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AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #11 (October 19, 2006)

Enhancing Plans with Photoshop Layer Styles

Scott Onstott
Book & Video Author

Photoshop is a fantastic tool for enhancing CAD drawings for client presentation. Layer styles make enhancement easy and best of all, layer styles remain editable forever so you can experiment to your heart's content. The techniques I show you here work in Photoshop 7 or later. Here are the sample_files if you want to follow along.

Before you dive in Photoshop, start in your CAD program. I'm using AutoCAD 2007, but any CAD program will do. Turn off any extraneous layers and put together a clean version of what you want to present to your client. Photoshop makes the best looking (anti-aliased) text, so turn off all text layers in CAD.

Either take a screen capture of the drawing by pressing Alt+Print Screen or use some feature in your CAD program to output pixels. In AutoCAD, you can use the PNGOUT command, or create a raster printer and Plot an image for greater than screen resolution.

Open the CAD image in Photoshop. Use the Crop tool to cut away any of your CAD program's user interface if you took a screen capture. Choose Image > Trim to remove any extra pixels surrounding the linework. The image should have black pixels on a white background (if not, Invert by pressing Ctrl+I).

At this point the image has black and white pixels only. Remove all the white pixels by using the Magic Eraser. Hold down the Eraser tool and choose the Magic Eraser Tool from the shortcut menu. On the options bar, set Tolerance to 0; uncheck Anti-alias, Contiguous, and Sample All Layers; and set Opacity to 100%. Click once on a white area of the image and all the white pixels are erased, leaving transparency in their wake.

The Magic Eraser converted the Background layer to the unlocked Layer 0 because the background cannot have transparency by definition. Rename Layer 0 to Linework. This layer only contains the black pixels of the linework.

Apply a layer style to the Linework layer by clicking the tiny layer style button (whose icon looks like a cursive f) at the bottom of the Layers palette. All the effect types appear on the shortcut menu. Choose Stroke.

The Layer Style dialog box is a one-stop shop for all the effects you can use to enhance CAD drawings. The same effects that appeared in the shortcut menu appear in a panel on the left side of the Layer Style dialog box. A check mark means that the effect is on, but you'll have to click on the effect name to edit its parameters (not obvious).

Your selection of Stroke will open the Stroke page of the Layer Style dialog box. Click the color swatch and choose pure black from the color picker. Set Size to 1 px and Position to Center. These settings anti-alias the linework without thickening it too much. Try a Size of 2 or 3 pixels if you want to boost the lineweight.

Incidentally, layer styles work one layer at a time, so if you'd like to have a few different layers in Photoshop that control lineweight, it makes sense to start over and export a few layers from CAD to separate image files. Then you can copy and paste these image files together into one image in Photoshop. Use the Magic Eraser to remove white pixels and you'll be left with a composite multi-layered image of linework in Photoshop. Apply stroke layer styles to each layer to have independent lineweight control. But I digress...

At this point it would be helpful to create a new background layer filled with white pixels so that the linework above it stands out. Create a new layer by pressing Shift+Ctrl+N.

Drag the new layer down below the Linework layer in the Layers palette, so it's on the bottom. Press D to set the default colors and then choose Layer > New > Layer from Background. You have a new background layer.

So far we've only scratched the surface of layer styles by applying the stroke effect. Before we get carried away, turn off the stroke effect you just applied by expanding the Linework layer and clicking the Stroke's eye icon. Anti-aliased effects make it hard to select and fill adjacent areas, so it's best to hide some types of effects until after you are done adding layer styles.

Create a new layer at the top of the layer stack by pressing Shift+Ctrl+N. Rename the new layer Walls. So far there are no pixels on the Walls layer. Layer styles operate on pixels—it doesn't matter what color the pixels are. Wherever the pixels are, that's where a layer style will have an effect.

And now for the real power...choose the Paint Bucket tool by pressing G. Set up the options bar as you see here:

Click inside each enclosed wall area, filling it with black. Remember that these black pixels are being deposited on a new layer (Walls), never interfering with the original Linework layer. Add a new layer style to the Walls layer—this time choose Color Overlay from the shortcut menu and the Layer Style dialog box appears.

Click the color swatch and choose a deep red. In this case, you can leave Blend Mode set to Normal, but in many cases you'd want to choose Overlay to make this effect overlay other effects.

Without closing the Layer Style dialog box, click Stroke's checkbox and click on the word Stroke. Click the color swatch and choose pure black from the color picker. Set Size to 1 px and Position to Inside.

Create a new layer by pressing Shift+Ctrl+N. Rename the new layer Counters. Fill in the counter areas with black using the Paint Bucket (press G). Apply a Pattern Overlay effect.

Select a pattern from the pattern drop-down menu (click arrow next to pattern swatch). Note: additional pattern libraries are available from the pattern drop-down menu's arrow button.

Adjust the scale slider until the patterns looks just right on screen. You might need to drag the Layer Style dialog box out of the way so you can see the pattern in your image. Note that it is possible to drag the pattern in the image, helpful when registering ceramic tiles, for example.

Without closing the Layer Style dialog box, check Bevel and Emboss and then click on the effect name to edit its parameters. Play around with the settings to see what they do. Remember to drag the Layer Style dialog box out of the way so you can see the effects in real-time. Now you're getting it.

Create a new layer, fill the area of interest, and try adding a gradient overlay effect to the Refrigerator. The Sink could use an Inner Shadow to indicate depth, and a color overlay to make it gray metallic. I applied a Pattern Overlay to the Floor layer, while the Range took Drop Shadow, Bevel and Emboss, and Color Overlay effects. If you don't like how an effect turns out, you can always edit it through its layer style. You can see exactly which effects I used in the Layers palette below. There are many ways to use layer styles, so have fun experimenting.

About the Author

Scott Onstott is a book and video author of AEC software tutorials. He has a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and has served as an instructor there, in addition to working in several prominent engineering, architecture, and interiors firms in San Francisco. He has also worked as a technical editor and technology consultant.

Scott has contributed to over two dozen books and videos on AutoCAD, Architectural Desktop, VIZ Render, Revit, 3ds Max, VIZ, Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter, Fireworks, and Dreamweaver. He most recently co-authored AutoCAD:_Professional_Tips_and_Tricks with Lynn Allen. He can be reached via:

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