Erik Johansson: Half Real, Half Really Crazy

The beauty of art is that it can transcend the reality of the world we live in and take us to places accessible only through our imaginations. Swedish artist Erik Johansson has made a name for himself turning dreams and ideas into magical works of art in Photoshop. I recently met with Erik to discuss his experience in retouching, his creative process and what makes his brilliant (and eccentric) mind tick. Chatting with him fired up my creative brain and I hope that reading this will do the same for you:

Your image creation process is part photography, part** Photoshop magic** and part prop handiwork. Can you describe your evolution as a photographer?**
**I’ve always been interested in computers and drawing. When I got my first digital camera, I discovered photo manipulation by accident or chance. I always saw those interests as separate things, but now I could suddenly combine them. I started playing around with photographs, changing them to create something different because reality was just too boring. To me, photography has always just been a way to collect material. I want to create and realize what’s in my mind; capture an idea instead of a moment.

Where does your inspiration come from?
It’s from everywhere, I think it’s more about trying to look differently at the world. Trying to see how you can combine visual elements into something new and unexpected to create art from items that are normally not combined. I get inspired by all things I see, you just have to keep thinking and be open to the unexpected.

When you create commissioned art, does it interfere with your creative process?
Well, it can be a bit different. Sometimes I get a concept from an agency and just create it. It’s an interesting challenge as well, trying to realize someone else’s vision. But I think the main difference between the commissioned and personal work is the time pressure. I normally spend months on each image, from idea/sketch to final image. With commissioned work, I normally don’t have that luxury but it’s a lot of fun as well.

Which Photoshop tools or processes play the largest role in turning your imagination into reality?
It’s all about stacking layers. I mostly use simple tools to create my images and the material is what’s important. Cutting, masking and blending layers together is how I create my art. I usually use the magnetic lasso or pen tool to cut things out, apply a layer mask which I adjust with the smudge or brush tool and then blend the different layers together using curves and hue/saturation.

Tell us about your favorite photo project. Where did you get the idea? How did you create it?
Every new project is a new challenge and a lot of fun. I like to challenge myself to come up with harder projects to make the impossible look possible. It’s hard for me to pick a particular project that’s my favorite, but I love working with real models and miniatures to create my images. I love mixing the analog world with the digital.

Has your imagination ever come up with something that you couldn’t create?
Many times, in fact most ideas don’t get realized. It might be a very tricky perspective, a location that I haven’t found yet or just requires too many resources to create. I usually create my personal work using simple means, things that I have at home or can buy at the local supermarket. Some limitations can be good; the imagination has no limits, so that makes it more coherent.

How has the way you see reality changed since you began using Photoshop?
The more time I spend in Photoshop, the more I realize what is possible to do and what’s not. It’s not the limitation of the program itself, but the way I can collect material and put it together in a realistic way. I live and breathe Photoshop in periods and during heavy sessions I even think about Ctrl + Z (CMD + Z) in real life.

What was the first version of Photoshop you used? What was the first Photoshop project you worked on?
Actually I started using Photoshop quite late, I used a program called Paint shop pro until around 2007 when I switched to CS2. The programs are quite similar, but once I moved to Photoshop I never went back. The first projects I worked on were similar to the images on my website today but more basic, photos that will never see the light of day again.

You recently appeared in a** viral video, **which showed you using Photoshop to prank unsuspecting people waiting at a bus stop. What was that experience like? Did you have any idea it would go viral so quickly?
I’m just blown away by the feedback and spread of the video. When we started talking about this project I thought that it sounded like a really fun idea. But no one would ever imagine that it would get 10 million views in the first three days. The people I manipulated were quite surprised and it was a lot of fun seeing their reactions!


What was the best/funniest/silliest reaction you got from your victims? Did anyone actually miss their bus?
Some of the old people didn’t quite understand what was going on and just looked in a different direction. But everyone was really friendly and happy. Maybe I’ll do it again sometime…no one is safe!

Thanks to Erik for taking the time to chat with me about his creative process. To see more of his mind-melting creations, visit