Illustration tutorial: 50 reader-submitted tips for Photoshop and Illustrator

Over the past two months, we've been asking for your top Photoshop and Illustrator tips for a competition held in conjunction with Wacom to win an Intuos4 Wireless tablet and a Meet the Masters DVD set. Here are the best 50, and our overall winner.

The top tip comes from George Profenza, who is currently working on an MA at University College London. His excellent advice shows how to swiftly create a 3D animation in Illustrator for output as a Flash SWF. And he's even created a short video to show you visually how to do it. Here's the tip:

When making basic 3D animations in Illustrator, the main trick is converting a blend to a layer sequence which can be exported to an animated SWF. The steps would be:

  1. Draw a Rectangle (M)
  2. Extrude it (Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel). You can choose a preset position (like Isometric Top) from the Position drop down, and check Preview to get feel for what's going on.
  3. Copy (Cmd + C) and Paste in Front (Cmd + F)
  4. Modify the rotation by editing 3D Extrude & Bevel in the Appearance Panel.
  5. Select both 3D Rectangles, then go to Object > Blend > Blend Options. Select Specified steps as the Spacing type. The number you input, will be the number of animation frames.
  6. With the 3D Rectangles still selected, go to Object > Blend > Make Blend. You will now see the duplicates.
  7. In the Layers Palette's context menu (the tiny arrow with three lines), select the Release to Layers (Sequence) option. The Blend is now split into separate layers.
  8. You can now Export to Flash. Go to File > Export and choose Flash (SWF) as the file format. In the SWF Options panel, choose AI Layers to SWF Frames and you're done.

We'd like to thank everyone who entered. The quality was so high that we've featured our top 50 on this page. A special mention goes out to Cristobal Infante for creating a mini Photoshop video tutorial and uploading it to YouTube so we could embed it below.

Photoshop tips

Cristobal Infante

To reverse the direction of the Liquify Tool, select Filter > Liquify , select the Twirl clockwise tool from the left panel. As soon you press on the image with the Twirl tool it will start twirling clockwise. To make this effect go the other, you just need to press Alt.
Al Aldridge

I find that the most handy thing whilst creating art is to flip the canvas around so you can see it from a new perspective. When the canvas is flipped our brain is instantly able to spot mistakes in our work. For example, you could be drawing buildings thinking that it is all going well, but when you flip the canvas you may notice that they are not standing up straight.Flipping the canvas really helps with perspective. Flip the canvas around from time to time, and work back into the piece whilst its flipped. You'll notice a huge difference in work.


Andrew Barry

To get a picture sharp, change the colour mode to LAB, select the second channel (Cmd/Ctrl + 3). Use an unsharp mask and you get the best result.
Gary van den Berg

My Photoshop tip is the use of the Pen tool to create paths, then add a stroke path with a soft brush. Check 'Simulate Pen Pressure' to create a smooth brush streak.
These are ideal for lighting strokes and effects. Also experiment with layer modes such as soft light or overlay to create a more realistic lighting effect.

To separate your drawing from its background in Photoshop: open your scan/photo of your drawing and Select All. Copy, start Quickmask Mode, Paste and exit Quickmask Mode. Select Inverse, create a new layer, make your foreground colour black (or whatever colour you want your linework to be). Now Fill Selection (Alt+Delete).
This can be easily made into an action. This is a great way to have full control of your linework. You can now add effects to your linework (colour overlay, gradient overlay, outer glow). I prefer to work this way instead of setting my linework layer to multiply.
Drew Botts

GuideGuide is an amazing plugin for creating grids, which saves a lot of time. It can save much work that you would otherwise need to do with your Marque tool (with fixed size) and rulers themselves. If I want 4 columns with a 5px gap between them, it sets the rulers for you. (even within a section) so you can select a part where you want it will be set and it will do it for you all in just 3 clicks.
Bas Brouwer

Photoshop’s History panel is a lifesaver sometimes. However it is often even more convenient to create multiple instances of the same file to be compared later.
The Snapshot button in the History panel lets you make a temporary copy (or snapshot) of any state of the file. The new snapshot is added to the list of snapshots at the top of the History panel. Selecting a snapshot lets you work from that version of the image.
Owain Catton

My top tip when working with Adobe Photoshop is to use the shortcut Ctrl + L to adjust the levels of an image. Then, while holding down the ‘Alt’ key, adjust the black and white arrows below the Input Levels histogram – carefully sliding them until just a few pixels appear on the now-blacked-out image. By doing so, your image will then be more accurately adjusted to the correct exposure levels, after which other effects and colour corrections can be made.
Robin Clark

My top tip for working with Photoshop, Illustrator and Painter is a simple one, but sometimes the simple ones are the best. Using the Wacom everyday to draw medical illustrations you can get carried away with speed, but my tip is to always take the time to name and organise every layer properly as you go.
Efficiency isn't just creating the piece in the first place it is being able to go back in when the client has asked for an amend and quickly locate that layer or layers that you need to change. Not taking the time to name and manage your layers in groups properly is false economy.
This is even more important when working collaboratively. For example the attached screen shot shows some of the layers supplied to our animator to create an interactive doctors guide. Not only have all the layers got to be named with the correct anatomy, but also show which of the elements are to be highlighted and even which layers should not be used.

Joanna Culley

When using the airbrush, pencils or eraser a lot, it's handy to use Ctrl + Alt + drag to size up (or down) the size of your pencil/airbrush/eraser. You can interact with the object you want to brush/erase in an instant. It will be made visible immediately when you start dragging.
Miss Deedy

Try creating a new gradient map by going to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map…, and once you hit OK try and experiment with a few gradient combinations at a low opacity. Blending options apply to these gradient maps just like any other new adjustment layers, coupled with a low opacity if the result overpowers your work too much. You may discover some surprising results with custom gradients, but also experiment with the default gradients to understand the mechanics of the tool. Once you understand the basics, you can create multiple maps, include masks to refine the distribution of colours on your canvas, and add that finishing touch to your projects.
Husam Elfaki

For dark or busy backgrounds, sometimes it's good to have multiple instances of drop shadows, glows, etc, to make the foreground objects 'pop'. This is especially useful for text.
John Foster

My number one tip is to keep your computer screen clean. There is nothing more fustrating than wasting time trying to airbrush/erase a spot of dirt off your work when its actually on your computer screen.

My top tip for Photoshop is to always play around with Levels. They can clean up, tone down, or completely transform an image really easily and quickly.
Amber Grayson

Like many Photoshop fans, I use a dual monitor setup. On my main screen I have Photoshop running, zoomed in to my picture to edit the minute detail. On my secondary monitor, I use the navigator full screen showing the whole image. The red box on the navigator shows where I am working on the main screen. Using the space bar, I can move around the image at full zoom, whilst always being able to see the whole image on the second screen.
Diane Halliwell

Use the scroll wheel or ball to rapidly change brush size when using clone, dodge, burn, paintbrush, healing brush, eraser, brush or pencil tools.
If you slightly move the mouse around as you do this, the brush tip size will live update - this allowing you to size it up for the job in hand.
Steven Hughes

My top tip is to make an Action of everything. When creating repeat patterns, having Actions is a total timesaver. Flip Vertical and Flip Horizontal actions allow me to create mirrored pattern tiles in seconds.
Moon Hussain

A great way to use non-destructive Dodge andBburn is to use a layer with 50% gray with the Blending mode set to "Soft Light"  and then paint with Black to Burn or White to Dodge, controlling the intensity with opacity values.
Nuno Jacinto

My tip is for when you have a black on white shape on a single layer and want to isolate only the black and remove the white. Hit Ctrl + A, Ctrl + C, Q, Ctrl + V, Q, then Del. That will leave you with only the black shape on a transparent background. It selects and copies the image, changes to mask mode, pastes the mask, changes again to normal mode and deletes the selection, removing all the white. Most of the times there will still be some grey on the edges of the shape. Just press Ctrl + L to open Levels and drag the bottom pointer all the way from the white to the black.
Ricardo Jorge

Draw everything on paper first using an Inkling as it's much more intuitive, then transfer to Illustrator or Photoshop. [Suck up, Ed]
Steve Kennedy

When masking an image start in your Channels window.  Take the channel with the best contrast of black to white. Duplicate that channel and rename as Mask.  Use your Levels Dialog box to tighten the values between black and white.

Now that we have our start here are some different tools to adjust or paint in black and white value.

Using the Lasso tool set to (soft edge) begin to trace your shapes, to save time on straight edges hold Option down, release mouse button/stylus and now you can drag out your straight lines.  Know that once you release Option as well as mouse button/ stylus from pallet it will auto close your selected area.  Now that we have our area selected all we need to do is set our black (opaque) or white (transparent) value.  Since we have already selected our area set your colours to default black and white.  Using Command/Ctrl + Delete or Alt + Delete, we can auto fill the area.  That will save you a ton of time painting in or switching to paint bucket.
For areas that are on the edge of a black area  where you may get some noise or grain select your brush tool.  Set the brush to soft light.  Now if you are to paint with black it will only effect the black areas of your Mask and painting with white will only effect the white areas.  Bringing your edges closer to the final two tones you want.  
Jon Krogh

Change brush sizes via the keyboard with the left and right bracket keys. Just as useful is ti change the 'hardness' of the brush by hitting the Shift key plus the left and right bracket keys."
Mark Lehr

When I am doing a complex tracing from a reference image in Illustrator, the first things i always do is to create a stroke outline of the whole image first as my base. Once you have added on the more complex detail, you can simply click the outline stroke, add a fill and you will have a base colour to use in an instant.
Emmerson Mahoney

My top/most used tip for illustrators who use Photoshop, cleaning up an inked pencil drawing in a flash:

  1. Ink a pencil drawing on white paper
  2. Scan It. The higher the resolution the better, I suggest 300dpi at least.
  3. Open your image in Photoshop
  4. Desaturate. Image > Adjustments > Desaturate (Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + u)
  5. Curves. Image > Adjustments > Curves (Cmd/Ctrl + m)
  6. Drag 2 points into a gentle s shape. For a rough guide Output = 61 Input = 64, it varies for every scan so experiment until you're left with just a sharp black line on a white background and your done.

Adam Martin

When I start an image using Photoshop or Painter,  I start by creating thumbnails. Once the thumbnail has been chosen either by me or by the client, I always try not to zoom in when initially composing the painting. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + 0 in Photoshop, and keep that distance from the image. Getting bogged down with detail at the beginning of a painting brings unwanted colours and a loss of a focal point
Anthony Marton

When you have selected paths on your work, select the Brush/Pencil tool and press Enter to quickly stroke the selected paths with the selected brush on the selected layer.
Pedro Miranda

When i have a scrolling list of layers in Photoshop, hold Shift and scroll with the mouse wheel to move faster between layers in the Layers palette.
Press Ctrl + [ or ] to select the layer below or the layer above your current one, without even using the mouse.
Press Alt + left mouse button to switch between different tools in the Tools palette.
Svetoslav Nikolov

Buy a mouse that has a programmable side button (such as the Logitech mx-518). Set this button the undo shortcut (Cmd/Ctrl + Z).
It speeds up my work significantly, as instead of pressing the key combination now I just slightly move my thumb.
Jure Rus

Always work on a new layer when using the clone tool. Make sure the clone tool is set to 'Use Current and Below'. That way you can always go back to the previous state.
Jan Six

Sharpening a 'soft' image in Photoshop is easy using the Unsharp Mask filter. However, the resulting image can often appear too contrasty and can suffer from both colour shift and unwanted haloing. In order to achieve a sharp image while still retaining the original's subtlety we have to turn to the often neglected High Pass filter.

  1. Duplicate the background layer of your image.
  2. Apply the Desaturate command to the duplicated layer (Image > Adjustments > Desaturate). This removes all colour information from the image while still retaining its full tonal range.
  3. Set the layer's blending mode to Hard Light.
  4. Now apply the High Pass filter (Filter > Other > High Pass) and, using the slider, increase the filter's strength from 0 until you just begin to see fringing appear. Hit OK.
  5. Return to the background layer and, using Curves or Levels, fine tune the underlying colour image.
  6. Once you are happy with the result, flatten the image and Save As.

Paul Taylor

Fed up of having just one level of undo with Cmd/Ctrl-Z? Press Ctrl-Alt-Z to step back as much as you want, meaning you never have to open that horrid History panel.
Ewan Warburton

To create flames in Photoshop:

  1. Select your image.
  2. Select the Burn tool and use these settings: Range - Midtones, Exposure 15%. Then burn the shadowed areas in the image, adjusting the brush size accordingly.
  3. Pick the Dodge tool and dodge the lighter, exposed areas. The more attention you pay to these areas, the better the finished picture.
  4. Pick the Pen tool and select paths
  5. Once the path around the selected picture is completed, select it and create a new layer, pasting the image onto the new layer, discard the original and open a background image.
  6. Load the image you are using for your effect, for instance I am using flames for this example, and drag it into the same window as your picture.
  7. Adjust the hue and saturation to the following: Hue: 0, Saturation: -20, Lightness - 0. This will match the colour of the background to the subject. Then warp the shape to the desired shape of the flame. Also, select the layer of the flames and make sure it is above the layer of the subject. Use the eraser to eradicate the areas surrounding the flames.
  8. Add a mask layer, select the brush and set a foreground colour. Then create a new layer between the main picture and the background, fill this with orange.
  9. Add a new layer and paint a glow in the area behind the subject. Use a Brush Size of 1350 and an Opacity of 25%.
  10. Then create another layer above the subject, fill it blue and set to the following settings: Mode - Soft Light, Opacity - 34%.
  11. Create another layer (if required) and use the following brush settings: Size - 99-200, Opacity - 53%. Paint where required, this will create a slight fog - but don't go too overboard.

Samantha Wesley

The main tip I'd like to share for this competition is one that I used for a project recently using Layer styles for quickly painting snowy trees.  I simply added an 'Inner Shadow' to a layer and adjusted the settings until the 'shadow' was pure white (blend mode: normal; Opacity: 100%), it had a crisp outline (Distance: 7; Choke: 43; Size: 1) and the angle of the light was somewhere between 80° to 100°.
Then when you draw with a dark brown brush, the 'snow' is automatically put on the tree branches.  The biggest advantage of this aside from saving huge amounts of time painting the snow on myself, was that it was so easily editable, all i needed to do was to use the eraser and brush tool to remove or add any branches in a matter of seconds!  And again, using layer styles, this can be made much more complex. A texture and a gradient could be added to the layer to automatically give the tree texture and shading – the possibilities are endless.
Emma Wilson

The hardness of a brush can be quickly changed on the fly, by adding it to the express wheel on your Wacom tablet. This is important as hard and soft edges in your illustration or concept art can really make the difference.
Being able to change this quickly means many brush types, and many ways to lay down digital paint without having to go through and select various brushes or brush types.
Ryan Woodhouse

Illustrator tips

How to add texture using opacity masks. Select an object, go to the Transparency panel, and in the drop down menu click on show Thumbnails, then make opacity mask.
Place your texture, white will show through and black will mask out, so bear this in mind when selecting or scanning an image.
I find that this technique can create some really stunning, immediate effects.
Elizabeth Owens

This is a quick tip which allows transparency blends for reflections etc. in Illustrator while maintaining vector quality. First I have created a vector image of an ice cream. I duplicated the image, flipped and in the transparency pane, created an opacity mask and, when the mask was selected, I drew a rectangle over the selected image and added a gradient.

David Janes

In Illustrator CS5, before I start drawing or tracing with the Pen tool, I tap A (the Direct Selection tool) then P (Pen tool). This allows me to manipulate anchors and handles while I'm drawing with the pen tool by using the command and option modifier keys.
This method saves mouse clicks and time while drawing, and I don't have to re-select my last anchor point to continue with the Pen tool; it stays selected while adjusting it.
I also changed the Shape Builder shortcut to Shift+Z, which allows me to create compound paths and shapes in very little time since my left hand doesn't leave that area of the keyboard, and my right hand doesn't have to leave the mouse (or pen if using my tablet) to make shortcut commands.
Shawn Stoddard

When using the Spiral tool, hold the Cmd or Ctrl key to adjust the tightness of the spiral.
When filling with a pattern, hold the tilde key (~) while dragging or rotating with the rotate tool, or scaling with the scale/free transform tools to only affect the pattern fill and not the object.
Vincent Tavera

Save and load your custom colour swatches by clicking on the drop-down menu in the Swatches toolbar (click ‘save swatch library as AI'). To load your swatch, click on the drop-down menu in the Swatches toolbar, then Open Swatch Library > User Defined > your saved swatch.
Karim Turay

General Tips

The first rule of being good is… practice. The first rule of being great is… practice. The first rule of being awesome is... yes… practice
Jorge Oliveira

Always be creative. Always find something different and add a magic touch, even to small things.
Ste Ste

Customize your keyboard shortcuts, spend some time on it, do it the way you like it and get to know them, save the preset so you can just load it next year when you upgrade your CS version or move from one computer to another. That's biggest time saver for me.
Martina Zaletel

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