Photoshop actions are often overlooked by digital painters. Since I'm a huge fan of this hidden Photoshop feature, we'll explore it a bit in a two-part blog post. This week we'll go through the process of designing a single action, and next week we'll make a button-box of handy utilities.
Any time you find yourself repeating a series of steps while painting, an "action" might be an appropriate tool to save time. For this example I'll tackle the problem of painting with vertical symmetry - allowing me to paint one half of an object and mirror it with a single keypress. The technical part is easy, and this video provides an overview - I want to focus on the problem solving.
The initial selection
My goal is to make this action as versatile as possible. I can't assume anything about the size or shape of my image, so I'll plan on starting with a manual selection. Once I have my selection created, the rest of the steps will always remain the same - which is ideal for an action.
Step 1 - Layer via cut
It's easy to overlook stray brush marks around your canvas, so this step simple makes a new layer and places the selected content on it. It's a temporary layer, and willl get flattened down later. This guarantees that I'm only reflecting what I want.
Step 2 -Duplicate Layer
This gives me a copy which will serve as my reflected image. Notice that the position hasn't changed yet.
Step 3 - Transform current layer. *Center: Side, Width: -100%
This step is less complicated than it sounds. My goal here is to flip the image and have it line up flush with my center (reflection) line. The free transform tool makes this easy. While transforming, I simply snap the anchor point from center to center-right. With this newly defined anchor point, the 'flip horizontally' command flips the layer relative to it's right edge - ending in my desired effect.
Step 4 - Merge layers (x2)
Now that my image looks right, it's time to clean up my temporary layers. Merging down twice flattens both of these newly created layers into the original working layer, leaving my document as I found it.
The importance of planning
This action might seem a bit more complicated than you expected. It's actually my second or third draft, improving upon earlier iterations. The extra steps are put in place to make it as versatile as possible. It's relatively easy to make an action that will work for your current document, but much more challenging to design it for all possible scenarios. I strongly encourage you to design actions with this higher level of scrutiny. After all, once it's properly designed you'll have increased productivity for the long haul -- allowing you to focus on the painting. What action will you design? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.