Distorting an image can elevate a garment print from ‘quite nice’ to ‘must have’. Marshall Atkinson breaks down the technique used to create new patterns and grunge effects

This feature is all about creating easy-to-use, distorted pattern files that you can use to add some pizzazz to your graphic files. Nothing fancy, just solid technique. If you have ever bought a distorted or stylised pattern, you are going to wonder why you wasted your money after you read this. Creating your own not only gives you control, but also allows you to put your creative spin on the design aesthetic.

I’ve been creating these patterns for years and have found some great ways to build new and interesting graphics just from my surroundings. What makes it even easier is that you can get started with just your camera phone.

Ready? Here we go!

First step

Grab your smartphone. If you are one of the six people on the planet that doesn’t have one, use a digital camera instead. The benefit of using digital photography is the immediacy of the image. You can tell right away if the shot you took is what you wanted. Don’t like it? Take another.

For our purposes, we are looking for interesting patterns, textures and contrasting elements that can be the basis for creating Photoshop textures that we can apply to graphics. The best are those that have strong light and dark juxtapositions, interesting positive and negative shapes and forms, and even some direction in their patterns. You want to look for something ‘different’. If you are trying to choose the right thing to take a picture, think about how you might use the image or how it might form the foundation for something else.

In about five minutes of walking around outside I found a few textures that I thought might make some good candidates. For the sake of simplicity for this article, I applied the same technique in Photoshop to each of these so you can see how the patterns might differ. If this wasn’t for the article I might have played with these some more to create different effects, but I’ve kept it simple this time.

The six photos chosen are of tarmac, bush, carpet, concrete aggregate, grass, and shrub shadows. These were all taken with my camera phone, and not altered in any way. After I opened each in Photoshop, I resaved them at 300 dpi, at 20.5 cm x 11.5 cm (8” x 4.5”) file size.

As you can see, the photos are nothing special. You could take these: in fact, you probably can take better shots of more interesting patterns. But I’m lazy, and so I went with the first suitable subjects that I noticed.

In Photoshop you can spend a lot of time messing around with each of these to get the perfect balance of dark versus light, edge definition and all sorts of image improvements. I didn’t do any of that. What we want here are quick, dirty, and ultimately, unique patterns.

Second step

For each of these photos, I converted the photos from RGB mode to Grayscale. While these patterns are already somewhat interesting, they are going to take on an entirely different feel as we want the randomness of nature and found objects to influence our look. The Grayscale mode is important as we’ll ultimately be converting each file to a high contrast, black and white image. If you aren’t happy with the tones in your Grayscale file, here’s your opportunity to change it using the Curve control to get precisely the look you want. I didn’t change anything for any of these shots.

Third step

Now, here’s where the fun begins. Another mode change: go from Grayscale to Bitmap.

This is going to completely remove all grey tones in your file and make everything either black or white. The trick here is to use the ‘Method’ pull-down in the Bitmap mode command: each of the selections offered produces a different type of look for your file. I would suggest trying them all out and seeing what works for you the best. I chose only two.

50% threshold This removes all of the grey and midtones completely and leaves a black and white pattern. There is no ambiguity here. This is the boldest selection and, if you have the right pattern, results in what is often the most starkly creative looking of the bunch.

(Top to bottom) Tarmac, bush, carpet, concrete aggregate, grass, shrub shadows

  • Carpet Halftone was created using this method. I punched up the texture by running an Unsharp Mask on the file before converting to further delin- eate the shapes in the carpet.
  • Concrete Aggregate Halftone was also created this way, but here I went straight from Grayscale to Bitmap, without any file adjustments.
  • Shrub Shadows Halftone was created in the same way as the concrete texture.

Halftone Screen This converts your file to a halftone. The cool trick here is that you can select different types of halftone shapes, angles and frequency (the amount of the halftone per inch) For my selections, chose to show some different patterns so you can see how they look.

  • Asphalt Halftone was created using the Bitmap Halftone at 30 lines/ inch, 0 angle degrees and with the Line shape. This produces a great effect that looks like old fashioned scratchboard, or maybe woodcut if the lines are thick enough. The 0 angle makes the lines go horizontal.
  • Bush Texture Halftone was created the same way, but the angle was set to 90 instead of 0. This makes the lines go vertical instead of horizontal.
  • Grass Halftone Texture was created by not using lines, but dots instead. The variables were the same: 30 lines/inch, 0 angle, so the pattern is horizontal.

You can see the actual halftones I made from the original photographs in the images above, centre. Compare them with the Grayscale images to their left.

Each of these files took 20 or 30 seconds to process, at most. These are huge timesavers when you are looking to create something unique for a creative piece you are working on. Could you use them in your designs?

Fourth step

So you are saying to yourself, “That’s great Marshall, but how do I use these?”

For the purpose of demonstration I created a ‘Property Of’ graphic to test out each of these files and see how it can change the look of the type by clipping it into the file.

You can see the original graphic over the page. It’s just a simple file, nothing fancy. It looks okay already, but once we throw some of our new filters on this, it’s going to look even better.

For this demonstration I’m working in Photoshop. It’s easy. I just copy and paste each of the final textures, and select the dark areas of the graphic. Invert that selection and choose the texture layer. Then click delete.

The texture layer is applied to the graphic, and I can choose the opacity of the file until I’m happy with the resulting pattern overlay.

I’ve zoomed in so you can see the detail. I prefer this Grass pattern (above) for my design file.

There are two ways to separate this file. You could flatten the file and save it as a .tif then bring it into your vector program to print. This will make the greyscale elements print with the correct halftone dots and patterns you normally use. This would print as a one colour.

Another method would be to separate the file in Photoshop into two colours: one grey, one black. This gives you more control when printing, but it’s an extra colour so your production costs will increase. It also requires a little more work, but it will deliver a better print and it’s ridiculously easy.

The finished result


  1. First, merge the graphic and the texture layer so it is just a single layer.
    Then, while still in Channels, click up and select the RGB channels. You are selecting your art file on the Layers now. At the top menu selections, choose ‘Select’, and then pull down to grab ‘Color Range’.
  2. In Color Range, you can select as much or as little of the area you want to grab. This is controlled by the ‘Fuzziness’ slider. For our purposes, we are going to use the eyedropper tool and select the grey area we want to make into a channel. Make sure you have ‘Invert’ checked so the background in this tool will be white.
  3. Select the grey area and pull the Fuzziness slider until you are happy with your selection. This grabs everything you want for the channel. This will have the ‘marching ants’ show for your selection.
  4. Click the create a new channel button at the bottom of the palette. A new channel will be created and it will be automatically named Alpha 1. It will be a solid black square, but the ‘marching ants’ will be visible. Just invert the art (command ‘i’), and deselect the ‘marching ants’ (command ‘d’). This will now show the graphic selection you have chosen on a white background.
  5. Double click the Alpha 1 channel. The Channel Options palette will open.
  6. Check ‘Spot Color’. Double-click on the red square, and the Color Picker palette will appear. Choose Color Libraries, and pick the PMS colour you would like this spot colour to be. Back on the Channel Options palette, make the solidity 95%.
  7. Choose the RGB channels again to select your original art. This will deselect the new spot colour channel for viewing automatically.
  8. Repeat steps 2-8, except this time you choose the black areas of the design, not the grey.
  9. Review your files, then to split the channels to get them into a usable format delete the RGB files and leave the two new channels. Choose ‘Split Channels’ in the channel command section and save each as a .tif file. Each plate will be 100% to size and register with the other. Make screens with each, then print!

Marshall Atkinson is the Professional Services director for InkSoft, and program owner for the new InkSoft Production Manager software. In his Professional Services capacity, Marshall provides coaching to shops on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning and strategy, employee motivation and management and sustainability.