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.