Vector First Aid

A life-saving plug-in from Astute Graphics

After all the trouble with my OS crash recently, I found myself just out of the mood (and habit) of creating art pages. However, going through my assets to make sure they were all backed up, I did get in the mood to make better use of them, especially when it came to creating new elements I could use with art journaling. If, like me, you enjoy creating composites, whether for scrap, journaling, photo art, or planner pages, you’re probably also not going to want to take the time to create each and every element from scratch—not when designers spark your imagination with their kits. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never want to figure out what they’re doing, even if simply to appreciate the effort that goes into these elements by trying it yourself.

Some of the creative assets I buy don’t come from scrapbook sites, but from sites dedicated to designers. Here you can find fonts that are terrific for scrapping or art journaling, textures that are perfect for papers or photo art, brushes of all kinds, as well as things like flowers, figures, and flourishes. These asset sites, such as or, often sell bundles of assets at extremely good prices. But as they are geared for designers, assets are also often in a vector format as well as being PNGs or JPEGs. The vector assets almost always come in EPS format, which is a universal vector format, so many programs can open them (although they may rasterize them), but much of the vector artwork has so many anchor points along their paths that not only are the file sizes very large (and will slow Illustrator down), they’re nearly impossible to edit in their original state.

PathScribe dialog & selected artwork
Astute Graphics’ PathScribe plug-in shows the number of points selected AND the number of paths, as well as their open/closed status. PathScribe includes a Smart Remove Points feature, as well as a Smart Remove Brush for “brushing away” the excess points without deforming the path beyond your tolerance setting.

This is where Astute Graphics’ latest plug-in, Vector First Aid, is uniquely able to save our sanity. If you’re not already familiar with Astute Graphics, they create plug-ins for Adobe Illustrator that make working with vector almost easy, even for us pixel artists. I began using Illustrator at the same time as I began learning to use Photoshop, and I liked what could be made with vector, but it wasn’t until I learned about Astute Graphics plug-ins that I began to relax and enjoy creating vector graphics with the combination of Astute Graphics tools and Illustrator’s powerful features, such as Recolor Artwork and the Pattern Options panel.

For a long time now, Astute Graphics main drawing tools, PathScribe and InkScribe, have had a feature called “Smart Remove Points.” PathScribe has even dedicated a brush to removing points, letting you simply brush along paths to remove the excess points that interfere with editing. The Smart Remove Points feature is smart enough to adjust Bezier handles wherever possible, to know if the resulting path will deviate from the original by more than you have determined was acceptable, and leave necessary anchor points intact. Illustrator doesn’t care what happens to the path when you delete a point, and will never adjust the handles to retain the path’s shape, nor leave a point in place if the path depends upon that anchor.

Super Smart Remove Points icon
Vector First Aid incorporates the Smart Remove Points technology with the additional benefit of being able to apply it to the entire file—useful for files created with Image Trace, the Pencil tool, or in EPS format, all of which are well-known for having excessive numbers of anchor points.
Vector First Aid Preferences
Preferences for Astute Graphics plug-ins are often overwhelmingly comprehensive, but the default settings suit most of the time, and the ability to finely tune to customize the feature or tool is one of the reasons their use is so unlimited compared to similar features found in Adobe Illustrator. Here the Smart Remove Tolerance can be precisely adjusted to best suit the paths that will be affected.

This feature alone made it possible to use Image Trace on simple artwork that had been scanned, objects drawn with Illustrator’s Pencil tool, and EPS objects. Now, however, with Vector First Aid, all I have to do to start cleaning up paths is select the paths, push a button and relax. Vector First Aid looks at the entire selection and removes the excess points, not deviating from the original path any more than I’ve allowed in its Preferences.

Vector First Aid panel with action results & artwork
After running Super Smart Remove Points, almost half the points have been removed at a tolerance of 15 (default is 20), chosen to best preserve the shape of the paths and still produce paths with a manageable amount of points. From here, PathScribe’s Smart Remove Points feature (or brush) can be used in a more individually targeted fashion to reduce more points if desired.

While that feature alone is worth the price of admission, it’s a mere fraction of what Vector First Aid can do. Another really useful feature is its ability to join paths, and unlike Illustrator, to do so smartly. Instead of manually searching a document for every open path that should be closed, and then using Illustrator’s Join command which always joins any two points with a straight line, Vector First Aid will search for you for any paths whose end points are as close as you specify for paths that should be joined. It then joins smartly, preserving smooth or corner anchors, rather than arbitrarily making them all corner points.

Vector First Aid Icon strip
Vector First Aid includes icons for the most common issues: Super Smart Remove points, Rejoin paths, Combine point text, and Replace missing fonts.

Illustrator has always been able to import many different formats, but not always all that cleanly. Much of Vector First Aid is dedicated to fixing the problems that come with the files we open in Illustrator, but we also create our own problems when creating from scratch, and Vector First Aid has us covered. If you look at the screenshot below, you’ll see how very powerful the plug-in is. Notice that you can configure it to perform several tasks at once, so that even if you could do those tasks with Illustrator commands, you’d have to either write your own actions or scripts (to cover the different issues), or you’d have to perform them one at a time—and that’s just if Illustrator can do the same thing.

Vector First Aid menus
The pop-up menu provides access to the many individual features used to fix documents that have acquired faults and unnecessary baggage during their construction, or that have become broken in the import process. You might consider Vector First Aid in part as Illustrator’s missing Preflight feature, as well as first aid for the many types of files Illustrator doesn’t handle with total compatibility.

Personally, I’m as keen on Astute Graphics plug-ins for Illustrator as I am on Nik’s filters for Photoshop. They’re always looking at what we do and asking themselves how could we do something more easily and better. And then they give us a fantastic plug-in that does just that.

Daily Planner #3 for Democracy series
Daily Planner #3 from my Democracy series of White House and Congressional “planner pages” of actions taken by them. Credits belong primarily to RMcMeen and Holliewood.

A Damsel In Distress

DiskWarrior to the Rescue

A couple of weeks ago it was my turn to have a computer disaster. It’s been over a decade since I had any serious issue, so I’ve been very lucky. On this occasion, a power outage caused my OS to stagger, then finally topple over. Power outages have never caused any problem before, but I recently updated to El Capitan on this old machine, and it wasn’t a “clean” install. I just let Apple dump it on top of the old OS. I’d already done that a couple of times, and it appears to have whinged about it.

I used to own DiskWarrior. I owned it against just such a day, dutifully upgrading without ever having the disastrous need for it that I was now presented with. Most of my data was backed up, but I honestly didn’t want to wipe the OS drive and install everything from scratch, nor did I have a backup of my Mail for the last 3 months, although that wasn’t really critical. I wanted whatever could be saved to be saved so I could continue to be my usual lazy self and get back to creating as quickly as possible. Fortunately I was somewhat prepared with a backup boot drive. I bought DiskWarrior again, fingers crossed that it would save me some bother, and with the new understanding that if I ran it monthly, it might actually help protect me against OS crashes like this going forward.

Screenshot of DiskWarrior's dialog box.
After rebuilding the broken directory using a combination of DiskWarrior and Apple’s Disk Utility, a nice green status bar. When the green bar becomes low enough, it turns yellow, indicating the directory could use a bit of fixing.

I got lucky. DiskWarrior repaired the directory system enough that almost all of my data was there, all my applications remained (although I appear to have lost activation for some (not Adobe), and I only had to reinstall the OS—yes, still lazy and I installed it on top of what was there. But that was the whole point. I just didn’t feel like spending a couple of weeks tracking down every app and serial number and doing all that setup. At least Adobe’s Creative Cloud makes that easy, but most of my “support” apps don’t. I would rather spend more time ensuring I was completely up-to-date with multiple backups.

Finder screenshot of damaged files

Finder screenshot of missing files
A few files were damaged beyond DiskWarrior’s ability to repair. Nothing is thrown away, however, Not only does the user get a chance to preview any changes about to be made, but anything DiskWarrior can’t put back properly is preserved, just in case you can figure out how to repair or replace the files, and what folders the errant files belong to.

The takeaway from all this is that I, and probably many others, will never quite do enough. We’re not IT folk who spend our days maintaining and safeguarding all our data—both system related and what we create. Something might get lost. However, we need to make sure we’re as redundant as is reasonable. Anyone reading this blog is probably here because s/he creates art and preserves history, and that effort shouldn’t be lost just because we no longer work with analog materials. Multiple storage solutions along with finding a relative or good friend who will keep some discs and/or hard drives off-site for us, and a regularly scheduled system for backing up to these solutions is as important as the time we put in to the creative side of working with computers.

Good software like DiskWarrior for the Mac, or easy to use, flexible, yet complete systems for automatically backing up our data, and being redundant in our backups, doesn’t come cheap. But neither does our time come cheap that we spend acquiring the right equipment and assets, learning to use it all, and then developing our creativity to make meaningful art and historical documents. Be safe out there. I intend to attempt to do a bit more to be safe, even if I am basically very lazy and this stuff bores me half to death.

Daily Planner for Trump Administration
From my new Democracy series, the White House and Congressional Daily Planners. Most of the elements came from Raspberry Road Designs.

Filter > Render > Flame

An Adobe Photoshop often forgotten filter

Fire is a very popular digital substance these days. There are photo art actions that will set any subject on fire. There are photos of fire carefully extracted and served as PNG files to graphic artists. And there are well-known paint programs and 3rd party filters, such as Alien Skin’s Eye Candy, that offer their renditions of fire and flame. However, Photoshop itself has been offering a way to render flames since at least CC 2014. It is no longer available as a scripted pattern fill (Edit> Fill), but now solely resides in the Render menu, along with Trees, Frames, Clouds, Lighting, and more. Many of us tend to forget that the Flame filter even exists. The other day  I remembered it when I wanted a few flames for an art journal page, and decided to reacquaint myself, so I created a simple image to walk through the process and share with you—just in case, like me, you tend to forget how something works when you go a long time without using it.

To use the Flame filter in Photoshop, you first need to create a path. The Pen tool is the obvious method for drawing a path, but for those of you who find the Pen tool intimidating, you can also use a Shape drawn with the Path setting in the Options bar. The main limitation to using a Shape is that it’s always a closed path that encloses empty space, even if a very narrow empty space. It will still generate flames, but it won’t look the same as a flame drawn with the Pen tool. However, that’s not only not always bad, but using a shape is also a quick way to produce an image if you want a burning heart (or house or. . . ).

Flames created with Shape and Pen tool paths
Although the Flame filter requires a path to operate on, you can create a path using a custom Shape layer in Path mode, (left), a basic shape such as Line (middle, or create a path with the Pen tool (right). The Direct Selection tool is used to modify both Shapes and Pen tool paths.
Adding the first layer of flames
Several open paths on the same path layer were used to generate these flames using One Flame Along Path as the Flame Type. Only one slider is in play in this mode on the Basic tab, but you can choose a custom color. Paths shown were stroked with a magenta Pencil on a separate layer for visibility in the screen shot only and were not visible in the final image.

Once you’ve drawn your path (multiple paths can reside on the same layer), it’s a good idea to save your path layer by double-clicking on it and naming it. You’ll probably want to be able to return to it to adjust or use for another flame. Next, create a new, empty layer—the filter always returns pixels and won’t run as a Smart Filter, so protect your image from a destructive operation. With the path active in the Paths panel (you can see the path in the document window), and the empty layer targeted, choose Filter> Render> Flame. . . . In the dialog, experiment with the different settings in the Flame Type list and their sliders to see what looks best. You can also select a custom color for your flames.

New Flame type rendered to image file
After adding in the background (a paper from Holliewood of Mischief Circus), and modifying the logs with a style and overlay, two horizontal, wavy paths on a single path layer created the small ember flames using Multiple Flames One Direction for the Type.
Initial image with 2 separate renders
After rendering both types of flames, this image using the default color provides a start to further exploration of the filter’s capabilities.

Once you have constructed a flame type that you think is very close to what you want, you can choose the Advanced tab to modify the results even more. Most of the settings here are subtle, although some can make a significant difference in the result. For this demonstration, I only used the Basic tab, which in many cases is all you’ll need. Click OK to render the flame(s). Now you can deselect the path in the Paths panel and create another path, or several more paths, on separate layers, to complete the image of your object on fire. For my example, I rendered different flame layers using different paths, and used custom colors, blend modes, and opacity. Where necessary, I modified the paths while looking at the rendered flames on a layer, then turned off the layer, created a new one, and re-ran the filter. I also used Free Transform on rendered flame layers to help them fit the image better.

Two renders of one flame type with different settings
The Flame type Multiple Flames One Direction makes use of several sliders to determine the length of the flames, their width, and their spacing. Shown above is the result of rendering the same flame type two separate times, but using slightly different settings, custom color, blend modes and layer opacity.
Last version shown with and without the paths that created them
Multiple paths (shown top), along with rendering flames with custom color and settings, as well as adding in blend modes and layer opacity produced the image at bottom.

With its decent preview and straightforward sliders, Flame does a pretty good job for anyone who doesn’t need to add lots of flames to everything. If you want greater realism or an organic feel to your flames, building up your fire from multiple flame layers can get you closer than you might expect. But if you want a stylized graphic, this filter has got that covered, too. For occasional use, if you’re willing to toy with the sliders and adjust the paths, I think you’ll find it adequate for most purposes, without forcing you to think you have to spend a lot of money on 3rd party solutions.

"Daily Planner" series for Democrace with Flame render
Several designers—Rucolla, Lynne Anzelc, ViVa, and more—were used to create this “Daily Planner” art journal piece as part of a series for Democracy. The fire engulfing “Free and Fair Elections” was created very quickly in Adobe Photoshop CC with the Flame filter.

Topaz Studio First Look

What the open beta says about the next Topaz product

Like probably most of you, I’ve recently been playing with the Topaz Studio public beta. As someone who owns the full collection of Topaz plug-ins, I’ve been paying attention mostly to what the Studio does for me that the plug-ins don’t. Topaz Studio is quite different from the plug-ins—a bit more like the next generation of photoFXlab. But does it do enough to make me willing to pay for another Topaz venture?

Unlike some popular editing software, Topaz Studio makes no attempt to manage your files. It offers neither a browser nor a catalog solution; it’s up to you to know where your files are and to manage them. It does, however, offer a complete workflow for editing your images and adding a variety of effects, along with masks, blend modes and layers to keep the non-destructive workflow edits fully customizable.  It will open your raw files, as well as JPEG, PNG, or TIFF in its standalone version, and acts like a regular plug-in if you invoke it through Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. You can run it as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, or choose Edit In Topaz Studio with Lightroom.

The features in Topaz Studio emphasize workflow and effects presets constructed from multiple individual adjustments, much like the presets you find in Texture Effects. The Workflow menu covers the more common editing methods, such as “Detailed Architecture” or “Perfect Portrait.” The “More” adjustments section contains a separate menu for each adjustment to be added in any order, or to use in addition to a workflow. The Effects menu works just like it does in Impression and Texture Effects, providing a list of categories to search for effects, previewing them in the sidebar thumbnails, and providing the customary edit button to enter the editing workspace with the chosen effect. Most of the other tools are shortcuts to basic adjustments, as well as to quick editing workflows for the first basic edits you usually perform.

Menu Contents shown
From R to L: Workflow, Adjustment, and Effects menus (not all fully shown)
Quick Edit and tools interface
Icons for basic editing tools, the Workflow and Adjustments menus, as well as quick access to the most common adjustments and basic editing workflows are always available. Shown above is the workflow if you click on the Quick preset.

I think its fairly clear from  looking at the main features in Topaz Studio that its design is intended to leverage the power of the presets they’ve already been offering us through their filters. At the same time, it speeds up the process by creating workflows that combine many of the features that are currently found in their separate plug-ins, such as adding a Radiance adjustment created from their Glow filter, with a Texture adjustment from Texture Effects, and a Precision Contrast adjustment from Clarity, perhaps. If you don’t own some of their filters (or any of them), you still will be able to use many of the more popular features contained in them through these adjustment layers. And if you do own their filters, you can use the Plug-Ins menu at the top to take a copy of your image directly into a filter to gain access to the full power of any of the plug-ins, while still using the simplified workflow approach in Topaz Studio.

Showing thumbnail previews and Edit panel
To the left is the thumbnail view for presets in the selected category. This feature should be familiar to anyone who has Impressions, Glow, or Texture Effects. To the right are the editable layers that constitute the selected effect. If an adjustment layer is neither free nor purchased, it shows up with the effect, but without the sliders that allow for more customization of the settings.
Image Tray can hold many images to blend with each other
Images open into an Image Tray. Any image can be duplicated or duplicated as a new image with all the current active edits applied (using icons in the tray not shown). Although the images in this example are from the same original, an Open icon in the tray also allows you to open different images in order to blend them, similar to using the multiple exposure option in Topaz Texture Effects. Note that the image on the far right was created in Topaz B&W Effects 2 run as a plug-in to Topaz Studio on a duplicate of the image first edited with a Studio workflow.

There’s of course a trade-off to using Topaz Studio to run their more powerful filters—unlike running them individually on Smart Object layers, you can’t later on edit the results non-destructively, re-entering the plug-in merely by double-clicking on its Smart Filter name. However, while you’re in Topaz Studio and working with multiple versions or any other images, you can use the Image Layer feature right then and there to blend results from Topaz filters with each other or with an image you edited solely with Topaz Studio.

The Image Layer interface
A very nice feature in Topaz Studio lets you blend image layers, so versions that have been edited for different qualities can continue to be adjusted before leaving Topaz Studio, or completely different images can be blended as desired.

When I first started looking into the use of Topaz Studio, I was feeling hard-pressed to find a good reason to invest any of my time, let alone my money, in yet another standalone/plug-in image editor. Topaz Studio in particular appeared too simplified to offer much, since even the individual adjustments aren’t as powerful as the full plug-in filters, whether Clarity, or ReStyle, or Texture Effects. However, the more I explore Topaz Studio, and the more images I throw at it, the more I’ve come to feel this simplification of features is an asset, not a liability. The basic editing workflows are very well designed to cover a wide variety of images, and are especially welcome in my workflow when I’m editing the numerous snapshots I have taken or had given to me, like the bridal image I’ve used for these examples. It may not be the ideal application for your very best fine art images, but if we’re honest, most of us have plenty of snaps that we don’t want to spend hours editing. We would, however, like to quickly and easily make them more interesting to look at or better memories to hold. And being able to use our Topaz filters with Topaz Studio makes for a very powerful combination that goes well beyond the quick fix for a snapshot, providing us with a creative adventure.

Results from Topaz Studio modified in Adobe Photoshop
Although the Topaz filter B&W Effects 2 wasn’t run as Smart Filter, but inside Topaz Studio, the image can of course still be modified in Photoshop to alter color, texture, and tone as desired.

Topaz has recently announced that the basic version of Topaz Studio will be free. A small collection of basic editing adjustments will be fully customizable, while the remainder won’t include their sliders unless you purchase the “pro” version of the adjustment separately. From what I can tell, the Effects and Workflow presets that include adjustments you don’t own will produce results, but only Opacity, blend mode, and masking is editable. I won’t swear to this, of course, since this is still beta and anything can still be added or removed. And since this still IS a beta, I won’t go into any discussion of bugs or other feature limitations. I am, however, increasingly aware of the place this application could have in my day-to-day workflow.

Student Debt Art Journal page for Democracy
Student Debt, from my Democracy art journal series, used a photo art action and several textures to blend the old photo of Stanford University with the lower half from Mischief Circus, including several art dolls from Xquizart. The unifying color and textures could have been even more easily added if I’d had the Topaz open beta when I made this.

Troubleshooting 3rd Party Actions

Understanding the photo art actions you purchase

Lately I’ve been seeing an increasing number of people creating photo art state that in their process, they used an action from, a popular online retail source for very lengthy and complex actions that produce artistic effects. (I have looked around, and yes, there are other places selling products to designers that also carry some actions, if you want to check for other sources.) I myself was directed to the site just a couple of months ago, and have slowly begun to acquaint myself with the effects I can get from the actions that are different from my favorite plug-ins, such as Topaz, On1, and Nik. I have also purchased a few, and as a customer, I can definitely state that you might run into some snags when you try to run these actions.

So I thought I’d just briefly talk about what you can do before you give up in frustration and send screenshots, perhaps even your file, to the action’s designer. The good news when purchasing actions from this retailer is there is easy access provided to speak directly with the designers, and from the public comments they appear to be very quickly responsive to any issues you have. However, it’s always a good idea to know how to do some troubleshooting on your own, as well as how to use these actions to increase your own understanding of what Photoshop can do, and learn to modify the results.

Painterly results on still life
Commercial Photoshop actions offer a variety of different looks and allow you to modify the results. You can combine them with other actions or 3rd party filters, expanding your options when creating photo art. This is the default result using the Splash Art 2 action by IndWorks.

Fortunately for us, many of the actions come with a video tutorial on YouTube. The designer walks you through the setup to get both Photoshop and your image into the state the action requires to run. Since each designer, and even each action, may have slightly different requirements, you should make certain you watch at least the beginning of their tutorial before you start. Some do provide a readme file, but not all, or the file may not include all the steps to set up your Photoshop. The video tutorial covers it visually. Even better, the tutorial then demonstrates what the various layers and sections do to the image and how you can modify it. Watching before you purchase can help you decide if the action will be customizable enough to suit you.

Baby portrait with graphic action
Thanks to the YouTube tutorial, this image (using the action Circles by sevenstyles) was easy to modify to look very different from the default result.

Even with so much help, though, things can go wrong. An action may start to run, then quit with a message that it couldn’t perform a step. And this is when you need to know how to troubleshoot the action. If it stops very soon after starting, it’s usually that something is missing in the setup. You didn’t name the layer you created correctly for the action, you forgot to load a brush or pattern, or you didn’t make sure the file was in 8 bit mode. (Photoshop has never upgraded most of its ancient filters to run in 16 bit.) There are other setup requirements as well, and each one will be encountered at some step in the action, so each must be strictly adhered to.

Painterly style using Dust by sevenstyles
Many of the actions work by letting you select the main subject and/or focal point where you want the most detail to appear. This selection is filled with color on a separate layer, and different actions require different names for that layer. A soft selection will produce one type of result, while a hard edged selection may produce an entirely different result. It’s worth running the action more than once, varying your selection, to get different results. Here a very soft selection was used for the Dust action by sevenstyles.

First thing you need to do, then, is to check that the basic setup is as called for. But there can be more obstacles than the tutorial tells you about. For example, I kept having the first action I purchased fail early, but not terribly early, in the action. In fact, in this case, even posting a comment on the site for help from the designer wouldn’t have helped. I had unchecked an option for automatically creating masks when adding an adjustment or fill layer. As soon as I realized the action was expecting masks that my preferences weren’t creating, it was a simple matter of re-enabling the default preferences. I then sent an email to the designer so that perhaps in future, he’ll include it in his instructions. Another occasion was far more involved and complex. Tolerances in a selection process were too restrictive for many images. Once I’d isolated the issue (resolving it by placing modal stops to manually alter the input), and informed the designer, the designer cleverly rewrote the action to solve the issue without the user needing to stop to change the default settings.

Placing modal stops or removing action steps
Clicking on an empty box next to a checkmark (above left) inserts a modal stop. Use this when you want to change the input of that step, rather than accept the recorded input. Not all steps allow you to add a modal stop, but most that allow for input do. If you don’t want to allow the action to perform a step, such as converting your document to the sRGB color profile (above right), simply click on the checkmark next to the step to turn it off.
Demonstrating the use of the Insert Stop dialog
There is no reason you can’t add what you want to an action. You can record additional steps if you’re feeling adventurous. Inserting Stops that help explain some of the steps in an action is a very safe, effective way to remind yourself of what the action is doing or what you might want to do to customize it at this point. These Stops can be very useful when you don’t use an action for awhile and have forgotten the details.

To find out where an action was failing, I needed to step through the action slowly, watching the Layers panel, the document window, and the Actions panel. If you’ve ever looked at actions, you’ll know that they’re written in plain English, so not that difficult to understand. Photoshop offers Playback Options in the Actions menu to help you run the action. The option Step-by-Step will pause briefly after each step, allowing you a little time to read an action. If you just want to get a quick idea about how the action works, this is a good option. The option Pause for (blank) seconds is self-explanatory.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t know in advance how long it will take me to read or grasp the intent of a step, as well as notice each step’s effect in the Layers panel and on the image itself, so I choose to manually advance from one step to the next—I hold down the Cmd/Ctrl key while clicking on the play button. I can stop for as long as I need to understand the effect of each step.

Playback options for actions
Usually you want to play an action with the Accelerated option enabled. However, to get a better view of what the action is doing, you might choose one of the other, slower options. The option you choose is sticky, so if you discover your action is running very slowly, check to see if you haven’t forgotten to set the options back to Accelerated.

Taking the time to perform a careful check of your setup and, if necessary or you’re curious, to walk through an action, will reduce frustration and increase your understanding of how Photoshop can be used to create an effect. If you’re someone who likes to tinker, you’ll also see where adding modal stops, or turning off a step entirely, could be to your advantage. The money you spend on 3rd party actions will go a lot further the more you involve yourself with the nuts and bolts of each action, giving you the edge when it comes to modifying the action to suit a wider variety of images.

Art Journal "The Great Divide"
The Great Divide, part of my Democracy series, was created long before I bought any photo art actions, but the theme of inequality is still very relevant. Having looked at the actions, I have noticed there are a number which will turn photos into sketches that I could easily incorporate into my art journal pieces. Credits: mainly from itKuPilli’s altered art kits.

Photoshop’s Puppet Warp

Using the most flexible Warp tool

I confess when I’m pulling out elements to scrap or journal with, I’ll remember I can change the hue, saturation, and lightness of any object, as well as scale it to fit (within reason), but I forget that I can also warp it to fit. I’ve loved Puppet Warp since it first was introduced, but simply don’t need it often enough to remember I can use it when it would be the ideal tool. It’s the V8 juice of Photoshop for me—gee, I coulda had a puppet warp.

After the Million Pussy March, I wanted to commemorate the women of all walks of life who came together not just to protest the planned demise of women’s choice, but to celebrate their sisterhood. I had a picture I took long ago in Washington DC, plus plenty of cats, but no pink pussy hat images that fit them all. I settled on Halloween cartoon cats to emphasize them awake (and determined), but would have had the same problem had I chosen pictures of real cats. The need to make just a couple of hat images fit a lot of different cats meant Puppet Warp to the rescue!

Puppet Warp is intended for you to use on a pixel-based object on an otherwise transparent layer. It will work on any layer that isn’t a Background layer (even on masks and shape layers, but only over the entire layer—expect some disappointing results). It’s usefulness as the name implies, however, is primarily for warping a puppet, not an entire landscape photo. I find it’s best used on a Smart Object layer as a Smart Filter, since that way you can reopen the dialog and edit the warp again—or remove it entirely. Most of the time, the default settings in the Options bar are as good as you’ll need, but it’s also helpful to understand the other options, since you might want to use them from time to time.

Puppet Warp run as a Smart Filter
Puppet Warp will run as a Smart Filter on a Smart Object layer, allowing you to re-enter the Puppet Warp dialog and continue editing the mesh as if you’d never clicked OK, as well as making it easy to remove the warp entirely.
Before and after editing Puppet Warp as a Smart Filter
When run as a Smart Filter, Puppet Warp lets you return to the dialog to change any of its settings long after you initially committed to the warp.

Puppet Warp works with pins which, when active, let you drag on the mesh, and when inactive, will block a region of the mesh around the pin from being easily modified, so the distortion occurs only where the inactive pins have no sphere of influence. In the Options bar, looking at it from left to right, you might choose Rigid for the Mode if you don’t want an inactive anchor to have a large sphere of influence, protecting more of the mesh from distortion, or choose Distort to make the sphere of influence around anchoring pins very small, making a fluid, smooth distortion over more of the mesh at once.

Viewing Mesh and active/inactive pins
Active pins have a white dot in the center and allow you to freely drag on them. Solid pins attempt to prevent the mesh from being distorted within their circle of influence. You can Shift-select multiple pins to move them in tandem.
Left half of Options Bar
The leftmost drop down list sets how easily the mesh can be distorted when moving a pin. The middle drop down list sets how fine the mesh will be. Expansion extends the mesh beyond the object by number of pixels, and the grid icon toggles the mesh visibility on and off.
Balls used to compare mesh modes.
The ball on the left is being distorted with the “Normal” mode for warping, while the ball on the right uses the same move with the “Distort” mode. Note that the ball with Distort attempts to make the amount of warping even all over, unlike “Normal,” which limits most of the distortion to the area right around the pin being moved. The Mesh visibility is off for easier viewing.

For how fine the mesh is, choose Fewer Points if you need the mesh to distort more smoothly over a broader area, or More Points if you want to be able to easily pin down the mesh to limit the warp to a smaller area. Expansion helps you get control over very fine areas, such as the fine stems of flowers. By placing the mesh outside the object itself, you can place pins further apart so each pin has a greater area of influence. This helps make for smoother mesh distortion.

The “layer” buttons for Pin Depth are a feature I have almost never used. Pins are remembered by the computer as if each one has been placed on a layer. If you move a pin so the object being distorted crosses over another object, whether the mesh you move is on top or behind depends upon which “layer” each pin resides on. Use the Pin Depth icons to move the active pin up or down the “layer stack” in order to move it in front of or behind the inactive pin(s).

Right half of Options Bar
The right half of the Options bar handles Pin Depth and Mesh Rotation, as well as the usual Reset, Cancel, and Commit icons.
Pin "stack" visually demonstrated
Pins are stacked behind the scenes as they are laid down. When one part of the mesh crosses another part, you can use the Pin Depth icons to place that part of the mesh on top of the rest, or behind it. The Mesh visibility is off for easier viewing.

When bending an object using rotation, you’ll usually grab a pin and move it freely. The default Auto rotation mode allows you to do this, and uses your Mode to determine how the mesh distorts. But if you want to set a specific amount of rotation, you can enter a number (positive or negative) in the input field, or hold down the Option/Alt key to display a rotation circle around the active pin, and drag just outside of the circle to visually determine the rotation. In both cases, Auto switches to Fixed and you can change the Mode after the rotation to see the effect of the different modes. An advantage of using the Fixed rotation is it will only rotate the selected area. You can’t accidentally drag it up, down or sideways, which is very easy to do when in Auto rotation mode.

Mesh warping with Auto or Fixed selected
Rotating a pin by dragging on the pin itself leaves the Rotate setting at the default Auto, which uses whatever Mode setting is in effect. The angle field automatically updates to show the degree of rotation (middle image). But if you use the HUD (head’s up display) with the Opt/Alt key pressed to rotate the mesh, or enter a specific number in the Angle field, Rotate switches to Fixed. You can easily change the Mode from Rigid (left image) to Distort (right image) and the fixed angle remains the same, while the Mode changes the degree of warping you see.

You can also use modifier keys with Puppet Warp. The Option/Alt key will display the scissors icon when hovering over an active pin to delete it. Or you can press the delete/Backspace key to do the same thing. If you want to select multiple pins and move them at the same time, select each one with the Shift key held down. Whichever active pin you now grab will tug on all the other selected pins.

Cmd/Ctrl-H toggles the Mesh View (grid icon) if you haven’t chosen that shortcut to hide Photoshop itself. Whatever keyboard shortcut you have assigned to Undo lets you undo the last move you made (there is no stepping backwards in history multiple times) and you can either press the Reset icon to remove the pins but stay in Puppet Warp mode, or press Esc to cancel the entire operation.

Final edited Vase with Flowers
Agapanthus grows upright on heavy stalks, but here a few stalks have “wilted,” thanks to Puppet Warp, to create a more asymmetrical bouquet. Credits: Booland, Valentina, LDavison, and Zesty.

So if you’re one of those who has been intimidated by Puppet Warp, or too often forget it’s even there, think about trying it more often. By using it as a Smart Filter on a Smart Object, your original image is safe and you can always try, try again if you’re not happy with the warped object in its setting.

Final "Million Pussy March" composite using Puppet Warp
“Million Pussy March” was created as part of my Democracy series to commemorate the Million Women March in Washington DC (and the more millions around the globe). I warped all the pink pussy hats to fit their owners.

Editing Smart Objects—PNG & JPEG

A Tip for Working With Photoshop Smart Objects

During a discussion about the limitations of editing Photoshop Smart Objects, some of us brought up for the thousandth plus time how frustrating it is to open a JPEG or PNG Smart Object, edit it, and then have to destructively flatten the file back to its original state before we can save the edits to our document.  A good problem-solver in the group took a look and said the real problem is JPEG and PNG files open into their own format, which cannot accept layers, whereas a PSD will open as a PSB file, which can handle layers. The trick, then, is to get the JPEG or PNG file to open as a PSB file.

And to do that, our problem-solving friend told us, run the Convert to Smart Object command on the Smart Object layer containing the JPEG or PNG. Now when I double-click on the Smart Object icon to open it, I’ll see the file format is a PSB file. This will increase the original document’s file size, but it also means I can pile on the layers, layer styles, and even Smart Filters to my heart’s content, just so long as I’m willing to sacrifice extra disk space when saving it.

Original example of PNG file
The original file that I want to alter.
PNG file being edited with layers
The file was placed in my PSD document as a Smart Object, but if I want to edit that file, Photoshop informs me I have to flatten the layers to return the file to its original state.

One reason I might be willing to accept larger files is if I thought that many edits, or days, later, I might change my mind about the edits I’ve made. Having already made one destructive edit, I’d have to make a second, even if the only change to all the edits I wanted to make was to the one of the edits. My Layers panel, too, will be more manageable if I don’t add a lot of clipped adjustment layers above the basic PNG or JPEG Smart Object layers. I inevitably make some kind of mistake where I lose the clipping, and now my adjustment layer is affecting everything below it. For a subtle adjustment, I might not even notice before I’ve begun adjusting everything to match the mistake. I’d rather have those layers tucked away inside the Smart Object.  Add to that, the fewer layers I have to deal with, the clearer I can see what I want to alter or replace, and I’m not scrolling and scrolling and scrolling to find it.

The converted PSB file
By converting the original placed Smart Object layer to a Smart Object once again, double-clicking on that Smart Object to edit it proves the file is now a PSB file and can retain all the layers, filters, and other effects that a PSD file can retain. Notice that the image above opened at 50%, but this image opened at 100%. That’s because I had transformed the original Smart Object layer before I converted it again to a new Smart Object. This is 100% of the converted Smart Object. The original, if I double-clicked on the Smart Object layer visible in this screenshot, is still the full size file I imported. It is also still a PNG file.
Images compared after editing PSB file
Not happy with the strong pinks, I was able to come back and re-edit the Smart Object using the original layers I had added to the PSB file.

Now that I know that the trick to allowing for layers is to create a PSB file, and that creating that file is as easy as simply converting a Smart Object layer containing a PNG or JPEG to another Smart Object layer, I’ll be using that trick often. Smart Objects have many idiosyncrasies, but they offer some of the best protection against destructive editing we have, and are worth mastering.

"At School" art journal composite image
From my Democracy series, “At School” art journals a tweet by Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling. Credits go mainly to Eenas, Finecrafted, and Holliewood.