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Quick Tip: Improve Your Digital Paintings With Adjustment Layers in Adobe Photoshop

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This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
Quick Tip: Painting With Layer Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop
Digital Painting 101: Using Texture Brushes in Adobe Photoshop

Imagine a world without Control-Z.

Scary, right?

Well in traditional media, you're often stuck with the mistakes you've made. In today's quick lesson of Digital Painting 101, we'll cover the time-saving benefits of Adjustment Layers.

So What Are Adjustment Layers?

Adjustment Layers allow you to make color and tonal adjustments quickly and easily.

But Aren't These for Photography?

Digital painting techniques are really no different than traditional photo retouching or photo manipulation. The only difference is that you create the image you're working on by painting it from scratch. If you're new to digital painting, use photos to experiment with different adjustment layers in order to become familiar with them. Once you open your mind to the many benefits of adjustment layers, you will reap the incredible rewards of this medium.

Types of Adjustment Layers

Here's a quick rundown of each Adjustment Layer available to you in Photoshop.


Increase or decrease the shadows and highlights by adjusting the tonal range in your work.


Correct the tonal range by adjusting the intensity levels for mid tones, shadows, and highlights.


Tonality is represented as a graph that you can easily adjust by moving points around on the graph.


Apply HDR-like effects by adjusting the highlights, shadows, and image gamma.


Adjusts the color saturation in your work.


Change the hue, saturation, and lightness levels for individual colors or apply adjustments to an entire piece.

Color Balance

Easily color correct your overall work by adjusting colors for the shadows, mid tones, and highlights.

Black & White

Convert an image to grayscale (black and white) while controlling how individual colors are affected by the conversion.

Photo Filter

Mimic the effect of applying a color filter to a camera lens in order to adjust the color balance and color temperature.

Channel Mixer

Easily modify the grayscale components of selected color channels.

Color Lookup

Apply color changes to your work by loading different "looks."


Create a photo negative effect quickly and easily.


Apply a flat, poster-like effect by reducing the number of colors in your work.


Convert your work into high-contrast black and white images.

Gradient Map

Apply color effects by mapping a grayscale range to a specific gradient fill.

Selective Color

Apply color correction techniques similar to high-end scanners and separation programs.


Color correct and fix images with strong back lighting problems.

HDR Toning

Apply the full range of HDR contrast exposure settings to your images.


Quickly select different color variations for your work.


Permanently convert your work into grayscale but keep the same color mode.

Match Color

Match colors between multiple images, layers, or selections.

Replace Color

Quickly replace specific colors with new values.


Make easy tonal adjustments by redistributing brightness values.

What Can They Teach You About Your Art?

Have you ever heard of the idea of "training your eyes" when it comes to art? Well, this basically means that as your skill sets improve, you recognize common issues in your work much faster. Once you figure out what's wrong, you can easily apply the appropriate techniques to make your art better.

Here are some things you can learn about your art by using Adjustment Layers:

  • Recognize issues with a color scheme quickly.
  • Overcome dull colors by improving color intensity.
  • Replace colors with better color options easily. 
  • Improve the overall impact of your work by applying unique color effects.

How to Edit Paintings With Adjustment Layers

Now I must warn you. Adjustment layers can be quite addictive. They naturally become a part of your digital painting workflow and they will change how you see your art forever.

Here are some quick tips to improve your next digital painting:

Adjust Colors Quickly

I always like to keep my base colors on separate layers just in case I'm not quite feeling the color scheme. If need be, I can easily change any color I want with Hue/Saturation. 

Select the layer and go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. Use the different sliders to adjust the Hue and experiment with Saturation and Brightness to get the exact color you need. 

Adjust Colors with Hue and SaturationAdjust Colors with Hue and SaturationAdjust Colors with Hue and Saturation

Improve the Clarity and Intensity of Your Paintings

In the beginning, your paintings will either be too dark, too light, or just in general way too dull. But it'll take some time to train your eye to recognize these common issues. So one of the biggest lessons you'll need to learn is how to adjust the overall tonality of your painting.

Start a new painting or open an old one in Photoshop. Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and use the sliders to adjust the Shadows, Mid tones, or Highlights. Notice the immediate difference? 

Improve Color Intensity with a Levels Adjustment LayerImprove Color Intensity with a Levels Adjustment LayerImprove Color Intensity with a Levels Adjustment Layer

Be careful with your edits though—you can totally overdo it with this step.

Apply Cool Color Effects

Andy Warhol is famous for his colorful artwork. But if you're anything like me, picking interesting color schemes just doesn't come naturally. In fact, I was so afraid of color in the beginning that I often painted only in grayscale.

Overcome your fears associated with color and you'll never look back. My favorite adjustment layer for this is Color Balance. Just like before, use the sliders to tweak the different hues in your work for the ultimate in color correction. 

Apply Color Effects with Color BalanceApply Color Effects with Color BalanceApply Color Effects with Color Balance


Frustration is natural, even necessary to creating art. However, Photoshop is packed with incredible tools that will absolutely transform your work. Experimentation is your friend! So get to know the ins and outs of each and discover which ones are your go-to favorites.

If you have any questions at all, feel free to leave them in the comments. And as always, good luck!

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