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Exploring the Liquify Tool in Photoshop

Check out our Photoshop: Body Modifications course!

If you’ve ever seen an image where someone’s arms look a little too thin, breasts a little too large, or eyes the size of golf balls, you’ve probably experienced Photoshop's Liquify tool used poorly. You’ve likely seen its use in countless other images as well — but you won’t have noticed. Liquify can be used for the powers of good as well as evil, to make subtle and undetectable changes to images; it’s a key retouching skill.

I’ve used a photo of myself here, but use any portrait shot you have lying around.

Iain self-portrait

Step 1 - Prepare your image

The Liquify tool is an old-school feature in some ways: it’s destructive, and it only works on one layer at a time, in an RGB image. Use Image > Image Mode > RGB if needed. For safety, duplicate your layer by right-clicking and choosing Duplicate Layer.

Duplicate your image

Step 2 - Open Liquify

With your duplicate layer selected, choose Filter > Liquify, or press Command-Shift-X. You’ll see a selection of tools on the top left side of the window that appears, and a selection of many parameters on the right, the most important of which is Tool Options.

The Liquify toolset

Step 3 - Forward Warp

The default tool is the Forward Warp tool, the one that looks a little like the Smudge tool at the top of the panel. Essentially, dragging with this tool pushes part of the image around in a natural way. The default settings should be suitable for a quick smooshing around of the image — you could try making the ears more “Vulcan” by pulling them out a little. Push the ends of the eyebrows up for the full look.

The Vulcan Iain

You can also make any feature smaller or larger with gentle nudging. Use a larger brush and lower pressure with repeated strokes for a natural result.

This tool will let you enhance a smile, raise an eyebrow, and (of course) thin a body part. Use with caution.

The Smiler Iain

When important parameters like Brush Density and Brush Pressure are too strong, it’s like finger painting: a disaster. Keep those settings low, and vary brush size as needed. You can use [ and ] to change brush size quickly; hold Shift to change faster.

Tool Options

Step 4 - Paint to undo

Inevitably, you’ll take things a little too far. Luckily, there’s an easy fix. Hold Option as you paint with the Forward Warp tool, and reality paints itself back in gradually. You’re getting quick access to the Reconstruct Tool, and it’s ideal when you make eyes just a little too wide or a nose a little too small.

Step 5 - Bloat and Pinch

The fifth tool down is the Bloat tool, that makes things bigger. Yes, this can make breasts slightly larger. It’s also the way to give anyone “alien eyes”. Holding Option gives you the opposite: the Pinch Tool, which you can use to make anything smaller. Try really large brush sizes (many hundreds of pixels across) to disguise your work, and use small repeated applications as before.

Note: it’s still easiest to undo by using the Forward Warp tool with Option held down.

The Alien Iain

Step 6 - Twirling and more

There are a few more tools to let you Twirl, Push, Mirror and more. Give the twirl a go to enhance eyebrows, for example, and hold Option to twirl the other way. Still, the best tool remains the Forward Warp, and that’s where you should practice the most.

The Grump with Narrower Eyes

Step 7 - Before and after

There are a few more controls available here, which let you paint masks to protect parts of the image, and to give you finer control over the way in which the reconstruction occurs. However, the most fun is in simply pressing OK, then flicking between before and after by clicking the visbility eye on and off in the Layers panel.

The Layers panel after a few experiments

Step 8 - Save and Load Meshes

When you press OK, you apply all your changes and flatten them down. If you want the freedom to tweak later, Save the Mesh first. You can then Load it back on a copy of the original image, then continue to work on it. And what’s this Mesh business? Rather than just squishing pixels about, Liquify lays a mesh over the image. Your tools affect the mesh, and the mesh pushes the image around.

Liquify is a very neat trick — but use its power wisely. You don’t want to end up on Photoshop Disasters, do you?

Check out our Photoshop: Body Modifications course!

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.


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