After publishing my last article on the Process of Making an Icon, I got a few requests for more indepth knowledge on Blending Options, and a more explicit walkthrough of their direct usage.
Now, Blending Options are one of the first things Photoshop Novices stumble upon. The infancy of adding layer styles often leads to a short period of horrible drop shadows and cringeworthy bevels. Ironicly, this easily available styling is one of the harder things to master. Blending options is all about manipulating individual layers to obtain a certain effect. It's a key aspect of creating icons, and will help you create textures, shading and highlighting.
To give you a better idea of how Blending options can be used, i've chosen to take you through a recent project I did for Jeffrey Lynch Development, Ltd. Inspired by the ancient Yin & Yang symbol, Jeffrey Lynch requested a simplistic icon to be used as a company logo. The reason, this examble is so well suited to illustrate the power of blending options, is because of it's simplicity and most importantly the fact that it's only made up of 3 handdrawn vector layers!
The above picture shows the same 3 layers, that makes up the icon with and without layer styling. If anything, this shows how much can be obtained with simple blending options. Let's go through the steps, that gave this seemingly flat icon a life of its own.
Let's start with something I´m sure most people are familiar with; Gradients. A Gradient is, as you might know, a colourfill that blends through a selection of colours. Gradients are the salt and pepper of the average photoshop user. A Gradient can add life to even the most boring element, and with the right combination of colours it can help you control object lighting.
Gradients are fun and easy to apply, and I´m sure most people have fooled around with them, so i won't spend more time dwelling on this particular Blending Option.
Not everything should be shiny reflections and smooth surfaces, textures can add realism to an icon. Blending Options can help create a simple gritty texture, that will contrast the abundance of shiny surfaces in the web 2.0 world.
In this instance I've used Inner Glow with a high noise level and a centered source. Remember to set the blending mode correctly - if the noisy color is lighter than the background, it's gritting up, make sure that drop down is set to 'screen' - if it's the other way around, use 'multiply'. There's hundreds of ways to add different textures to your surfaces, This is an extremely simple texture - what appeals to me with this solution is that you avoid using filters, which will often render your layers rasterized, in which case you lose scalabillity.
Using Inner glow to create a gritty texture might seem odd. Trust me, this will be a reaccuring theme, when you work with Blending Options. Don't be fooled by the labels Adobe has given the individual options, find out what´s possible with said functionality, press it to the limit and learn, how the options can work together. Before you know it, you'll be doing highlights with 'Drop Shadow' and shadows with 'Satin'.
As with many other things, there are alot of ways to do shadows. Shading your objects correctly helps add depth and perspective while mimicking a source of light.
In this case. I've used 'Inner Shadow' with the 'Color Burn' blending mode at a middle opacity. Color Burn looks at the color information in each channel and darkens the base color to reflect the blend color by increasing the contrast. Play around with the Angle, Distance, Choke and Size until you got something interesting. The image above has also got a subtle 'Drop Shadow'. A common mistake is to overdo the Drop Shadow- turn it down guys, nothing casts that dark generic drop shadow.
At this point our icon is looking alittle dark. Now we could just go in and brighten up the gradients, but another neat trick is to add some 'Satin' with curvey Contours and a lovely low opacity Color Dodge blending mode.
It's a personal preference of mine to use Color Dodge for highlights - it adds some really interesting lighting if used the right way. Color Dodge looks at the color information in each channel and brightens the base color to reflect the blend color by decreasing the contrast.
Let's try and take that Color Dodging highlighting to a more detailed level.
Believe it or not, but Bevel & Emboss is actually useful beyond doing funky looking bubbly text. Here I've used Color Dodging angled with an Altitude of around 70 to create a sleek highlight slightly displaced from the edge of the layer to add a sense of thickness to the object. The thinner the higlighted line, the sharper the curve will seem.
As you might have realized by now, Blending Options is a pretty powerful tool. There are so many ways of obtaining various effects, that every good designer has their own little tricks. My advice is; forget the names and learn the limitations of the individual options. Play with the subtle symphony of the respective styles, flip the dials, turn the nobs and eventually you will end up with something useful.Author: Michael Flarup