Tutorials > Digital Design

Scanned calligraphy in Photoshop without the Magic Wand

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Squirrely Flourisher:
There's a little-known command in Photoshop called "Apply Image" that can be very helpful for working with calligraphy. If you want to manipulate your calligraphy separately from a background without having to use the Magic Wand tool to excise it, here's a way. This method will work best if the paper that you write on is white, but the calligraphy itself can be any color. (As an aside, my version of Photoshop is a little old, so some of these things might be in slightly different locations, but they still shouldn't be too hard to find.)

1. Scan your calligraphy with a scanner, and open your scanned image with Photoshop.

2. Make two new layers. Call the lower one "New Background" and the upper one "New Foreground". (The original layer with your calligraphy should be called simply "Background". The names don't matter, but I'll use them here to refer to the layers.) One way to do this is to click the "New layer" button at the bottom of the Layers tab twice.

3. Create a mask for the New Foreground layer. One way to do this is to click on the "New Foreground" layer in the Layers tab, and then to click on the "Add layer mask" button at the bottom of the Layers tab. (It's the button with a circle inside a rectangle.)

4. When you create the mask, it will be selected. But if it isn't, select it. One way to do this is to click on the mask in the Layers tab. The mask is just to the right of the thumbnail for the Layer, and there's a little chain link between the mask and the thumbnail.

5. With the mask selected, from the main menu select "Image", and then select "Apply image" from the pull-down. In the dialog box that opens, set the Layer to "Background", set the Channel to "RGB", check the Invert box, set the Blending to "Normal", set the Opacity to "100%", and uncheck the Mask box if it isn't already unchecked. Then hit Okay. The overall effect of these is to invert your original image (so that the white paper background becomes black and the darker calligraphy becomes light), turn it into a black-and-white image, and make that into a layer mask for the New Foreground layer.

6. Now for the fun part: bucket fill the New Foreground layer with the color you want your calligraphy to be, and bucket fill the New Background layer with the color you want your background to be. (The original Background layer is now irrelevant.) To do this, first select the layer that you want to fill (being sure not to select its mask instead). Then from the main menu, choose "Select", and then choose "Select all" from the pull-down. Choose the color you want in any of the usual ways, select the bucket fill tool, and click on the layer to fill it with the selected color.

As you can see, now you can manipulate the foreground and background colors separately. You could even put a picture on the New Foreground layer to make the type of lettering that Erica McPhee talks about in her "Color Your Lettering - Gatsby Style" tutorial. Or you can paint different colors or gradients into your calligraphy, and so on.

You can also manipulate the mask to get different looks to your calligraphy. If you Alt-click on the layer in Windows (presumably Option-click on a Mac), you can see the mask displayed. From there you can select "Images" from the main menu, and "Adjustments" under the submenu, and "Levels" under the subsubmenu that appears. This will allow you to manipulate where the whites and blacks are in the mask. For more sophisticated manipulation of such things, you could choose "Curves" instead of "Levels", or for a complete black-and-white-only with no grays, you could instead choose "Threshold". Any of these can be used to get rid of the "texture" that goes with actual pen writing, if that texture is undesirable for your purposes.

I'm posting a small example that I made this way. The red on white version is the original (although black on white would work just as well, if not better). The light brown one uses just Steps 1 through 6, and leaves the "texture" in. For the darker brown one, I adjusted the mask using Levels to make the light grays of the writing into white and the background even blacker. You might not be able to see much difference at this resolution, but if you try it out yourself, you'll see the "texture" or lack of it.

Sorry I haven't made a video to demonstrate this, but I thought it might be helpful to some people anyway. It takes a bit of doing to write it out, but it's really quite simple, and the key is the little-known Photoshop command "Apply image".

Erica McPhee:
Wow - this is great to know! I am going to give it a try when I get a chance. Thanks for sharing!  :)

Squirrely Flourisher:
Sounds good -- thanks! If you have any troubles with the technique or questions about it, feel free to ask. I wanted to keep the original post short, but I'd be happy to go into more detail if anyone has questions about it.

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