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Creating Stylized Custom Shapes In Photoshop

If you don’t have Illustrator you can still achieve Live Trace effects in Photoshop. Here’s a quick technique for creating design elements that can be saved as Custom Shapes for later use.

The technique converts Selections to Work Paths and is pretty quick and easy to achieve.

Step 1

I’ve got a picture of some Technics decks here. It’s a large image, 1400x700px. The bigger the better as you’ll get more detail.

Technics Decks

Step 2

Duplicate the image onto a new layer and hide it. We’ll come back to this later.

duplicate image onto new layer

Step 3

Select the original layer and desaturate it. Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.

desaturate image

Step 4

Create two Adjustment layers above the layer from the Adjustments Panel. A Posterize and a Levels

posterize and levels adjustment layers

Step 5

Set the Posterize Levels to 2 so the image is only black and white. Then use the Levels to clean up the image. You’ll find that you lose a lot of edge detail but that’s OK as we’re going to add this back in next.

Losing detail is OK!

Step 6

Time to get our edges back: go to the duplicate image and desaturate it like before. Go to Filter > Filter Gallery > Glowing Edges. Play about till you get some good outlines.

getting a good outline

Something like this is good.

a good outline

Step 7

Now invert the image layer using Command-I (Ctrl-I on Windows). You see a lot of strange noise in the image so you’ll need to get rid of it. Create a Levels Adjustment Layer and Clip it to the layer below by Option (Alt)-clicking between the layers.

get rid of the strange noise

Step 8

Now crush the greys out of the image like so to clean up the layer.

crush the greys

Step 9

Set the duplicate layer to Multiply. You should now have something like this:

Set the duplicate layer to Multiply.

Step 10

The best thing about Adjustment layers is you can still make tweaks if you want to add some detail back in or take it out using the Levels adjustments.

adjustment layers in action

Step 11

Once you're happy with the result select the Channels panel and Command-click (Ctrl on Windows) on any of the Channel thumbnails to make a selection based on luminance.

selection based on luminance

Step 12

Now invert the Selection. Command-Shift-I (Ctrl-Shift-I on Windows).

invert selection

Step 13

With the selection active, go to the Paths Panel. In the Paths menu choose Make Work Path...

Make Work Path

Step 14

Set a Tolerance of 1px and hit OK.

1px tolerance

This will convert your selection to a set of Vector Paths. Nice!

vector paths

Step 15

Go straight to Edit > Define Custom Shape...

Define custom shape

And give your shape a name.

Name the shape

Step 16

Now if you choose the Custom Shape tool you should see your shape in the Shape menu. Go ahead and select it.

Choose the Custom Shape Tool

Step 17

Make a new Layer or Document and holding Shift draw out your shape.

holding Shift draw out your shape

Step 18

This will create your shape and color it based on the Foreground color.

coloring the shape

Step 19

You can go ahead and use whatever color you like at whatever size you like. As it uses vectors, the image will always keep its detail.

vectors keep their detail

You’ll find this technique works on practically anything, all you need is a clean image. It’s a very stylized effect but a nice one to know how to get in Photoshop if you don’t have Illustrator and in some cases (like being able to add the outlines back in) works better than Live Trace. Enjoy!

Explore Photohsop with our growing range of creative Photoshop tutorials.

Toby Pitman

Toby Pitman | Articles by this author

For the past 20 years Toby has worked as a professional guitarist, programmer and producer. Clients include Sir Paul McCartney, George Michael, Shirley Bassey, Yusuf Islam, Giles Martin as well as the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies. He has also worked extensively in TV, Advertising and Film. As well as composing himself he has also worked alongside many composers like David Arnold, Clint Mansell and Simon Franglen on many major film releases. An expert in synthesis and sound design Toby has also lectured for Apple on their Logic Pro music software which he has used since its days on the Atari. He has also worked as an educator for the International Guitar Foundation and the Brighton Institute of Modern Music teaching guitar. In his spare time (of which there is very little) he moonlights as a motion graphics artist specialising in Cinema 4D and After Effects.


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