Thursday, August 5, 2021

My favorite Photoshop tips and shortcuts

Hi everyone! Robin here. I love working digitally. It’s like having a super power. Duplicate! Transform! Undo! I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop for a while, and I am totally delighted when I learn a new tip or shortcut that changes the way I work, saves me time and frustration, and makes me a better illustrator.

Here are some of my all-time favorite Photoshop tips and shortcuts, and some great tips from my fellow illustrators. (Feel free to add your favorites in the comments.)

A spread from A GIRL LIKE ME, by Angela Johnson, illustrations by Nina Crews, 2020, Millbrook Press, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group. Nina originally had about 35 layers in this file. You can learn more about her process here.

When you need to organize and find your layers....

Author-illustrator Nina Crews says, “Working in layers is one of my favorite features of Photoshop. With layers, I can add, move, adjust or take away elements quickly and easily. This allows me to take chances and push things around more than I might otherwise.” I wholeheartedly agree! Layers are magical, but things can get messy and confusing very quickly. Here are some tips to get a handle on those millions of layers in your file.

1. Name your layers: “A Photoshop file with a lot of layers can become pretty unwieldy, so it is important to label and organize as you go along,” says Nina. “If you double click on the layer name you can edit it.”

2. Group your layers: Nina also suggests grouping your layers to better organize the elements in your image. For example, you might want to put each of your characters in a separate group. Select the layers you want to group — hold down the command key to select multiple layers — then click on the folder icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.

3. “Collapse all groups”: You can find this in the flyout menu of the Layers panel. (It’s the menu you see when you click on the hamburger icon in the top right corner.) This is a quick way to close all of your groups of layers at once. 

4. Right-click on the image to find your layer: This is my FAVORITE SHORTCUT OF ALL TIME. Make sure the Move tool is selected then right-click on your image. You will get a drop-down menu with all the layers that are under your cursor and you can select the layer you need. Game changer.

Here’s a video of the right-click layers trick. The image is from TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE, by Gabi Snyder, illustrated by me.

This file has about 160 layers! Here I am right-clicking on the image while the Move tool is selected in order to access the various layers under my cursor. (Image from TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE, by Gabi Snyder, Illustrated by Robin Rosenthal, Abrams.)

When you want to organize your colors....

Creative Cloud Color Libraries: This was another game changer for me. HUGE. I learned about Color Libraries from illustrator Teresa Bonaddio a few years ago when I asked Kidlit Twitter for help with organizing my color swatches in Photoshop. Thanks, Teresa! (Note: I think you need Creative Cloud to use this feature.)

Color Libraries provide a very clear way to organize your colors. You can create swatches, name them, and group them in folders by project, character, or however you like. You can also change the order they appear in your list, move them from one group to another, duplicate them, and edit them.

This tutorial on the Adobe site can help you get started:

For the BIG IDEAS FOR LITTLE PHILOSOPHERS series, I created a color library for the series, and then a group for the swatches in each book. You can display your library as swatches (left) or in a list (right) and name, edit, and move them.

When you want to change colors quickly and easily….

Color Overlay: I color almost all of my artwork using the Color Overlay. Color Overlay allows you to change the color of any layer instantly. I love this feature because I can fiddle around with colors up until the end of the project, iterate quickly, and easily change one item without affecting others. I prefer to right-click on a swatch in my Color Library and select Color Overlay to change my layer to that color, but you can also select your layer then select Color Overlay from the fx flyout menu at the bottom of your Layers panel.

(This works if you have elements of your illustration on separate layers, and I suspect maybe there are quite a few of us who do this. Also I think some illustrators maybe do this with masks somehow? Let me know in the comments.)

Here's a video that shows Color Overlay in action. (This is a little lizard I drew for Parents magazine.)

When you want a more flexible way to erase…

Mask instead of erase: Author-illustrators Jen Betton Rogers and Debbie Ohi both agree: use masks, don’t erase. When you use masks, you are not permanently erasing something, just hiding it. Debbie says, “I use masks instead of erasing. The non-destructive edit makes it possible for me to change my mind later.” Okay this is really cool and it never occurred to me. You can read more about how to do this here:

When you want to iterate quickly….

Symmetry mode: I love to use this feature when I am developing characters and making lots of small changes to get a character just right. You can find the Symmetry mode by clicking on the butterfly icon in the Options bar along the top of the screen, and you can use it with the Paint Brush, Pencil, and Eraser tools. It's really fun to play with!

A still of the Symmetry mode in action. Here I am using it to iterate character designs for Plato.

Here’s a video of me developing Plato for LOVE WITH PLATO using the Symmetry tool.

When you need some straight lines…

Use a ruler on top of your tablet! A clear one works best. I came across this great tip while watching a video Gina Perry made about her illustration process. Thank you, Gina! Here's the video:

When your artwork is big and your scanner is little...

Photomerge: Writer-illustrator Shawna Galey Avanessian says, “I have a pretty good scanner but it’s not a very big scanner. With Photomerge I can paint large illustrations and still get a full scan.” 

Here's how to use it:

When your scanned or resized art feels a little soft…

Unsharp Mask: I first learned about Unsharp Mask from this Cargo post about thumbnails (scroll down to the bottom), but I’ve found this filter really useful for scanned art and resized art to just give it a little more crispness. You can find it in the Filter Menu > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask.

I usually do: Amount: 25%-50%, Radius: 1-2 pixels, Threshold: 0 levels. The Cargo post recommends some different values now so I’m gonna try those, too (Amount: 65%, Radius: 0.5 pixels, Threshold: 0 levels). They have some other good info about Unsharp Mask in that post as well. 

The following post is about editing photos but it explains Unsharp Mask in depth:

When you want to see all your Photoshop files easily (with bigger thumbnails)…

Adobe Bridge: This is a separate application, but it is free to download and I love using it to find and organize my files for a picture book project. I use Bridge instead of going to a folder on my hard drive to browse and open my files when I need them. You can control the size of the thumbnails so it’s easy to tell what is what. Here are some posts about Bridge:

Here’s my Adobe Bridge window. I can see all the files for IMAGINATION WITH RENÉ DESCARTES very easily and open them directly from Bridge by double-clicking. There’s a slider on the bottom right if I want to change the size of my thumbnails.

And finally, some favorite keyboard shortcuts:

1. Command-J = Duplicate layer. (Via Nina Crews. Thanks, Nina! You can also right-click on a layer in the Layers panel and you will get a flyout menu with lots of options, including Duplicate Layer and Delete Layer.)

2. Command-T = Transform tool

3. Command-Z = Undo 

4. Command-; = Show/Hide Guides

5. Command-S = Save

And you can find some more shortcuts here:

If you want to explore more shortcuts I suggest right-clicking on your file when you have different tools selected and see what comes up. Also check out the flyout menus across all the different panels. You may discover some cool stuff there that will save you time. 

Good luck! Let me know your favorite tips and tricks too!


Robin Rosenthal is an illustrator and art director. She has illustrated TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE and the BIG IDEAS FOR LITTLE PHILOSOPHERS series of board books. She grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. You can see more of her work at

Instagram: @robinrosenthal

Twitter: @robinarosenthal

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