Catch Up: Working Smarter (Part Three)

Continuing this series of catch-up posts looking at Photoshop Smart Objects, we’re going to look at how this works with other applications. If you missed the previous two posts, then you can find them here:


We can create Smart Objects from Illustrator or PDF files/data. There are two or three ways we can do this:

  1. Place an embedded file. The file data is brought into the .psd, and there is no link with the original file.
  2. Place a linked file. Only an instance of the file is placed into the .psd, and if the original file is modified or removed from the filesystem, then the instance becomes modified or broken, respectively.
  3. Paste AI data from the clipboard. The data becomes embedded in the document, but is associated with Illustrator and in effect, a document is created in a similar way to that Photoshop does when generating a .psb file.

Pasting AI Data

When working with Illustrator, and pasting Illustrator data—Photoshop should present you with a dialog where you can specify how the data is used. There are four options, and choosing the first option pastes the art as a Vector Smart Object that can be scaled, transformed, or moved without degrading the original art; the file data is embedded in the Photoshop document on a separate layer.

There are many ways to use this but perhaps one of the ways that I use this most is with gradient backgrounds for “hero” images, to overcome one of the limitations of the Photoshop gradient tool. The Gradient Tool can create circular gradients, but what if an elliptical gradient is required? You could create a circular gradient oversized and squash it down with a free transform, but it isn’t going to be perfect, and depending on the amount of squashing, may look quite “yucky” (technical term).

Here’s a circular gradient applied to a “hero” image:

circular gradient

And here’s the same thing, using an elliptical gradient:

elliptical gradientWhenever I make these things I create a rectangle at size, get the gradient the way I want it in Illustrator then copy and paste as a Smart Object into Photoshop. If anything needs to change, then I simply double-click the thumbnail, it opens in Illustrator—even if the original document it came from no longer exists—edit as required, close and save: done. There’s also the benefit that no matter what size the document is output at this layer won’t be of any concern as it is vector data.

Pasting (PDF data) from InDesign

It isn;t used quite as often but it is also possible to create Smart Objects from InDesign, but there’s a twist. Any data pasted into Photoshop from InDesign is automatically made into a vector Smart Object but if you double-click the file it doesn’t go back to InDesign as the parent application, but to Illustrator for editing.

Smart Objects and 3D Exercise


In this exercise we will use Illustrator and Smart Objects to create a rendering of a softcover book, using actual pages from a real book. The aim of the exercise is for you to use Smart Objects combined with the 3D tools to get an experience of the potential and power of these workflows. The tutorial doesn’t aim to teach you all about 3D in Photoshop—but if you’re interested then check out Richard Curtis’s Blog for more—and finally, this exercise is being executed in Photoshop CC 2014.1 (October release). If you are following along in an earlier version, some dialogs, processes and steps may appear somewhat different but you should be able to follow along. If you want to participate with the same views and steps, you could always try a 30-day Free Trial of Creative Cloud and also see what the experience is like when you’ve always got access to the most up-to-date version!

There are files available for this tutorial here: in a zip archive. The archive contains an Illustrator file if you don’t feel confident with drawing the book profile or just want to skip to the Photoshop bit, and a PDF file containing two extracted pages from my MAX lab workbook.

This exercise should take about twenty minutes to complete if you are using the pre-baked files, and about thirty otherwise, depending on your level of product competence, excluding the render step at the end (best left until you go for coffee as it can take a little while with multiple lights in the file).

Illustrator Steps

If you’re creating your own file, then start in Illustrator with a new document – it doesn’t really matter what profile you choose, but probably best to avoid any that has “Align New Objects to Pixel Grid” checked (or simply de-check it if you want).

  1. Draw an open-book profile, similar to this, with a light grey fill and no stroke:open book profile
  2. When you have completed that, alt-drag a copy further down your artboard.
  3. Remove the fill and add a darker grey stroke.
  4. Using the Direct Selection Tool, select the two points on the left-hand edge and the two on the right-hand edge.
  5. Click the “cut path at selected anchor points” button in the Control strip.
    cutting paths
  6. Switch to the Selection Tool, select the left and right vertical strokes, and remove them.
  7. Alt-drag a copy of line “a” in the diagram below (use SHIFT to constrain direction if you need to, or use the Smart Guides) up to meet the anchor points of the top line as shown. In the diagram, the copied line is referred to as line “b”.
    split paths
  8. Select the top “curvy/bow” line and line “a” together.
  9. Alt-drag a copy of them further down the artboard
  10. Create a blend using ⌘-ALT-B (Ctrl-alt-B on Windows) or Object > Blend > Make
  11. With the blend selected, access the Blend Options by double-clicking on the Blend Tool in the toolbox or in the menu system Object > Blend > Blend Options…
  12. Change the Spacing drop-down to Specified Steps and dial in a number that looks good (enable the Preview check box to see your changes). Once you’re happy with that, click OK and then repeat steps 10 – 11 with a copy of lines “a” and “b”.
    blend options dialog
  13. You should now have a file that looks like the below image. The steps/shapes have been numbered in the diagram to make it easier to know what to select in the Photoshop steps, coming up next.
    complete document
  14. Select shape 1 (the grey open-book profile) and copy it to the clipboard. Switch to Photoshop.

Photoshop Steps

  1. Create a new Photoshop document. You can create your own size or use the dimensions I have; 4000px x 2600px @ 144ppi:
    New document dialog
  2. Paste the Illustrator graphic from the clipboard as a Smart Object. Resize a bit if desired but we will be able to change the camera view later, if required.
    Pasted art
  3. Go to 3D > New 3D Extrusion from Selected Layer. You may get a dialog saying, “You are about to create a 3D layer.  Would you like to switch to the 3D workspace?”—this is a good idea, so my recommendation is go with it! Here’s another thing quickly—when you’re working in 3D in Photoshop, you only need one tool for the 3D stuff—the Move Tool—and all of the 3D functions are accessed with that.
  4. Your view will change to something similar to the below—leave your object selected. There may be what appears to be a bewildering array of controls but we only need to focus on three things for the next few minutes. The Ground Plane is like the “floor” of the 3D environment. The 3D Widget Controls are capable of moving, rotating, and scaling your 3D object and finally the 3D Camera Controls enable you to change your view of the 3D “world”.
    3D workspace Don’t worry about any of the numbers in the 3D Secondary View—the small window that is in the top-left of my document views, as it most likely is with yours—as they may be different depending on your settings.
  5. We are going to use the 3D Camera Controls to change our view. The first control, that looks like a globe, allows you to orbit the 3D camera. Mouse-down on this and drag down and to the left. Your view should now be like this, more-or-less:
  6. The next control that looks like a cross-directional- arrow, allows you to pan the camera. Move your view to locate the object towards the bottom-left a little.
  7. The last control in this trio allows you to “dolly” the camera (move in/out or towards/away from the subject/environment). If desired, change your view a little but leave a decent amount of room at the top of the document.
  8. Shift your focus to the Properties Panel (should be at the top-right of the interface) and within that panel you should see an Extrusion Depth slider. Drag that to the right and you should see your extruded shape getting longer along the blue (Z) axis. Keep going until it resembles “book-like” proportions. My version is extruded to 300mm.015
  9. Move your mouse around, hovering over the various “faces” of the book and you should be seeing some highlighting. Aim for the bottom face as shown, and click to select it.016It will not immediately be obvious that you have it selected but shift your focus to the Properties Panel and it should look like the below image:Properties Panel: Materials
  10. Materials are appearances built from various bits of texturing information. It is quite an involved topic and beyond the scope of this tutorial, so for now we are keeping it simple. To the right of the word Diffuse there is a colour swatch, and to the right of that is a small icon, that expands a drop-down. Click on that and select Edit Texture…—you may get a dialog referring to “la la la…multiple places…la la la but you can click through that.
    018You’ll now be looking at another document—itself a Smart Object—and something called a UV. Simply put it is how textures are applied and sometimes looks completely nuts but they are just representations of the groups of polygons that make up the object’s surfaces in various ways. OK, that’s maybe too much information! Zoom in to get a better view of the UV, and then switch out to Illustrator, select and copy the pages blend (3).
  11. Back into Photoshop and paste in the graphic as a Smart Object. Resize to match the UV. Don’t worry about all the diagonals and other bits you can see—they won’t appear on your model—they are only there to help with painting. Close the document your in and save when prompted; you should now be back in your 3D file and your book should look as if it has pages!
    spine detail
  12. Now let’s work on the spread pages. Begin by clicking on them to select them, and then in the Properties Panel once again go to the small icon drop-down and choose Edit Texture… just as before. This time though it isn’t immediately obvious what goes where, so let’s try an unravel that, without going too deep into 3D textures.
    • It may help to understand that everything in the 3D world is made of triangles (referred to as “polygons” or “polys” for short.
    • Where you may expect a rectangle, you’re actually going to get two triangles, with their diagonal sides butting up together.
    • The bends in the “pages” of your book are interpreted as a series of rectangles (pairs of triangles) that get narrower and narrower as the curve of the page increases towards the spine.
    • The rectangles will wrap all around that axis of the book—to form a continuous surface across it, even with the bits you can’t currently see.
  13. In the below illustration,on the left you’ll see something like the UV you’ll be looking at in your own version, and on the right you’ll see that mapped out onto your book with (A) being the right-hand page, (B) being the left-hand page and (C) being the edges of the book. The really dark lines in the “middle” are where the pages meet, with lots of thin rectangles.020Yes, they are—in this case—upside down although it’s of little consequence though as it is quite easy to take that into account.
  14. So before we add the graphics, choose a foreground colour that is near-white (like a really-really-really-light grey, or similar maybe) and then use the ALT-BACKSPACE shortcut to fill the canvas with that colour. You’ll notice that the UV lines are still there and that’s because they aren’t actually “drawn” in the texture, they are just kind-of guides.
  15. Go to File > Place Embedded… (or linked if you prefer). If you’re using your own files, locate a PDF with portrait pages; the download assets contain a file called 0000samplePages.pdf.
    021Choose Page from the radio buttons at the top of the page and from the Options drop-down choose Trim Box to use the cut size of the page.
  16. Resize the Smart Object so that it fits into the “page” on the right. Don’t worry about the distortion.Free Transform 180°Once that’s in place, right-click and choose Rotate 180º from the context menu.
  17. Repeat the last two steps with another page from the PDF (click on the page to choose in the dialog) and remember to select Trim Box from the Options drop-down.
  18. If desired, you can use the final blend from the illustrator document (4) and add the “page sides”.
  19. Close the texture .psb and save when prompted; you’ll be returned to the main document where you can see the fruits of your labours. All we need to do now is modify the lighting a little. You should be able to locate a small circular icon with a “radiating” light icon in it. Clicking on that will select the default light in the scene.
    023Drag the end of the light (like a small ball on a thin rod) around to light it from your desired angle.024In the Properties Panel under the Shadow checkbox is a slider for Softness. Drag that to soften the shadows off a bit—my file used a value of around 40%.
  20. Just to finish this off, we’ll add a fill light.
    At the bottom of the 3D panel there is a small light-bulb icon on the left that will present you with a menu when you click on it. Choose Infinite Light and a new light is added.025In the Properties Panel, change the Intensity value to about 40% or thereabouts and angle it to fill the areas that are in too deep shadow. If there’s too much light where the two combine, select the other light and reduce the intensity of that a bit, perhaps—just as photographers do in the studio.026Select any other tool to hide the 3D ground plane and widgets. Switch to the Layers Panel and make the Background Layer active, then fill it with a colour to finish up.
  21. The final step is to render the finished piece. The render shortcut is SHIFT-ALT-CMD-R (sub CMD for CTRL on windows); there is a button located at the bottom of the Properties Panel or in the menu if you prefer 3D > Render. The final render times may vary, and are sometimes best left to when you are occupied with some other task or away from your system (like at lunch). Photoshop is a very capable renderer but many things can have an effect on rendering time including:
    • The number of lights used
    • The shadow quality (shadows always increase render times)
    • The complexity, size and number of textures
    • The power of your graphics processor
    • The amount of available memory
    • How many other applications are running (especially browsers that tend to run “leaky” plug-ins)


So hopefully that has given you an idea of the power of Smart Objects, especially in the exciting world of 3D in Photoshop. The take-aways from this post are:

  1. You created something that didn’t actually exist, and made it look quite realistic-ish without too much effort.
  2. You perhaps did it in a fraction of the time it would have taken you to draw in Illustrator and probably fudge together in Photoshop for the textures.
  3. Every step you made is completely editable!

There is one final thing worth mentioning here, too—that “book” could be printed as a model on a 3D printer!

That’s pretty smart.


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