Bonfire of the Letterforms

Type designers understand that text is fundamentally a collection of graphic shapes. And any graphic designer who builds on that idea by exploiting those shapes effectively—either in 2D or 3D—can create more powerful designs.  In this article, we’ll create a believable illusion of type on fire, first by transforming ordinary text into glowing, molten embers, and then by adding real flames.

type on fire

Here’s a summary of how to build this amazing effect:

  • Start by applying four layer effects to a smart object
  • This includes applying the Ripple filter two different ways
  • Add the rarely used Bas Relief filter to make the letters look crispy
  • Add a few photos of real flames
  • Use a combination of masking and blend modes to create the final result

By encasing the text in a Smart Object, you ensure that the type remains editable. In other words, you’ll actually be able to change the text at will without getting your fingers burned.

Today’s tip comes from Deke’s Techniques 008 and 009 from the Online Training Library. For a free video demo of the first few steps, see Deke’s Techniques 005: “Creating a Molten Letter Effect.” (Note that the numbering of these videos is different on this site from those at, because some videos are free and others are not. But this article is free to all members of dekeOnline.)

Creating Molten Type

We’ll begin with plain white type on a black background and make it look molten. The illustrations are based on a 1200 x 480 pixel document, and the text is 75pt Adobe Garamond Pro.

starting point

When we’re done, the insides will appear dark, toasted, and burnt. The outsides will be glowing embers. You’ll see ripples going through the letters, too, the kind of optical effect you see when you look at hot coals in a charcoal grill.

With slight modification, this technique is equally applicable to hot type, neon type, and any look where the outside of the letters are bright and the insides are dark.

  1. Click in the Layers panel to select the type layer
  2. Select Color Overlay from the menu under the fx icon. The layer style dialog will appear.
add color overlay
  1. Click the color swatch to open the color picker.
  2. Select H:30, S:100, B:100
  3. Click OK. The text is now orange.

The Layer Style dialog is still open, and we’re going to apply several more styles before closing it. Next, we’ll apply an inner glow.

  1. Click Inner Glow to activate the effect.
  2. Click the color swatch to open the color picker.
  3. Set the color values to H:50, S:100, B:100 and then click OK
  4. Set the Opacity to 100%
  5. Set the Blend mode Linear Dodge (Add) - the hottest of the brightening modes.
  6. Set the Size to 7px
apply inner glow

Next, we’ll apply an outer glow:

  1. Click Outer Glow to activate the effect
  2. Click the color swatch to open its color picker
  3. Set the HSB values to 15,100, and 100 respectively
  4. Set the Opacity to 100%
  5. Set the Size to 10 px
apply outer glow

Next, we’ll click the Satin effect to darken the centers of the letters with a dark scarlet color.

  1. Set the Blend mode to Multiply
  2. In the Quality section, set the Contour to Gaussian
  3. Click color swatch to open the picker.
  4. Set the color to HSB 15, 100, 50
  5. Click OK to close the color picker
  6. Set the Opacity to 100%
apply satin effect

You can drag inside the letters to customize the effect. The Angle, Distance, and Size values will track with your mouse movements.  Deke’s settings: 19 deg, Distance = 6px , Size = 13px.

The layer styles are now complete. Click OK to save and close the dialog.

after layer styles

At this point we have an effect that looks much like neon, but the letters don’t look distressed, and you cant see the rippling effect of heat. We’ll use the Ripple and Bas Relief filters to address this.

We want the text to remain editable, so at this point, we’ll convert the layer to a Smart Object. Right-click/Control-click in the label area (not on the thumbnail) and select Convert to Smart Object from the menu.

convert to smart object

After conversion, the effects settings and editable text will be inside the Smart Object. (You can double click the Smart Object to alter the text of change the settings.)

smart object after conversion

Now, we’ll apply the first Ripple filter.

  1. Select Filter > Distort > Ripple from the menu bar
  2. Set the Size to Large
  3. Set the Amount to 15%
  4. Click OK to apply the effect and dismiss the dialog.
ripple filter

We’ll apply the Ripple filter a second time with different setttings. Since we just used the filter, we can use a keyboard shortcut to recall the dialog.

  1. Use Ctrl/Commmand + F to open the dialog again
  2. Change Size to Medium and set the Amount to 50%
  3. Click OK
second ripple filter

To refine the application of the first Ripple effect, we’ll reduce its opacity.

  1. Double-click the setting icon on the top Ripple effect in the Smart Filter to bring up its Blending Options.
  2. Reduce the Opacity to 50% (Mode remains Normal)
ripple blending options

The last step in creating our ember letters is to apply the Bas Relief filter. The filter uses the current foreground and background colors to create its effect, so be sure to tap the D key to insure that they default to black and white before you apply the filter. Then, you can apply the filter:

  1. Select Filter > Sketch > Bas Relief from the menu bar
  2. Default settings for Detail (13) and Smoothness (3) are fine
  3. Change the Light setting to Top
bas relief settings

At this point, the letters will look like they’re made of steel.

  1. In the Layers panel, double-click the Blending Options icon for Bas Relief
  2. Change the Mode to Overlay
  3. Click OK to apply the effect and exit
bas relief blending options

And voilà - we have glowing ember text:

final ember text

The Filter Mask is just taking up space in the panel, so remove it: Right-click/Control-click on the filter mask to display a menu and choose Delete Filter Mask. Your layers panel will now look like this:

revised layer panel

Now, Flame On

Now, let’s light the type up, using real flames. We’re using photographs of real fire from the Fotolia image library (image # 14771929, © Transition), instead of synthetic fire. That’s because Deke experimented with a lot of the synthetic fire techniques that are out there, and none of them came across as very credible.

For the purpose of the video, Deke rearranged the flame photos in a row and created a flattened, rectangular image for easier workflow:


Dropping the flames on top of the letters and switching to Screen mode would make the darks disappear and blend the flames, but they would overwhelm the text. Instead, we want just the brightest details, and we can do that with a luminance-based selection.

The green channel is ideal for our purposes. It looks like a black and white version of the flames. The Blue channel wouldn’t select enough, and the Red channel is over the top.

channel comparison
  1. Go to the Channels panel and Ctrl-click/Command-click on the Green channel to load it as a selection.
load green channel
  1. Click the RGB channel to reactivate all the colors
reactivate rgb channels
  1. Switch to the Layers panel and activate the Background layer.
  2. Use Ctrl + Alt + J (Command + Option + J on Mac) to copy the selected bits of flame onto their own layer. Enter the name “Layer 1” and click OK to finish creating the layer.
create layer 1

Now, we’ll prep the flames for incorporation into the final composite: Change the blend mode of Layer 1 to Screen and poke the Background layer in the eye to turn it off.

screen mode
  1. With Layer 1 selected, Use the Lasso tool (Tap L) to loosely select all but the leftmost flame, being careful not to slice into any of the flames.
  2. Use Ctrl + Shift + J (Command + Shift + J) to cut the selected flames out of Layer 1 and place them on their own layer, leaving the one flame behind.
  3. Be sure the second flame layer is called “Layer 2”
after first cut

From here on, Photoshop will automatically name and number the remaining layers you create. Notice, too, that the new layer inherited the Screen blending mode from the previous layer.

Repeat the process of lassoing all but the leftmost flame on the top layer and cutting the rest to a new layer until each of the flames is on a layer of its own. Now, we’ll organize the flames a bit more before we incorporate them with our text.

group flames
  1. Select the flame layers (click the topmost layer then Shift-click on the label of the bottom-most).
  2. Use Ctrl/Command + G to put them inside a new group.
  3. Double-click the name of the group and change the name to “flames”.

Now, we’ll combine the flame layers with the glowing ember type that we created earlier. If your “embers” file is not open, go ahead and open it so that it appears in a tab along with the tab for your flames file.

Activate the Move tool. (Tap V)

With the flames group selected active in the layers panel, click in the image and drag up to the “embers” tab.

begin transfer

Wait for Photoshop to show the glowing embers image and then drag down into the image and release the mouse button drop the flames.

complete transfer
after drop

You can click the disclosure triangele on the right side of the firetype Smart Object to hide its filters and make the layer more compact.

We don’t want the flames to overwhelm the letters in our composition, so we’ll drop the flames group below the firetype object before we move on.

reposition flames group

Click the disclosure triangle on the left side of the flames group to show its layers.

Click Layer 1 to select it and use the Move tool to position the first flame as desired.

position first flame

By the way, if your flames file is bigger than your text embers file, you may not see the Layer 1 flame at first. However, if you zoom out before you start to drag, Photoshop will show a rectangle around the flame, even if it is hidden by the pasteboard.

Now, drag each of the remaining flames into place.

When you’re done, you’ll probably notice that the flames look like they’re sitting beneath the type, instead of the type being on fire. We’ll do a little masking to correct that.

flames beneath
  1. Click on the flames group to select it and then click on the layer mask icon to add a mask to the group.
  2. Click the thumbnail of the group mask to select it
  3. Activate the Gradient tool and set it to create a black to white gradient
  4. Draw a small gradient on the mask, starting from the bottom
gradient mask applied

You can tweak the flames a bit by hand- masking to remove bits that don’t work. With the mask selected, use a soft brush (set the Hardness to ), set the foreground color to black and then paint in the image to black out the mask and conceal parts of the flame that don’t work.

masked flames group

You can also smear parts of the mask with the Smudge tool to reveal a few tendrils of flame in some areas after you’ve masked them out. Smudge from the inside of the flame (the white part of the mask) to the areas where you’ve masked the flame away to reveal the tendrils.

To make the transitions where the flames fade away look more realistic, you need to add a little red around those edges. We’ll sample a little of the red above the E and tweak that color to create realistic redness.

  1. Select the top layer in the flames group
  2. Add a new layer (use Shift + Ctrl/Command + N)
  3. Call the layer “redness” and click OK.
add redness layer
  1. Tap B to activate the Brush tool
  2. Hold the Alt/Option key down to temporarily convert the Brush tool to the eyedropper
  3. Click in a redder part of the flame to sample it, and then release the Alt/Option key. The foreground color will now be set to the sampled color.
sample flame color

You can modify the color you sampled via the Color panel, or you can click on the foreground color swatch in the Tools panel to use the Color Picker. Deke ended up using HSB 13, 93, 41.

  • Paint in the redness layer to add flat color to some of the edges around the bottom.
  • Switch the blending mode for the redness layer to Multiply.
  • You can tweak the flames further by returning to the layer mask and painting with white to reveal more flames or black to hide more.

At this point, we have a pretty good effect, but it looks as if the backs of the letters are on fire. We want letters that are more engulfed in flame.

  1. Click the “firetype” Smart Object to activate it.
  2. Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel
  3. Draw a big gradient (black to white) by dragging from the top to very near the bottom of the letters.
add gradient layer mask

This will make the tops of the letters slightly translucent.

masked type

Now it looks like the flames are beginning to engulf the letters, and we’re pretty close to the result we want. A couple more tweaks will do the trick.

  1. Click the disclosure triangle on the Flames group to collapse it
  2. Click the flames group to select it
  3. Right-click/Control-click on the group to display a menu and choose Duplicate Group
  4. Name the new group “Hotter” and then click OK.
duplicate group hotter
  1. Move the new group above the firetype layer. This will temporarily overwhelm the letters.
  2. Change the blending mode of the “Hotter” group to Hard Light.
temper flames blend mode

The letters still look a bit overwhelmed, so we’ll punch them up a bit by blending a copy of the letters on top of the layer stack.

  1. Duplicate the firetype layer by clicking on it and then hitting Ctrl + Alt + J (Mac: Command + Option + J).
  2. Name the layer “support” and then click OK.
  3. Move the Support layer to the top of the layer stack
  4. Change its blending mode to Soft Light

And below, we have our final conflagration. You could call it superheated typography, and it looks so glorious, I just know some of you are thinking of a Bon Jovi song right about now…

final blaze

You can use the technique as is, or use parts of it in your own projects. For example:

  • Use the tabbed interface in Photoshop CS5 to duplicate groups of layers from one Photoshop file to another by dragging and dropping.
  • Select the brightest parts of a layer by loading a luminosity-based selection (Ctrl/Command-click on a channel).
  • Use a selection to copy parts of a layer or create a mask.
  • Make the contents of one layer more prominent by duplicating it and using a mode such as Soft Light to blend the copy into the composition
  • Use a gradient mask to make the contents of a layer fade gracefully.

Well, that’s it for this article. Have fun with type and happy compositing!

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 067: Filtering Images with Camera Raw

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 064: Creating the Perfect Command Key

  • Bonfire of the Letterforms

    Great!  I have been looking for this procedure as it is so exciting onscreen in a slideshow.  Thanks, Deke!

  • Not related to type, but prolly related to 3d

    Deke, if could you tell me please, how to do flying paint effect as such on this picture

    I think that’s probably not 2d Photoshop but some 3d modelling, but maybe you know how to do this exactly?

  • This is all 2D

    What about this image do you want to emulate?

    It’s mostly brushstrokes with a Bevel & Emboss effect.

    Is that what you’re looking for? (I ask, because most of the imaging space is empty.) If so, pretty easy. Mostly a matter of laying down the brushstrokes. This image is all 2D, btw.

  • Not quite clear yet :)

    Deke, thank you very much for the answer, but I didn’t get it yet :)

    Do you mean that those flying paint waves are brushstrokes or what?

    To make it clear i cut the effect i’m curious about:

    Is that what you meant?

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