Coffee rings are a special type of grunge effect that tends to turn accidents into elements. The fluid nature of the effect makes it difficult to reproduce digitally in a realistic manner. Fortunately, they are really easy to create practically, almost unavoidable even! Follow along as I demonstrate how to create, capture, digitize and use your very own Coffee Ring brushes!
1. The Practical Effect
To generate coffee rings, one technique might be to just swap out your coaster for a slip of paper on your desk. But I prefer a more controlled and intentional approach.
Gather the materials for creating the practical effect. Use a heavyweight cardstock or other type of paper that is sturdy enough to withstand the spilled coffee without wrinkling. A small brush or sponge is helpful for controlling the liquid. Then the critical element is a mug of coffee: the darker the roast, the better.
Place the mug of coffee on one of the sheets of paper and use the brush to gently apply some of the coffee to the rim. This is a much more controlled method than trying to spill it out of the mug.
Move the mug and create more rings using various amounts of the coffee to control the thickness of the rings.
Consider different patterns of the rings: make some overlap, create some with only partial rings, some with splashes, some without. They are quick and easy to create, so don't feel limited to the classic, single light ring. Add some variety!
Allow the paper to air dry. Don't use a heat source or blow dryer, as that will move the liquid around and disrupt the natural patterns. You can speed up the process by carefully dipping the corner of a paper towel into the pooled liquid. The towel will absorb the excess fluid without spreading it further onto the paper.
2. Going Digital
Once the coffee rings have dried, it's time to digitize them! A good quality flatbed scanner is the best option for this.
If the cardstock you chose doesn't fit flat onto your scanner surface, trim out the individual rings and scan the smaller pieces. Otherwise the uneven surface will introduce lighting anomalies in your scans. Scan the rings at a minimum of 600 dpi to generate nice, high quality images.
Open up the scan image in Photoshop. Use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to select an area around one of the rings.
Go to Layer > New > Layer Via Copy (Control-J) to copy the coffee ring to a new layer. Then go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate (Control-Shift-U). Photoshop only uses grey scale information to create a brush, so it's best if you view it without any color information.
Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels (Control-L) to open the Levels adjustment. Slide the left-hand (white) slider handle towards the right to meet the edge of the histogram. Then slide the right-hand (black) slider towards the left just a touch to maximize the white areas. This should dramatically increase the contrast of the coffee ring.
Hide the Background layer by clicking on the eye icon in the Layers panel to toggle the visibility. Then look for any stray marks around the coffee ring that may have been captured unintentionally. Use the Brush Tool (B) with white paint to remove them.
You will need to have an active selection to define the brush, so Control-Click on the layer thumbnail to create the selection. Then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and give your coffee ring brush a name.
If your Brush Tool was still active, it would switch to be the newly defined brush. If not, you can still find it by opening the Brush Presets panel with Window > Brush Presets. The newly defined brush will be at the very bottom of the list.
The brush is just like any other brush in Photoshop in that you can control the size, opacity, angle, blend mode, color, etc. It can be used as a tip for any of the brush-based tools like Dodge, Burn, Clone Stamp, Blur, etc. Keep in mind that custom brushes like these are not intended to be used in brush strokes. They are more like stamps, so use single clicks to apply them.
3. Use My Custom Brushes
I fully encourage you to develop your own set of custom brushes, and use them in your own digital projects. Realizing that practical effects are possible as a digital tool helps to expand your imagination of what's possible in your digital designs. To help you along the way, I've included a set of custom coffee ring brushes free for you to use! They range from bold to subtle and are all clean, high-resolution brushes.
Look for the Download Attachment link next to this tutorial and download the CoffeeRings.abr file to your computer. Then open the Brush Presets panel and look for the panel menu located at the top right of the window. Choose Load Brushes and select the file you just downloaded.
Scroll down to the bottom of your list of brush presets to find your new set of deliciously high-resolution Coffee Ring brushes!
Then go forth and boldly leave coffee rings everywhere you go, without worry of offending your hosts! Have you created your own brush set? Used them in a digital design? Show me in the comments below—I'd love to see them!