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

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


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


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


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


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?

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.



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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

    Absolutetly brilliant!!!
    I believe that as designers and visual artists we all start in the Industry aiming to have a creative carreer but getting to know your work tools in depth and developing a taste for the technical side of your trade will definetly be an advantage!
    Thank you for sharing!

  2. 52

    Finally, A great article that gives good use, please make write more of this stuff, I already feel addicted enough to return to this site everyday in the hopes of something new… bigger.. better.. that in someway can improve my work techniques!!!

    (Even if I use most of the stuff you described in the article today, its GREAT!)

  3. 103

    Absolutely awesome article, would love to see more in this kind of detail on SM

  4. 154

    Now, who will tell me how to do it with Gimp (yes, I really use it)?

  5. 205

    Thanks for the “Rounded Rectangle Vector Tool” tip! The snap to pixels is very well hidden.

  6. 256

    This is likely one of the best articles to be at Smashing Magazine, at least it’s one of my new favorites.

    Truly fantastic. Please feature more articles like this!

  7. 307

    Tank’s a lot! I love photoshop so much!
    It’s a pity that it is always compared with illustrator – both programs are amazing.
    live and learn…

  8. 358

    This is a great article. When I find something great like this, I like to print it and stash it with my other reference info. I am unable to print your site from Firefox, and other browsers prohibit me from printing the images in the post. Is this intentional on your end? Do you have img {display:none;} in your print.css?

  9. 409

    Wow, good stuff.

    I never knew about the “snap to pixels” check box… smashing!

  10. 511

    Very Informative Post :)

  11. 562

    great post! thanks

  12. 613

    Thanks for the article. Really loved it. I always wondered about how some of my designs (by luck) had the pixels snap to the grid, while others didn’t.

  13. 664

    Love the thoroughness of this article. ‘Snap to pixels’ will seriously save me a ton of clean up time. Thanks!

  14. 715

    To think that I’ve been doing these two wrong all of the time..
    The internet is full of tips, but none pointed to that checkbox that enables dithering. It’s the first time it comes to my attention. Same with the snap to pixels.

    Many thanks!

  15. 766

    Really informative…
    Liked the rounded corners trick, gradient dithering…

  16. 817

    An awesome article! Thanks Marc!

  17. 868

    Using Photoshop for web design layout is the equivalent of using a 50 cal to hunt rabbit. Fireworks by far is quicker and there is less mucking around to get the exact same results. Photoshop for beautiful images, Fireworks for the heavy lifting and Illustrator if you are just bored…

  18. 919

    I never really thought about Dithering before. I saw it but never thought about what it did. Thanks for enlighting me to this useful tip.

  19. 970

    I never knew what the gradient map did and I’ve been using Photoshop for 10 years! That was my favorite part…I love how it made that composite photo look seamless. Very nice.

  20. 1021

    Great article. I currently use both photoshop and fireworks, and I find that both have their place when constructing graphical elements. Many thanks for all your effort in putting this post together.

  21. 1072

    Thank You! Give me more!

  22. 1123

    Very good summary, even for experienced GUI designers!

    I have one additional tip when it comes to gradients & rasterization. And this works regardless of transparency or not.

    Simply choose the layers you want to add a raster to, and make them into a smart object. Then choose to edit that smart object. In the new window, change the depth from 8-bit to 16-bit (Image -> Mode -> 16 Bits/Channel) and then save.

    Photoshop will then compensate for the higher bit depth inside the smart object by adding a raster.

    In my experience, this method gives a superb result.

    Oh, and another tip. In case you run out of layer effects (why can’t we add multiple ones?), you can duplicate the layer and set fill opacity to 0%. Then work on the new layer and adding more layer effects.

    Depending on the shape of the layer, you might run into some problems with the anti-aliasing of the edges. This can be remedied by putting the layers in a masked folder. The masked folder method requires quite a bit of tweaking, but it could be worth it…

    • 1174

      Love that last tip Max. I do that a bit… it’s very handy, especially if you’re the kind of person who uses lots of layer styles (I am that kind of person).

  23. 1225

    Deliver Add,problem royal thus step use fund well star wind lack cross network may glass son cell parliament interested concerned extend concentration demonstrate rule issue above miss while cos trial please partly sexual procedure secure marry western seek steal dress drive deep lack trial quite direct no-one card brother offer position why soft sometimes effective violence field finally game laugh belief home occur agreement finding oil research pair external cost male capacity extremely powerful remember rule summer life ready clear chair anyone face idea block deputy search large

  24. 1276

    I can’t believe people are still publishing articles about how to make rounded corners in Photoshop. Is this 2007?!

  25. 1378

    Wow this is one of the best, most useful posts I’ve read in the past year. Great tips. Thanks. Can’t wait for more!

  26. 1429

    I still use photoshop for webdesign and I have no intention to change this.

  27. 1480

    About dithered gradient… For general background image of I use Dithered Gradient +MASK …and the result is no so good.
    Is there any solution for that?

    • 1531

      Alpha masks in generated gradients aren’t dithered in Photoshop. To dither the mask, you’ll have to build it yourself with a dithered gradient using the gradient tool (make sure dithering is turned on).

  28. 1582

    First of all. Webdesigner have to know Illustrator, Photoshop and Fireworks.

    Nice Graphics in Illustrator, Layout in Photoshop and Finishing up in Fireworks.

    Webdeveloper dont have to know a little about Photoshop or Illustrator. Eventually a little bit about Fireworks.

    I am a trained Advertisemend Artist and work at "Jung von Matt" Germany.

  29. 1633

    This is one of the best tutorials on web design. I use these tips almost every day :-)

  30. 1684

    All those people talking about Fireworks being better than Photoshop for web work may have valid points but you are forgetting one minor detail:
    The title of this tutorial is “Mastering Photoshop: Noise, Textures, Gradients and Rounded Rectangles”
    The important part of that title is PHOTOSHOP. Not Fireworks, Corel or Illustrator.
    Not everybody has access to both. This tutorial is about getting the best result using PS only.
    So keeping that in mind, this is a great tutorial for using Photoshop to create great-looking UI elements.
    Nice job Marc

    • 1735

      Thanks Daniel. Also, some of us have tried Photoshop, Fireworks and other image editors and decided that Photoshop is the best for our own workflow and preferences. There’s certainly some areas where Fireworks trumps Photoshop, but Photoshop can certainly be an amazingly powerful tool for web and app design. I also believe Adobe are going to make this decision even harder in the future by improving Photoshop’s design for screen abilities. That probably means the Fireworks and Photoshop debate will heat up even more. That’s ok. Use whatever you prefer (or whatever you have access to).

      Short version: Fireworks is great. So is Photoshop. Use whichever you prefer.

  31. 1786

    Thank you so much for the ‘snap to pixels’ trick! Made my life so much easier. I love you.

  32. 1837

    Rounded Rectangle – Snap to pixel !!!!!!

    This just changed my life…

  33. 1888

    Great!!! Thx!

  34. 1939

    I prefer to use Illustrator and paste in Photoshop as smart objects. Easier to edit and reuse later.

  35. 1990

    wow, this is a great post.

  36. 2041

    Wow, I’ve never noticed that snap to pixels function. I’ve spent hours tightening up designs by zooming in. Thanks so much. Great post!

  37. 2092

    awesome post I’ve never noticed ‘snap to pixels’ trick very useful, save me a lot ! :-)

  38. 2143

    Thanks for sharing these skills! I will be practicing!

  39. 2194

    i did not understand your tutorial at all u need to more specific and clear to the point.

  40. 2245

    good article, and i have even tried as the article said ~ but some specific process could not get~

  41. 2296

    very good hints, lifechanging tips :)), that snap to pixel on rectangle made the difference in my designs

  42. 2347

    What I want to know is who the h*ll would draw 4 circles then a connect them to make a box with rounded corners… radius is the only way to go…

    As for the fireworks over Photoshop arguement. Its not the tools its the designers experience, if you used one tool for 10 years and then try the other for 2 weeks it will be hard to make a shift.

    Tools are just what you use, but work will speak for itself. What you used to get there makes no difference.

    • 2398

      Photoshop designer – 2 days designing, client wants corner radius ‘made a bit smaller’, photoshop user starts again, 2 more days…..

      Fireworks designer – 2 days designing, client wants corner radius ‘made a bit less, 5 mins to change, job done.

      Lets face it Photoshop is great for photo manipulation (actually Photoshop elements is better cause it’s 1 tenth of the price!), but photoshop wasn’t designed for web design and is poor in comparison to Fireworks which is a well thought out application designed specifically for th ejob. Such a shame that Adobe don’t get it.

  43. 2449

    Thanks for all the tips! It was extremely helpful!

  44. 2500

    An impressive share, I just given this onto a colleague who was doing a little analysis on this. And he in fact bought me breakfast because I found it for him.. :-)

    So let me reword that: Thanks for this article! Big thumb up for this blog post!

    Best regards Alex

  45. 2551

    Thank you for these tutorials, these are definitely useful in expediting my designing process.

    I have a question about gradient fill layers:

    I am creating a reflection for an image thumbnail, and I want to be able to duplicate the reflection for multiple images. I used a gradient fill layer for the reflection and I need to know (after I duplicate the original layer) how to move the fill layer, and its respective styles (i.e. position, scale, color etc.), onto another position on the page, while keeping the exact gradient the same?

    Any help wil be greatly appreciated!

  46. 2602

    Great tutorial Marc! Thanks.

    Quick question: the example you used to talk about texture by noise is great for a button or object with a defined size, but how would you make a tile this way? All of my experiments produce either vertical or horizontal lines.

    Thanks again for the tips!


  47. 2653

    I love Fireworks.. I have hate Photoshop….draw a rounded vector rectangle and then adjust the corner radius… what you can’t? That’s photoshop for you, £700 of junk. If you’re web designer buy Photoshop Elements, it has more choice of photo manipulation tools that you will use (e.g extract filters) and is only £70.

    PE’s only weak point is no slice tool but Photoshop’s slice tool is woeful anyway….can’t export individual slices, can’t copy slices and why have just one slice tool when you can also have a slice selection tool as well, jeeeezus!

  48. 2704

    this is awesome information. N what i want to know is how to make different types of brushes on Photoshop? and also how to do different effects like using different images and putting them into the images but with the effects of Photoshop ?. I am a Graphic Design student i go to The Art Institute of Fort Worth and i want to learn as much as i can from people so any advice and help i can get would be greatly appreciated :) please. Thank you.


  49. 2755

    Thanks a ton for texture by noise method!! Was helpful.. :)


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