creativity. The platforms available to us digital artists are endless. Be happy with your work; no one was perfect from the start.

I have a couple of friends to whom I give feedback on their work to help them improve. Sometimes they tell me that their work is not good enough, and they won’t share it. That’s wrong. Don’t be shy about your work, share it, and accept the feedback; that’s how you learn. You’ll improve over time, and if you work for it, you will succeed.

Sometimes I doubt my work too, and I start to wonder whether I’m making any improvement at all. But then I look back at my first artworks and realize how much progress I have made. So don’t get discouraged, and try to find satisfaction in making small but steady improvements.


So that is the process I use to create my image composites. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there is no one right process. You need to figure out what best works for you.

Feel free to adopt my creative process, whether in part or whole. However, I do suggest that you implement Step 1 and 2 as they’ve drastically improved my creative output.

Before I conclude, I would like to share some other tips you’ll find useful during your process.

Bonus Tips

  • When you get a creative block and cannot come up with new ideas, don’t give up. Look for inspiration, and you’ll be back on your feet in no time.
  • When in doubt, ask for help and feedback from people in design communities. You’ll be surprised by how many people are willing to help.
  • Run your ideas, sketches, and artworks past people who are not artists. I sometimes ask for feedback from my fiancé and even my mum. Both are not artists, so they help me see things from a different perspective. Remember that you are doing art for people and not artists.

Tell me what you think in the comments below. If you have your own process, feel free to share it – I’m curious about how other digital artists approach their work.

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Chris Gallego
3 years ago

Oh man, I follow you on instagram since who knows (I don’t know it hehe) but was today when in one of your last publications I saw about the 3 pillars.
I’m already subscribed to your blog and the first I’ve done is read your three articles and I wishing to receive the next one. My English sucks but my skills are enough to understand perfectly what you are talking about. So thanks for your time. Let’s see how a color blinder manage the color grading part (I’m the blinder!)

Joseph - Pigeon Pixel
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Gallego

Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it and I’m glad that you are finding my blog posts useful. Keep practising 😉

Eduardo Cardona
3 years ago

This is great. I am very exited to know more… I hope you upload some more content soon. Thanks in advance

Joseph - Pigeon Pixel
3 years ago

Hi Eduardo, glad you enjoyed reading my blog post. More content coming soon. Stay tuned 😉

Last edited 3 years ago by Joseph - Pigeon Pixel
2 years ago

loved it

Joseph - Pigeon Pixel
2 years ago
Reply to  lio

Hi Lio, glad you found it interesting.


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