Previewing “Blank” Scrap Kit Elements

A simple Photoshop action reveals the image in file browsers

Can you tell what the two images above are? No? I’ll give you a hint. The one on the left is from Creative Victorian’s Combobulated scrap kit. The other is from Valentina’s Winter Wedding scrap kit. Still don’t know what they are? If so, then creating the following action just might be useful to you, and if you’re new to writing actions, you’ll find this an easy start to learning to create them. Actions are especially useful for the kind of little everyday tasks you do. This one creates an additional file in JPEG format that shows the element on a colored background. (PSE users can’t create actions, but they can manually perform these easy steps, or find a friend with Photoshop to make the action for them.)

First create a folder on your desktop (or another location, if you prefer—it’s a temporary place for the Save As step of the action). Then open one of your own PNG files that is a plain white image on a transparent layer. The action is going to use your Foreground color, so make sure your Foreground Swatch is a medium tone color or darker to help the details in the white image show up clearly. It doesn’t matter what the color is at this point as the action won’t record an actual color—only that it is using the Foreground color.

Now open the Actions panel and, if you don’t have a custom set to put your action in, choose “New Set” from the flyout menu. Actions must always be part of a set, even if it’s a set containing only one action. Once you know what set you’ll be using, choose “New Action” or click on the Create new action icon at the bottom of the panel . Give your action a descriptive name, such as “Scrap Preview,” and click Record Action. This lights up the “Record” icon at the bottom of the panel.

New Set, New Action in Action panel flyout menu
The Action panel’s flyout menu contains commands for creating, playing, and saving your actions. Action sets stored in either of your Adobe Preset folders will also show up here, handy for quick loading.
Recording icons in the Actions panel
Icons at the bottom of the panel let you start and stop recording, play the action, create action sets and the actions themselves, and delete sets, actions, or steps in an action.

Back in the Layers panel, Cmd/Ctrl-click on the Create a new layer icon to add an empty layer below your original image layer. Next, press Option-delete/Alt-Backspace to fill that layer with your Foreground Color.

After creating the color-filled layer, choose File> Save As, leave the filename alone, and select JPEG as the format.* Photoshop automatically tells you that it will save a copy, not the file itself, which is exactly what we want it to do. Choose the temporary folder you created back at the start. When the JPEG Options dialog opens, choose a low quality for the file. You don’t need high quality for a file you’re never going to use on a scrap page.

*Your version of Photoshop may be too old to automatically flatten your layers before entering the Save As dialog, in which case you should choose Flatten Image first.

JPEG compression and file sizes
The only time to save a JPEG with a very low quality setting is when you don’t care at all about seeing compression artifacts (those blocky, often speckled bits and banding), but you do care about keeping the file size very small.

Once the file has been saved and you’re back in Photoshop with your original file open, choose File> Close. Be careful here! When the dialog pops up asking if you want to save the file before closing, choose Don’t Save. You don’t want to overwrite you original PNG file. You just want to close it.

Your action is now complete. Click on the square icon to the left of the red record button to stop recording. Now select the set containing the action, open the Action panel’s flyout menu, and choose Save Actions. If you don’t save your actions somewhere, you might lose them entirely. You can accept the default Presets folder that Photoshop chooses for you, or you can save them to another drive that you routinely backup—or both. When it comes to the reality of computers crashing and dying, I like the belt and suspenders method of taking care of anything I create.

Save Action availability in Actions panel menu
If you attempt to save an action and find the Save Actions command is grayed out, you have an action, not a set, selected. Go back and select the parent set to the action. Only sets can be saved.

But now you have an action that will automatically save every preview you create into that desktop folder, far removed from where you actually are storing your scrapbook kits. Modal controls to the rescue. To the left of the Save step in your action  are two columns. The leftmost column has a checkmark which tells Photoshop to play that step, and the next column, the modal control column, is blank. Click to toggle it on. The modal control tells Photoshop that it’s not to complete the step, but to open the dialog and to wait for input from you. It works with filter settings, adjustment layers, and more.

Placing a modal stop within an action
Not all steps in every action allow you to add a modal stop, but when a step does allow it, the action will stop and wait for your input. The modal stop makes it possible to create actions that you can adjust to suit the needs of an individual image.

Now whenever the Save As step plays, the action will stop and you can navigate to the scrap kit folder that contains your original PNG file, click Save and Okay (in the JPEG Options dialog) to complete saving the file and Photoshop will automatically close your original file for you.

One further step might help save time when running it on several files in one session. If you disable Save As to Original Folder under Preferences> File Handling, you’ll only have to navigate to the folder you want once. Photoshop will remember the last used folder and return there for the rest of the session, or until you navigate to another folder. If you re-enable Save As to Original Folder, the action will again navigate to the temporary folder you created or, if you threw that away, to whatever is left of the path you recorded.

File Saving Preferences
Disabling Save As to Original Folder makes Photoshop default to the last folder you saved to.

Another option to preview white on transparent PNGs is to open them and add a drop shadow. You’ll need to save the file as a larger PSD file to keep the layer style live, and the image might not appear as attractive, but if you prefer this, you can use your action skills now to create an action that adds a layer style and saves the file as a PSD instead. Use the file the same way you would use the original PNG—simply edit or remove the drop shadow to suit the image you’re creating.

Preview with Drop Shadow
If you prefer, write an action that adds a drop shadow instead of a layer filled with color. But save it as a PSD file so you can edit or remove the drop shadow when you use this file in your artwork.
Transparent PNGs with Preview from action
These previews clearly show what the white on transparent PNG files at the start of this tutorial look like.

Kewpies and Geishas at Dawn

A still life made with childhood toys

My recollection of childhood isn’t all that sweet or pretty—though sometimes marvelous—but is always full of an odd assortment of strange toys—some of which I thought were wonderful, some of which seemed a bit creepy even then. It didn’t matter what they were. I wanted them all. Early childhood greed, however, was less about ownership than curiosity. As children, we struggled to understand the chaotic world through the outlandish toys we were given. Figurines that bore little relationship to the real world sat on the shelf beside plastic cars that were authentically replicated down to the last detail.  Balls kept us moving, while the best card and board games encouraged us to think and develop strategy while entertaining us.

I grew up in a semi-rural area where there were hardly any kids. It was before video games and computers, so I had few opportunities to learn strategy, which is a skill I lack to this day. However, I did learn to look long and hard at the toys, books, and look-ats my sisters and I were given. Most of those toys are gone now, but some were put away, mostly forgotten until I had to clear out my parents’ home. Now a few, like the other relics from my past, are being photographed with the intention of creating some kind of digital art that includes them.

For this image, I wanted the time to be early morning, before the chaos of the unfocused play of very young children. It’s not that I was going for realism. I just wanted it to feel quiet, with light just starting to wake up the room. After adding textures and a Color fill layer at fairly low opacities to help unify everything, I used Lighting Effects on a merged duplicate (Cmd-Opt-Shift-E/Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E) to make the room both darker, and with more focused light coming from the window. Then I masked an adjustment layer without any settings, but set to Multiply mode at a lowered opacity, so the back wall with the poster on it would be even darker.

Layers with textures and Lighting Effects
Textures from Photomorphis and Photoshop’s Lighting Effects filter helped unify this vintage recreation of early childhood memories.

Of course it was now all too dark and flat. I’ve found that trying to locate the Goldilocks zone when creating images often means backing and filling many times before I get there.  Using empty layers in either Color Dodge or Color Burn mode, I selected colors from the objects themselves and painted splashes of glowing highlights, along with a touch of improved modeling with darker shadows. Most of these layers, too, were used at a very reduced opacity.  An adjustment layer or two more, heavily masked, and I thought I was just about done.

Kewpie doll detail before/after painting with Color Dodge
Painting on an empty layer in Color Dodge mode put intensified light and color where I wanted it. Reducing the opacity of the layer kept it reasonably subtle.
Detail from before/after painting in Color Burn mode.
In a few places, adding light had flattened the objects. Painting on empty layers in Color Burn mode restored some of their dimensionality.

But it was still too flat. I’d gotten caught up in trying to be too realistic, and the overall color was too sweet for my childhood memories. So once again, to safely preserve everything I’d done so far, I created a merged duplicate layer and took it through Nik Color Efex Pro. A stack of filters, including Color Stylizer and Vintage Film, brought me to the less sweet version I preferred. I added the totally unrealistic light rays and liked it, but now the whole thing was too warm. So once again I cooled the temperature slightly, this time with a simple Photo Filter adjustment layer. I think I’m done—with this one at least. I’ve worked non-destructively if I ever choose to revisit it, but for now it’s time to move on to another expression of times long past.

Image after dodging and burning.
After modifying the light, the image was still flat and trying too hard to be realistic.
The final image framed.
A stack of Google Nik Color Efex Pro filters enhanced contrast and toned down any sugary sweetness, while light rays added dimension to this make-believe world. Credits too numerous to mention all: Mischief Circus’ “Misfit Dollhouse” Collaboration; Valentina; Lorie Davison; Doudou-Paprika; Vero, and more.