How to Use Textures in Your Designs the Right Way

Textures are a wonderful tool to use for all kinds of design. Not only can textures make something look more interesting, they also add a sense of material realism that people can connect to. There are very few materials in the “real world” that do not have some kind of texture to them.

A lot of us know how to find great textures and throw them into Photoshop and set the layer blending mode to overlay.

But sometimes, this doesn’t give the desired result. In this particular instance, the color in the texture is causing the color in the main composition to look a little off from what I had intended it to look like. The texture itself isn’t having as much of an effect as I’d like for it to on the edges of the composition, but I don’t want it to affect the middle as much either. Also, I’d like it to be a bit more grainy.

All of these things can be achieved right inside Photoshop. To fix the color issue, the first thing we need to do is desaturate the texture. (Shortcut: Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + U)

This removes all hue properties, and leaves only luminance (grayscale) properties.
Now, we want the image to have more of an effect on the edges of the main composition. What we want to do is increase the contrast of the texture in its original form, but also keep another less contrasted version. We will get to how to make the edges more affected after we bring the texture over onto our main composition.

First, we want to duplicate our layer (Shortcut to duplicate layer: Cmd/Ctrl + J) twice, and delete our background layer. We can name these two new layers “contrasted” and “flat”. Then we will apply Curves to our “contrasted” layer. Make sure this layer is on top, or else you will not see the effects of Curves. (Shortcut for Curves: Cmd/Ctrl+M)

The amount of contrast you use will depend on your project, but I usually like to keep quite a bit of mid-tones in textures I use. (See the curve created for an idea of how to increase contrast with Curves.)

We now have our original desaturated texture and our higher contrast texture. we can bring these layers over to our main composition. Select both layers by holding Shift or Cmd/Ctrl and clicking. Now drag from the layers palette of the texture composition into the main document composition.

One of the first things we want to do at this point is make both of our texture layers smart objects. This basically will allow us to scale them without doing irreversible damage to the resolution.
Next, we want to set both layers to overlay for the time being, and turn off the “flat” layer. We can immediately see the difference that adding contrast has made. But again, we are looking for the texture to be a bit more grainy, so we are going to scale down the “contrast” layer so that more detail can be seen. Transform the layer, and zoom out until you see the edges of the texture.

This could mean zooming out quite far, depending on how high resolution your texture is. Holding Opt/Alt + Shift, you can scale the texture layer towards the middle. You then can zoom in and take a look at how the texture is affecting the composition before you accept the transformation. Once you are satisfied with the look of the texture, press Enter to accept the transformation.

We will now add a layer mask in order to remove some of the texture from the center of the composition. Unlink the layer from the mask by clicking the chain between the mask and layer. (This will allow us to move the texture beneath the mask if we decide we want to scale it again, etc).

Take a basic brush with a fairly low hardness between 10-20%, and set the foreground color to black. Make sure that the mask is selected, and paint in the middle of the composition to remove parts of the texture. If you remove more than you intended, simply change the foreground color to white and paint over that portion again to restore it. This stage is very subjective, and can’t really be covered step-by-step; the main idea here is that you can use the mask to create changes, but that also you can undo those changes if you need to.
Once you get the contrast texture the way you like it, turn off the layer for now. Turn on the “flat” layer. If it doesn’t seem grainy enough, scale it in the same manner as the contrast layer was scaled. This will be the texture we apply to the inner portion of the composition, so that it doesn’t look too “cold” in comparison to the higher contrast edges.
Now duplicate the layer mask from the contrast layer by Opt/Alt-Clicking and dragging it. With the layer mask selected, invert it. (Shortcut: Cmd/Ctrl+I)
Now turn on all layers.
The “flat” texture towards the middle is a bit too strong for what we are going for; change the opacity of the layer from 100% to 30-50%. Do the same for the “contrast” layer if it is too strong. This is based on taste as well.

Adjust the masks and opacities until your desired affect is achieved. It is better in most cases to use textures in a subtle manner rather than as strong as possible. In this case, I ended up bringing the opacity of both texture layers down even further, and adjusting the masks slightly. The final product again is a matter of taste; this article’s purpose is to show you the flexibility that photoshop offers with regard to textures; now, instead of simply dropping a grunge texture onto a file, you can refine your use of textures.

Other tips:

  • Only use textures if it makes sense to use them. If the interface doesn’t call for grunge elements, don’t use them.
  • Expand your texture library to include color-based textures, fabric and paper, liquid, wood, metal, grunge, lens blur, lights, and many of thousands of other textures by researching for free texture sites online. The texture used in today’s examples is part of Andrew Kramer’s Riot Gear, which you can find here. Other great places to get textures include Lost and Taken, Bittbox, and CG Textures.
  • Don’t be afraid to create your own textures! Sometimes, you can’t find the best one to suit your particular project. Pull out that digital camera, or borrow your buddy’s, or use a scanner.

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