How to give your artwork that grungy, weathered look

Chris McVeigh, TechHive
23 February, 2012
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Clean, crisp artwork may sometimes be the artist’s goal, but the pursuit of perfection can also lead to artwork that looks clinical and perhaps even a bit corporate. Clients these days seem to favor a worn, even grungy look in which the art looks a bit roughed up, with subtle scratches, mottled patterns or even paper fold lines. One way to produce is effect is by a process, known as distressing, which can add a surprising degree of character to your artwork.

Distressing can be done either with a textured image or by textured brushes and I’ll show you how to do both using Adobe Photoshop CS5. (Note that the process is nearly identical with Photoshop CS4.)

Step 1: Prepare your file

Place your artwork layer within its own group.

Open an illustration or photo in Photoshop CS5. In order to prevent saving accidents and preserve your original file, choose File > Save As and then save a new copy of the file somewhere convenient (such as the Desktop). Choose Window > Layers to open the Layers panel, if it’s not already.

Now you’ll need to tidy up the file a bit:

Merge all visible layers in a multilayer illustration by choosing Layers > Merge Visible. Once that’s done, delete any remaining hidden layers, leaving you with a single layer containing your artwork.

Photos and flattened artwork will need to be changed to a layer. If the only layer you see is called Background (in italics), control-click the layer, choose Layer From Background, enter an appropriate name for the layer and then click OK.

The next task is to add a new background layer, which will be what you see through the distressing effect we will add. You can do this either with solid colour layer, gradient layer or an image, but to keep things simple, we’ll stick with a solid colour. Select Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color, name the layer Background Color and click OK. If you’re distressing a photo, an ideal colour for the scratches and folds might be ivory or white; if you’re distressing an illustration that has no set background, choose an appropriate background colour. Don’t worry if the colour isn’t exactly right – you can always change it later.

Once you’ve chosen a colour, you’ll notice that it completely obscures your artwork. To correct this, return to Layers (Windows > Layers) and drag your new solid colour layer below your artwork layer. As a final step, click your artwork layer to select it and then choose Layer > New > New Group From Layers. Name the group “Distressing” and click OK.

Step 2: Either apply a textured image

Getting your hands on a great texture shouldn’t be much of a challenge. You can either grab a high-resolution texture from one of hundreds of free texture websites, such as or you can capture your own with a digital camera or scanner. A crumpled paper texture is a cinch – just grab a plain piece of paper, smash it into a ball, unfold it and then scan it.

Keep in mind that the pixel dimensions of the texture should be roughly the same (or greater than) your illustration or photo, otherwise the distressing may end up looking pixelated.

Follow these steps to add the texture to your artwork:

  1. Open the texture in Photoshop.

    After adding your texture, your squeaky clean artwork should look gritty and weathered.

  2. Select > All and then Edit > Copy.
  3. Switch back to your original file.
  4. Press Q to edit in Quick Mask Mode
  5. Choose Edit > Paste. Your texture will appear as a pink overlay.
  6. Choose Edit > Transform >Scale and then enlarge or reduce the texture to fit your canvas. Press return to lock in the transformation.
  7. With the image still selected, press Q to leave Quick Mask Mode.
  8. Make sure your artwork layer is currently selected (within the group “Distressing).
  9. Choose Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color and name the layer Texture. Choose any colour you like and click OK.
  10. Click the Texture layer to select it (if it is not already selected) and then choose Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options.
  11. Under Advanced Blending, set the Fill Opacity to zero and then, from the Knockout pop-up menu, choose Shallow.
  12. Click OK to continue.
  13. If you don’t like the original colour you chose for the Fill Layer, you can change it now. Just double-click the colour to get the colour library and set it to whichever colour you want.

Knockout is an option that allows the content of a layer to punch through the layers underneath it. Choosing Shallow means that the knockout only affects the layers within the current group. So, in this case, the texture is punching through artwork layer within the group, revealing the solid colour you placed below it. (Selecting Deep, by comparison, allows the knockout to show through all layers and groups.)

Before & After

Step 2 (alternate): Or paint a texture

Using a textured image is a quick and easy way to apply distressing. However, if you want the distressing tailored specifically to your artwork (for example, having it denser at the edges and more faint in the middle), you’ll need to create it yourself with the paint brush. This can be done easily with custom grunge and scratch brushes, most of which are free to download. Once downloaded, simply click the brush icon on the side of the Layers panel to add the brushes to Photoshop.

Add Shape Dynamics to your brush preset so that each stroke looks different. The more irregular your brush, the more authentic the distressing.

Googling “grunge brushes” will lead you to a lot of interesting brushes. However, some sites that host these brush packs are laden with advertising. Exercise caution as you click through these sites. Here’s a few helpful resources to get you started: Design M.AG G,Soul Travel MultimediaDawghouse Design Studio and QBrushes.

Now, if you’re starting from scratch, just repeat the procedure described in Step 1 above. Then, follow these steps to create distressing with your new brushes:

  1. Make sure your artwork layer is currently selected (within the group “Distressing”).
  2. Choose Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color and name the layer Painted Texture. Choose any colour you like and click OK.
  3. Click the Texture layer to select it (if it is not already selected) and then choose Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options.
  4. Under Advanced Blending, set the Fill Opacity to zero and then, from the Knockout pop-up menu, choose Shallow (your image will be obscured). Click OK to continue.
  5. Click the new layer’s mask thumbnail (which is currently white) and choose Image > Adjustments > Invert. The layer mask thumbnail will turn to black and your artwork should appear again. Make sure you keep the layer mask thumbnail selected, because it’s the mask that you want to paint on.
  6. Hit D on your keyboard to change to the default foreground and background colours. White should be the foreground colour, so hit X to switch foreground and background colours, if necessary.
  7. Click the Paint Brush tool and the choose Window > Brush Presets to call up available brushes and then choose one you think will work best. You’ll want to vary brush presets as you paint, so choose Window > Brush.
  8. Click Shape Dynamics and enter the following: Size Jitter: 50 percent, Angle Jitter: 100 percent, Roundness Jitter: 50 percent, Minimum Roundness: 25 percent and check the options for both Flip X Jitter and Flip Y Jitter. Now click Scattering and drag the scatter control to about 200 percent. (You can fine tune these later on.)
  9. Drag your brush across the canvas. Each stroke you make will cut through your artwork and reveal a bit of the solid colour below it. If you find you’re taking away too much, back up (undo) and try single clicks of the brush on your canvas.

You’ll likely find that the distressing goes on quite thick and that’s okay. One of my favourite techniques is to apply heavy distressing and then regress it later by inverting the brush. Hit X on your keyboard to make the foreground colour black and then paint a few strokes on your canvas. You’ll see some (but not all) of the distressing dissipate, giving your artwork a light, gritty look.

Step 3: Refine the texture layer

After you’ve added your texture layer, you might decide that the distressing is too dense or two dark. Here are a few tricks you can use to tweak the texture to make it work for you:

Textures can be subtle and very low contrast. Adjust Levels to bring out additional detail in the texture.

Adjust the colour of the distressing. Double-click the layer thumbnail (the small coloured square) of the layer you called Background Color and then change the colour.

Add contrast to the texture. Click the texture’s layer mask thumbnail to select the texture itself. (It’s the rectangle to the immediate left of the layer name; once selected, framing marks will appear around it.) Now choose Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast or Image > Adjustments > Levels and use the sliders to bring out contrast in the texture.

Invert the texture. Click the texture’s layer mask thumbnail to select the texture itself and then choose Image > Adjustments > Invert. Reduce the opacity of the texture layer by choosing Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options. Under General Blending, adjust the opacity slider. (Note that this can also be done via the Layers panel.)

Use the Eraser to selectively lighten or erase problematic parts of the texture. Add multiple distress layers with different textures for a unique effect.



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