About this image: With this shot of a setting sun seen through a cherry blossom, I focused on the flower blossoms, relying on the fact that throwing the sun way out-of-focus made it appear much larger; I added artistic impact using a textural overlay as explained later in this column.
In my last column, Placing a Flower Photo on a Background, I showed you how to add a flower photo on top of a background to create an artistic effect. This column focuses on a related technique: adding a texture overlay to an image, such as a flower photo, for creative impact.
The visual idea behind adding a flower photo to a background, such as a background created by scanning an exotic sheet of rice paper, is relatively straightforward. It’s easy to change the look of your photos using this technique as I explained in the previous column.
In comparison, while using a texture overlay is also easy to accomplish technically, it’s hard—or even impossible—to pre-visualize in advance what results you’ll achieve. There are many possible options, due to the plethora of possible blending modes that can be used to combine a texture with a photo.
This column explains all you need to know to get started adding textures in Photoshop to your photos, starting with the concept of “texturizing.” I’ll explain the mechanics of adding the texture overlay, choosing a blending mode, and masking the texture (if desired). You’ll also need to know where to find textures to license, and how to make your own textures if you are interested.
Finally, when you find a good texture effect, you’ll want to know how to repeat it. Generally, it’s important to my workflow to be able to repeat something that works, and I often produce imagery in sets, or in pairs (these also tend to be more marketable for art décor licensing than one-off imagery). So the final section in this column will contain suggestions about how to create a self-documenting texture “recipe” that you can repeat when you want to.
The idea behind “texturizing”
To generalize, most photos as they are shot are illusions of three-dimensional space, without much apparent surface texture. For example, you can look down the depth of the perspective of a landscape, or at the blossom of the flower, but not much happens at the surface of an average photo.
A texture image or file is simply a flat shot of paint on wood, or canvas, or something textural (I’ll explain where to license texture files, and how to make your own, later in this article). When you add texture to a photo, by overlaying a texture file, you are taking the photo partially into the realm of painting or illustration—like the difference between printing a photo on smooth photographic paper as opposed to printing it on nubby linen canvas.
The texture file is applied over the original image in a Photoshop layer stack. This may seem counter-intuitive because people expect textural effects to belong to the background, as would be the case with a physical painting on canvas—but the impact of the layer on top is to add an apparent three-dimensional effect to the surface of the photo, mediated by your choice of blending mode (blending modes are discussed later in this column).
It will come as no surprise that the best place to find libraries of texture files is the Internet. A search for a term like “Photoshop texture” will yield links to both free and for-pay textures.
You can find good commercial texture libraries from the Florabella Collection (some of the Florabella textures are shown below) and FlyPaper Textures. Textures you download from the web, including the texture libraries I’ve recommended, are usually simple Jpeg files.
A portion of the Florabella textures III library shown in Adobe Bridge CC.
Adding a texture
Adding a texture to an image means opening the image and the texture in Photoshop, and placing the texture above the image as a layer in a layer stack.
If you are used to Photoshop, this should be a fairly routine operation, but note that you may need to resize the texture to fully cover the entire image, and you may also need to resize one or both images so they are the same bit depth, size, resolution, and operating with the same color profiles. None of these steps are essential, but you may not get seamless results if there is a mismatch.
Please review the material covered in Placing a Flower Photo on a Background, since you want to align the photo and the texture images together it helps to set Photoshop up so that the two images open in separate windows (as opposed to opening as tabs on a dialog).
Click Photoshop > Preferences > Interface to open the Interface panel. Make sure that Open Documents as Tabs is not checked. Click OK, and restart Photoshop for this setting to take effect.
Setting the preferences in Photoshop so each image opens in its own window.
Next, open both the photo and the texture, each in their own window, in Photoshop. For example, the photo of the sunset and cherry blossom shown below becomes the bottom layer in the stack.
The photo before the texture is applied.
My thought with this image was to create an effect with the texture like that of an oil painting, so I opened one of the Florabella textures, “artiste,” in Photoshop.
The Florabella “artiste” texture file, shown in Photoshop CC.
The next step is to align the texture as a layer, precisely centered over the cherry blossom and sunset. There are several ways to achieve this. One is to choose the Move tool from the Tools panel. Next, click within the textures image. Hold down the Shift key and drag the texture over the flower layer. Let go of the Shift key first, then let go of the mouse.
An alternative technique that some folks find easier is to click on the texture image to make the window active. Next, choose Select > All, followed by Edit > Copy. Now, move your mouse over to the cherry blossom and sunset background and click on the window to make it active. Then, choose Edit > Paste.
The artiste texture appears centered and above the cherry blossom in the layer stack. At this point all you can see in the image window is the texture. The cherry blossom is hidden under the texture. To see the cherry blossom and start blending the texture in, make sure the texture layer is selected in the Layers panel and then use the Opacity slider to lower the layer opacity to 50%.
However, we are not done. To achieve a textural effect, a blending mode other than Normal must be applied (Overlay blending mode at 50% is shown below).
The artiste texture is blended using Overlay at 50% opacity.
Using blending modes with textures
It’s worth taking a moment to consider blending modes. When you have two layers in a Photoshop layer stack, the choice of blending mode describes the way the pixels in each layer are combined. With a Normal blending mode at 100% opacity, the pixels in the upper layer in a layer stack are the only things you will see in the image window. The other blending modes combine pixels from both the layers to create, well, a blend. The various blending modes in Adobe Photoshop CC are detailed in Photoshop’s documentation here.
The difficulty with this documentation is that it is presented from a functional—rather than visual—perspective. Multiply blending mode is defined thusly: “Looks at the color information in each channel and multiplies the base color by the blend color. The result color is always a darker color.” This is relatively intuitive: Multiply makes things darker. But trying to parse the definition for some of the other blending modes to see what they will do to your image is not easy.
I recommend simply cycling through the blending modes on the drop-down menu in the Layers panel to see what does what. Bear in mind that textural blending mode effects are almost never applied at 100% opacity, so in addition to the blending mode selection, you’ll want to set the Opacity slider in the Layers panel to 50% or less.
The Blending Mode drop-down menu in Photoshop CC.
Using the Opacity slider in the Layers panel.
Masking the texture
Textural overlays can work well with imagery other than flowers, so my next example uses a landscape. It’s also the case that you usually you won’t want to apply a textural effect uniformly across an image—which is where layer masks come in. The point of masking a layer is to selectively paint in where you want more of the texture to be visible and where you want less of the texture to be visible.
For example, I wanted to add a canvas-like effect to the Cuban landscape shown below.
The provincial capital of Matanzas is sometimes called the Venice of Cuba.
Once again, I turned to the Florabella collection of textures, this time the “vintage linen” texture.
The Florabella “vintage linen” texture (detail view)
But I didn’t want to apply the textural effect uniformly to the Cuban landscape; in particular, I wanted almost no application on the lower right where the image is quite dark. So I created a layer mask, as shown below. This layer mask is a white, Reveal All layer mask, meaning that you can paint on the layer mask with a brush tool to reduce or eliminate specific areas from being visible. (It’s also perfectly reasonable to start with a black, Hide All layer mask, and paint in the areas you do want with a white brush.)
A layer mask is used to make sure the texture is not applied uniformly to the photo.
This layer mask was used along with the vintage linen texture in a layer stack to create the final image shown. If you look carefully, you can see that the final image shows little signs of the textural overlays on the lower right compared to the rest of the image.
The masked vintage linen texture is the top layer of the stack.
The linen texture gives the final image a distinctly old-fashioned feeling.
Shooting your own textures
There’s no reason you can’t photograph your own textures to create your own textural overlays, provided you point your camera at something, er, textural. I keep a library of textures I’ve shot, and when I see something textural I try to shoot it for possible use at some future point in time.
Good textures exhibit patterns, but they are not too regular. Subjects with depth do not make good textural overlays. You should use a fast shutter speed with fairly low depth-of-field so that the elements of the texture seem crisp. In some cases, underlying features in the textures you photograph may help you with creative compositions.
For example, when I saw the peeling paint on the wall shown in Adobe Bridge, I thought the horizontal lines at top and bottom in this texture might add interest to a composition.
I shot this wall on a Parisian street with “texturizing” in mind.
When converting the texture image in Adobe Camera RAW, I increased the contrast and saturation.
Later on, at my computer in my studio, I decided to combine the texture shot on a Parisian street with a studio shot of anemones.
I decided to create colorful and creative effects using this image of anemones, shot on a light box.
I used the French wall texture twice, in Difference and Multiply modes, to create an exotic composition of flowers never seen on this earth—that also incorporates the two horizontal lines from the textural overlay.
I used the Wall texture in Difference and Multiply blending modes to create something very different from the original image.
It’s easy to create striking effects quickly using textures and blending modes like this unusual composition of flowers!
Repeating a texture “recipe”
As I’ve mentioned, it is important to be able to recreate textural overlay effects. When something has been successful, you want to be able to do it again. When a number of different textures, and several blending modes, are involved the steps needed can get complex and hard to remember.
One approach is to write things down. While it is possible to keep track of this kind of formula by taking notes, the best kind of documentation shares a trait in common with good software development—it is self-documenting. The most important aspects of self-documenting a layer-based texture overlay process are to:
Provided you follow these steps, it is usually pretty easy to recreate your texture recipes by deconstructing your archived images.
Using textural overlays combined with blending modes is a surprisingly powerful Photoshop creative tool that works well to create floral art—and is applicable to other kinds of subject matter as well. Good textural work transcends the normal perspective-based spatial relationships in photography. It adds an apparent surface patina to a photo, much as impasto techniques do for an oil painting. Counter-intuitively, textures are applied on top of rather than behind a photo, even when the desired effect is to make the photo look like it has been placed on a textured background.
In this column I’ve explained:
About the Author
Harold Davis is an award-winning professional photographer whose work is widely admired and collected. He is the author of many bestselling photography books including the forthcoming Monochromatic HDR Photography, and his popular workshops are often sold out. Harold Davis is a Moab printmaking Master.
You can visit Harold’s blog at www.digitalfieldguide.com/blog, and learn about his workshops at www.digitalfieldguide.com/about/workshops-events. Harold’s most recent book, The Way of the Digital Photographer, includes information about many of the techniques discussed in this article.