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Digitally Painting More Effectively: Brush Blending Modes and Wacom ExpressKeys

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I’ve been wanting to share this neat trick I found while experimenting with my digital painting workflow. Digital painting and working in Photoshop tends to be a never ending experiment in efficiency. Over the years, I’ve made a couple of discoveries for techniques that really work for me. Setting up brush blending modes with ExpressKeys on the Wacom tablet is one of them. I’ll start with a little background on why I’ve found this technique so useful and then I’ll dive into how it works 🙂

Layer Management: How to Not Lose Your Mind

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Recently, a client asked me if I could revise an older illustration and update the image from web resolution to print resolution and make a few other changes. I dug through my archives, pulled up the old PSD file, opened it up and was horrified to see a godawful amount of layers. What a mess! Opening up an old PSD is akin to a time capsule. I was somewhat new to digital painting back then and I made new layers constantly without rhyme or reason.

Working in layers is one of Photoshop’s big strengths and every other digital imaging program has copied this system for good reason. However, working in too many layers results in disorganization. Every time I have to manage my layers and reorient myself to the file, I’m wasting time I could be spending painting.

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One thing I did all the time back then was create a layer with the intention of adjusting the layers below it with a certain effect using the Blending Mode. A common trick many people know is using the Blending Mode “Multiply” on a linework layer. The “Multiply” Blending Mode makes the linework layer darker and more translucent, allowing a color layer to be painted easily underneath. It works in a snap for colorizing a scanned drawing. There 26 other Blending Modes available, all which do different things.

Blending Modes are fantastic but when used on individual layers, they result in a lot of extra layers that are only used for one particular effect. For example, I might use the Blending Mode “Overlay” to give some trees a golden glow. That layer ends up getting named something nonsensical like “treeglow” and I quickly forget what I was doing with it. An hour later, I’m adjusting and editing the trees again and I have to figure out just what the heck “treeglow” is and what it is accomplishing. I figure out what it is doing and then I have to spend time merging layers and reorganizing – instead of painting.

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Here’s where Brush Blending Modes come in. The actual brush strokes of the Brush tool can be set to a Blending Mode as well. So, you can switch your brush stroke to “Multiply” and get the same effect while working in a “Normal” layer.

Why would you do this? What’s the point if the end result is the same? Well, with the second method, you are not creating a whole new layer just to get the “Multiply” effect. You are just toggling it on with the Brush tool until you decide to change back to “Normal”.

Once I discovered this function, I almost completely stopped using Blending Modes on layers and switched completely over to Brush Blending Modes. I now work in 2-10 layers, instead of 20-30 the way I used to and it is SO MUCH BETTER. The only reason I still use a layer Blending Mode is if I want the ability to turn it on and off. Maybe I am not sure about a glow around a magic object – should it be just “Normal” with 50% opacity, or “Overlay” with 50% opacity? In that case, I’ll use the old method, but I am doing with a specific reason in mind.

Those Darn Hidden Shortcuts: Setting Up Brush Blending Modes with Wacom Expresskeys

Once I discovered Brush Blending Modes, the very next thing I wanted to do was make a shortcut for toggling them on and off. I tend to use “Normal”, “Overlay”, “Darken”, “Multiply”, and “Behind” the most. Having to go up and click the dropdown in the Brush tool palette every time was cumbersome.

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For some reason, Adobe does not provide editable shortcuts for Brush Blending Modes. There’s no way to change them and they are pretty hard to find in the first place. After much Googling I discovered this Photoshop CS6 Help Guide and on page 89, there’s a list of all the hidden shortcuts for digital painting that “don’t appear in menu commands or tool tips”.

Brush Mode Blending Mode “Darken” is “Shift-Alt-K” on a PC. I like my most often used shortcuts to be really easy to use and “Shift-Alt-K” is a tricky three finger combination… and that can’t be altered whatsoever. Darn! But, here’s where the Wacom ExpressKeys come in.

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The left side of my Wacom Intuos tablet has this bank of eight buttons called  ExpressKeys  that can be customized to be just about any function. For a long time, I wasn’t really sure what to use these for. I use my keyboard for just about all my other most often used shortcuts and have really gotten used to it. But, ExpressKeys can be set up to initiate a keystroke combination as well, which totally works for something like “Shift-Alt-K” for Brush Mode Blending Mode “Darken”.

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Open the Wacom Desktop Center application and click on  ExpressKey SETTINGS.

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This pop up window will appear where you can click on the ExpressKey function. Opening that reveals a drop down window. From there, click on “Keystroke”.

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You can set up any keystroke combination and the ExpressKey will automatically trigger that combination when pressed. Entering a “Name” for this function is handy for remembering what that keystroke combination actually does. The  ExpressKeys can do loads of other stuff too, but I prefer to keep other functionality in my keyboard. That’s just me.

Try it out in Photoshop and see how it works for you! For me, the difference was remarkable. I quickly swipe the appropriate ExpressKey with my left hand while my right hand keeps painting. Labeling the little ExpressKey buttons with some masking tape and a pen is great for remembering which keys do what. Toggling ExpressKeys has become muscle memory for me at this point and I must have saved many, many hours by both being more efficient with my layers and painting more effectively.

It took a long time for me to puzzle this one out and I’m still learning! Photoshop is just like that; an endless labyrinth that seems complete until you look at it from a different angle and find yet another way to make the program work better. Now you too can harness the power of Brush Blending Modes and Wacom ExpressKeys!