The Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Photoshop

Creative Photoshop Blend Mode Techniques

Adapted from The Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Photoshop (Adobe Press)

By Scott Valentine

Illustrating with Color

Once I have the majority of a painting done, I go back for a refinement pass to paint in color highlights. This is done on blank layers set to a variety of blend modes, including stacks of layers with different modes. Here are some details on how I work.

For the face in this tree, I needed some extra color to help set the evening mood. On a blank layer set to Color blend mode, I began to paint with a soft brush using a medium blue. This pass was rough, just to get the general shape of the color areas. It was important not to fill in the entire area at once.

When I had the major areas filled in, I applied a blur to the layer to soften the transitions and let some of the base color blend with the highlights. From there, the Eraser (E) or Smudge tools took care of smaller details.

In general, when I need to apply a stronger effect that includes more of the base colors, I use Overlay blend mode on the layer. However, at times I really need some drama, as with these fairy wings. I gave these a pervasive glow using a layer stack of different modes with slightly different colors on each.

The modes used for these images were Vivid Light, Soft Light, and Color Dodge. Painting directly on layers set to various blend modes gives more control and a broader range of looks than painting directly on the image.

John Shannon

Funky Difference Gradients

Sometimes I rely on randomness to get past a creative block. This little trick is one way to do this and also realize some very nice graphic results. The technique is simple, and can be con- trolled as much or as little as you desire.

Starting with a blank canvas (or a blank layer above a filled background), choose the Gradient tool (G) and set its blend mode to Difference in the options bar. For this example, I used the Radial Gradient tool with yellow in the center (foreground) and cyan at the edges (background). To create a pattern, set up guides and drag out gradients at regular intervals. If you find that the color hides your guides, turn on Snapping in the View menu. Also, be sure to overlap your gradients a bit so the color variations interact.

This technique can be repeated and varied in any number of ways. Choose the starting colors carefully and keep the History panel open. Each time you drag out a gradient with Difference mode, the colors will reverse, so you may have to drag another gradient or use an adjustment layer to change colors. Try starting with 80% and 20% gray, and then add a Color or Gradient adjustment layer.

For further experimentation, duplicate the layer and tinker with the blend modes, invert it, use Advanced Blending, and soon. The example images show the results duplicated, inverted, and then set to Subtract. Think of this as finger painting with Photoshop.

Illustrated Textures

A client once asked me to create an animated promotional video with a stylized cartoon look and feel. Since I was using Adobe Flash Professional for the character design and animation, I decided to keep things simple and remain in Flash for the background design. But I also wanted to apply some texture to separate the animated character from its environment; and to remove the flat, hard-edged quality of the vector-drawn background. Adding texture can also contribute a little depth and interest.

First, I exported the background from Flash to PNG format. In Photoshop, I opened the PNG image along with two different textures, each on its own layer.

I duplicated the background layer, chose Filter > Artistic > Smudge Stick, and set the layer opacity of the duplicate to 50%. The blend mode was set to Overlay to more effectively blend the duplicate with the original background.

Combining the Smudge Stick filter with the Overlay blend mode and transparency created a subtle texture, as if the image was drawn on rough paper. But for this project, the effect was a little too subtle.

Next, I wanted to blend my two paper textures into the background, so the first texture layer was set to Divide blend mode with an opacity of 32%.

To blend the second texture, I might have used a single texture, but I prefer to layer several textures with varying degrees of opacity to build up complicated effects in subtle ways. I set the blend mode of the second texture to Color Burn to produce a very dark and muddy effect. Lowering the opacity to about 20% resulted in a very rich background with some subtle texture throughout. The colors of the final background were rich, yet no detail was lost.

Using blend modes, I can now design vector-based backgrounds that look and feel as if they were created using a raster-based program or even hand painted. The best part is, I can return to the original vector artwork and scale it to any size. Any new size I create I can open in Photoshop and place on a layer below any two texture files that already have blend modes and opacity applied.

Chris Georgenes

Illustrated Gloss

The most useful Photoshop blend mode for me is Hard Light. It makes midtones invisible, while retaining highlights and shadows. So, you can paint a mid (50%) gray area to use as a selec- tion area, and then add whichever textures you want on top: Clouds, Noise, whatever. When you change the layer mode to Hard Light, all the gray disappears leaving just the texture.

In this example image, I created an oil spill by painting an area in 50% gray, and then added a little shading using the Dodge and Burn tools. The Plastic Wrap filter does a good job of adding gloss, which makes the whole effect look shiny. Note that Plastic Wrap is a tricky filter to manipulate. You might find that you have to run it, undo, adjust the shading, and then run the filter again several times before you get the result you want.

Changing the layer mode to Hard Light hides the gray, leaving just the shine. Here, I used Color Balance to add a red and yellow tint to the gray, and I also distorted a copy of the background to create a refractive effect.

  1. On a blank layer above the background, paint an area with 50%gray.
  2. Set the blend mode of the fill layer to HardLight.Use the Dodge and Burn tools to create some highlight and shadow areas.
  3. Apply Filter > Artistic > PlasticWrap. (It’s now in the Filter Gallery.)
  4. Add a Color Balance adjustment layer.

Steve Caplin

Portrait Tone and Contrast

Here is a tip for adding some pop to portraits, originally given to me by Matt Kloskowski: Add a self-blend overlay. That’s it. Duplicating the base image and setting its mode to Overlay is a great way to add contrast and saturation to evenly lit portraits. However, you can include a lot of control by blurring the duplicate and adding a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Doing so gives you the flexibility to dial in several different looks quite easily. For the example image, I used Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur at about 20 pixels on the duplicate layer.

After setting the blurred duplicate to Overlay blend mode, I used a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer clipped to the dupli- cate. Alt-click (Windows) or Option-click (Mac) between the duplicate and adjustment layers when the cursor changes to a downward-pointing arrow and a box. (In Photoshop CS5.5 and earlier, this icon was a double ring.)

Double-click the adjustment layer to open it, and select the Colorize option. Now you can move the sliders to get the precise look you want. Lower the opacity of either the duplicate or the adjustment layer, if necessary.

Power users will want to take advantage of converting the duplicate to a Smart Object before blurring, and also use the Blend If sliders on the adjustment layer’s advanced blending dialog box. Be aware that making this adjustment on the Hue/Saturation layer is different from doing so on the duplicate.

  1. Duplicate the background layer.
  2. Convert the duplicate to a Smart Object.
  3. Apply Gaussian blur to the duplicate (as a Smart Filter).
  4. Change the blend mode of the duplicate to Overlay.
  5. Add a clipped Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to the duplicate.
  6. Use the Colorize option in the adjustment layer.

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Excerpted from The Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop by Scott Valentine. Copyright © 2012 Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Adobe Press.