Please note that I can not offer a how-to-learn-Photoshop tutorial here, as it's a very complex program with a lot of possibilities. But I would like to show some examples of nice and useful features and tips in Photoshop. You can look up more information and tutorials about those features online (e.g. Photoshop Essentials).

The following screenshots / examples were made in Photoshop CS3.


One of the most important features in Photoshop - layers. Depending on the complexity of a picture, you can easily end up with 50 layers or more. Note that with the number of layers also the size of your file increases (can be important for slower computers).

Here is a screenshot of one of my Photoshop files (click for full size): I have been using several layers for the outlines, colors (basic color, markings, details, eye color,...), shading, highlights, background, etc.), as well as blend modes and masks. When using many layers, it's useful to a) group your layers (like I did with the background layers) and b) name your layers properly.

Layers can be grouped, moved, linked, copied, merged, flattened, or you can set blend modes, masks or layer effects. That gives you quite a lot of possibilities.


This section is also available as a Tutorial.

There are a few default brushes in Photoshop, many sources of free brushes to download online (shared by other users), and unlimited possibilities to create your own brushes. I am using a large set of brushes myself, both downloaded brushes (free for use, always check the terms of use by the artists who offer them) and selfmade custom brushes.

The "Brush Presets" (screenshot on the right) give you the chance to customize your brushes even more, with presets like brush tip shape, shape dynamics, scattering, texture, color dynamics, wet edges, airbrush, and a lot more. The Brush Preset window offers you an instant preview what your brush actually looks like. If you're using a graphic tablet (recommended!), that offers you even more possibilities, as many brush presets only work in combination with a stylus pen (e.g. pen pressure, fade or tilt settings).

To save your selfmade or customized brushes, simply add them to your brush palette (see tutorial for more details). With the brush "Preset Manager" you can easily arrange your brush palette (sort, delete, etc.) and save single brushes or brush sets at the end (which is very much recommended, as it can always happen that your computer crashes and settings get lost).

How to create an own custom brush:
  1. Create a new file (white background), max. size 2500x2500 pixel
  2. Draw / Paint your brush form (black/white), you can also use scans or photos
  3. Photoshop menu at the top: Edit > Define Brush Preset
  4. Enter a brush name (e.g. grass)
  5. Done! You can now happily use your brush or adjust its presets
  6. If you adjust the presets of your brush (e.g. scattering) and want to keep it, you have to save the brush as a new one (presets are not saved automatically)
Note that your defined brush size is also the maximum quality you will be able to use later. If you increase the brush size (master diameter) beyond your defined brush size, it will become blurry (so better use the biggest file possible for creating brushes).

The book series "Digital Painting Techniques" (which you can find here) offer a wonderful collection of digital painting techniques and how to work with brushes.

Blend Modes

Blend Modes:

Blend modes (the drop down menu in the upper corner of the layers palette) define the way a layer affects ("blends with") the layers or layer below it.

Example: When I want to add shading to a character, I create a new layer for the shading (above the basic color layer) and set its blend mode to "Multiply". When I now draw the shadows (in a light warm or cool grey) on that Multiply layer, it will affect all layers below.

The big advantage is, that you can easily change the shading later if you want, without having to change your actual character colors (as it's on a separate layer and only virtually "blends" with the layers below). The blend modes can be changed or set back to normal again at any time.

There are different modes (see picture on the right). It makes sense to simply go through all modes and see how they affect the layers below.

Tip: The blend mode layer affects ALL layers below. If you only want it to affect the one layer directly below, press "ALT" and click between the blend mode layer and the layer below with your mouse. The cursor turns into a little symbol with two circles. After that action, the blend mode layer text is indented and has a little arrow in front of it. It now only affects the one layer below. This can be undone again any time with the same action (ALT + clicking between the layers).


This section is also available as a Tutorial.

As a simple description - by setting a mask to a layer, you define the transparency of that layer. In other words, you define what is visible and what not. The mask (thumbnail right next to your layer thumbail) is always black and white (greyscales). Areas in the mask filled with white are 100% visible in the picture, while areas filled with black are 100% transparent (and so not visible). Areas with 50% grey would be 50% transparent in the picture. Layer masks don't physically alter your layer content in any way, same as the blend modes.


Masks can be linked or unlinked to your layer (see the little chain symbol between the thumbnails, more details you find in the tutorial), they can be copied to new layers (which is very useful if you have several layers that require the same mask), edited or deleted any time. When coloring a character, I always create a mask for the character first. Once that is done, I don't need to pay attention any more to "not draw beyond the outlines" or have to select areas with the magic wand tool all the time.

For creating a layer mask, simply click the little icon (marked in the picture above with a red circle) in the bottom of the layer palette. You can draw, paint or use gradients or patterns in the mask. Pay attention to what is selected - your original layer or the mask layer! The thumbnail with the white frame around is the one selected.

Locking transparent pixels

We have a transparent layer with content in it (here: a grey color shape, but it could also be outlines).

Now we want to color that content (and for this example, we're going to paint on the same layer, we're not creating additional layers for the colors). So, we want to add more colors to the grey, but we do not want to draw outside the shape/outlines (into the transparent area).

You don't have to carefully draw in that area or use the magic wand tool - there is a much easier way: click the little symbol above your layers (marked with red circle) - all transparent pixels in this layer will be locked (also shown by the little lock symbol at the right side of your layer).

Now you can simply paint on your layer, and only the content will be affected (the transparent areas are protected). This also works nicely for recoloring outlines (as long as they are on a transparent background - this won't work on white backgrounds / scans).

Coloring / Shading using Clipping Masks

There is another nice way for coloring/shading a character (with layers), by using "Clipping Masks". I actually prefer this method to the regular Masks described above.

Draw your outlines on a (transparent) layer (O) and create a new empty/transparent layer below (C). This will be our layer for the basic color. Draw the character color shape on that transparent layer (like in the "Lock Transparent Pixels" section above).

Different from the "Lock Transparent Pixels" section above, we don't want to paint on the same layer, but create a new one for adding colors. Create a new layer between the outlines (O) and color (C) layer. Let's call this layer (W) as we're adding the color white now. Hold the Alt key pressed and hover between the (W) and (C) layer - you will see the cursor transforms to a two circle symbol. If you click there now, the layer (W) will be connected to the layer below (C) (little arrow pointing down) - you created a Clipping Mask. If you draw on layer (W), it's only affecting the content from layer (C), not the transparent areas around.

You can create as many Clipping Mask layers as you want, and add colors, shadings, highlights. You can also set blend modes to the single Clipping Mask layers (e.g. multiply for the shading).

If you are changing the shape of your basic color (layer C), you will see that all Clipping Mask layers above are automatically "affected" too. That's a very nice way, as you do not have to change every single layer (like you would have to if you're using masks on each layer).

Adjustments / Adjustment layers

Photoshop comes with a lot of commands to adjust and edit your pictures or photos: like adjusting levels, curves, color balance, contrast, brightness, hue/saturation, shadows, and many more. Of course you can adjust single layers (or the whole picture) directly: just select a layer and go to

Image > Adjustments

in the upper Photoshop menu. Select a command and a new popup window will open where you can do the settings. If the checkbox "preview" is selected, you will immediately see how it affects your picture.

Adjustment layers:

However, sometimes you don't want to alter the layers and keep the original image. Or you want to play around first and change / remove adjustments later. For that, you can set the adjustments as "adjustment layers".

For an example, see the screenshot below:
Go to the top layer that should be affected, in this case I picked the "Details" layer (all layers below will be affected, same as with the blend modes) and click the little black/white circle symbol at the bottom of your layer palette. For this example I selected "Hue/Saturation" and shifted the hue to blue. A new adjustment layer appears above the Details layer, and my picture is now looking blue - except the layers above the adjustment layer (signature, outlines, eye color). By double clicking the adjustment layer, I can change it again. You can add several adjustment layers.

As you see in the layer thumbnails, my original layers are still unaltered and so not lost. For even more possibilities, you can also add masks to adjustment layers or change the opacity.

Layer styles

Layer styles give you the possibility to easily add photo and text effects to your Photoshop file, like shadows or glow effects, bevel and emoss, strokes, color or gradient overlays. Just double click on a layer to get to this window. The screenshot below shows you the different blending options. If you select one, additional parameters can be set on the right side. Again, the instant preview checkbox is very useful.

For pictures, I usually only use the shadow and glow option sometimes. The bevel and emboss option is mostly usable for creating buttons with a 3d surface. I am mainly using the layer styles for texts (e.g. on badges), like adding a frame around a text (stroke), changing the colors (color or gradient overlay) or adding a glow effect.

As you may have already guessed - also here, layer styles don't change your original file, but just blend with it. You can change or remove them again any time without affecting your original layers.

Dodge and Burn Tool / Multiply Blend Mode

Dodge and Burn Tool

For adding shadows and lighting to a character, there are multiple ways. One of them - however not the most recommended one (as it doesn't give you the best color results) - is using the "dodge tool" for lighting and the "burn tool" for shadings. The dodge tool lightens the colors, the burn tool darkens the tones. You can only work directly on your layer, that means the content is really modified, this can't be undone later.

It is much more recommended to use a seperate layer for the shading, using the multiply blend mode (I personally don't use the burn tool for the colors, but sometimes for adjusting my shadows on that separate blend mode layer, see the Multiply paragraph below). Be reasonable with your lighting - if you're using a lot of highlights (contrasts), your object will become "shiny". Unless this is intended (e.g. metal), you should be careful with this on natural objects.

An disadvantage of the dodge/burn tool is that if you're using colors on different layers (e.g. main color, light markings, dark markings), you have to adjust every single layer, and if you're not doing that properly, you may have "inconsistencies" between the different colors.

Multiply (blend mode)

Advantage 1) of the multiply mode - it affects all layers below (if you're using masks, you can very easily define which parts should be affected and which not). So even if you have your colors on different layers, you only need to do the shading once.
Advantage 2) your original content (colors) remains unaltered, that means you can easily adjust or even remove the shading again later.

The shading on a multiply layer doesn't need to be as sharp-edged / concolorous as on the example picture below (I just used a toony shading for this fox), you can of course also use gradients and (here it comes in handy) the dodge/burn tool on it. The color of the shading depends on your picture. If you have a warm color, I would use a warm brownish grey for example, if you have a cold color, I would go for grey or even pale blue.