Photoshop Patterns

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Build Up Your Texture Library

Tom Arah shows you how to master one of Adobe Photoshop's most powerful secret weapons - its pattern handling.

Last month I looked at the importance of building up a good texture library whether you're interested in producing graphic design, 3D models or 2D art. Whichever of those categories you fall under, there's one application that you're likely to use regularly - Adobe Photoshop (or to a lesser extent Photoshop Elements). So this month I'm going to show you how to take full advantage of Photoshop's pattern handling.

It's going to be a challenge because at first sight Photoshop doesn't seem to be that interested. In Paint Shop Pro 8, for example, using the Materials palette you can choose a texture for your brush or fills just as easily as your foreground or background colour. In Photoshop on the other hand you'll look in vain for a current pattern swatch on the toolbox, or a Patterns palette, or even the ability to view and choose your patterns in the Swatches palette as you can in Illustrator. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Photoshop doesn't actually offer any pattern handling capabilities.

But they are there. The first sign is the Edit menu's Define Pattern command. If you currently have a non-rectangular selection the command will be grayed out, but if there's no current selection or, more usefully, when you have made a rectangular selection with the Marquee tool, it becomes available. Click on it you're prompted to type in a name for the pattern and click OK. And that's it - you're back where you started as if nothing has happened. Obviously you've defined your pattern, but where's it gone?

To find out you have to open Photoshop's Preset Manager (under the Edit menu). Here you'll find that alongside its brushes, swatches, gradients, styles and so on, Photoshop also lets you see and control your patterns. And there it is! Below a default set of 12 very uninspiring pattern presets is a thumbnail of the pattern we created earlier. And, as it's still there if we close down and re-open the program, it's clear that as we define patterns they are added to the library of patterns that Photoshop automatically loads. And this at least partly explains why Photoshop doesn't exactly encourage their creation, as loading a library that can arbitrarily increase in size clearly has memory implications.

Photoshop lets you define patterns on-the-fly and manage them as preset libraries.

If we know what we're doing though this shouldn't put us off as the Preset Manager is specifically designed to let us break our textures down into separate more manageable PAT library files. To show the system in action Photoshop CS comes with a range of nine preset PAT libraries such as Rock Patterns and Nature Patterns (each containing around 10 textures and none very exciting) that can be appended to the current set or replace it. And, by selecting our newly defined patterns in the Preset Manager we can save them to their own PAT libraries so that we can then remove them from memory but still gain access to them when needed.

Handling multiple predefined textures in this way is possible but let's be honest - it's hardly child's play. In particular, with no way of quickly loading or converting existing JPEG textures into PAT libraries, most users will stick to defining the occasional pattern on-the-fly as they work. Actually that's not too surprising as, until the PAT library system was grafted on in version 6 that's exactly how Photoshop used to work, allowing the creation and use of just one user defined pattern at a time. It's the same basic system that ImageReady still employs.

Now we know how to create patterns and how to manage them, but how do we actually use them? Again it's by no means obvious, but the first method most users are likely to come across - and the only method that Photoshop offered right up until version 5 - is through the Edit menu's Fill command. This is primarily used to fill a selection with the current foreground or background colour but it also lets you choose any of the currently loaded patterns. Say we've got a photo let down by a dull sky, all we need to do is select it and then fill it with a more interesting sky texture that we've previously defined as a pattern.

Because they are automatically tiled, patterns can be used to fill any shape or size.

Crucially, if our texture is smaller than the selection, Photoshop automatically tiles it both horizontally and vertically to fill - so we can fill any arbitrary sized selection with a high-quality texture sized according to the resolution of the underlying image. The Fill dialog also lets us specify opacity and blend mode so that we don't have to completely replace the existing selection. With a Lighten blend mode for example, and a tiling cloud texture we can just add some interest to an existing bland sky. Even better with the Edit menu's Fade command we can change the blend mode and opacity retrospectively and preview the results in real time so that we can quickly hone in on the effect we are looking for.

Filling areas of the current image with patterns in this way is a big step forward but it's still a roundabout method. A more interactive equivalent which acts rather like a combination of the Magic Wand tool with the Fill command is the Paint Bucket tool (hidden away as a secondary option of the Gradient tool) which lets you apply any currently loaded pattern from the Properties bar. But the obvious question is why can't we just paint with our patterns with the Brush tool as you can in the budget Paint Shop Pro? Using the Fill command with a brick texture, for example, we could quickly turn a marquee selection into a photorealistic wall and then simply paint on an ivy texture to make it spring to life.

Digging down in the Brushes palette that was introduced in Photoshop 7, it looks like the option we need is there in the Textures panel. Here you can select any currently loaded pattern and also change its blend mode and depth (which roughly equates to opacity) and even its scale. However when you then paint on your image, you're in for a surprise as the brush doesn't actually lay down the pattern itself but rather uses its brightness levels to texturize the current foreground colour. Using our ivy pattern and a green colour we can produce an interesting artistic interpretation of ivy but it's certainly not photorealistic.

Producing texturized brush strokes like this, primarily to mimic the interaction of paint with canvas but also for more striking special one-off effects, is another important use for patterns but at the moment we're looking for the much simpler ability to directly paint with patterns. No problem you might think: simply set the Brush palette's Texture panel's blend mode setting to Normal - but this isn't actually offered as one of the available settings. The direct capability is there though; in fact since version 5 there's been a whole tool dedicated to it. Most users will never have come across it however as again it's hidden away in this case as a little-used variation on the Rubber Stamp cloning tool: the Pattern Stamp tool.

Patterns can be used to add texture to your paint or as the paint itself.

This seems bizarre until you realize that it's another hangover from the days when Photoshop could only handle one pattern at a time, and patterns were primarily used as a retouching option. You can still use them this way - by defining an existing area of your image as a pattern you can then use the Pattern Stamp tool to clone out unwanted objects - say litter on grass - much as you can with the Rubber Stamp tool but without having to repeatedly reset the origin. Retouching like this is another benefit of the use of patterns but these days there's nothing to stop you from using the Pattern Stamp much more creatively to paint using patterns from PAT libraries that you've created previously or that you define as needed.

It looks like we've found the power we were looking for. Using the Fill command and Pattern Stamp tool we can quickly knock up a sample image with a realistic brick wall, paint on realistic ivy and add realistic clouds to our existing sky (imagine the work involved in this without patterns). But there are still plenty of limitations. To begin with, it's still laborious creating and loading patterns. More to the point, once they've been defined, they can't be edited say to change their colour. Most obviously, and most infuriatingly, there's no way to change the scale of the pattern or its position. Perhaps the biggest problem of all comes from the big advantage of patterns: their automatic tiling. This is fine if your pattern is seamless but with patterns created on-the-fly this is rarely the case and the almost inevitable result is clearly visible and undesirable gridlines which renders them almost useless.

These are major problems but, thankfully, they can each be overcome. First we need some way to ensure that our tiles are seamless. It looks as if Photoshop's Pattern Maker filter (Alt+Ctrl+Shift+X) should fit the bill as it takes any rectangular image selection and automatically generates new randomized patterns based on it complete with a full screen image of how well the final tiled pattern works. It also lets you increase the smoothness setting to lower the contrast in the tile to make seams less noticeable. This means that you can choose to save the tile for which the seams are least visible, but the end results are still not truly seamless and the Pattern Maker can only be used for those textures, such as grass and pebbles, which are to some extent inherently random.

To really produce a seamless tile takes more hands-on effort. The solution is to first copy our rectangular selection to a new file and then to use Photoshop's Offset filter with the Wrap Around parameter activated to shift the image roughly 50% horizontally and vertically (this has to be set as pixels). By doing this, we move the seams from the edges of the tile into the centre so that now we can work on them with the Rubber Stamp tool (and Pattern Stamp if we want) until they disappear. And because the edges of our tile used to be its middle they now truly tile seamlessly. If this seems like a lot of effort (and it is) then help is at hand thanks to which offers its Seamless Workshop filter as freeware.

Seamless tiles can be produced manually.

Working like this we can manually produce a seamless texture from a selection of the current image as required. That's very useful but, as we saw last month, it's no replacement for a library of pre-prepared tiles collected from the Web and created using dedicated programs like Photo-SEAM and Texture Maker. Basically you can't have too many textures to choose from and these days it's easy to build up a library of hundreds and thousands of tiles ready to use for any occasion. The problem is that Photoshop doesn't let you directly select these existing image files preferring its own define-on-the-fly or PAT-based library systems.

Not to worry. With a little bit of lateral thinking we can turn this to our advantage. Using Photoshop's File Browser palette we can view thumbnails of our pre-prepared texture library, choose one from the hundreds of JPEGs that we've built up and quickly open it, define it as a pattern ready for use, and then close it down. Alternatively, we can take advantage of free third-party viewing programs. With the free Photoshop Album Starter Edition, for example, we can create a single quickly searchable catalogue of textures automatically tagged based on their directory and any other tags we care to set up such as major colour. Or with the free Texture Discovery utility from Tobias Reichart at we can instantly view how each pattern looks when tiled (though disappointingly there's no option to then open the file or copy it to the clipboard).

By successfully tackling the problems of seamless tiling and library management we can finally begin to make real creative use of patterns. But that just brings us smack up against the problem of the lack of pattern editability within Photoshop and, in particular, the fact that with the longstanding Fill command and more recent Paint Bucket and Pattern Stamp tools there is no control over the size of the pattern. Fill a rectangular selection with a brick texture, for example, and you might well find that the brick size is totally out of proportion - and there's nothing you can do about it apart from resizing the original texture file and defining a new version of the pattern.

There has to be a better way and yes there is, but again it's hidden away again so that most users won't know it exists. Since Photoshop 6 if, instead of choosing the Edit>Fill command you choose the Layer>New Fill Layer>Pattern command you can convert your selection to a new layer filled with the last selected pattern. You can then change the opacity and blend mode of this new "fill layer" using the options at the top of the Layer palette not just immediately after creation as you could with the Fade Fill command, but whenever you want. Even better, if you double-click on the palette's Fill Layer icon you can change the pattern to any currently available and, while the dialog is open, drag onscreen to change the pattern's positioning. Best of all, there's a Scale slider so that at last we can interactively change the pattern's size between 1% and 1000% (bearing in mind that if the pattern is enlarged beyond its original size it will soften and eventually pixelate).

Fill layers provide retrospective editability - including scale.

Working with Fill Layers in this way has other advantages. In particular because the fill is limited to the selection by a layer mask, if we edit the layer mask we can retrospectively fine-tune the size and shape of our patterned area (you can also tie the fill layer to a bitmap layer to produce the same effect). This means that if we first fill the layer mask with a solid black and then paint on it with white, then effectively we've created a layer on which we can paint a texture just as we can with the Pattern Stamp brush. The big difference is that we can retrospectively not only edit the painted area but its opacity, blend mode, origin and scale and change the pattern itself - eat your heart out Paint Shop Pro!

The power is impressive but selecting and painting on a layer mask like this is still pretty roundabout. Thankfully there is another way of achieving the same result - though again it's not exactly direct or transparent. If you create a new standard layer, you can then apply a Pattern Overlay using the Layer Style options hidden away at the bottom of the Layers palette and, by so doing, gain the same control over pattern, opacity, blend mode, scale and offset for your new easily paintable pattern layer. In fact this styled layer approach provides even more control as by changing blend mode or opacity we can blend the pattern with the layer content - we can even blend two patterns if we paint on the layer itself with the Pattern Stamp tool.

More usually, we might well want to mix our pattern with a flat colour, say to produce a redder brick wall or to change the colour of our ivy. We could do this by selecting the appropriate colour before we fill a selection or paint on the pattern-styled layer but we actually gain more control by specifying the colour as another layer effect, this time using the Colour Overlay option. This lets us produce exactly the mixture we want both retrospectively and interactively by changing the blend modes and opacities of both pattern and colour overlays in the different tabs of the Layer Style dialog.

Handling patterns as layer styles like this has two other major advantages. Firstly it means that customizable patterns can be applied not just to bitmap layers but to text and vector shape layers - particularly useful for producing eye-catching titles. Secondly it means that the settings for pattern or colourized patterns can be saved as a layer style to be applied to any layered content at any point in future. And as the bitmap for the pattern overlay is saved as part of the style it doesn't need to be one of the currently loaded patterns to work - Photoshop CS even comes with a dedicated styles library based on a range of abstract and realistic patterned overlays to show what can be done. Even better, as a preview thumbnail is automatically added to the Styles palette when a new style is created, we can just about use the Styles palette as a turbo-charged replacement for the simple Patterns palette that we expected to find in the first place!

Layer styles offer the most advanced pattern handling.

Phew. It's been a roundabout trip but we've certainly come a long way - as has Photoshop itself for that matter - and in the process found more-or-less everything we were looking for and a lot more besides. In particular we now know how to quickly load seamless pattern tiles and to use them as both fills and paint and to customize the results in terms of offset, scale and colour (though sadly still not not rotation or skew). And on the way we've even made a couple of useful detours to see how patterns can also be used for retouching and for producing eye-catching brush effects. No one could say that mastering Photoshop's pattern handling is a stroll in the park and most users don't even know that the path exists let alone take it - but it's definitely a journey that's well worth making.

Tom Arah

August 2004

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