How To Create Grafitti-Style Urban Art In Photoshop


Tom Green. Lifewire, 2017.

One can hardly walk through any city or town without noticing the preponderance of graffiti painted on the walls of buildings. It tends to pop up when you least expect it such as brick walls in Beijing, subway cars in New York or abandoned buildings in Valencia, Spain. What we are not talking about are the gang tags, initials or or other shapes hastily sprayed or scrawled on a surface. Instead, we are talking about graffiti as art. Much of this work, using stencils or paint, is a commentary on current social conditions or invites the viewer into a whimsical play land. This work could just as easily appear hanging in a museum rather than on the wall of a building or a billboard. The artists that produce this work have also garnered an unusual amount fame based on their unique styles and medium.

In this tutorial, we give you an opportunity to create your own street art through the use of Photoshop. We'll take a photo and through the use of Adjustment Layers and Colorization techniques blend the onto a cement wall.

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How to Prepare the Image

Artboard 1
Isolate your subject and make sure that the background is transparent.

Tom Green. Lifewire, 2017. 

When choosing an image look for one with a clean background. In this case, the image had a solid white background meaning the Magic Wand tool was able to be used. The steps were:

  • Double Click the Layer to rename and “unflatten” the image.
  • With the Magic Wand selected click the big white area outside of the image to select it.
  • With the Shift key held down, select the white areas that weren’t selected initially.
  • Press the Delete key to remove the white and to get the transparency.
  • Another technique would be to mask out the potions of the image that will be transparent. This technique is especially useful if a lot is going on around the subject.
  • To finish up, choose the Magnifying Glass tool and inspect the edges of the image. If there are artifacts from the background use the Lasso tool to remove them if you didn’t use a mask. If you did use a mask, use a brush to remove them.
  • Select the Move Tool and drag the image to the Texture you are using for the wall.
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Preparing the Image for Colorization

Artboard 2
Use the Threshold slider to add or remove detail and be sure to apply the effect as a Clipping Mask.

Tom Green. Lifewire, 2017. 

In its current state, the image needs to lose its color and, instead, be turned black. Here’s how:

  • In the Layers panel add a Threshold Adjustment Layer. What this does is to convert a color or grayscale image into a high contrast black and white image.
  • You may have noticed both the image, and the texture is affected by the Threshold Adjustment Layer. To fix this, click the Clipping Mask icon at the bottom of the Threshold panel. It is the first one on the left and looks like a Box with an arrow pointing down. This returns the text to its original, but the Image now has a clipping mask applied to it and retains the high contrast black and white look.
  • To adjust the contrast or add more detail. Move the slider in the Threshold graph to the left or the right. Moving the slider to the left brightens the image by moving more black pixels to their white counterparts. Moving to the right has the opposite effect and adds more black pixels to the image.
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Colorizing the Image

Artboard 3
Pick a color, and use the Lightness slider to determine whether the color is applied to the blacks or the whites.

Tom Green. Lifewire, 2017. 

At this point, you could stop and, using opacity, blend the black and white image into the surface. Adding color makes it even more noticeable. Here’s how:

  • Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and be sure to apply the Clipping Mask to ensure only the image is colorized. Moving a Hue, Saturation or Lightness slider will not affect the image. To use a color, click the Colorize checkbox.
  • To choose a color, move the Hue Slider to the right or the left. As you do this pay attention to the bar at the bottom of the Dialog Box, it will change to show you the color chosen.
  • To adjust the intensity of the color, move the Saturation slider to the right. That bottom bar will also change to reflect the Saturation value chosen.
  • At this point, you need to make a decision: Will the color be applied to the black area of the image or the white area? This is where the Lightness slider comes into play. Slide it toward black, and the white pixels pick up the color. Slide it to the right – toward white – and the color is applied to the black area. At both ends, the image is either white or black.
  • If you want a bit more subtlety, select the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and apply a Multiply or Darken blend mode.
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Blend the Texture Into the Image

Artboard 4
Blend if sliders let you determine how much of the background image shows through.

Tom Green. Lifewire, 2017. 

At this point, the image looks like it is just sitting on the wall. There is nothing there to indicate it is a part of the wall. The obvious approach is to use opacity to sink the image layer into the texture. This works, but there is another technique that does an even better job. Let’s take a look.

  • Select the image and all of the Adjustment Layers above it and group them.
  • Double click the Group folder in the Layers panel to open the Layer Style dialog box.
  • At the bottom of the dialog box is a Blend If area. There are two sliders in this area. The This Layer slider blends the image into the background, and the Underlying Layer slider works with the texture image in the Layer below the image. If you move the bottom slider to the right, you will notice wall details appearing in the image.
  • Move the bottom slider to the middle of the gradient ramp and the texture starts to show through and gives the illusion of the image being painted onto the surface of the texture.

How does this work? The black to white gradient determines which grey scale pixels in the texture will appear through the image. Moving the slider to the right says any pixels in the texture image with a black value between 0 and whatever value is shown will show through and hide the pixels in the image layer.

  • Hold down the Option/Alt key and drag the black slider to the left. You will notice the slider has split in two. If you move the sliders to the right and left, you will be applying a bit of transparency to the image. What is happening is the range of values between those two sliders will result in a smooth transition, and any pixels to the right of the right slider will not affect the image layer.

There you have it. You have painted an image on to a surface. This is a rather nifty technique to know because practically any image can be “blended” into a textured surface to give it that stencil effect that is so common with street art or graffiti. You don’t necessarily have to use images or line art. Apply it to text as well.