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Tutorial: Using Photoshop to paint a wood grain surface...

For this tutorial, I'm going to use the background wood panel from my picture called Keywine. The original can be seen here. I won't take it as far as the original, but far enough to give a good idea of how I worked it. The image right below is what we're going to end up with.

Before we get started, I'd like to note one thing - at no time do I use a brush for this tutorial. The fundamental tool used is the lasso tool. I mention that as a point of interest only. I certainly have nothing against the brush tools - they are great! - but don't assume all digital painting has to be done with a brush tool. There are other tools that are equally important.

Here is the picture with a totally blank background.

First, lay in a solid under color for the wood. Pick a neutral wood color. Put it on it's own layer.

Once the color is in place, switch to QUICK MASK MODE and use the LASSO TOOL to create some large general horizontal areas to fill. Set the QUICK MASK MODE so the the selected areas show color. By default, QUICK MASK uses a bright red color. I prefer a bright CYAN, so that is what you will see in this tutorial.

Now we'll refine the general areas a bit. While still in QUICK MASK MODE, use the LASSO TOOL to select and erase smaller areas within those earlier broad strokes. You can also add smaller areas of 100% color in horizontal strokes. Essentially refine the horizontal wood grain structure. The temptation here is to use a brush, but stick to the lasso tool.

When you have a good base wood grain structure, exit QUICK MASK MODE and use the LEVELS ADJUSTMENT to slightly lighten the resultant selected area on the neutral wood color.

Now, while the selected areas are still selected, press ^J (control "J") to copy those areas up to a new layer. Then press ^T (control "T") to set the entire new layer in TRANSFORM MODE. (see 6a) Now use the anchor points to stretch it in various ways. (see 6b) This sort of stretching can be done in many ways. I've chosen to move three of the corner anchor points. Why stretch it? Because when the existing shapes on the new layer are distorted into new positions, they will add to the complexity of the grain, but still in a natural relationship with the existing shapes on the original layer. It's a great texturing technique that can be used in a number of situations... but we're not done with this new layer yet...

With the same layer active set it's opacity to about 75% and then use the LEVELS ADJUSTMENT TOOL to darken the distorted shapes to what seems appropriate - not too dark, keep it subtle. Now the horizontal grain is starting to take shape. Collapse the new layer onto the layer below so that all of the horizontal wood grain is on one layer.

Next, enter the QUICK MASK MODE again and draw some large horizontal shapes with the LASSO TOOL. Sort of make them taper a bit toward the left. Then give them a nice feather and fill them with a 100% fill. Now exit QUICK MASK.

After exiting QUICK MASK, the filled areas will be selected. (see 8b) Use the LEVELS ADJUSTMENT TOOL to slightly brighten the selected areas. Then, making sure the LASSO TOOL is active, place the TOOL over one of the selected areas, hold the shift key down and move the selection antline up a bit. (NOTE: All of the selected areas will move. Holding the shift key down while moving the selected antline up keeps it from shifting right or left.) Now use the LEVELS ADJUSTMENT TOOL to slightly darken the selected areas. The wood is starting to look pretty woody. The grain is developing nicely as can be seen in fig. 9.

Now it's time to start working on the vertical grain in the wood. Most wood has a slight vertical grain. Enter QUICK MASK MODE and, with the LASSO TOOL, create a bunch of vertical shapes by swinging your pen up and down while moving to the left and then back again to the right. Fill the area with a 100% fill.

Over the top and bottom tips of this complex shape use the LASSO TOOL to outline an area. Once you have the area selected on both the top and bottom tips, give it a huge feathering and then hit the delete key so that the top and bottom tips are reduced and a gradation is created that starts with a 100% fill along the center of the complex shape and gradually dims toward the top and bottom tips. (see 11b)

Now exit the QUICK MASK MODE and use the resulting selected area to slightly brighten the wood grain layer. (see 12a) Once you have done that, follow the same steps that you used in step 6 above -- press ^J (control "J") to copy the selected area to a new layer, press ^T (control "T") to set the new layer in transform mode and then use the anchor points to distort the shapes. However, this time distort the shapes in more of a horizontal way, elongating the complex shape. Experiment a bit with it. Then set the layer opacity down to about 75% and use the LEVELS ADJUSTMENT TOOL to darken the new distorted shape. Keep these adjustments pretty subtle. The vertical grain in wood is not generally very pronounced. Finally collapse the layer down onto the developing wood grain layer.

Continue using the same technique to add vertical grain to the rest of the wood panel.

Once you have completed laying in the vertical grain, it's time to add the final finishing touches. Spend some time lightening and darkening areas by using the LASSO TOOL to select areas, feather the area and use the LEVELS ADJUSTMENT TOOL on the area, You might also use the COLOR BALANCE TOOL to slightly shift color here and there, Also, add more horizontal and/or vertical wood grain... you will see the wood panel realism begin to develop. It is at this final step, when all the structure is in place, that the various digital tools can really be used very effectively. I prefer not to use filters, but there is no reason not to experiment with them as well.