Lunchtime Tips: Blend Modes

Short tutorial on blend modes in Photoshop and Gimp

Blend modes are a wonderful feature of Photoshop, and also appear in many other programs, including Gimp. Here’s a few I use regularly. I’ve taken the same styles o text and shown how they appear using the different blend modes. Further down, you can see the effect of using a selection of different gradients and setting them to the relevant blend mode. There’s a breakdown of each blend mode after the jump.


This is a great blend mode for making an image look integrated into the background texture. Using overlay gradually shifts the tone and colour of the background texture. In the case of the text, you can see that it takes more than one overlay layer stacked up to get text that’s dark enough – but once it gets there it a thick saturated brown that fits well with the colour scheme of the parchment. In contrast, even with one layer of overlay, the light letters are almost white. This is because the starting texture is very light.

Overlay tends to increase the saturation of the background texture – so when we have colour gradients set to overlay you can see the colours remain highly saturated.

50% grey set to overlay will produce no effect at all. It will be indistinguishable from a transparent area on the overlay layer.

Soft Light

Soft light is similar in many ways to overlay, but tends to be much less saturated. You can see this difference in the letters of SOFT, and also in the gradients. I tend to play with both of these on a map, to see what gives the nicer result.

Soft light and overlay layers are a good way to give the impression of watercolour washes on a map, as they allow so much of the background colour and texture to shine through.

Colour Burn

Colour burn is a very different beast. Firstly – like all ‘burn’ modes – it will only ever darken your image. White is effectively transparent when set to colour burn as you can see from the gradients at the bottom.

Colour burn darkens the background image, has a high saturation and gives vibrant colours. As with overlay and soft light, it takes the background colour as it’s starting point and transforms it. So even in the solid blue on the bottom gradient, you can still see the parchment texture, and you can see that the colour is greener than the actual blue – the effect of the background’s colour.

Colour burn gives great results if you want to grunge up a parchment background. Get some splatter brushes and some low to mid saturation colours (like the low saturation red on COLOUR) and go wild. You’ll have a bloodstained muddy parchment in no time.


Multiply is a different beast yet again. Where the previous three blend modes combine with the background texture, multiply masks it. Multiply takes the brightness of a colour and turns it into transparency. So light colours like yellow, white or light blue will be transparent, where darker colours are more opaque. For dark colours, none of the background will show through. Multiply is a great way of laying a black and white image over a parchment. Se the layer to multiply and voila – the white is gone, leaving only the black lines.

I hope that’s useful and gives you some ideas on how to use blend modes in your mapmaking and art work. They might look mysterious to start with, but play around with them and you’ll soon find they give wonderful and surprising results.

As always, you can find more tips on the tutorial page on my blog:

One thought on “Lunchtime Tips: Blend Modes”

  1. I have been strugle with color layer for a long time and i think i am doing something wrong.
    I think i dont understand how to color blend mode works. It seems i never get the desired color no matter whichever tone i pick.
    I try to follow your tuts on this but when i apply low opacity colors it somehow seems like there is still much missing…
    The trees look good enough so i thought maybe if i shade everything else down a bit it would be better.
    So i added another overlay layer put some low opacity black to see what i get
    and i think it is even worse then the previous. I am trying to get a bit closer outcome to what you have done in maps like Rhune or alike, no luck so far.

    If you find some time to give any advice i would appreciate it.

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