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 graphicriver.net, 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.

Learning to use Topaz photoFXlab

Why I am looking at it once again

When Topaz photoFXlab was first released, I jumped on it without really thinking. It would work, I imagined, like Google Nik’s Color Efex Pro—a plug-in I’ve been using since it was plain “Nik” and cost half as much as Photoshop itself. I thought photoFXlab would let me stack up filters while keeping them editable, at least through Smart Filter technology. So when I found out that while it could be run as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, it didn’t save the stack of layers, I was disappointed. It was also a bit buggy, difficult to install and update with that manager Topaz briefly used, and didn’t recognize when I had updated one of the filters. I basically quit using it. When they released an update, I updated the plug-in, but reopening a Smart Filter still showed that I couldn’t get back to my original layered file, so I ignored it again.

photoFXlab as a Smart Filter

Smart Filter layers lost in photofxlab
If you run photoFXlab as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, it won’t remember the layers when you double-click on the filter to edit it again. In fact, if you accidentally run it as a Smart Filter, be sure to rasterize the layer immediately to prevent Photoshop from rerunning the filter after you perform a command, such as duplicating the layer.

Maybe I was a bit hasty. If I’d bothered then to watch the video tutorial I recently watched on YouTube (Introduction to photoFXlab™ v1.2), I might have realized two things about the update that I hadn’t noticed. First, Topaz developed a proprietary file format (.pfxl) that does save all the layers in a file. And second, they added the ability to use other 3rd party plug-ins inside photoFXlab. Learning this was inspiring enough for me to try it again, this time with a more open mind.  I have mixed feelings about the results of my experiments with photoFXlab, but that’s a big step up from not finding it worth bothering with.

Whether or not it’s useful to be able to use other plug-ins depends entirely upon which plug-ins you have. Topaz can only use them if they are installed by default into Photoshop’s Plug-Ins folder. Since many companies install some of the working bits to their plug-ins outside that folder, I found many of my plug-ins wouldn’t work—not even if I manually copied them to the folder. That’s cheating, and Topaz apparently knows it.

Add/Remove plug-ins dialog box
To add 3rd party plug-ins, in photoFXlab choose Filter> Add/Remove Plug-Ins. Click the Add button and navigate to your Photoshop Plug-ins folder, then click on a plug-in folder.

Beyond that, some plug-ins simply won’t work. The bad news for me was that the only plug-ins Topaz both recognized and that worked were Google Nik plug-ins. The good news was that the latest Silver Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Analog, and HDR   all worked, and I use them more than any of the rest, with the exception of On1’s Perfect Effects. I didn’t attempt to add Dfine and Sharpener Pro, since Topaz has its own filters for reducing noise and sharpening that I use more often. Viveza installed, but on my system, I only saw a solid black document when I opened it from photoFXlab. Depending upon what you may have, many more of your plug-ins may work.

Filter list after adding plug-ins
If photoFXlab believes a proper plug-in has been installed, it will add it to the list. Note that it may believe a plug-in is installed, but that plug-in may still fail to work with photoFXlab.

By the way, all my On1 Suite 9  plug-ins are in Photoshop’s Plug-ins folder, but the plug-ins themselves have to be inside a folder, and On1 doesn’t put them in their own folder—which I assume is why I can’t seem to get Topaz to believe in those plug-ins. Creating a folder is cheating once again, but I’m trying to be thorough. Since this is just an extra goodie that Topaz is providing us, I’m not upset to find that many plug-ins won’t work, and delighted that a few of my favorites will. The one frustrating aspect is that to find out, I must add them through the manager, close it, see if they made it into the Filter list, and then if they did, try to run them on an image. But it’s still definitely a net gain.Layers with Nik and Topaz effects

Image after photoFXlab
Using Nik plug-ins along with Topaz plug-ins inside photoFXlab. The final image also used customized borders from On1 Photo 10, which sadly doesn’t work with Topaz, but I was still able to nearly complete my image edits in one place, and save to the PFXL file format for added flexibility.

Using photoFXlab, however, is more difficult for me to really enjoy. I do most of my image editing on raw files in Photoshop using the Bridge> Camera Raw> Photoshop route. When I use photoFXlab, I can save all the layers for an image (using File> Save As and choosing the .pfxl format) before I run the results and return to Photoshop. Once in Photoshop, the results still return as a flattened image layer. I can choose that layer in the future, re-enter photoFXlab, then immediately choose File> Open, telling Topaz not to save the file I just opened, navigate to my saved .pfxl file, and open that. All the layers are there, and if I edit this file and return to Photoshop, it will overwrite the old layer with the new results. Whew. It really works, despite having to go through a couple extra steps to get the layered file open in photoFXlab in the first place.

Dialog box after choosing Open
If you want to reopen a PFXL file, open a file in Photoshop, open the plug-in from the Filter menu, then choose File> Open from the photoFXlab menu. Don’t save your changes (you really haven’t done anything yet), and navigate to where you stored the .pfxl file. If you don’t want to overwrite the layer in your Photoshop file, make sure you’re working on a duplicate layer. The filter won’t run on empty layer.

Against that is the fact that none of these layers are Smart Filter layers—ever. I can’t “open” a layer to edit the filter settings I used, something I can easily do without the plug-in, and that offsets the convenience in having access to all my primary filters handy in the photoFXlab interface. This just doesn’t beat running the plug-ins individually on a Smart Object layer and stacking up the results as editable Smart Filters. So I had to wonder why I’d use this plug-in, but it didn’t take me long to think of a few very good reasons.

Using multiple Smart Filters in Photoshop
Running filters as Smart Filters, if you have the option, is the most flexible way to keep your effects non-destructive and re-editable.

Even if you have a program that uses layers and layer masks, blending modes and opacity—such as Photoshop Elements—that doesn’t mean you can use Smart Filters. Without Smart Filters and without using photoFXlab to run your Topaz filters, all you’ll get is a flat image layer each time you run the plug-ins separately. If you save a .pfxl file, though, you can keep most of your edits on separate layers, so even if you can’t edit the filters directly, you’re not starting from scratch just to edit one of the layers.

If you have Lightroom, which doesn’t have layers, photoFXlab lets you work with layers, layer masks, even multiple images, to build up an image that, once saved, adds the image straight back to your Lightroom catalog. And again, the .pfxl file can be your friend. The downside is it has to run through Photoshop. But if you have recent enough versions of both Photoshop and Lightroom, you can stay organized in Lightroom while taking advantage of a streamlined plug-in workflow. Anyone who uses Lightroom knows how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to keep your catalog intact when you use outside editors.

Fusion Express in Lightroom
If you don’t have Photoshop or (Photoshop Elements 12-14) to act as a host for PhotoFX Lab, Lightroom will run each filter listed above separately and return the results to Lightroom when using Fusion Express 2.

The third best reason to run photoFXlab is it runs as a standalone application—no expensive host required. You can do quite a bit of editing with all the power of layers, masks, and blend modes, as well as several powerful image adjustments you can make in photoFXlab itself. Topaz works with TIFF or JPEGs, but if you shoot raw, you doubtless have a converter for your camera files already.  If you want the greater flexibility of desktop plug-ins without the additional expense of a major desktop application to host them, photoFXlab  just might hit the sweet spot between power and price.

Topaz photoFXlab native edits
photoFXlab comes with several basic image adjustments you can make, including to color and tone, using brushes for local adjustments, cropping, scaling, and straightening a horizon. Even run as a standalone, you’re not without the ability to do some basic edits to your photos.
Panel for preset Effects
You can apply some presets for some of the plug-ins with one click using the Effects menu, or choose the Plugins menu to launch and run most of the plug-ins you have installed . You can also run InstaTone, which recolors your photo using a small library of photos as the source. Results are similar to using ReStyle.

Having now spent a bit more time with photoFXlab, I’ve come to the conclusion that it can work well for quite a few people with a variety of different workflows.  It would be much better if Topaz put some effort into creating some kind of Smart Filter technology for it. On1 has Smart Photo technology that lets you open the Smart Photo inside On1 to edit everything, including your original filter settings. If they can do it, so can Topaz.

However, even if limited in usefulness, I intend to begin putting photoFXlab to work in my Lightroom JPEG workflow. Because it’s still not a Smart Filter type of workflow, I’m not likely to use it in Photoshop with my raw camera files. It also  doesn’t run two of my favorite Topaz filters—Impression and Texture Effects, so I’m sure to always run those as Smart Filters anyway. I’m glad, though, that I gave it a second chance, even if I ultimately decide it isn’t all that valuable for my type of editing, because now I have a much greater appreciation for the choices I have. And maybe someday Topaz will revisit this editor. I think it deserves more of their attention.

Layers for Gecko & Pot image
Using Masks, Blend modes, and layers, it’s easy to build an image from several Topaz filters. Here I began with basic color and tone adjustments, then used DeNoise, Clarity, ReStyle, and InFocus. The detail from the image is shown at the beginning of this review.
Gecko & Pot final image
Gecko & Pot: After running photoFXlab, I duplicated the layer and converted it to a Smart Object, then ran Topaz Texture Effects as a Smart Filter. Because I saved the .pfxl file for this image, I can still go back to photoFXlab and edit the base image without having to start over from scratch.

Texture Effects

The latest plugin from Topaz

Many of us who like to create photo art had our plans for the past week derailed by the unveiling of Topaz’ Texture Effects filter, both as a plugin for Adobe and Corel image editing applications, and as a standalone so anyone can use it. In fact, the feature set is pretty complete, beginning with Basic Adjustments for tone and color, through a number of modifications right through to adding a final border to your image. If you like to create photo art with the small phone apps such as Snapseed, but want more powerful features without purchasing one of the more major (and expensive) applications, Texture Effects just might be the right program to try.

The question I heard, and that I had to ask myself when I decided to download a trial copy, was why do I need this plugin— since I do own Photoshop and have been adding textures to my photos for quite some time now. It’s not that difficult to drag a texture into Photoshop from Bridge, place it on top of an image layer, experiment with blending modes, opacity, masking, etc. And I already have a very large collection of textures, borders, glows—the kind of image files Topaz supplies in abundance with the plugin. I don’t really need any more. So what does this do for me?

The answer, I found, was that the plugin is a giant preview machine to get you going. With an image loaded and in one of the effect modules that use images, hover over a thumbnail and see what it would look like applied to the image in whatever blend mode you currently have selected. You can view a variety of effects incredibly quickly, compared to the “find it on your hard drive, drag it into your file, then see if you like it” method, with the inevitable rinse and repeat until you find something that works. You can hover over blending modes and see how each will effect the selected texture. The blending modes are equivalents to Photoshop’s blending modes, and will be familiar to Adobe users. And you don’t have to know anything about blending modes with the hover-and-see-what-it-does approach.The original preset selected before customizing

Appearance changes when hovering over a different thumbnail
By hovering over another texture, the original image (top), shows how the entire preset would appear if that second texture replaced the first. You can hover over all the textures until you find one you like, or delete that texture “layer” altogether. The eyeball next to the effect is useful for toggling that particular effect on and off.
A full set of blend modes is available
A full range of blending modes are offered with any effect where a blend will make a difference.

You can use any combination of effects. You don’t have to use them all, and you can use each of them multiple times. If you’d like to apply three images as Textures, or ten, you can. You can rearrange the stacking order, too, but you’ll lose any masks you’ve applied to the effects. Which brings up the most important feature a texturizing plugin can have—the ability to mask where an effect gets applied. Each effect, or “layer,” gets its own mask. And the last effect, in case you want it, is a Mask that lets you modify how the whole effect is applied to your base image.

Multiple effects each have their own mask
The ability to mask an effect is everywhere. This preset also demonstrates that the only limit to how many instances of an effect you choose to use is your own imagination, or your computer, whichever comes first.

Furthermore, you can save any combination of effects as a single preset. Topaz ships with a large selection of presets already created for us, and has set up a “Community” that lets you share Texture Effects presets with other users. Presets are another part of this giant preview machine. After loading an image, you can open the Preset Grid view and get inspiration from viewing presets applied to your image from your local installation, from the Community, or both. If you like a Community preset, you can log in to the Community and download that preset to your own machine. Obviously, there are rules about sharing texture files that you don’t own full rights to, but a user can choose to share textures that s/he does own, or simply use Topaz assets to create new presets for everyone to enjoy.

You can search for presets by type, by category, and by any part of its name, which makes it easier to find the type of preset you want if you already have an idea. When you click on one of the small thumbnails, a preview pane on the left provides a larger view, as well as metadata for the preset. If you click in the center of the preset, just like Topaz Impression, you open the editing module for customizing the preset.

Preview after selecting a preset in the Preset Grid
In the preset grid view, when you target a preset, you’ll see a larger preview on the left, along with the center sliders icon. Clicking on that icon takes you to the editing space where you can customize the preset to suit your image.
Search filters reduce the number of presets shown
Filters let you narrow your search among the presets for presets you know or for presets that offer a particular look you’re interested in, such as Ethereal or Architecture.

This is a version 1 of the application, and not everything is perfect. I’ve found that it isn’t as responsive to my input devices as their other plugins. I can click on a blend mode and not have it get selected. I can click on a slider and not have it respond to being dragged. It usually only takes a second click to get it in gear, so a minor annoyance, but there are a few small issues like that. Otherwise, so far it’s been stable and pretty quick on both my Macs.

And while you can import your own files, even create your own categories for them, you can only import TIFF, JPEG, and PNG formats—plus no transparency is supported. If you want to import PNGs with transparency, you’ll need to give some thought to whether you want a black, white, or neutral gray background in order to drop it out with a corresponding blend mode. Texture Effects will otherwise substitute black for the transparent regions.

But if you like to use textures when you’re creating digital art, even with small niggles this filter makes it much easier, quicker, and just plain more inspirational to work with them. Topaz Texture Effects seems well worth at least the time to download the free trial, the free manual (it’s short), and give it a whirl to see if it has a place in your own workflow.

The full version of the featured image
Experimenting with different looks is so easy, it doesn’t take very long to come up with something that suits your subject. Or try several different looks before choosing the one you like best.

Happy Halloween

My computer nagged me this week to make something with Mischief Circus elements. So this is what I came up with. I always enjoy making something with no serious purpose—just having a bit of fun. And yes, for anyone who reads the article I just wrote on Luminosity Masks, I did use one on this image. After adding all the textures, it seemed a bit dark and dull. I wanted to brighten up the lightest areas again without affecting anything else. A luminosity mask was the obvious quick solution.

I hope everyone who celebrates Halloween has a great time. I know I’ll enjoy seeing all the creativity that goes into some of those costumes. Full Halloween Image

Finding Discipline as an Artist

Letting your computer nag you and finding allies

I last talked about the benefits of copying the work of others, trying out different styles and methods, when developing a style of your own. With summer and more activities away from home, I noticed how easily I can be sidetracked by anything and everything when it comes to challenging myself to become a better artist. I always have an excuse ready. Part of being human, its very definition, includes the drive to make art, but we don’t always like doing it, especially when we’re comparing ourselves to the genius of others and feeling vulnerable.

So I can become terribly inventive in the excuses I make for not working at the very thing I want to accomplish. I easily dismiss the importance of what I’m trying to do, saying artists are born, not made (ignoring that famous artists studied and practiced);  I’m really only playing at this; what I do has little value, so something more productive is a better use of my time. Yet artistic endeavor makes us pay so much attention to our world that it doesn’t really matter if what we produce has little value on its own; it’s what it does for us that makes being alive feel better—like getting moderate exercise, eating nutritious food, or taking short breaks from work.

Image of a minimalist painterly style
Working on mastering the painterly minimalism for scrap pages popular with designers such as Anna Aspnes and Jen Maddox. I’m used to the idea that you can never have too much bling, and now I’m trying to learn when to stop.

Even when I’m not negating the value of my efforts, I’m negotiating with myself:  “After I finish this project, I’ll take some time to try this style, that technique.”  What I’m really saying is “I can’t fail with this project. It’s well within my comfort zone.”  I’m substituting being more productive for an endeavor to become more creative, and it all feels so right—we’ve been trained to value productivity since we were children. We like to measure things, and it’s a whole lot easier to measure how many vacation pictures we’ve scrapped than it is to measure how far we’ve come in developing our own style.

Altered Art on an Art Journal Page
One of my first Altered Art images using kits from Deviant Scrap (now Mischief Circus). Beginning with nothing is always difficult. Choosing a scene paper provides a guide that helps start a composition.

Of course there are plenty of times when something else does have to take priority, even if I don’t want to mow the lawn or pay the bills. But once I realized that I was making excuses to avoid getting out of my comfort zone, I came up with a couple of ideas to help shove me past my stopping points. Number one is letting my computer nag me. It loves nothing more than to set repeat calendar events and spread the nag along to all my connected devices—phone, tablet, other computer. . .  So I decided to let it. I picked the time I’m often free to choose what I do, and I scheduled different hurdles on different days—one day for creating altered art, another to try art journaling or digital painting, and so on. I don’t make these activities chores, but the nags remind me that these are the things I want to work on. If I choose instead to scrap a Christmas photo with all the bling I can pile on—a favorite technique—that’s okay. The nag just tells me to keep striving for what I’m not (yet) any good at.  I don’t like to fail—and I always believe no one else ever fails—but nagging reminds me that I can’t succeed if I never try, and settling for not failing by not doing isn’t quite good enough.

Art Journal paper made with brushes and blend modes
Starting with a completely blank canvas to create a background paper is a challenge­, but I learn a lot from working with brushes, blending modes, adjustment layers, and even filters. I only attempt papers once a month or so because it takes me forever to get one done, but it’s always special when I later use it in a project.

The other choice I made to help me get past some of the hurdles was to find challenges created by artists. I took the Photoshop Artistry course not because I needed to learn how to use Photoshop, but because it came with a lot of guided challenges for trying new styles. I then looked around on the scrap art forums and found many of them also create challenges. I keep a folder of challenges I can turn to when my nagging calendar says I need to work on something, but I don’t have a clue where to start. Between the calendar and the challenges, I’m not as plagued by a blank canvas, or by avoiding doing the hard thing just because it’s too difficult to get started. I’m so far from where I want to be, I need fifty more years to get close, but I’m also closer than I was last week.

A Photoshop Artistry course challenge.
I tried a look new to me using a Photoshop Artistry course challenge. There are a remarkable number of ways to turn a photo into photo art, and manipulated photos are perfect to use in an “artsy” scrap page.

To be honest, I don’t always respond to being nagged. On average, two or three times a week I give in, pull out an art journal kit, make an “artsy” element or paper, or try a bit of photo art. I may not be prolific in any of this, or develop creative skills very rapidly, but I have a start on it. After all, I began with nothing, so I can only get better.

This week's art journal challenge.
My response to a nag this week using a kit from Rebecca McMeen & Tangie Baxter. When I’m far out of my comfort zone, I rely upon a kit coordinated by designers to help me compose an image. A little “can’t fail” assistance helps me get over some of the hurdles to mastering a new style, and the close attention I pay to each element helps me understand how the style works to express a feeling or concept.