Texture: How to Make Better Art with Jelly Beans

Digital art is often thought of as flat or mechanical, but textures can quickly create more interest and depth. Here, I will talk about how to make your own textures and various ways that you can use them in Photoshop. This is an important step towards creating more painterly work in the digital world. I’ve also included some free hi-res textures for you to download and use in your artwork.

Creating Textures

  • Digital Photos

    Probably the easiest way to create your own textures is to use a digital camera. A higher resolution one works best (5 megapixels or better works for me). Simply take pictures of anything you can find, whether it is the tile on your kitchen floor or a rock in your backyard. I especially like to take my camera with me on camping trips. I usually find that the best textures come from nature, and the woods are just full of them. When I get back home, I usually have sixty percent of my memory card filled with moss and tree bark and forty percent with family photos. I don’t really know what that says about me, but it makes for some great artwork.

    Some examples of photos I’ve taken from my trips into the woods:

  • Scanning Objects

    One of my favorite instances where I used a texture in a painting was when I dumped a whole bunch of jelly beans on my scanner and used the scan to create a scaly skin on a dragon. So go ahead and find whatever random junk you have lying around, scan it, and see what happens. But remember, if you’re scanning rocks or anything else that is sharp or rough, put a piece of acetate on your scanner first so you don’t damage the glass. Scan it in grayscale mode (unless you plan on using the color somehow) at a high resolution of 300 ppi or more.

    The dragon image with a close-up of the texture.

  • Painting

    Get a scrap piece of your favorite watercolor paper, canvas, or illustration board and go all “Jackson Pollock” on it. Create whatever kind of mess you can think of, then go ahead and scan it. Remember to wait for it to dry, and if it is extra messy, you can always use the acetate trick I mentioned earlier. And if you are going to scan it in grayscale, you can stick to the black and white paint without using up all your other colors. It can be very fun to make these, but I have also found that the more subtle ones work the best when it comes down to using them in my actual paintings.

    Some examples of textures I’ve painted. All of them were done using white gesso on some scrap black mat board.

  • Create Directly in Photoshop

    Using a few choice brushes that come with the program itself, you can create your own textures pretty quickly and easily. Open a new blank document at a high resolution. An 8″x10″ document at 300 ppi should work pretty well. Pick a brush and paint away. A good brush to start with is the “Grass” brush, which creates a furry looking texture. Sometimes it is better to fill the canvas with black first, then paint on top with white. Try to make the pattern consistent and don’t overdo it.

    Painting with the “Grass” brush, and the “rice paper” effect you can create with it.

Using Texture

Now that you have created all these wonderful textures, how do you use them? First, in order to use your texture on a brush or in your layer effects, you have to add it to your pattern library. To do so, open your photo or scan in Photoshop and select the entire canvas (Select–>All). Then go to Edit–>Define Pattern. Go ahead and name it and push okay. Your texture will now be available to you wherever your patterns show up. You are now good to go!

  • Apply to a Brush

    If you open the Brush Palette (Window–>Brushes), there is an option on the left for “Texture”. Click on the checkbox, then click directly on the word “Texture” to open up its options. Here, you can use the drop down box to change the pattern to the texture you created. You will also want to change the “Mode” depending on how you want the texture to affect your brush. I find that either “Color Burn” or “Multiply” usually works best, but you can play around with them to see what works for you.

    The Brush Palette Settings

  • Bevel/Emboss

    Choose a layer, then go to the Layer Effects button on the bottom of the Layers Palette (Window–>Layers). Choose “Bevel/Emboss” and when the Layer Style window opens, change the Direction to “Down” and move the Depth, Size, and Soften sliders all the way down. Then click on the word “Texture” on the left side of the window under “Bevel/Emboss”. Change your pattern to whatever texture you like. This will create a dimensional texture on your layer with your white values being your “peaks” and your black values being your “valleys”. I often use this to create a kind of base to start my painting on. And if you use a brush that has the same texture applied to it, it’s as if you are painting on a textured board or canvas.

    Click on the Layer Effects button and choose “Bevel/Emboss”.

    Layer Style and Bevel/Emboss texture settings

    The result:

  • On a Separate Layer

    This is usually where all my pictures from my camping trips come into play. Simply place your texture onto a new layer in your painting, then play around with the different layer effects. Usually “Overlay” or “Multiply” works well for me, but many of the others are great too, so this phase is often filled with a lot of experimentation. This is a quick way to create more interest in the background or to create patterns on certain things such as cloth or buildings. If you use a layer mask on your texture layer, you can make if affect only certain parts of your painting. Some of my images have many different textures all over the place being used in different ways.

    This cover image for “The Greatest Mariachi in the World” was created using multiple textures on different layers.


Here are some free example textures for you to try out. They were all created by me and have been used in some of my previous paintings. Try them out for yourself and let me know how it goes!

Right-click and “Save As” on the thumbnail to download to your computer.

That’s all I have to say about texture for now. So go on and grab that camera and take a camping trip! If you have any other tips, comments, or questions about using textures in your digital paintings, please leave a comment.