Saturday, December 19, 2009

All About Layer Styles - Part 1 - Blending Options

I've always felt that the key to being a good scrapping designer depends on two things - creativity and skill. The first one is a natural talent for a lot of people and inspiration is everywhere. It's hard not to find good ideas all over the internet, now that our craft seems to have become so popular! The second one is the toughie and usually takes a little more time to develop.

In this tutorial I'm going to take a tool-oriented approach rather than a technique-oriented one. In other words, I'm not going to be telling you to make element X, do this and that, etc. I'm going to thoroughly explore the tool with you (in this case, the layer styles menu), show you what each option does and hopefully give you some useful tips along the way!

So to follow along, open up your copy of Photoshop - I'll be using CS4 for this tutorial but I'm fairly certain that these menus and options are mostly the same going back as far as PS7.

You'll notice first of all that when you create a new file and the background layer is selected that the layer style button is greyed out. This is because layer styles cannot be applied to the background, only to layers.

Another important thing to remember about layer styles is that they affect all pixels on the layer, even if you have a selection. So if I were to create a new, blank layer, the layer styles button will become active and I can add all sorts of effects, but they won't show up in my image because there are no pixels on the layer to affect.

Creating a selection on the layer will not confine layer style effects to the selected pixels. If you want to affect only a part of your current layer with layer styles, you must move the pixels you've selected to a seperate layer, either by copying or cutting.

Layer styles can be applied to raster (pixel-based) layers, shape (vector-based) layers, text layers and 3D layers.

Blending Options

Let's start with the first submenu and go on from there. The first option on this screen is probably one of the most used - and confusing - features of Photoshop. Blend modes. They are extremely useful for getting your layers to blend nicely with layers below. Most blend modes won't work properly unless there is another layer beneath to blend with - if you've got a transparent layer beneath the one you're working on, or a solid color, the blend modes won't produce very impressive effects. They are meant to help blend two or more images, patterns or textures together. Let's look at the different categories.

Click the drop-down box beside "Blend Mode" and you'll see a list of options.

Normal: The default mode. No blending.

Dissolve: This mode will break up your image into a static-y sort've noise pattern. I don't find this one very useful, personally, and I never use it.

Darkening Modes: The next five modes in the list are darkening modes. They are: Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn and Darker Color. The one thing they all have in common is that they knock the white out of your layer to allow the layer beneath to show through. Each mode will affect the other colors in your layer differently - I like to run through them all quickly as I'm working and choose the one that works best visually.

Lightening Modes: These are Lighten, Screen, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge and Lighter Color. They are the polar opposite of the darkening modes. The one thing they all have in common is that they will knock the black out of your layer to allow the layer beneath to show through. As before, all the other non-black colors in your image will be affected differently by the different modes. It's often best to run through them all quickly to compare the effect visually rather than trying to guess at the result.

Overlay Modes: I'm not sure if this is the proper term for the next set of modes, but it's what I call them. :) They are: Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Pin Light and Hard Mix. These modes simulate the effect of different qualities of light on the layer. They range from subtle (soft light) to very harsh (hard mix). Several of these modes produce effects similar to some of the modes found in the darkening and lightening mode categories.

Difference & Exclusion: I was having trouble finding the words to describe this one, so here is a quick quote from "Put simply, the Difference blending mode highlights the differences between the blend layer and the base layer. The more technical explanation is that the blend color is subtracted from the base color--or vice-versa, depending on the brightness--and the result is the difference between them. When white is the blend color, the base image is inverted. When black is the blend color, there is no change." Exclusion mode performs basically the same, except with lower contrast. This mode produces some really surreal color effects. Most artists will find little use for these two.

 Color Modes: These modes mostly use the color from the layer beneath the one you're working on to affect the currently selected layer. They will re-color your layer depending on the color of the layer beneath. These modes are useful when you don't want to mess with the colors of your underlying layers too much. They are pretty useful for using with textured overlays to create scrapping papers. Luminosity and saturation in particular will force the overlay to match the color (with some difference in brightness, luminosity and saturation, depending on the selected mode) on the layer beneath. The effect you get also depends on the color of the currently selected layer.

I've been working with Photoshop for many years and it's still sometimes difficult even for me to predict the particular effect a blend mode will have. Click the arrow to expand the drop box and select a blend mode, any one. The box should then collapse, but the mode you selected should be highlited. You can then cycle through the different modes using the up & down arrow keys. This is a real time-saver and helps you run through all your options so you can choose your effect based on what you see, rather than what you think will happen.

Beneath the blend mode drop box is the opacity slider. This is the Master Opacity slider for the layer, just in a different place. Changing the opacity with this slider will cause your entire layer, including any layer styles, to become partially or fully transparent. This can help soften the effect of harsh blend modes. Sometimes you might like the colors a certain mode produces, but the effect is too harsh. It can be softened and blended by reducing the opacity.

The opacity should not be reduced however, on things that are not meant to be seen through. I've seen the opacity slider used as a quick fix for all kinds of color corrections, especially in amateur photo-manipulations when an object is placed into a new background and the opacity is reduced in order to get it to blend properly and look like it's part of the scene. This works to a degree - the colors will indeed blend, however the object itself will also become see-through. For solid objects that should not realistically be transparent, this just looks lazy and sloppy. One or more adjustment layers are the preferred method for color-correcting in these cases.

Fill Opacity
This option is sometimes confused with the master opacity option. I've often heard new users ask, "Why are there -two- opacity sliders?" The answer is fairly simple: as I said earlier, the master opacity slider makes the entire layer, including any applied layer styles (drop shadows, glows, etc.) partially or fully transparent. The Fill Opacity slider will affect the image on the layer only, and not the applied styles. This is a very cool option that allows you to produce some neat effects.

In this image, I've created a heart shape. It was originally black, but I reduced the Fill Opacity to 0%. This knocks out the shape entirely, leaving only the effect behind, which is just the default Outer Glow - enlarged a bit for dramatic effect. :)

If I had used the "Master" Opacity slider instead and reduced it to 0%, this image would just be a flat green square - you wouldn't be able to see anything, because the glow effect and the shape itself would both have been made transparent at the same time.

If you want to see an example of using the fill opacity slider to create some interesting effects, scroll down to my Wooden Buttons post. All of the different bevel effects on the buttons were created using additional shapes layered over top of the buttons, the bevel & emboss layer styles and the fill opacity slider.

Take a look at the "pine" button, which is the button in the lower left corner in the preview image. It has a "stepped" bevel, where it looks like the bevel goes up in two steps. This effect is pretty much impossible to achieve even with custom contours.

To create this particular button, I first beveled the base circle shape of the button. I then drew another, slightly smaller, circle shape over top, roughly where I wanted the second "step" of the bevel to appear. I applied the same bevel layer style from the base shape to the second circle layer. Then I reduced the fill opacity on the second circle shape to 0%, knocking it out completely. But the shadowing and highlighting created by the bevel & emboss effect remained behind, giving it a two-step effect. There are lots of other cool effects you can achieve just by remembering the difference between Opacity and Fill Opacity.

Channels & Knockout: To be honest I don't use these options much and I'm a little bit rusty on their exact effect. I have a general idea, but not specific enough to  explain in a tutorial, so I'll just suggest that if you want to know more about these options, head over to NAPP - The National Association of Photoshop Professionals. There's some great video tutorials there that explain things very well. NAPP Website Although the service is subscription-based, there are lots of great video tutorials available for free.

There is one option in the group that bears explaining, however, since it might be of some use in digiscrapping work.

In this image, you can see two colored custom shapes. You can see that there is a definite difference in the color between the two. Actually, the color of the shapes beneath the applied layer styles, and the layer styles themselves are identical. The color difference is because for the shape on the right, I checked the "Blend Interior Effects As Group" checkbox under the advanced blending options.

So here's what I did. Both the shapes are exact copies of each other. They both started out the same color, that purple swatch you see on the bottom left of the image. Then, both layers were set to the "Darken" blend mode, which because the background is a sort've blueish-green, it changed the color of the shapes to the color you see in the swatch on the right.

Then I added some layer styles. They each have a gradient overlay, a satin effect and an inner glow. For the shape on the left, the colors of the gradient are still pretty much original. This is because the gradient overlay itself was set to blend mode "normal" (which is the same as saying "no blending"). The gradient overlay is covering up the modified color of the layer, even though the layer itself is set to Darken.

In the image on the right, however, the gradient overlay, satin and glow effects are "blending" with the interior color of the shape first, then the shape is being blended into the background according to the "darken" mode it's set to.

Basically, this option just lets you achieve some different color effects if you're using any of the following styles on your layer: Inner Glow, Satin, Color Overlay, Gradient Overlay, Pattern Overlay. It's worth it to give it a quick click on and off just to see if you like the effect.

Blend If

This is probably one of the most under-used options in the layer styles menu - a lot of people either don't understand how it works or don't see a whole lot of use for it. I personally feel that it has it's time and place, but it's definitely not one of my top ten favorites.

Basically this option allows you to "knock out" or remove certain areas of your layer based on color. By default the color is set to gray, but you can also change it to red, green or blue. Doesn't seem like a lot of choices, but remember that on a computer monitor, all colors are composed of varying proportions of those three, so virtually every color will be affected to some degree.

Both of the sliders will affect your current layer, not the underlying ones. The "underlying layer" option is labelled a little deceptively - in fact, neither slider will change anything other than the layer you're currently working with.

A little-known tip for working with these options: Hold down your "alt" key and click once on any of the black or white slider arrows. This will split the little triangle icons into two halves and a little black line will appear between them. They are quite small so you have to be careful about where you click, but you can then separate the two triangle halves and move them in different directions. This can help soften the blend and give you more control.

Moving the sliders from left (dark) to right (light) will knock out the darkest parts of your image first, and the opposite is true when moving sliders from right (light) to left (dark), which will remove the lightest parts first. Different areas of the image will be affected depending on the color you choose in the drop-down box.

It's really much easier to understand by experimenting with it yourself. Try not to work with flat colors when you're experimenting because that only tells part of the story. To really get a good understanding, create a background layer and fill it with a gradient, then plop a shape on top and fill that with another gradient of a different color. Then with your shape layer selected, play with the sliders and color settings until you can clearly see how it behaves.

Blend modes are most commonly used in digiscrapping work in the creation of textures, whether for papers or elements. Most overlays (grunge, photo, texture) you buy from scrapping stores are black and white. This is where changing the blend modes will help colorize and blend them into your underlying colored layers.

And that's it for part one! I'll be exploring each of the other effects in turn in later tutorials. I hope you've got a better understanding of blend modes and how they can help you now. If you feel I've left anything out or need more information about a certain tool or option, please let me know!


  1. Thank you, thank you:))
    I have been looking for a Styles tut., love styles.

  2. Would it be possible to make you tuts into PDF's??

  3. Eventually, I hope! You could probably make them into PDFs yourself straight off my blog - There's a cool plugin for most major browsers that lets you save pages as PDFs or you can do it online at the website by putting in the site URL. Check it out at: and

  4. Thank you! This blog post will be advertised on CraftCrave in the Tutorials category today (look for timestamp: [16 Feb 01:00pm GMT]).