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Digital Artwork: Photoshop 101

Adobe Photoshop is a raster graphics editor that was created in 1988 by brothers Thomas and John Knoll.  Photoshop is primarily used to edit raster (or bitmap) images, which are composed of many small dots, or pixels. The terms “low resolution” and “high resolution” are likely familiar to you, which refer to the amount of pixels, or dots, per inch (DPI) in a piece of artwork.

 Images displayed on the internet are shown at a low resolution (72 DPI), whereas printers require high resolution images (300 DPI or higher).  Over the years, Photoshop has become the most popular digital graphics editor and design tool in the decoration industry. Photoshop’s .PSD file format is so widely-used that even competitors’ software will now support it. 

This overview was created to help product decorators to prepare artwork to be printed.  Photoshop is a terrific program for printing full-color designs for sublimation, wide format, and direct-to-garment printers.  Photoshop is also a great tool for separating colors and printing film positives, which is an important step in the screen printing process.  It can support many plugins like RIP (Raster Image Processor) print drivers, which make full-color screen printing possible. RIP software breaks down a full-color image into separate CMYK film positives using halftone dots.   

Due to its tremendous capabilities, Photoshop can be a bit intimidating for new users.  However, you can simplify the program just by knowing how to use the most common tools or those essential to your editing needs.  While there are a vast amount of tools, there are just a few that are need-to-know for product decorators to prepare artwork for printing.  First, there are a few important things to understand in the Photoshop Menu Bar.


+New– In this box you can change the size of the canvas, the resolution, and the color mode.  If the artwork is to be screen printed, it should be designed at 300+ DPI and in CMYK color mode.  If the artwork is to be digitally printed, then it should also be designed at 300+ DPI, but in the RGB color mode. The RGB color mode can produce more colors than CMYK, but the CMYK mode is better for separating colors.  It is always a good idea to design artwork at a higher resolution than necessary for its intended purpose, as it is easier to downsize an image and maintain resolution than to enlarge. 

+Save As– It is crucial to save the artwork as whatever file type is necessary for its end use.  The color mode determines what file format is needed. For example, images displayed on the internet must be saved as a JPEG (CMYK or RGB) or PNG (RGB).  Artwork that is to be printed is typically saved as a PSD, JPEG, EPS, or PDF file. PSD files are the source files which become backup files (which contains all the separate layers) once you have saved your finished artwork in its final format. 


+Undo and Step Backward allows you to go back one or multiple steps in case of error or displeasure with changes made to the artwork.

+Cut, Copy, and Paste allows you to copy or remove and copy a selected aspect of the artwork and place it elsewhere in the same file or even a different file.

+Transform Path allows you to scale warp, rotate, or flip the selected layer(s) or image aspect(s).

+Scale allows you to change the size and proportionality of the layer(s)

+Rotate allows you to rotate the layer(s) or selected image aspect(s) up to 359 degrees

+Warp allows you to change the size and shape of the layer(s) or selected image aspect(s).

+Flip allows you to mirror the layer(s) or selected image aspect(s) across the X or Y axis.


+Mode allows you to change the color mode between RGB and CMYK. Changing modes will affect which file formats are available for saving the artwork.

+Adjustments is where you can make changes to the colors in the design. There are many tools here, including: brightness / contrast, levels, curves, exposure, vibrance, hue/saturation, color balance, black & white, photo filter, and channel mixer. To learn more about how these tools are used for editing artwork (photos in particular) see our “Editing Digital Artwork for Print with Adobe Photoshop” article. 

+Image Size allows you to increase or decrease the size of the artwork itself.  For bitmap images, an increase in the image size may make an image blurry.  This is because, instead of just enlarging the current image, you are just increasing the size of the pixels that the image is composed of.

+Canvas Size allows you to increase or decrease the size of the canvas which the artwork is on.  If the canvas is made smaller than the artwork itself, then the artwork will be cropped based on the size and shape of the resulting canvas.


+Color Range uses the Eyedropper Tool to capture all aspects of the artwork of a similar color, determined by the “fuzziness.”  The higher the “fuzziness,” the more shades of a color that will be captured by the tool.

View and Window both allow you to select what toolbars are shown while editing.

The Tools Toolbar is where you will find the majority of your tools that you will use in Photoshop.

-The Move Tool is used to move an entire layer at once, or multiple layers if they are selected.  The Move Tool also allows you to align layers automatically through the alignment buttons located within the toolbar.

-The Marquee Tool is used to select a rectangle or other fixed shape of the artwork.  The selected area can then be moved or deleted from the canvas.   

-The Lasso Tool is like the Marquee Tool, however it is a freehand selection tool.  A selection can be made by right clicking on the mouse and holding it while drawing around the desired area, ultimately connecting the start and end points before releasing the mouse.  Like the marquee tool, the lasso tool is typically used to delete portions of artwork or fill colors / patterns.

-The Magic Wand is another selection tool.  It is used to select aspects of the artwork based on pixels of similar color value in the same region.  The user sets a tolerance level between 0 and 220, which determines the variety of pixels the Magic Wand will capture.  A higher tolerance will capture a wider color range. Like the Lasso and Marquee tool, the Magic Wand is typically used to delete or fill a certain aspect of the artwork.

-The Spot Healing Tool is great for editing photos that have “Red Eye” or removing blemishes from skin. 

-The Eyedropper Tool is used to select a color for use in another aspect of the artwork.  Tap on the desired color with the Eyedropper Tool and the color will appear on the set of overlapping boxes at the bottom of the toolbar.  These boxes can be selected when using a drawing or fill tool to utilize the desired color.

-The Eraser Tool erases content from the active layer. The size and pattern of the eraser itself are adjustable, as is the hardness.  It is also capable of erasing content from underlying layers by selecting the background eraser, an option available if you click the black arrow in the lower right-hand corner of the Eraser Tool button.

-The Paint Bucket Tool is used to fill solid or gradient colors within a fixed area.  The color used to fill is selected in the set of overlapping boxes at the bottom of the toolbar.

-The Text Tool, located near the bottom of the toolbar, allows you to add text to an image.  The font, size, and color settings are available in the top toolbar once the Text Tool has been selected.

The Layers Toolbar is where you can configure the layers that make up the design.

+Layers are the foundation of Photoshop, as they allow you to edit your original image countless times over without actually modifying the original.  This is accomplished by creating separate layers for each effect, which are placed over top of the original rather than replacing it.

+Think of a layer as a sheet of clear paper with an image or a single image aspect on it that is laid over an initial image.  That initial image is unchanged, but the viewer will only see the parts of the original image that are not covered by other layers.

+Multiple layers can be placed on top of one another, with the topmost layer taking precedence over those beneath it.  This can mean that images on the layers underneath may not show up in a print if they are covered by higher layers.

+Layers can be grouped or put into folders in order to keep them organized, and these groups can be mass-edited together.

+By right-clicking on a layer, you can 

        -Duplicate the selected layer(s).

        -Delete the selected layer(s).

        -Merge Layers the selected layer(s).

    -Turn the artwork into a Smart Object

=Artwork is not scalable until it is converted to a smart object

=Once it has been converted to a smart object, the artwork can be rasterized, which means to convert it from a vector (which uses lines and formulas to create an image) to a raster image.  This is important because some Photoshop effects cannot be performed on vector images

+The Eye Button to the left of each layer allows you to hide/unhide individual layers within a project.

+By double-clicking a layer, you open the Layer Style Box

=Drop Shadow- allows you to create a shadow effect. The size, opacity, and direction of the shadow may be controlled.

=Color Overlay- allows you to make an entire layer one solid color.

=Stroke/Choke- to stroke the artwork means to give it an outline, while to choke it is to create an inline. The size of either, as well as the opacity, may be controlled.

-The History Toolbar shows past actions and allows to you click on a specific action, taking you back to that point in the editing process and undoing actions performed after that point.  Those previous actions will still be accessible until a new action has been taken.

-The Channels Toolbar allows you to see the artwork as it would be printed in each individual CMYK or RGB color and as a whole.  This is extremely helpful for screen printers in separating colors. 

Shortcuts to Remember

Copy (Command+C on Mac and Control+C on PC)

Cut (Command+X on Mac and Control+X on PC)

Paste (Command+V on Mac and Control+V on PC)

Undo (Command+Z on Mac and Control+Z on PC)

Select All (Command+A on Mac and Control+A on PC)

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