The Gradient Tool

What is the gradient tool?   

As a Photoshop designer you're going to definitely want to understand how to use the gradient tool.  There is much more to it than meets the eye.  The gradient can create colorful and smooth gradients across entire layers or selections.  You can easily create your own custom gradients with all the colors of the rainbow and more!

The gradient tool is found on the toolbar in the same space as the paint bucket.  As with any tool, you can create your own custom presets but if you look in the options bar you will see that you have a gradient window.  Here is where you can choose different preset gradients or double click and bring up the gradient window editor.  In the gradient editor you can create your own custom gradients by clicking on the color stops to bring up the color picker window. 

You can add new stops by clicking along the bar and choosing a color.  Simply name your new gradient and enter new.  If you want to duplicate the exact gradient of a professional ad for example.  Bring it up in Photoshop and with the gradient editor window you can click at points along the image with the eyedropper tool to automatically program the color stops into the gradient.  After you have created a gradient you can then use any of the gradient tools to show your gradient.

There are linear, radial, angle, reflected and diamond.  These will give you a different shape of gradient.  Keep in mind the layers palette.  Whatever layer you are on, if you use the gradient tool (without a selection) it will swipe across the entire layer so you'll want to create a new layer to practice with the gradient tool. 

Another thing you'll want to keep in mind is the gradient blending modes and foreground-background or foreground-transparent.  When you choose a preprogrammed gradient you are selecting foreground to background.  If you choose the upper left option (foreground to background) you are choosing foreground to background.  What this means is that you are filling the layer with the foreground and background color.  If you look in the toolbar at the foreground and background colors when you select the upper left gradient you will end up with those foreground and background colors.  You can change the foreground and background colors in the color picker by double clicking it in the toolbar.

You can also choose foreground to transparent.  You will have to select your foreground color (whatever is currently foreground in the toolbar color picker).  When you use this gradient you will have the foreground color (let's say black) fading into invisible so you can see the layers below.  The Basic Photoshop DVD Training covers the gradient tool extensively.  You'll be very excited once you master it because of the power for great design it holds.

The most useful purpose of the gradient tool?  (And this is a great secret)...Layer masking.  This is what will give you professional results with minimal time.  You know those perfect fades that you see in perfect designs?  This is how its done.  Use foreground to transparent gradient tool with black as the foreground color on a layer mask and you will create beautiful fades to hide pixels.  Simply swipe across the pixels you want to hide.  You can also use the brush tool but gradient makes such perfect fades, I use it ALL the time.

You can also use the blending modes.  You can see how they will "add up" every time you swipe the gradient tool.  On the darker modes, you will saturate the layer/document very quickly.  It's just good to be aware that blending modes are there which you can use.  But usually I'll just go with the "Normal" setting so I can see what I've got and then if it's on it's own layer I can go ahead and change master blending mode on the layers palette.

Remember that the gradient tool on foreground to background (in normal mode) will give you one clean shot to get the gradient right and if you don't like it you can try it again until you get it right (try it and you'll see what I mean).  With different blending modes on, your gradient strokes will start to "add up" so I just keep it on Normal.

To use the gradient tool, simply drag across with it.  The shorter your stroke, the sharper the gradient will be.  The longer your stroke, the smoother a transition or spreading of the colors (in foreground to background mode).  It will take some practice to get use to it.  But just fool around on a blank layer with the gradient tool on different gradients.  Check out the different blending modes.

When not to use the gradient tool?  In quick mask mode.  Use brushes because you'll want to have a distinct, tight control over your selection that a brush can provide.  The gradient is a powerful tool with more than meets the eye because of it's hidden effectiveness in layer masking.  And now you know!  Check out the tutorial on gradient layer masking.

- Orion Williams copyright 2004

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