Make sense of Photoshop's blending modes

Get to grips with three of the most common and useful Photoshop blending modes.

Next to the Undo button and layers, Blending modes are one of the most powerful tools in the digital toolbox. In most cases, you’ll probably just find yourself flipping through these Photoshop actions until you find the effect you want, experimenting with the unexpected. However, in some cases it’s good to know exactly what some of the more commonly used modes do and learn when to use them, to help you make creating a digital piece a little bit easier. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do in this short article.

The blending modes in Photoshop operate by interacting with the pixels that are placed beneath them and are split up into a few different groups, depending on their effect. The main three groups of Blending modes that you will likely work with are the Darken, Contrast and Lighten groups.

Of these, the main Blending modes that I used for my example created in Photoshop are Multiply, Overlay, and Screen, respectively. Once you get a feel for how these blending modes interact with your piece you can find any number of uses to make your process easier. Let's have a look at how each of them works.

01. Laying a Multiply blend

Multiply is perfect for pencil scans

Multiply is a fantastic tool at many stages of your process. Because white on a Multiply layer is omitted, it’s great for placing pencil scans into your piece to be coloured. It can be used for blocking in the initial shadows on colour flats, or for creating freckles or tattoos that interact with the skin tone of your character.

02. Laying an Overlay blend

Overlay is a flexible blending mode for colours

I find Overlay to be the most versatile Blending mode. When using lighter colours it creates a luminous glow, and darker colours can create rich shadows. It’s useful for blocking in your lights on colour flats, creating bloom and glow, pores and skin texture, and adding touches of saturated colour to the shadows’ edges.

03. Laying a Screen blend

Screen adds opaque lighting

Screen only adds lightness when applied. In addition, this light is more opaque and less saturated than what Overlay would create, which makes it ideal for creating atmosphere like fog or smoke. Layering in some soft Screen layers can also help push objects in your scene back in space, to create more realistic depth.

This article was originally published in ImagineFX magazine issue 138. Buy it here.


Alix Branwyn is a freelance illustrator for the games industry, and is based in California. Her work is primarily in fantasy and horror, with a focus towards the dark and creepy.