When working with layer blending, you will probably be confused by the number of options there are and the differences that may exist between them ... On top of that, several of them can have very similar results !! Let's see a simple guide to select the one that best suits us and how to use them to simplify our work process.
General uses of layers
To make these selections as simple as possible, we can separate the list of blending modes into four groups: light and brightness, shadow, color changes, and tonal correction.
The simplest process to paint an illustration is to think about 1) Base Color, 2) Lights, and 3) Shadows. This is why it is useful to identify what types of layer blends we need for each stage. Please note that each layer can have a different opacity percentage! This is very important for balancing tones and controlling the subtlety of highlights and shadows.
In the following example I show you the list of layers and how the modes are distributed according to their function.
ATTENTION: to correct the color in any of these stages, remember to use the Tonal Correction Modes in the Edit menu that modify the color of the layer that is currently selected! they can help you test different shades by using copies of the same layer to see different results and choose. In the example below, I only changed the color of the blue light layer to turn it green.
How to choose blending mode. Lights, shadows and color changes.
Although my painting process is quite chaotic and I end up using several blending layers for each stage (base color, highlights, shadows), I still try to choose layers and colors following the basic 3-step painting structure. I also add layers according to the weather I want to convey; for which different types of light or color will be necessary.
However, there are certain blending modes that I use more than others:
-Layers with blending modes to illuminate:
At this point it is important to consider what color you are painting with, to achieve different tones with the blending modes. For example:
In this case, this layer is in "Hard Light" mode ... but what if we put it in another blending mode to make lights? I'm going to do the test with both the orange light example and the green light example.
In both cases, I marked with a red border the modes that I find most useful for lighting, since the others are too close to white or modify the color too much for my taste.
The difficult thing about this is that, despite having reduced from 14 to 8 favorite blending modes to illuminate, there are still many variables to take into account. Personally, I always end up using more than one of these modes in the same image, since I get different effects. If you look carefully, the final image of this drawing has two layers of light blending modes, and an extra layer of light blue in normal mode.
I also want to clarify that my way of painting most of the time consists more of painting lights and shadows in specific places, instead of tinting the entire image with a single tonality and then continuing to work with lights and shadows. However, that depends on how complex you want to add to the lighting. For example, if there is a very strong red light, the best way to transmit this quickly is to stain the entire drawing with a layer of reddish tones with the appropriate blending mode (Multiply, for example)
1) The layer in "Normal" mode of blue light helps to outline the figure and detach it from the background, at the same time that it complements the orange color that predominates in the character's fur.
2) The next layer, of a soft orange color, being in “Strong Light” blending mode, allows me to saturate the orange color of the fur in the areas that I consider most important. in this case, the face. By marking with this color the opposite areas to those marked by the previous light blue layer, the contrast of these colors highlights the volume.
3) The third layer of light is subtly painted with soft orange in the most direct light parts (forehead and chest), and with soft pink where the light would reflect (for example on the chin). By placing this layer in "Dodge (Bright)" mode, I further saturate the colors at the points where the light is strongest. So that this glow is not too harsh, I set this layer to 72% opacity.
Conclusion: A layer to give reflected light of opposite color; Another layer to give general soft light and begin to mark the volumes; Third layer of light to mark the most illuminated and saturated areas.
However, many artists choose to use only one blending mode for each stage; for example one of the most used is the "Overlay" mode. In the example below, the blue light layer is in overlay mode, and the other two light layers are bonded into a single layer also in “Overlay” mode. The image on the left is with the modes that I explained before so that you can compare both results:
As you will see, they are two very different results, more than anything in terms of color saturation. However, these results also look like this because the layers are painted in the same way and with the same colors, but with only a different blend mode. It is a matter of taste and experience which will be the most appropriate for your job. Especially for beginners, I recommend not over-committing to the same blending mode until you've tried enough to find out which one is your favorite.
-Layers with blending modes for shading:
Something similar to what we saw with the layers to illuminate happens here, with the difference that there are much fewer options and more difference in the effects that each blending mode has. To paint these shadows before applying blending mode, I recommend trying very light purple, pink, or beige. These colors are the ones that blend best with the other shades, but that match will depend on the shade of the base. For example, if the base color is yellow, a purple shade would achieve a very dirty color; a light brown works best in these cases. Let's see how the same shadow blends in differently depending on the color it has, using the “Multiply” blending mode:
As for the different most common blending modes for shading, we can see the following 5 options:
Again I marked with red those that I consider most useful. The "Darken" mode is too dim to be considered a proper shadow; the "Subtract" mode is too dark, also breaking the color harmony. Even so, the most frequent and the one that the vast majority of artists use almost exclusively, is the "Multiply" mode, since it is the one that best combines the color that has been painted to shade with the base tone of the image. However, in the case of this illustration that I am using as an example, I leaned towards the "Color Burn" mode as it resulted in a more vibrant hue. For you to compare, on the left I show you the version with the "Burn" mode, and on the right the "Multiply" mode, on the same layer and with the same tone.
However, as the shadow was too dark and cold for my taste, I added one more layer, in a way that reacts very differently depending on what is underneath: "Overlay". In this case, the layer is painted in a very light brown color and it helps to slightly modify the color of the shadow towards a brighter tone.
But I still have something more to say about Multiply mode… It can also be used for lighting! first painting the entire surface with the tone that you want to use to shade, then you can extract the light by painting with a tone close to white in the areas that you want to illuminate.
-Layers with blending modes that modify colors:
At this point I must clarify that these modes are the ones I use the least, and that I only resort to them when I cannot find the correct color for what I am doing. These blending modes help me widen the range of color selection a bit, but they are difficult to predict if you don't have a lot of experience using them. So that you can see the results that are achieved with this, I am going to modify the blending mode of the blue light layer that from the beginning was in normal mode.
These blending modes work in relation to the lower layers, so it varies a lot depending on the color of each layer and what color they are on. So always remember to try different colors to achieve different effects, at least while practicing (I insist that you use the Tonal Correction modes in the Edit menu!).
In this case, I think that the “Hard Mix” and “Divide” modes are the most useful, as they modify the color in an extreme way that can give very interesting results to try. The "Lighter Color" and "Darker Color" modes simply make the tone to be ahead or behind the color underneath depending on whether it is lighter or darker than the tone painted on that layer, so little change is seen in the examples.
-Working with the exception to the rule
Sometimes nothing we saw earlier applies specifically, or we don't know which of those ways will help the most. I recommend trying the blending modes again to find ways to paint that might not even occur to you otherwise.
I'm going to share with you an example of another drawing in which I wanted to vary the color of the lights and shadows on the character, but I didn't know what colors to apply or where. At this point of uncertainty, extreme blending modes helped me define those colors. The mode I chose at the end in this case was "Difference" (I showed an example of this in the modes to create lights and highlights that I explained above)
Having painted the shadows with light blue, the mode that I put in the light section called “Difference” helps a lot to create a vivid color shadow that varies between blue and purple when combined with the orange-brown of the lower layer.
-Layers with blending modes that use the tonal correction modes:
These modes are a bit more difficult to see and need a bit more development to understand how they work. I start by showing you a detail where you can better appreciate the difference with the normal mode:
The "Hue" mode applies the color to the lower layer; preserving brightness and saturation of the lower layer.
The "Saturation" mode applies the saturation of the hue that has been painted to the color of the lower layer, maintaining the brightness.
The "Color" mode applies the color and brightness that have been painted, preserving the saturation of the lower layer.
The “Brightness” mode applies the brightness of the color that has been painted, but preserves the color and saturation of the lower layer.
In this case, I have to say that I only use one of them: the "Tone" mode is especially useful for me to check if the light structure is clear enough in your image (that is, if it reads well even when it does not have colors that make the difference between one area and the other). To do the latter, what you have to do is create a layer on top of all the other layers, paint it completely black, and set it to the “Hue” blending mode. In this way, the image can be easily converted to grayscale without losing or modifying any layer, since the light structure of the image can be easily seen.
On the other hand, the "Color" mode can also be used to do the opposite way to the one I just described. Many artists start their work entirely in grayscale and then apply a new layer on top in "Color" mode. So you can paint directly on that layer and it will be colored while maintaining the brightness and saturation of the lower layer. For example, I could convert a drawing originally painted with black Chinese ink to colors:
This is ideal for combining manual and digital techniques because it preserves even the texture of the paper!
Generating different environments
Since we've seen all of the blending modes, it's time to see how and when to use them. I'm going to show you different modifications that I made based on the same drawing to see how I modified its environment and adapted it to different situations.
Please note that:
- In the starting image, the only thing that changes is the background; the character is always the same, with the same colors.
-In all these examples I used a layer completely covered with color or gradients to homogeneously modify the tone of figure and background. These layers are usually above the main figure, in multiply mode.
-In almost all of these cases, the light and shadow layers are painted with colors extracted from the background modified in their saturation or luminosity. Consider that the tones of the environment are reflected and influence the colors of all the elements of the image, so it is usually good not to incorporate colors that are not present. In the last example in this tutorial, you can see that I added a very artificial green backlight, which is not visible in the base color image because the figure covers it.
Always remember that the environment reflects the light with the color of the object, that is why it is important to define what environment we are trying to paint to know what color the lights and reflections are. Even the sky casts shadows and lights of blue tones!
And now it's a matter of testing! I have some recommendations for beginners:
-Don't worry if you wear "too many" layers, the important thing is the result and the path will get shorter as you practice.
-Many artists have controlled blending modes so well that they use the same 3 or 4 modes for all their work, regardless of the results they seek. And that's great! But don't push yourself if you don't like the modes other artists use or if they don't reach you… the important thing is to find your own way of painting and using the tools.
-It helps a lot to always have references! Especially to learn to identify the color of light or shadow in a certain light climate.
Thanks for reading this far! I hope it was useful and that you are encouraged to play with blending modes <3
Let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions or criticisms that will help me make the tutorials better!
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I also want to thank my friend Malvina who always helps me correct the tutorials! You can see his work on Instagram @malvilustra