Make sense of Photoshop's blending modes

After 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, sometimes it’s good to know exactly what some of the more commonly used modes do and 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 article.

The blending modes in Photoshop operate by interacting with the pixels that are placed beneath them. They're split into a few different groups – main ones 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.

Multiply blend mode

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.

Overlay blend mode

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.

Screen blend mode

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.

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