Creative Photoshop Blend Mode Techniques
Adapted from The Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Photoshop (Adobe Press)
By Scott Valentine
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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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
- On a blank layer above the
background, paint an area with
- Set the blend mode of the ﬁll layer to
HardLight.Use the Dodge and Burn
tools to create some highlight and
- Apply Filter > Artistic > PlasticWrap.
(Itís now in the Filter Gallery.)
- Add a Color Balance adjustment layer.
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. Thatís 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 layerís advanced blending dialog box.
Be aware that making this adjustment on the Hue/Saturation
layer is different from doing so on the duplicate.
- Duplicate the background layer.
- Convert the duplicate to a Smart
- Apply Gaussian blur to the duplicate
(as a Smart Filter).
- Change the blend mode of the
duplicate to Overlay.
- Add a clipped Hue/Saturation
adjustment layer to the duplicate.
- Use the Colorize option in the