The Self-Directed Learning Project

For my self-directed research project, I chose to learn graphic design using Photoshop.

Project Summary

My goal was to basically learn Photoshop’s basic tools and features. I’d do this by completing the University of Colorado Boulder’s coursera course on graphic design, and I’d use Photoshop to do assignments. Additionally, I made a list of 14 tutorials I wanted to try, and aimed to finish at least 10. I chose Photoshop because I’d been thinking about learning it for a while, and I wanted to add some creativity into my otherwise boring life. Every time I’d think about learning it, I’d always tell myself something like “do you really want to spend your time off learning?” or “do you really think you have time off?” and brush it off. So basically, this project was an opportunity to do that thing I’d been thinking about doing but never actually done.


The Bad, the Good, and the Unexpected

Okay, so, introduction over. Let’s move on to the results. Or, as the title says, the bad, the good, and the unexpected. I know I flipped the good and bad parts so it doesn’t really sound right, but my story makes more chronological sense this way.

The Bad

Well, first of all, remember how I had aimed for 10 out of 14 tutorials? Yeah… no. I only ended up doing 9, the reason for which I will get to later. So, yes, that clearly wasn’t good. Also, I am not a good graphic designer. I am not even a remotely adequate graphic designer. As a result, my very first creations were hideous, and I therefore feel the need to preface the following ten minutes with a plea for you all to not hold any of this against me.

Dissolving Before/After

Self-Directed Learning Project Presentation (1)

Okay, so this is the first tutorial I tried. It was supposed to make Angela look like she was dissolving into a flock of birds, but… something, somewhere, must’ve gone terribly wrong. I mean, I learned a lot about layers here, so things weren’t all that bad. But the reason I learned a lot about layers is that I messed them up the first time and had to restart. On the bright side, I haven’t messed up my layers since, so it was a lesson well-learned!

Watercolor Before/After

Self-Directed Learning Project Presentation (2)

Ah, yes, the failed watercolour experiment. In case you were wondering, I made my initial edits on Angela because I hoped that her amazing graphic design skills might, like, diffuse into me or something, but clearly that didn’t happen. Um, here I learned that if you make a mistake in the beginning, don’t tell yourself that you can go back and redo it at the end. You can’t. Fix mistakes when you see them, or else they will haunt you. They haunt me every time I see this image.

The Good 

Aw, jeez, glad that’s over. By the way, those weren’t the only bad things I created. I had more, then I realized I wasn’t emotionally ready to show everyone every mistake I made over the past few weeks, and I also wanted to keep this thing under an hour, so those were just the highlights.

Anyway, I loved this project. Seriously, making things is super duper fun, and the great thing about making things in Photoshop is that, the more you do it, the faster and better you are!

Adding Lights Before/After

Self-Directed Learning Project Presentation (5)

This was my “adding lights” tutorial. Pretty self-explanatory, and I did this one towards the end so it doesn’t actually look hideous. I learned a lot about the different filter options in Photoshop in this tutorial. This was basically created entirely through the use of about a thousand different filters all layered over each other, and it taught me that Photoshop filters are really, really versatile. They don’t necessarily have to be used to augment a photo, they can be used to create as well!

Black and White + Colour Abstract

Self-Directed Learning Project Presentation (6)

This was more of an experimental tutorial in combining black and white with colour. I mean, there’s definitely things wrong with it, but compared to everything else it turned out okay. Here, I mainly learned about brushes. I learned you could download preloaded brushes, which is where the watercolour brush strokes came from. I learned you could adjust opacity, angle, and the brush’s overall effect. The downloading-brushes part was a bit tricky, but mainly because I had no idea it was a thing. I didn’t know you could just add to Photoshop like that, and I felt like I was stealing someone else’s work by using their brush. Then I realized that Photoshop was basically a graphic designer’s ideal playground, and everyone’s ideal playground needs some variation. Also, if people didn’t want others to use their brushes, then maybe they wouldn’t post them on the internet with a big “free download” caption. I’m not sure if that makes it any better, but it’s what I tell myself when I sleep at night.

Curvature Pen Tutorial

Self-Directed Learning Project Presentation (7)

Okay, this is probably the simplest thing I did. Basically, I just used a reference image, the curvature pen tool, and copy-paste. That’s it. I hadn’t thought you could create such complex shapes basically freehand, and previously had no idea how to use the curvature pen tool. It’s a very specific thing to learn to do, but I had a lot of fun with this tutorial.

The Unexpected

Okay, glad that’s over with! There was really only one unexpected aspect of this project, and that was coursera. Namely, the workload.

Self-directed learning project (9).PNG

I mean, duh, it was a four-week course I somehow thought I could finish in two. Past Sophie, did you really thing you could watch 43 videos, 4 quizzes, 12 readings, and 4 projects in two weeks, one of which you were in California? Past Sophie, the truth is that you will not find the time to do this course in between San Francisco, the Cheesecake Factory, and the best aquarium in California. This is why, Past Sophie, you spent the last week of winter break panicking and ended up finishing half the tutorials in class. Past Sophie, stop overestimating your Present and Future selves. We really don’t appreciate it.


But seriously, despite my negativity and self-deprecation, I really enjoyed this project. I’ve loved graduating from Photoshop noob to Photoshop almost-amateur, and by no means am I going to stop learning. Photoshop was important, not just for learning graphic design and gaining new skills, but for finding a creative outlet. I’ve missed the freedom we’d get in creative writing and the self-expression we’d get in art. I’ve focused so much on my academic development that I’ve neglected my creative side, so this project was like a breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

I’ve made mistakes and overestimates, yes, but I kind of had a lot of fun making them. It was easy to pinpoint where I’d gone wrong, and to move on and try to avoid making the same mistake again. The thing about making posters or designs or whatever is that it’s not really your finished product that counts. What counts is that it’s your finished product, the creative energy you channeled to make what you did. Your product can always be changed or deleted, but the creativity you used will never go away.


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