The Hunt for Brushes

Creating custom brush sets for easy retrieval

A couple of friends and I are taking the online Photoshop Artistry Fine Art Grunge course, and brushes are often used to help us create this style of image. These brushes are mostly what traditional artists call stamps. You don’t drag with the brush to paint, but simply click in place on your image. Photoshop ships with some, and you can find such brushes everywhere on the web.

The course provides us with quite a few brushes, and one friend was having trouble installing and finding her brushes, even though she’s used Photoshop for several years. As I walked her through the process of loading and accessing her brushes, I thought again that, yes, it is very confusing to have so many panels and proxies that use brushes, all needed for different tasks at one time or another. Perhaps I’ll take each panel in turn one of these days, trying to explain it all. No doubt I’ll learn even more myself by attempting to make sense of it. I think it just grew organically and was never part of anyone’s 5-year plan.

Too many brush panels
All these panels are used for working with brushes. The Brush Presets panel shows the last-used brushes right below the Size slider, which does make it easy to find a brush you just used.

But this time I want to talk about finding those brush sets bought or found on the web, and now we have to try to recognize them in the Brush Presets panel (or one of its proxies). They all get thrown into one “drawer,” one right after the other with no separation, no means of identifying them if the teeny Thumbnail preview isn’t good enough (and it’s not), or if you can’t remember what “Sample19” or “Grunge3” looks like in use when you’re in List view (and I never can). Everything about the Brush Presets panel, except for the nifty last-used section,  discourages us from experimenting by making it so hard to find anything we liked ever again.

Views of Brush Preset panel
Whether you use the List view or the Thumbnail view, it’s often difficult to identify what brush you’re choosing.

So when my friend said, “There are too many brushes to find anything,” I not only sympathized because I can never find anything either, I also tried to think of what we could do to help ourselves—at least until hopefully Adobe addresses this problem. Anything to encourage us to use the brushes in our scrapping, our art journaling, our fine art grungy fantasy creations. What sprang to mind involved more work than I wanted to do, but isn’t that often the way? I’ve created custom sets for Layer Styles and Swatches before, and I keep them separate in their respective panels by adding a White swatch at the beginning of every palette, or the No Style style at the beginning of every set of Styles. That way I know at a glance where one set stops and another begins, and I have my favorite glitter styles separate from my favorite metal styles or my favorite shadow styles.

Stlyles panel organized
Inserting a No Style between Style sets makes it more obvious when one type of style ends and another begins

I’ve never done this with brushes for the silly reason that there isn’t a No Brush brush—but, I remembered, there is a ‘No’ symbol in the Custom Shape Symbols library that ships with Photoshop. I can make a brush from any shape; all I have to do is create the shape in a document, say 300 pixels square, and then save it as a brush (Edit> Define Brush Preset). Pop into the Preset Manager (yes, it shouldn’t have to be this involved), and save that new brush as its own brush set—so that’s what I did.

Brush made from Shape
A custom Shape can be saved as a Brush
Preset Manager panel
Brush sets (which can consist of a single brush) are saved via the Preset Manager panel

Now any time I want to create a custom brush set, I first load the ‘No’ brush preset, then add the brushes I want to be in the set. I name the ‘No’ brush something descriptive to identify the set, and save them altogether with my descriptive name. And if I want all the brushes that Anna Aspnes, for example, put into her “DifferentStrokes7” set, I can first load the ‘No’ brush into the Brush Presets panel, then her complete set, and I can still tell the set apart from any other brushes I’ve loaded without having to save it altogether first.

Organized Brush Preset panel
With the No symbol separating custom brush sets, I can find the type of brush I want to use more easily.

Now I not only can find the brushes I want in the Brush Presets panel more quickly, I don’t have to slow down my computer keeping so many loaded.  I simply had to spend some TV watching time creating my favorite custom sets. For this image from a Photoshop Fine Art Grunge challenge assignment, I was better able to locate the splatter , grunge, and edge brushes I wanted, and the project was a lot less frustrating to complete.

PS Artistry Grunge Image
Created for the Photoshop Artistry course, I used several brushes  in “To Every Season,” and my head didn’t explode trying to find a splatter brush when I wanted one.


Restoring Trudie Ann Part 3

Cleaning with Healing and Patching tools

In Part 1, I used Camera Raw to make very basic adjustments on the original scan of Trudie Ann. In Part 2, I used the old, but still useful, Dust & Scratches filter to take care of a lot of very minor spots that film scans often have. But if Dust & Scratches could take care of it all, Adobe would never have bothered to invent the Healing tools. Sadly, these tools are fully manual. There is no way to clean a photo except to zoom in to at least 100%, put on your favorite music, take a calming breath and accept that patience is a virtue you’ll need to do this. There are, however, a few tips that can make cleaning easier:

•    Adjust your brush to be slightly larger than the spot or scratch you’re trying to remove. If it’s too close to the same size, there won’t be enough material from the surrounding area for the tool to analyze when blending the edges. Too large, however, will simply smudge a lot of the surrounding detail, if there is any.

•    If you’re using a healing brush on spots on a fairly plain area, try leaving the Use Pressure for Size icon in the Options bar turned off and click to heal. Turn it back on to drag along skinny scratches or across areas of high contrast so you don’t smudge the rest of the area. If turning off the icon doesn’t make a difference, check to see that Brush Dynamics is turned OFF in the Brush panel. Then the icon will control whether or not you’re using pressure for size.

Brush Options Bar settings
The three selected settings are, right to left, Brush Pressure for Size, Sample Source from composited data (use all layers), and Heal with Content Aware Fill.
Shape Dynamics setting in Brush panel
When you want to control how Pressure affects Brush size from the Options Bar, uncheck Shape Dynamics, if enabled for the brush, in the Brush panel.

If you don’t have a pressure-sensitive tablet and stylus to take advantage of using pressure to control brush size, why not? They’re wonderful things, are far more ergonomic than mice, and the cheapest Wacom is still a darned good replacement for a mouse.

•    Use Spot Healing with Content Aware turned on in the Options bar wherever possible. Heal on a separate, empty layer with the Sample source from composited data (use all layers) icon turned on. But if Content Aware is pulling in unwanted detail, try turning on the Heal With Proximity icon in the Options bar, restricting the brush to source material from the edges of the brush itself.

Heal with Proximity icon
Try Heal with Proximity if Content Aware is proving frustrating—it might help.

•    The Heal With Texture icon attempts to use the luminosity in the region to create a pattern from it that it applies as texture. I’m sure someone uses it with tremendous success, but if Spot Healing is turning my texture into cream soup, I normally switch to the Healing brush to sample the texture I actually want. I’ve tried blend modes for the brush as well, and it doesn’t appear to make the results for Heal With Texture any better.

Detail showing Heal with Texture results
Heal with Texture often generates too much texture to be useful, although if you want to add fake texture, you might try it.
Result from using a blend mode with Heal With Texture
Multiple strokes (left) often helps with healing brushes, but not so often when using Heal With Texture. Blend modes (right) don’t appear to work any wanted magic, either.

•    Detail that seems far away to you, but not to the Spot Healing Brush, is far less likely to get “cloned” into your empty skies or other nearly featureless regions if you switch to the Healing Brush and sample from an appropriate source.

•    With either of the healing brushes, scratches and spots that meet up with or cross over areas of high contrast can smudge. If you drag your brush from a light to dark or dark to light area, rather than stopping next to the contrasting area, the healing is likely to be more successful and smudge-free. You might have to take short drags across the boundary from both sides to even out any tendency to pull one area into the other, the brush acting as if it were the Smudge tool in Fingerpaint mode instead of a healing brush. Pressure sensitivity for brush size, using a very light touch, also helps to reduce smudging.

•    Don’t forget to use the Rotate View tool in order not to contort your hand while dragging along a scratch. The Rotate View tool is “spring-loaded.” Press and hold the “R” key, drag in the document to rotate the view, and when you let go of the key, any tool you had selected, such as the Healing Brush, will be active again. Hold the “R” key and click in the options bar to reset the view to normal. It’s a bit awkward to use the tool at first, but it really pays off to take the time to get comfortable with it.

Rotate Tool Options bar settings
Using the Rotate View tool takes a bit of practice, but becomes easy with time. Reset your view to its normal orientation by pressing and holding “R” and clicking on the Reset View button.
Rotate View tool used to change the angle of a scratch
Use the Rotate View tool to make it easy for your hand to draw while following a line. Here I’m rotating to make a horizontal scratch vertical.

•    Some people use the Lasso tool to select just the area they want to heal, while excluding the area they don’t want to touch. I don’t find that works very well for me, but I will try it before switching to the Clone Stamp tool if I need to protect an area and attempt to prevent smudging. The Clone Stamp tool, however, can be your best friend in these cases.

•    The Patch Tool is often quickest if you have large featureless areas that are spotty and scratched. Clean one area well with a healing brush, then use the Patch tool in Normal mode on a duplicate image layer. You don’t really need the Content Aware feature for this since you’re just cleaning up an area that should be empty and you don’t want to have any detail pulled into the area. You can set it to Patch source from destination in the Options bar in order to select the dirty areas to be healed with the area you drag the selection to, or, if it makes more sense to you, select the clean area and drag that selection over a dirty area.

Patch Tool setting in Options bar
The settings for the Patch tool in Normal mode different from using it in Content-Aware mode.
Patch tool settings in Normal mode
Using the Patch tool in Normal mode can clean up larger areas more easily than using of the Healing brushes.

•    Use the Patch tool in Content Aware mode if you’re working with distinct patterns or lines. You can work on a separate, empty layer in this mode, which I recommend, and you can line up the source with the destination before you let go of the mouse so the pattern is maintained. While the destination (the area being healed) is still selected, adjust the Structure and Color settings to make the best match. The lower the structure number, the less detail is preserved, the edges become increasingly soft, possibly, but not necessarily, blending better with the damaged area than using a very high setting. As the Color setting increases, more of the color around the area you’re healing is used in the blend, so a source with a light background will blend better into an area with a darker background. You can sometimes nearly mimic cloning with high Structure and low Color settings. It’s a good idea to play with the settings while the selection is still active.

Patch tool settings in Content Aware mode.
While the patch is still active, modify the Structure and Color settings until the source blends with the area being patched.
Image of scratch and healing the scratch
When the source for healing a scratch is lighter than the area around the scratch, adjusting the Color settings creates a better blend.

If using these tools sounds a bit complicated, it is. They have a lot of power, and a lot of computation is going on behind the scenes to make them work. But they can’t really see what we see, or know what is going to bother us and what isn’t. They do take time to get used to, but they’re worth it.

Know Your Photoshop Presets

Create a Preset “Previewer” for your photos

Recently Creative Live had their Photoshop Week with professional instructors such as Chris Orwig and Ben Willmore. Creative Live, if you don’t already know them, streams free classes on a variety of subjects that creatives are involved in, and sells access to those classes afterwards. Even though I’m reasonably advanced in Photoshop, there is always some feature I’ve forgotten to take advantage of, or a way to use it that I’ve never thought about. Ben Willmore had a tip for creating a file with presets applied to an example image. I’d once had a plug-in for Photoshop actions that used previews I created so I had some idea what “ACF6A25” did before I ran the action. I knew having previews could save a lot of time; I simply hadn’t remembered to take the time to create those previews.

So one evening while watching Dr. Who reruns, I decided this was just the right amount of mindless activity that let me both relax with the TV and do something useful. I chose to catalog the presets for the Color Lookup Adjustment layer. That’s one I don’t use very often, mainly because I never can remember what “Fuji F125” is going to do to the different colors and tones in my image. Color lookup tables—abbreviated as either CLUTs or LUTs— are common to the film industry, and can be used to mimic film or darkroom techniques with just one click. Chris Cox from Adobe created starter files to help us make our own LUT presets that anyone with a Creative Cloud subscription can get, and I’ve had a bit of fun doing just that. (Choose Help > Browse Add-Ons, and look for them in the Photoshop free section.) But why am I trying to run before I can walk?—the shipped presets were designed by professionals and all I have to do is figure out what type of photo each works best with. Making a preset “viewer” turns that time-consuming effort into quick work.

Screenshot of ExportColorLookupSample
Creative Cloud subscribers can pick up free sample files from Chris Cox that demonstrate how to create your own LUTs.

I picked a landscape almost at random. The way this type of file gets created, I can later easily swap out the landscape I used for any other photo. I created my standard 10×8 file and dragged the photo from Bridge into the file to set it as a Smart Object. If you want to keep your file size reasonably small, you can resize a duplicate photo to a smaller size before dragging it in, but if you have a size photo that you commonly work with, I’d suggest you take the file size hit and retain the actual size. It will make it easier for you to work with this file later on.

After adding one Smart Object, I copied the layer (Cmd/Ctrl-J) 3 times. I dragged the topmost layer to the far left position, using Smart Guides  to show that I was keeping it aligned (View> Show> Smart Guides, or Cmd/Ctrl-U). It also helps to hold down Shift after you start dragging—drag sideways and then hold down Shift, and the file can’t move up or down on the page. Drag up and then hold Shift, and the file can’t move left or right on the page.

Files about to be distributed
Three files are stacked on the left; one file is aligned with them to the right.

I next selected all four Smart Object layers in the Layers panel, then clicked on the Distribute horizontal centers icon in the Options bar to get all 4 layers to space themselves evenly between the first and last photo. After creating one row, I duplicated the entire row and moved it below the first, and repeated this process to fill the page.

Screenshot of Align icons

Image of 4 distributed images
Horzontally distributing images across a document

Next I added a Color Lookup Adjustment layer to the first photo. I used the icon in the bottom of the Adjustment Layers panel to clip it to the photo so it would only affect that photo (or press Cmd-Opt-G/Ctrl-Alt-G), and then applied the first preset. I renamed the photo layer in order to see at a glance what preset corresponded to each photo, but of course, you could also just open the Adjustment layer to see the name. If there are more presets than you have layers in your file, save the first file, then immediately save it again with the same name and “2” to indicated it’s continued from the first file. This time you’ll edit the exiting Adjustment layers to apply new presets. When all of presets have been used in your file(s), you can simply delete any extra layers.

Color Lookup Properties
Select the icon at the bottom left to clip the Adjustment layer to the layer below.
Example of Smart Objects with different presets
After creating a Preview file, you can see at a glance what each Adjustment layer preset will do to this image.

The reason for using a Smart Object becomes evident when you want to see how these presets will affect a completely different photo. All you have to do now is right-click on the photo’s layer in the first file and choose Replace Contents from the context-sensitive menu. In the dialog that opens, navigate to the image folder you want, select the photo you want, and click Place. Because your example photo is a Smart Object that you copied many times, all of your Smart Objects will be updated to show the new photo you chose with all your Adjustment layers still intact.

Menu with Replace Contents
Right-clicking on a Smart Object layer displays the Replace Contents command.
Smart Object contents replaced with another image
Use the Replace Contents command to display a different photo with the same presets applied to it.

Do this with each file for that Adjustment layer’s presets that you have. If your replacement photo isn’t the same size as the original, it won’t fill the layout exactly the same, which is why I suggested you stick as closely to your typical photo size as possible. Any scaling you do to the original Smart Object is remembered and applied to the replacement image. You can see that if you use a small photo and don’t scale it, then replace it with a large photo, which also won’t be scaled, the large photo won’t fit. And vice versa. Scale a large photo down, then use a very small one, and it might wind up so small after scaling you can barely see it. I didn’t say this was the perfect Preset Previewer, but it’s a lot better than not having any Preset Previewer. You might even want to make one set each for horizontal and vertical orientations. The more you do up front, the more useful the files will be in the future.

Swapping contents with the wrong size
If you replace a Smart Object’s contents with an image that has very different dimensions, you’ll have to manually resize each Smart Object to fit the space.

This setup works great so long as your presets are added with Adjustment layers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with any of the 3rd party plug-ins that I have, such as Topaz, Nik, or On1 Perfect Effects. These plug-ins always see the whole document, even if each layer is mostly empty after you scaled the original Smart Object. Borders and vignettes follow the document, not the Smart Object layer. Fortunately, unlike Photoshop they all have a way to preview their presets on your current image. However, like playing scales on the piano before playing the piece, creating preview files of presets for some of your plug-ins can help you know what to look for when using the filter presets. But demonstrating that is for another time.

3rd party borders don't fit
Adding a border inside a 3rd party plug-in (such as On1’s Perfect Effects shown here) to one Smart Object in the document doesn’t work.

Restoring Trudie Ann – Part 2

Using the Venerable Dust & Scratches Filter (PS and PSE)

This old snapshot of Trudie Ann has already spent a long life tossed in a box with other photos, been dragged around the continent, and stored without care in many different climates. All things considered, it’s remarkably free from serious damage, despite having a lot of fine scratches and a fair number of dust spots. However, I don’t really want to spend hours spotting and healing the entire image using small brushes if I can help it.

Designed before the digital camera became king, the now-ancient Dust and Scratches filter (Filter> Noise> Dust & Scratches) helps speed up cleaning scans that aren’t in pristine condition. The trouble with that filter is it doesn’t know if a light spot surrounded by darker pixels is unwanted or critical detail. High contrast details, such as dappled light in trees or catchlights in eyes, often get muddied by this filter. It’s quick and easy to use, but it will just as quickly ruin an image as rescue it. Still, it was useful back then, and it can be useful today if we know when and how to use it.

Image of D&S damage in high contrast areas
Even when using low settings, D&S will damage fine details in high contrast areas. Masks help bring back fine details.

Today’s methods for using the D&S filter are easier than they used to be before Healing brushes, the Patch tool, and Smart Filters. For instance, I often used to run D&S at amounts that got rid of most of the spots and scratches, create a Snapshot in the History panel, then step back in History to right before I ran the filter. I targeted the Snapshot I’d just made and used the History brush at a small size to paint the filter back into the image just where I wanted it, essentially attempting to hand paint out each and every spot or scratch without blurring the rest of the image. It was still faster for smallish spots and scratches than using the Clone Stamp tool everywhere (and I felt pretty cool finding a use for Snapshots in the new History panel).

Today instead, I run a very modest amount of the D&S filter on a Smart Object layer, then use the Smart Filter mask that is automatically created to mask the areas where the filter has been too destructive. Or, conversely, if there’s little to clean and a lot of detail to protect, I’ll invert the Smart Filter mask (Cmd/Ctrl-I) and paint with white where I want to apply the filter to the image. I always protect the eyes, even when there’s a spot there. I only remove the smaller spots, which are usually the most numerous, and switch to healing and patching to clean up the rest.

Dust & Scratches dialog
Very low Radius and Threshold settings are used when cleaning old scans.

Because running Dust & Scratches on an image softens the entire image, and can  require a lot of hand painting on masks to bring back lost edges and detail, I typically use it on images like Trudie Ann, which are already very grainy and lacking in sharp edges and contrast. I don’t mind softening the grain, and I can keep the need for masking to a minimum. If I see it’s going to take a lot of work to preserve my image’s quality, I’d rather go ahead and use the healing and patching tools, along with the Clone Stamp if needed, than start with anything as destructive as the D&S filter.

How much image quality you can stand to see degraded by the filter, of course, depends upon how much time you have to spend retouching it. Dust & Scratches is quick if the image is going to be used at a fairly small size, and once you sharpen the image, it might look just fine. Sometimes an image isn’t worth spending hours on, but that doesn’t mean we want to (or can) simply throw it away,  so we compromise and no one gets hurt in the process.

To run the Dust & Scratches filter, I focus on an area that has a lot of little specks, and I don’t worry about scratches or large spots. With Threshold at 0, I move the Radius slider up just a few pixels. If I am not getting rid of the little spots by 3-4 pixels, I will usually give up on the filter. The Threshold slider lets me bring some texture back to the image,  but it won’t overcome an obvious loss of detail, and once it has removed blur from too high a Radius setting, you’ll see terrible artifacts. (An idea for creating a weird texture, perhaps?)

Results when running D&S at a high Radius
When the Radius is high enough to smooth over large blemishes, the Threshold setting can’t bring back good detail and grain.

Once I see most of the small spots disappear, I bring up the Threshold slider until I see the spots start to become easily visible again, and then move it back down by one or two levels. This time I’m compromising between concealing the spots and retaining enough grain and texture the image doesn’t become plastic and unnatural, which almost always leaves me with some hand work left to do. But thanks to Dust & Scratches, not as much as when I started.