Published 2020-06-05Carol E. Leever
The concept of blending modes really confused me when I first heard about them -- mostly because they're used so frequently and there is rarely any sort of an explanation as to what they actually are.
Basically they're 'modes' that blend colors in different ways.
I'm sure that was perfectly clear, right?
They actually aren't that complicated once you accept the fact that you're going to use them without understanding what they actually do. Just let go of the complicated parts and just use them.
Pretty much all the art programs I've used have some sort of blending mode option. Some have a bunch of blending modes, some have just a few. Some also have the option to add the blending mode to the brush itself as well as to the layer. Some just have the option on the layer.
Here's an example of how you might use one. You have something drawn on a layer. You create a new layer above that one. You paint on the new layer.
Then you change the new layer's blending mode to MULTIPLY. All the colors you just painted change. The colors are now 'blended' rather than just one on top of the other.
You can see in my example that the blue bar I painted across the purple circle is darker. It seems to be the same color as it was originally outside the purple circle. That's because the MULTIPLY blending mode does not interact much with 'white'. It's all about dark. But when the blue bar intersects the purple circle the colors blend differently. MULTIPLY makes things darker.
If I take the same exact example and change the blue bar's blending mode to SCREEN I get a much different effect.
As you can see in this example the blue on top of the purple circle has gotten lighter in color, and it seems to have disappeared entirely outside the circle. It hasn't actually disappeared. It's still there. It's just that the white background makes it impossible to see since the SCREEN blending mode lightens everything. If I turn the background layer to something darker, you can see the blue is still there though it too is lightened.
So MULTIPLY and SCREEN react with color one way, and with white and black a different way because of . . . something. This was where I typically got lost because the explanations always became more complicated.
Eventually I stopped caring and just started to use them. If they worked great, if they didn't, I tried something else and moved on.
Mostly people use MULTIPLY and SCREEN to add shadows or highlights. Using the blending modes give you more interesting colors. Instead of creating all the shadows with 'black' or 'gray', you use a color with the MULTIPLY blending mode. It will be dark because the mode forces it to be dark, but it can add more depth to your shadows than just simple black. Sometimes it creates color combinations that you just wouldn't have thought of on your own.
The other blending modes work the same way. They're always grouped the same way in every piece of software I've ever seen. One group darkens, the other lightens, and then there are some outer groups that just do weird stuff.
Some of them are really fun -- they do all sorts of great things with color that you might not think about. For example, look at this image. That bottom purple bar is just a slightly lighter version of the original purple, but when switched to the COLOR DODGE blending mode it becomes very vibrant.
The blending mode COLOR BURN is in the 'dark' section and does something very similar to COLOR DODGE. It makes very vibrant but darker colors.
So when you want to add some shadows or some highlights, try using a blending mode instead of just basic black and white.
Sidebar: I mentioned earlier that blending modes can be added to a brush instead of the layer. Here's an example of the effect. The first blue line is on a MULTIPLY layer. The second blue bar is on a NORMAL layer but the blending mode on the brush is set to MULTIPLY. As you can see, nothing seems to happen. The color doesn't really get darker. That's because it needs something to react to, and the brush is only effecting the things on that one layer. (Going over a line repeatedly increases the effect, so you could technically add a stroke to the blank layer and then lay more strokes on top of it to get MULTIPLY to start working.)
The third blue bar is still with the brush on the MULTIPLY blending mode, but I painted directly onto the purple circle -- on the same layer. Now the effect is similar to what I got with the MULTIPLY layer.
The downside of using the brush on different modes is that it is destructive -- I have to paint directly on the layer I want to affect (the purple circle). So in this case, the purple circle is now changed -- I can't turn the blue bar off.
The upside of using the brush on different modes is that I can use a bunch of different modes on the same layer. I can keep changing the brush's blending mode over and over again as many times as I want. When you change the blending mode on the layer -- you just get the one mode for that layer. You have to keep making new layers to get different modes.
Here's a 'real world' example of using the different blending modes. This is a sword I'm working on for one of the paintings I'm currently doing. When it comes to complex objects I often will paint them in a separate file, then import them into the final painting. It makes it easier to add detail when you don't have to worry about your computer dying because the file is too big.
This is a cross section of the sword hilt. It has a green inlay area with a cord or string wrapped around it in a specific pattern (basically a Japanese katana). Currently there is no shadow or highlight added to the green inlay. I need to add that to make it look like the green portion is recessed beneath the cord.
I added a layer above the green layer (below the cord layer) and set it to MULTIPLY. Then I used the exact same green as the original inlay to add some shadows to it. At one point I picked a slightly darker green still on the same multiply layer to add the really dark shadows at the edge where the green meets the cord.
And once the shadows were done, I added another layer above the MULTIPLY layer, but I set this one to SCREEN. (Sometimes I use OVERLAY instead of SCREEN for highlights -- it just depends on how subtle I want the highlights.)
Then using the same green as the original color, I added in some highlights to make it look like there is some dimension to the image and that the green area is beneath the cords. You can see the finished sword at the top of the blog.