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Mastering Photoshop: Noise, Textures, Gradients and Rounded Rectangles


Often, it’s the little details that turn a good layout into a great design; details such as subtle textures, shading and smooth shapes. Photoshop contains a vast array of tools for embellishing a design, but choosing the right one isn’t always easy. Being the obsessive-compulsives that we are, we’ve conducted a huge range of experiments to determine the benefits and disadvantages of each technique. Here, then, is an obsessive-compulsive’s guide to some frequently used tools and techniques for Web and UI design in Photoshop.

Noise and Textures Link

Subtle noise or texture on UI elements can look great, but what’s the best way to add it? Our goal is to find the best method that maintains quality when scaled but that is also easy to implement and edit. To find out which is best, we’ll judge each method using the following criteria:

  • Number of layers used: fewer is better.
  • Ability to scale: if the document is resized, will the effect maintain its quality?
  • Can the noise be on top of the Color and Gradient layer styles?
  • Can the method be used with any texture, not just noise?


1. Bitmap Layer With Noise Link


Probably the most obvious method for adding texture to a shape is to create a normal bitmap layer, fill it with a color, select FilterNoiseAdd Noise, then apply a mask or Vector Mask to match the element you’re adding noise to.

Using a high amount of noise, setting the layer blending mode to Luminosity and reducing the opacity will yield the most control over the noise with the least disturbance to the underlying layers. A noise setting of 48% gives a high dynamic range without clipping the noise. (Clipping results in higher contrast, which might not be desirable.)

  • Layers: 2
  • Scales: No, texture will have to be recreated if the document is scaled
  • Works with Color and Gradient layer styles: Yes
  • Works with any texture: Yes

2. Inner Glow Layer Style Link


Adding an Inner Glow layer style with the source set to center and the size to 0 will let you use the noise slider to add texture to any layer. It’s a good solution, provided you’re not already using the Glow layer style for something else. The noise is added above the Color, Gradient and Pattern layer styles, which is great.

Unfortunately, the noise can only lighten or darken the underlying elements. The previous bitmap layer method can add highlights and shade at once while maintaining the average luminosity, and it looks far better in my opinion.

  • Layers: 1
  • Scales: Yes, texture will be remade automatically
  • Works with Color and Gradient layer styles: Yes
  • Works with any texture: No

3. Smart Object with Filter Link


Create a Solid Color layer, convert it to a Smart Object, select FilterNoiseAdd Noise, apply a Vector Mask to match your element, set the layer blending mode to Luminosity and reduce the layer’s opacity.

It’s a fairly involved process, but it can accommodate a combination of effects that can be remade if the document gets scaled.

  • Layers: 2
  • Scales: Yes, texture will be remade automatically
  • Works with Color and Gradient layer styles: Yes
  • Works with any texture: No

4. Pattern Overlay Layer Style Link


Start by creating a noise or repeating pattern in a new document, then choose EditDefine Pattern. Once you’ve defined the pattern, it will be available in the Pattern Overlay layer style options. As with previous methods, using Luminosity as a blending mode and reducing the opacity to suit it yield great results.

The Pattern layer style is composited below the Color and Gradient styles, ruining an otherwise perfect noise and texture method. However, you can create a second layer that just holds the texture if you need to, or start with a Gradient Fill layer, sidestepping the limitation.

  • Layers: 1
  • Scales: Yes, but you’ll need to change the Layer style scale to 100% after scaling
  • Works with Color and Gradient layer styles: No, the pattern appears underneath
  • Works with any texture: Yes

Which Method Is Best? Link

Although a little cumbersome, creating a Gradient Fill layer, adding a Pattern layer style, then creating a Vector Mask seems to be the best method possible. This can be used to create flexible, scalable and editable single-layer UI elements with texture. As a bonus, Gradient Fill layers can be dithered and so also produces the highest quality results (Gradient layer styles cannot be dithered).

We’ve created some examples below and included the source document so that you can see how they were built.


Download the PSD2 (.zip)

Rounded Rectangles Link

Rounded rectangles, or “roundrects” as QuickDraw3 so fondly calls them, are standard fare on a Web and interface designer’s utility belt. They’re so common that it’s rare for Web pages or apps to not contain a roundrect or two. Unfortunately, pixel-locked rounded rectangles can actually be fairly difficult to draw in Photoshop. (By pixel-locked, I mean that every edge falls on an exact pixel boundary, creating the sharpest object possible.)

Experienced Photoshop users will probably already know one or two ways to draw a roundrect. Hopefully, after reading this article, they’ll also know a couple more, as well as which methods produce pixel-perfect results.

1. Rounded Rectangle Vector Tool Link

Photoshop’s Rounded Rectangle vector tool appears like the ideal candidate for the task, until you realize that the edges it creates are blurry and inconsistent.


Fortunately, there is a fairly well-hidden option that locks the Rounded Rectangle vector tool’s output to the pixel grid. Excellent.

To enable pixel-locked drawing for the Rounded Rectangle vector tool, check the “Snap to Pixels” option in the Options bar. If you have “Snap to Pixels” turned off, drawing at 100% zoom achieves the same result.


The result is perfect roundrects, every time. The only downside is that the corner radius can’t be altered during or after drawing the shape. If you need a different radius, you’re forced to draw it again. It’s a shame the roundrect tool isn’t like Illustrator in this regard, where the up and down arrow keys increase and decrease the corner radius while drawing.

On the positive side, keeping your objects as vectors means that you’ll be able to resize the document and the corners will take full advantage of any extra resolution. There is one small caveat though: if you resize, you’ll have to do it as an exact multiple, or risk fuzzy non-pixel–locked edges.

If you’re being pedantic about the results, you may notice that the antialiasing on the first half of each corner doesn’t match the second half — you’ll have to look carefully to notice, though. For example, looking at the zoomed corner below, the start of the corner to the apex isn’t identical to the apex to the end of the corner (starting from either side). In practice, that probably won’t create any issues.


2. Blur Link

The blur method is a bit of a hack that involves creating a selection, blurring it, then increasing the contrast so that you’re left with a sharp mask that’s antialiased nicely.

It’s seven steps in total and is prone to being inaccurate; plus, the radius of the corners can’t be changed on the fly. Applying levels can also be a bit fiddly. One advantage is that different levels settings can be used to obtain different degrees of antialiasing, from incredibly soft to completely aliased.

  1. Create a new layer.
  2. Draw a rectangular selection.
  3. Enter quick mask (Q).
  4. Gaussian blur by half the radius that you’d like for the rounded corners. (For example, a 10-pixel radius would need a 5-pixel blur.)
  5. Apply Levels (Command + L), and use about 118 for the black point and 137 for the white point on the input levels.
  6. Exit quick mask (Q).
  7. Fill selection.


On the positive side, this blur method can be used to quickly create some interesting and organic shapes that would be difficult to draw by hand.


3. Circles Link

The circles method is very accurate and easily reproducible, but has a whopping 13 steps. That’s a lot of clicking for just a single roundrect.

  1. Create a new layer.
  2. Make a circular selection that is twice as large as the radius you would like (for example, a 10-pixel radius would require a 20×20-pixel circle).
  3. Fill the selection.
  4. Move the selection right. This can be done quickly by holding down Shift and pressing the right-arrow key a few times.
  5. Fill the selection.
  6. Move the selection down.
  7. Fill the selection.
  8. Move the selection left.
  9. Fill the selection.
  10. Make a rectangular selection that covers the entire vertical span of the roundrect but that starts and ends halfway through the circles at the ends.
  11. Fill the selection.
  12. Make a rectangular selection that covers the entire horizontal span of the roundrect but that starts and ends halfway through the circles at the ends.
  13. Fill the selection.


4. Stroke Link

The stroke method is very accurate, easily reproducible and has only about four steps, depending on the result you’re after. The corners are a bit sharper than those of the circle method, though. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your preference.

  1. Create a new layer.
  2. Draw a rectangular selection that is smaller than the area you require (smaller by double the radius, if you want to be exact).
  3. Fill the selection.
  4. Add a stroke as a layer style that is as thick as the corner radius you would like.

If you’d like to flatten the object to remove the stroke, keep following the steps below.

  1. Create a new layer.
  2. In the Layers palette, select the new layer and the previous layer.
  3. Merge layers (Command + E).


It’s possible to automate the flattening with a Photoshop Action. This can also be set up as a function key to speed things up further.

A huge advantage of the stroke method is that it’s dynamic, so the radius can be edited in real time. It can also be used to easily create other rounded shapes, as seen below.


Which Method Is Best? Link

In most cases, using the Rounded Rectangle tool with “Snap to Pixel” turned on will give great results and be the quickest method. If you’d like the ability to change the corner radius without redrawing, then the stroke method is the one to use.

However, as seen below, each method yields different results. So, depending on what you’re after, you may need to use a combination of methods.


All tests were completed using Photoshop CS4 and CS5 on a Mac. Behavior for both versions was consistent.

Gradients Link

Gradients are a great way to add life-like lighting and shading to surfaces. When built with gradient layers and layer styles, they also ensure that UI elements can be scaled and reused easily.

Linear Gradients Link

Linear gradients are gradients in their most basic form — a gradual blend of colors and following a straight line. I’m sure you knew that, so onto the more interesting stuff.


Reflected Gradients Link

Reflected gradients are like their linear friends, but they repeat the gradient twice, with the second repeat mirrored. This makes editing a little less tedious, provided it fits the result you’re after.


Radial Gradients Link

Radial gradients start from the center (or any chosen point) and grow outward in a circular pattern. They’re handy for creating spheres and applying effects to the edge of circular elements. The center point of the gradient can be moved by clicking and dragging on the canvas while the gradient window or layer styles window is open.


Angle Gradients Link

Angle gradients can be a great way to mimic environmental reflections found on highly polished metallic objects. The center point of the gradient can be moved by clicking and dragging on the canvas while the gradient window or layer styles window is open.


Gradients on Gradients Link

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, right? Combining a gradient layer with a gradient layer style lets you overlay two different gradients, giving more complex and — here’s the good part — completely dynamic results. To combined the gradients, you’ll need to set a blending mode for the gradient layer style. For the examples below, I’ve used either Screen (good for lightening) or Multiply (good for darkening).


Dithering Is Everything Link

Adding dithering to a gradient produces smoother results. Non-dithered gradients often contain visible banding. Dithering is even more important if your artwork is being viewed on cheaper 6-bit per channel TN LCDs9 and certain display types10 that tend to amplify posterization11 problems.


If you’re not seeing the difference, here’s an extreme and completely unrealistic example of gradient dithering in action:


Ensuring that your gradients are dithered is easy: just check the appropriate box in Photoshop.


Note that gradient layer styles can’t be dithered, and gradients in placed objects (such as stuff you’ve pasted from Illustrator) aren’t dithered.

If you use transparency in a gradient, that won’t be dithered either, which can be a huge issue at times. There is a solution for some specific cases: if you’re using a gradient with transparency to lighten an area with white, then using a non-transparent gradient with a Screen Layer blending mode will let you dither it. The same technique can be used for darkening with the Multiply blending mode.


A combination of the gradient techniques described above were used to create the Mac app icon below.


Gradient Maps Link

Quite different to other types of gradients, gradient maps can be a great way to add color treatment, allowing for very precise control. Gradient maps use the brightness of each pixel to map to a corresponding color in a gradient.

If the gradient starts at red and ends at blue, then everything white in the image will turn red, and everything black will turn blue. Everything in the middle tonally will map to the gradient, depending on how bright it is.

The image below was used in a poster for Kingswim, a swimming school:

With a gradient map. Large view18

Without the gradient map, things look quite different. It’s a composite of about seven photos; the boy and background were shot on black and white film with intentionally low contrast so that the grain would be more prominent when the contrast was pushed by the gradient map. The gradient map also hides the color mismatches in the compositing.

Gradient map off. Large view20

A Little Obsessed? Link

Absolutely. I conducted all of the tests above to learn more about some common techniques that I already use: that is, to reassess and fine tune, with the aim of improving my designs. Creating great artwork without intimately knowing your tools is certainly possible, but the more you know, the more likely you are to work faster and with greater confidence.

Would you like to know more about a specific technique or Photoshop feature? Please let us know in the comments.


Footnotes Link

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Marc Edwards (@marcedwards) is the Director & Lead Designer at Bjango (@bjango) and co-host of the Iterate podcast (@iteratetv).

  1. 1

    Holy crap, what a great summup!
    Nice to see how something simple is being investigated so insanely deep :-)

  2. 2

    I didn’t know many of these techniques. Very useful and interesting indeed! Cheers!

  3. 3

    A lot of these examples show why illustrator can be so much quicker and more efficient with most web designs if you know how to use filters and the appearance panel properly. Photoshop can provide better effects for some things but overall I think illustrator (CS5) is the better web design program (just can’t get used to fireworks!)

    • 4

      Web designers should start working with Fireworks today in order to make developers’ work way more easy than ever.

      • 5

        Work with Fireworks rather than photoshop is the same as work with Corel instead of Illustrator.. You can’t compare…

        Photoshop is thousands miles ahead..


        • 6

          @fabio – Please don’t diss the CorelDraw.. for it seems you hate the things that you do not understand.

        • 7

          CorelDraw had great features that I still miss in Illustrator. Snapping and smart guides are much more reliable and intuitive than in Illustrator. Shape retaining after anchor removal and many others. If it wasn’t about PS and AI smart objects integration I think I’d still be using CorelDraw. You diss CorelDraw but you’ve probably never worked with it. Am I right?

    • 8

      If you submit an Illustrator file to a web developer to slice and turn into a live site, they will beat you with a stick of salami. Web dev’s have NO idea how to use Illustrator. Every one of them I’ve met knows how to use Photoshop. Not all of them I’ve met know how to use Fireworks.

      • 9

        I know how! A good developer… should know all Adobe programs… and in knowing these, even the second hand apps like Corel-draw, MSword, Powerpoint or whatever your brother’s best befriend’s uncle is using to design sites these days should be easy to disect because they are all interchangeable with adobe apps. You all just need to know one extension PDF! Sound crazy… well every Adobe program can open a pdf. :D I rarely ever have a problem with any file given to me for developement… and neither should any other descent developer.

        • 10

          Interesting opinion from someone who has enough money to spend while others tend to use more free tools. Keep in mind that some OpenSource graphic tools can compete with expensive ones. Therefore take into consideration to not only focus on proprietary file types but maybe give open ones a chance (e.g. HTML+PNG – rarely used combination, I know).

        • 11

          Many programs can open PDFs. However, PDFs may not necessarily have layers in them, which are required for web design, as the developer will need to turn these on and off while slicing up the layout.
          And, no, good developers DO NOT need to know every Adobe program. In face, no developers I know even want to use Dreamweaver. They prefer Eclipse or Textwrangler and the like. And not all programs are interchangeable with Adobe apps. You need to be able to save web layouts with layers in order for a developer to slice them up and prepare them for integrating into the site.

        • 12

          now THAT is just stupid…

      • 14

        Maybe, but that’s why multiple art boards in CS5 makes slicing easier than ever alongside pixel perfect graphics in AI

      • 15

        Every developer I work with says Photoshops slice tool is junk, they either use crop or the selection tool, takes them ages but developers don’t seem to mind mundane repetitive jobs!

        The few enlighted one’s now use Fireworks for slicing. Firewroks opens Photoshop PSds no problem and has a much better slicing tool (1 tool instead of PS’s 2, can copy slices, easy adjustment fo slice properties, can export individual slices etc.

  4. 16

    Oh thats nice. Exactly what i need. Thanks!

  5. 17

    Thank you Marc! Very useful and nice post! Will definitely try out some of the techniques.

  6. 18

    Kick-ass post! Very good. Thanks!

  7. 19

    Thanks man! this is very helpful for me!

  8. 20

    Rupnarayan Bhattacharya

    February 7, 2011 5:52 am

    Really good one. Surely I shall be testing some of the techniques.

  9. 21

    I didn’t know about the dithering differences til now. I had been avoiding using gradients in large background elements because of banding. Of course there are CSS3 solutions to that but sometimes you need an image-based solution. Thanks for the tips!

  10. 22

    These are some really valuable tips.
    Thanks for the great article Marc.

  11. 23

    I’m already planning on using many of these techniques today!! These are great tips and many should be a part of a designer’s best practices. I’d like to see more articles like this.

  12. 24

    I’ve read it all before on Bjango blog and maybe somewhere else, though; I cannot remember where exactly. Nevertheless, excellent write-up. As for the rounded corners methods, I think that the rectangle with ‘snap to pixel’ is the way to go. The other techniques produce either the same or a worse result, so why bother with extra steps such as blur and additional shapes (circles, I mean)?

    • 25

      These tips were published as separate posts on the Bjango website previously. The article has been reworked, tweaked and partially rewritten for Smashing Magazine. So it’s been around before, but it’s bigger and better here :)

      The other techniques produce either the same or a worse result, so why bother with extra steps such as blur and additional shapes (circles, I mean)?

      Blur is handy for some strange shapes and can be great fun with type. Circles actually gives the highest quality result, but is an absolute pain. I wanted to include all the various methods for completeness.

      I actually used to use the circles technique all the time. I would use more, but it’s very important that my designs scale these days, because of iOS development and Retina displays, so I use vectors almost exclusively.

      For more info on why:

  13. 26

    I like Photoshop more than illustrator but they are both better tools for different tasks. I find that when i want sharp edges I get the best result if i create the shape in illustrator then i drag it to Phososhop to add detail.

  14. 27

    Thanks for the tutorial. I am a novice with photoshop so tutorials likes these really help me a lot.

    I had a question about the radial gradient you created. I attempted to create a few on my own with varying degrees of sucess. My biggest issue (specifically on the gradient on gradient rainbow example) being that my edges don’t have that same cool “glow” effect or in other words: my white gradient center doesn’t nicely fades out instead it just ends. I tried adding an outer glow, but there always seems to be a line between the edge of the radial gradient and the start of the outer glow. Can you provide any tips on how you got your gradient to fade out so seamlessly?

  15. 28

    Its amazing at what lengths designers will go to avoid using Fireworks. This stuff is a cakewalk in Fireworks! It is so much more flexible. You are able to change shape radiuses anytime you want by just clicking on the shape and typing the radius % in a field. Try it out peoples!

  16. 32

    Its a very useful article. I have learned few new things from this article.

    On side note, why SM does not use a light-box in post images?
    It is not good from UX point of view that, when a user is reading the article and want to see the larger view of image, then article disappears if he clicks on image link

  17. 33

    Thanks a lot! Some nice finetuning lessons learned.

  18. 34

    Throughout the noise/pattern section you repeated said to “apply a mask or Vector Mask to match the element you’re adding noise to”.

    If you clip the noise/pattern layer to the element layer by alt+clicking the line between the two layers (or using Layer>Create Clipping Mask or pressing shift+cmd+G), you can now adjust the shape of the element layer without having to reduplicate the vector mask on the noise/pattern layer.

    Since you seem interested in streamlining work flow and reducing clicks and steps, I thought you might find this helpful

    • 35

      Agreed. Though, if you’d like to be able to blend the element layer & clipped layer with the layers below you’ll need to open the layer options and declick “Blend clipping layers as a group”.

      Additionally, instead of using a bitmap layer for the noise, create a noise pattern (as you would in Method 4) and use a Pattern adjustment layer.

    • 36

      You’re right, that can be a great way to go, and what I do a lot of the time (as can be seen in the icon’s layer palette). The reason I didn’t mention that in the article was because the layer styles from the enclosing layer (the one that the top layer is grouped to) will be applied to both layers. In some cases that’s great, in other cases it’s not desirable.

      You’re correct though—it should have been mentioned.

  19. 37

    Some happy new tips to add to the tool box… appreciated!

  20. 38

    I have a question about the dithered gradients. normally when I create a gradient for a webdesign, that will be x-repeated, and is 1px wide. Will a dithered gradient result in a correct gradient compared to non-dithered, probably I’ve been saving dithered all along?

    Nice tutorials! I believe this article is value to a lot of webdesigners, most techniques I mastered over time. Around the web this is so much done wrong!

    • 39

      That’s a very good point and something I have a solution for, but didn’t mention in the article. If you’re saving repeating images that are dithered gradients, you’ll need to allow enough width or height for the dithering to look natural. I’ve found that around 10 pixels is good if you’re trying to be efficient.

      If you cut a dithered gradient to be 1px wide, then repeat it, it will often look worse than a gradient that wasn’t dithered. So making your repeating gradients use 6px to ~20px wide is essential if you’re dithering them.

      • 40

        This also has the benefit of being more efficient for the browser to draw. There can be a trade-off between paint time and file size with repeating backgrounds. But mostly making your repeating background a little bigger is better.

        Oh, I just noticed…as Xig said. He’s right.

    • 41

      I’ve found that on slow computers a repeating 1px background is processor/memory intensive and slows down the browser a lot. I try to make my backgrounds 100px or so wide so that on slow computers it need only be repeated 8-10 times.

  21. 42

    One more addition, you use noise, but a lot of times I use ‘Film grain’ as well, sometimes I think this is just somewhat nicer. Not sure why.

    • 43

      I’ve mentioned “noise” here, but I mean any kind of noise or texture. I have quite a few textures I use often. Like you’ve said, some other types of grain or noise can look great. You can also take photos and turn them into repeating textures to use in your designs. Anything goes!

  22. 44

    Thanks for explaining this!

  23. 45

    I thought I was anal about my techniques, but you take the cake. Thanks for the breakdown…I definitely learned a couple of things.

  24. 46

    Can’t express enough just how AWESOME this article is!

  25. 47

    i just hate Photoshop when it comes to designing websites. Photoshop is best used for modifying photos and that’s it. Fireworks is a lot easier to use, and you can finish the job a lot faster. Not to mention the fact that it compresses the images a lot better.

  26. 48

    I am using Photoshop less and less for websites. I am experimenting with Illustrator, but also with Bohemian Coding’s DrawIt.

  27. 49

    Greeting from Slovakia!

    Great post, thank you very much. Bookmarked forever :D


  28. 50

    Learned something new today.

  29. 51

    For the rounded rectangles you better can make these first in illustrator (yes, with gradients, noise or even a texture) and then import them into photosjop or fireworks.

    Now look at your borders and rounded corners .. pixel perfect! Thanks for sharing, Cheers & Ciao ..

  30. 52

    Been looking for a way to stop banding in gradients for ages. Thanks for the dithering tip!


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