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Quick Tip: Painting With Layer Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
Quick Tip: Painting With Hard vs. Soft Brushes in Adobe Photoshop
Quick Tip: Improve Your Digital Paintings With Adjustment Layers in Adobe Photoshop

In Digital Painting 101, we're tackling a breakdown of all the tools you need to know to make the most out of this incredible medium. For today's quick lesson, I'll show you what Layer Blend Modes are in Adobe Photoshop and which ones work best for your digital painting workflow.

What Are Layer Blend Modes?

Layer Blend Modes allow you to make color changes to your digital paintings according to the option selected. So if you don't already have a set color palette when you start a painting, these options will make the necessary color adjustments to your existing palette. They are located in the drop-down menu of the Layers panel, with many versatile options to choose from.

Layer Blend Modes

Here is a breakdown of each blend mode according to Adobe.

Keep in mind that:

  • Base color means the original color in the image.
  • Blend color is the color being applied.
  • And the Result color is the finished blend. 

Normal

Normal is the default layer mode. This is the mode where all your paintings should start.

Dissolve

Dissolve randomly replaces the pixels of the base color with the blend color, creating a very pixelated effect.

Darken

Darken creates the result color by looking at the color information in each channel, and selecting either the base or blend color as the blended result.

Multiply

Multiply creates a darker color result by multiplying the base color by the blend color.

Color Burn

Color Burn darkens the base colors to reflect more of the color used to blend by increasing the contrast between the two.

Linear Burn

Linear Burn decreases the brightness of the base color by darkening it to reflect the blend color.

Darker Color

Darker Color creates a low value color by comparing all the channel values for the blend and base colors and displaying the lower value colors as the result. 

Lighter Color

Lighter Color displays the higher value colors after comparing the total channel values for the blend and base colors.

Lighten

Lighten creates the result color by comparing the color information in each channel and selecting either the base or blend color as the final, whichever is lighter.

Screen

Screen creates a lighter color effect by multiplying the inverse of the blend and base colors.

Color Dodge

Color Dodge decreases the contrast between the blend and base colors by brightening the base color to reflect the blend.

Linear Dodge (Add)

Linear Dodge increases the brightness of the base color to reflect the blend color.

Overlay

Overlay multiplies or screens the colors depending on the base. It also becomes an essential effect to your digital painting workflow.

Soft Light

Soft Light darkens or lightens colors depending on the blend.

Hard Light

Hard Light screens or multiplies the colors depending on the blend.

Vivid Light

Depending on the blend color, Vivid Light increases or decreases the contrast of the colors by burning or dodging them.

Linear Light

Depending on the blend color, Linear Light increases or decreases the brightness of the colors by burning or dodging them.

Pin Light

Pin Light is used to add special effects to your painting by replacing colors depending on the blend color.

Hard Mix

Hard Mix creates an intense color effect by adding the RGB values of the blend color to the RGB values of the base color.

Difference

Depending on which color is brighter, Difference either subtracts the blend color from the base color in each channel or the reverse.

Exclusion

Exclusion creates an effect similar to difference but with a lower contrast.

Subtract

Subtraction creates the result color by subtracting the blend color from the base.

Hue

Hue combines the luminance and saturation of the base color and the hue of the blended color for the final result.

Saturation

Saturation combines the luminance and hue of the base color and the saturation of the blend color to create the final result.

Color

Color creates a monochrome effect by combining the luminance of the base color with the hue and saturation of the blend color. 

Luminosity

Luminosity creates the inverse effect of color mode.

But Why Would I Use Blend Modes?

There is more to life than the Brush Tool. And sure, you could learn how to pick the perfect color swatches every time, but it might take years alone just to master this one technique. Digital painting is unlike any other medium around. It allows you to make major adjustments in only seconds, so allow the program to help you in order for your work to evolve.

Many people mistake these tools for "cheating", but be open-minded to the process. If you attack digital paintings with the same mindset as photo manipulations, then you'll understand the wide scope of tools available at your fingertips.

Painting With Layer Blend Modes

So what exactly are these Layer Blend Modes good for? Let's tackle some common scenarios where these blend modes work best.

Coloring: Grayscale Bases

Many digital artists paint in grayscale first to establish light and shadow. When it's time to convert the grayscale painting to color they usually do so with Layer Blend Modes.

The most common modes for this transition are Color, Hue, Multiply, Color Burn, and Overlay. Depending on the option, these settings help establish the perfect base of color for your painting.

Coloring Grayscale Bases with Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop

Coloring: Change Colors

Maybe you'd like to make a quick change to a color you've already applied. Experiment by applying color on top of the section on a new layer. You'll have to cycle through a couple of different blend modes to see what works best, but Color, Hue, and Hard Light tend to work wonders for this step. 

Change Colors with Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop

Coloring: Creating Cool Color Schemes and Tint Effects

Think of it as an Instagram filter for your painting. Create a new layer and fill it with a solid color set to one of these blend modes: Darken, Pin Light, Difference, Screen, or Exclusion. Adjust the Opacity of the layer to the 0-50% range for a cool tinting effect!

Create Cool Color Effects with Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop

Lighting: Adding Shadows

Want to add a quick shadow to your paintings? Select a darker value of your original color and paint it under the Multiply mode. Instantly add drama to any piece with this quick adjustment.

Add Shadows with Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop

Lighting: Adding Highlights

Sometimes you'll realize that your painting just got a little too dark in tone. You can easily brighten it up by playing with Layer Blend Modes. Set the layer to Overlay and use the Brush Tool (B) to paint the color white for an instantly brighter effect. Brighter values of warm and cool colors also work great for this step and add incredible intensity to your painting.

Add Highlights with Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop

But I'm a Beginner, I Can't Remember All This!

Relax and take a deep breath. After all, you're working with the limitless potential of Photoshop so there isn't just one solution to solving your problems. Trial and error is a huge part of the process.

Try this:

If you want to experiment with a blend mode but are not sure which one to choose, apply the color onto the canvas, and click on the Normal option. Notice how the blend mode stays selected? Now use the Up and Down Arrow Keys to switch through the different blend modes until you find the one that works best.

Conclusion

Layer Blend Modes are one of the many great tricks to achieving beautiful color effects in Photoshop. Experiment with different colors and make notes for future reference. In no time you'll have a mental Rolodex stocked with with great solutions and ideas. Good luck!

And Check Out These Tutorials for Inspiration!

Want to see these Layer Blend Modes at work? Check out these great tutorials to see the effect in action.

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