A comprehensive guide to Photoshop blend modes

Blending is key for any artist, digital or otherwise. When you add layers into the mix on Photoshop, it becomes easier for you to structure your artwork and blend it with other layers to create more realistic imagery. 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. This Photoshop tutorial will take the guesswork out of the process.

The blend modes change how their selected layer reacts with the pixels in the layers below them. They can alter the colour or the tone of your art, and are often used for brightening, darkening, changing hue or reducing colour. You can use as many of them in a project as you like. 

One of the first things that anyone with Photoshop should do is have a play the program’s blend modes. Once you become more seasoned Photoshop user, a knowledge of how to harness blending is vital to improving your digital art skills.

The original image we're working with

For the sake of consistency, the blend mode examples shown here all have the same solid colour adjustment layer, before going on to explore the effects of the mode. You can see the original image we're working with above.

Darken blend modes: Add colours or shadows

The first set of blend modes – Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn and Darker Color – are all used to darken your layer in reaction to the layers below. This is good for creating fill layers that are full of colour, or adding shadows to your work.

Lighten blend modes: Increase brightness

The Lighten blend modes are used to brighten up your artwork a little and add a splash of colour to an already dark canvas. These modes are also particularly good for creating optical effects such as double exposures and light leaks in your artwork.

Contrast blend modes: Manage light placement

The tonal blend modes can alter the highlights, midtones and shadows all at once. Blend modes such as Overlay and Soft Light can be used to pinpoint the brightness and contrast in various places in your image, and Linear Dodge is good for sharpening, for example.

Inverting blend modes: Reverse out elements

The inverting blend modes turn any layers below them into their opposite colour and tone. These are particularly useful for creating non-destructive inversions in your image, especially if you’re looking to depict pinpoint effects in specific places.

Color blend modes: Control the effects of colour

The Color blend modes are used for altering colours in your artwork, whether you’re looking to tweak the hue, saturation, full colour or luminosity on the layers below. They’re perfect for developing even more precise results with your shades.

This article was originally published in ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists. Buy issue 164 or subscribe.

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Mark is the techniques editor at Photoshop Creative magazine. He uses Photoshop almost exclusively, and has been using the software for over a decade.