The Strange Powers of Photoshop’s Sketch Filters, or How to Digitally Immerse Your Nemesis in Carbon

I’d imagine a Photoshop novice’s first experience with Photoshop’s Filter Gallery brings a certain mild delight. A few clicks, a limited number of options, and voila, a completely transformed image. But fairly quickly, you discover that the effects can be cliché, common, and clunkily applied. Plus, those limited number of options mean that every other person using the filter has access to the same exact variations.

But you can use filters effectively and expressively by deftly combining them and using blend modes to increase the variability, subtlety, and nuance of your effect. Today’s discussion of the Sketch filters in Photoshop’s Filter Gallery was inspired by Chapter 35 of Deke’s new course, the fourth installation of his Photoshop CS6 One-on-One series, the Mastery course. Here are some things to keep in mind about these filters that will enable you to use them with personality and panache, rather than predictability.

The Sketch filters live inside the Filter Gallery, and they’re special-case filters in that they recolor an image based on the current foreground and background colors. (OK, there are two exceptions, but this is Photoshop, so that’s not surprising.) So, with my foreground and background set to the default (black and white, respectively), and my image converted to a smart object (for nondestructive filter application), here are the effects of three Sketch-category filters applied to the same portrait:

Quick tip: You can change your image to a smart object quickly by right-clicking on it in the Layers panel and choosing Convert to Smart Object.

Of course, the beauty of using a smart filter (i.e. a filter effect applied to a smart object) is that you can revisit and edit the effect at any time. However, if you want to change the colors that your Sketch-category filter is using (which is part of the fun of these filters in the first place), you’ll have to create a new instance. Sketch filters applied as smart filters “remember” the colors you originally used.

So for instance, if I wanted to switch my foreground and background colors in any of these filters, I’d actually have to reapply the filter in question after resetting the colors. The effect, you’ll agree, is drastically different:

If I like these effects better, perhaps because I’m into zombies at the moment, then I just have to leave the visibility of the second instance on in the Layers panel and turn the first one off.

Although the Sketch filters (aside from Chrome and Waterpaper) work best with black and white, you can set your colors however you like before applying the filter and get different results. For instance, here is my portrait with a light orange and dark blue color combination set before applying the Halftone Pattern filter:

As I alluded to earlier, one of the best ways to customize (and thus add some personal character) the use of artistic filters is to play with the blend modes. So for instance, let’s say I returned my colors to their defaults and applied a Bas Relief filter with the settings shown here:

Quick Tip: Quickly return your colors to their default black and white by pressing the D key.

Kinda cool, but I really get the “Han Solo in Carbonite” effect if I subsequently set the blend mode of my image layer to Multiply, allowing a stone texture image to influence the effect from underneath. (Note I’ve turned off the other two “Filter Gallery” effects in the Layers panel.)

Quick tip: Both the photograph and the stone texture are from the Fotolia image library, about which you can learn more (and get a dekeBonus) at

Like any Photoshop feature, the more you know about how Sketch filters work, the more you can deftly set them to use in your own projects. Deke’s new course has an entire chapter dedicated to the Photoshop Filters, as well as a slew of other features that will help you master the Photoshop environment.

Bonus tip: If you’re not a member of, you can get a free week’s trial at to check it out.

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