How to "clean up" your art for patterns using Adobe Photoshop®

So, you've spent hours making your beautiful art elements, digitized them all, gotten everything uploaded onto your computer, and finally installed Photoshop! So, now what? It's time to clean them up!

This is final step before you can start putting together your seamless patterns, and that requires you to get your files cleaned, and saved into a format that makes it easier for you to use them in the future.

By "cleaned", I mean you will want to remove all of the negative space or the paper/canvas you see in the background and just leave the focal art element(s) to use. 

I will preface this post by saying there are many tools in Photoshop that you can use to remove the background from your images. There are also third-party software and plugins you can download that claim to do all of this work for you. While I do find that sometimes software programs do help to quickly remove backgrounds from some art, I have yet to find one that works for all my different styles and mediums of art. Sometimes I find that these programs will remove too much of my background, or that the edges will be jagged or pixelated. I've also had them remove entire sections of my art that I meant to keep intact. So, if you are going to look into different software to help you with this step, I would just say beware and always save your work frequently! 

I'm going to explain my different methods of cleaning up my art files. I tend to be a bit meticulous about the edges of the elements, and I'd rather take my time and work through each element one at a time, saving them individually so I can easily reuse them later in other patterns if needed. If you already prefer another method or tool that's totally fine, like I said, there are quite a few different methods!

Let's get to cleaning!

1. Import

Open up Photoshop, and start a new file with a canvas size of your choosing. I generally will use 12" x 12" at 300 DPI. 

To import my art file: I go under "File" --> "Place Embedded", find the location of your file, and click "Place". It should center the image in the middle of your canvas. You can resize as needed by clicking and dragging on any of the points in the corners or sides. 

You'll notice that you have a grey and white checkerboard in the background, with your image on top. On your layers palette, it should just show your file name on one single layer.

Tip: If your file name appears with a lock symbol next to it, double-click to unlock the layer. 

Troubleshooting Tips: If you don't see your layers palette, toolbar, or any other window that appears to be missing from your workspace, always check under "Window" --> (and make sure the section you are looking for has a checkmark).

Additional: Importing a file this way should automatically import the art layer as "smart object", which is great but is definitely a topic for another day's blog! For this tutorial we will not be using smart objects. If you do not first "rasterize" your artwork layer, you may get an error message such as this: 


A quick way to rasterize the layer is to select the eraser tool, shown below:

Click anywhere on the background of your image, and you'll get another message: 

Click OK, and we can move on to the next step.

2. Remove excess Background 

There are a few different ways you can accomplish this. I think it's easiest to explain some of the different tools available and what exactly they do. It's easiest to try a few different methods to get used to the different tools, and then decide which method is easier for you.

Tip: For this practice module I would suggest uploading art that has one element on the page like the blue tree example, especially if you are a beginner! 

Rectangular /Elliptical Marquee Tool: This tool allows you to select an area of your art in the shape of a rectangle. Alternately the elliptical marquee tool allows you to select an area in the shape of an oval. 

For example, if you wanted to remove the entire top section of the white of the background on your art, as shown below, you can use this rectangular selection tool to click and drag a shape over the area you would like to erase.

In order to remove the background you have selected, hit delete.

Tip: If you ever remove too much, or accidentally make a mistake in Photoshop, Command + Z on a Mac (CTRL + Z on a PC) is your best friend! You can also access the same function by doing to "Edit" --> "Undo"

You would be left with something similar to this, where the white above the top of the tree was removed. I would maybe consider using this tool on the example below to quickly remove the excess white of the page from the top and the bottom of the tree. 

Lasso Tool: This is a great tool for quickly hand drawing an area you need to select to erase . It works well to also quickly delete the inverse of what shape you draw. I'll explain both! Make sure when using this tool that you draw a completed loop around whatever area you are trying to select. You need to connect the starting point with the end point. You also need to draw the entire outline around your selection in one pass without lifting your mouse! For beginners this can be a bit tricky! I would suggest practicing doing simple shapes first before trying to draw more detailed selections. 

In my example, I used the lasso tool to quickly draw a rough shape around the outside of my tree. I made sure not to draw over the actual tree itself. For a beginner, I would suggest even just doing a simple triage shape around the tree instead of trying to go around all of the different points of the branches. 

 If I hit "delete" right now, I would actually delete the tree selection and leave the background paper, which we wouldn't want to do! In this case you need to change the selection to do the opposite, or inverse. How you do this is by going to "Select" --> "Inverse". It'll subtly change the area that is selected from the tree, to everything except the tree! Now you can hit "delete" and you'll be left with just the rough tree shape:

You'll notice you still have the moving dotted line around the outside of your shape you drew. This means that the are is still selected. You will need to deselect that shape before you can go on to the next step. You can do this a few ways:

Use the file menu and go to "Select"--> "Deselect" or, you can do Command D on a Mac, or CTRL D on a PC.  

You can practice using the lasso tool to select some smaller spaces in the areas between your shapes, or if you have any background that need to be deleted inside of another shape, this is a great tool to use. 

Eraser Tool: As the name implies, this tool erases! You have options for the size, hardness, and shape of your eraser tool by right clicking on your canvas when the tool is selected:

You'll get a menu that gives you different options with sliders for adjusting. More often than not, the only thing I'm changing would be the size of the eraser. You'll want to use a large size if you're erasing large areas, and smaller to be more precise.

You use the eraser tool by clicking and dragging through the areas you want to remove. You can also individually click in areas to remove a circle in the size of your current eraser. 

Tip: Be sure to check the size of your eraser before you start! If you remove too much, remember to use Command Z / Ctrl Z to go back a step. I like to erase in smaller sections in case I do make a mistake, I don't have to lose too much work when I "undo"! 

Like using the lasso tool, using the eraser tool does take some practice to get used to it. It helps me to zoom in by using Command + or Command - to zoom out. You can alternately go to the file menu under "View" --> "Zoom in", or "Zoom Out" if you prefer. 

Magic Wand Tool: This tool will make a selection of an area based on the color of the pixels in the area you click. 

This tool requires a bit of tinkering to get good results, especially if your background is white or off white. You can adjust how much the tool with select by adjusting two options: The sample size, and the tolerance. The larger the sample size, and the higher number you have under tolerance, the larger area that will be selected by the magic wand tool. I usually leave mine on "Point Sample", and a tolerance between 25-50. You'll have to adjust depending on the colors in your piece. Be careful also that it is not selecting areas in different parts of your canvas outside the area you mean to select. It can also leave out small areas that are hard to see. 

Tip: To double check your work, I like to add a another layer in a solid color, so I can easily see any pixels I might have missed. 

You do this by clicking the + button in the layers palette (mine is on the right side towards the bottom). Name the layer "Background Layer".

Drag the new layer beneath your art layer:

Make sure you have your new background layer selected, and use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill the layer with a color of your choice. I usually perfer to use black because I think its easier to see stray pixels. 

This is what it looks like with the background layer filled:

Work to completely remove the background from your image layer by clicking back to the image layer in the layers palette, and using the eraser tool, lasso tool, and/or the marquee selection tools to finish getting rid of any extra background.

You can turn the background on and off by clicking the eye icon to the left of the layer name.

Once you're finished getting rid of the background, it should be similar to this:

 3. SAVE your files!: 

For elements like these, I prefer to save them in the .PNG format.  What this does is save your artwork with a transparent background, so all of the area that is that grey/white checkerboard will not show up when you use this piece of art in future patterns. Make sure if you used a solid background layer that you turn it off by clicking the eye icon first before saving!

Save by going to "File" --> "Save As" (click "on your computer" in the lower left corner). You'll want to name the file something descriptive, select the folder or area on your computer you want to save the file to, and select "PNG" as the format, and hit save. 

Congrats! You have finished making your first element! Be sure you SAVE your work so you can use and reuse these elements in your future patterns! I like to save all of my elements to a specific folder on my hard drive, and I sort them all by categories like "florals", "trees', "fruits", "Christmas"etc..  so I can find them easier in the future.

If you have any questions, or technical difficulties, you can always reach out to me via email, or we can chat over on social media.

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I'm looking forward to hearing from you if this method was helpful. Make sure you're subscribed to our email list so you get a head's up when new blog posts go live!

For our next blog, we will be going our taking our finished elements and using Aquario Design's new Textile Designer plugin for Adobe Photoshop to create our own seamless patterns! You'll need to make sure you have the plugin installed if you'd like to follow along.

You can read more about Textile Designer and download the plugin from their website: 

As an added bonus, Aquario is offering my blog readers an exclusive 25% discount off their annual subscription, use code: BLACKFRIDAY25OFF to get your discount!

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