15 tips for using texture in art & illustrations

Top illustrators give conceptual and practical advice on using textures to add depth and feeling to artworks.

Use stock as textures

Stock digital photography and illustration work beautifully to create textures particularly vintage botanical illustrations with intrinsic details. I try to use just a segment of these illustrations in repetitive patterns as part of the composition in my work.

Usually these illustrations are in black outlines, so Photoshop mask & burn tools are an effective way to create shading, similar to how you would do using a stencil and spray paint to create the idea of volume.

Alberto Cerriteno (USA)

Be inspired by natural textures

Explore nature to find the most beautiful and interesting textures. On the ground, tree bark, leaf patterns, etc. Nature offers so many great and unique textures that can spark ideas for your illustrative work.

If you scan them, photograph them or even emulate them with your own drawing skills the possibilities are endless for interesting and rich results.

Alberto Cerriteno (USA)

Paint your own textures

I often use repetitive brush strokes to generate weight and visual interest in clean and flat areas. I have a big collection of different brush strokes created by hand on textured papers, which I have built up over time and scanned ready for use during the digital process.

Alberto Cerriteno (USA)

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Get scribbling

Scanning drawn images – or even scribbles and marks – is my favourite way of making original textures. They can then be manipulated on Photoshop or Illustrator to help give real textures and a unique feel to an otherwise mostly digital piece of work. Monoprints also work well for creating large textured areas.

Alex Foster (UK)

Get free textures online

Sourcing textures online will save you time, and there are many hi-res textures readily available to download. Using tools in Photoshop to first de-saturate the image, proceed to adjust the levels to create a harsh contrast of black and white. The colour pick tool allows you to select certain areas of the image, and delete the rest, resulting in a layer can be coloured however you wish.

Alex Foster (UK)

Use real textures

Everything [I make] is created by hand in black and white, to create the right tones and depth for each image. I use a variety of different mediums including spray painting, washes of watercolour, smudging conte crayon and rolling out ink with a brayer. The paper I choose is also very important as it reacts differently with each material.

Eleanor Taylor (UK)

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Build a texture library

I like everything to be hand-made so I spend a great deal of times experimenting with different materials and scanning the results into the computer. There are some favourite textures that I always go back to but on the whole I like to create something fresh and new for every piece of work.

It’s a good idea to scan your textures in at a high dpi as you might want to use them on larger images in the future.

Drop the wand

Stay clear of Photoshop's Magic Wand tool and instead get practiced with using clipping masks. When I make a transparent texture I put a new layer over the top, turn it into a clipping mask and fill it with colour.

Eleanor Taylor (UK)

Start with a physical source, a found object of some sort. I generally find the less processing effects you use the better: combining different textures you have found or created by hand using just blending modes and curves is very effective – without getting into effects, which can look a bit obvious sometimes.

I have a folder full of saved textures I use for different images depending on what I feel is required.

Eoin Ryan (UK)

I make all my textures manually with inks and old papers, these are then scanned and sometimes combined in Photoshop to create more depth.

I use the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop quite a lot for shading – this is a quick and easy way to add more depth to your image.

Eoin Ryan (UK)

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To achieve a nice vintage look, my best tip is to mask out and hide areas of your finished piece behind a slightly textured layer – making sure that the detail is retained.

Think of the textures as if they were an additional ink layer that goes on top of your illustration – try to keep only the dark areas of the texture visible.

Erick Ortega (Colombia)

I tune up my scanned textures in Adobe Photoshop using Contrast and Levels, plus the Grain, Smart Sharpen, and Distort filters – depending on the look I want to get.

After I feel happy with the texture’s appearance I convert the image to a bitmap image by changing the colour mode to get that ‘comic print’ look.

Erick Ortega (Colombia)

Try printing out an inked outline of your drawing; get some copies from an old grainy Xerox machine, wrinkle them, rip them or collage and de-collage one upon the other.

Getting messy and experimenting with materials and techniques can lead to new discoveries. Scan these into your digital software and play with filters, contrast, the curves and even different colour modes.

Time spent on experimentation is never time lost.

Erick Ortega (Colombia)

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Scan in a whole heap of junk into Photoshop and play with levels and contrasts and see what works for you. Layer options allow you to use tools like Darken, Screen and Overlay to play with your textures and create dramatic effects.

I have a go-to ‘paper’ texture – a scanned piece of sugar paper, which I place over most pieces. Creating textures often begins with scanning the textures in black and white, and playing with the levels a bit and adjusting the opacity to my needs.

Nicholas Frith (UK)

I use textures to recapture a tangibility of sorts within my work, which is often lost after the drawings have been processed and ‘digi-fied’. I work by tracing layers separately, from a fairly tight rough, one drawing per color, either in pencil or indian ink. Then I reassemble the image and add colour in Photoshop.

The illustration of the gorilla for example, commissioned for an article in The Wall Street Journal uses a ‘denim’ texture from a scanned section of my jeans. For me, and my work, textures are used to break up the image and take the sheen off.

Nicholas Frith (UK)