How to Make Screen Tones!

You see screen tones just about everywhere. In your manga, advertisements, and even on television. Screen tones often times are referred to as screens, tones, or zip-a-tone. They come in a variety of densities, gradients, patterns. Screens also come in a variety of textures as well. (lines, diamonds, grit, etc) 

In this article, I’ll show you how to make screen tones for your own projects and illustrations using Adobe PhotoShop. In Part 1, I’ll show you different techniques for creating screen tones and ways to apply your digital tones. Part 2 will show you how to apply screentones in PhotoShop to your illustrations, manga, etc.

(I have a video version of this tutorial up on YouTube.)

Here’s what we’ll need:

  • A computer
  • A copy of Adobe PhotoShop
  • A digitized inked illustration
  • A scanner would help, but isn’t necessary.

Basics of Making a Screen Tones with the Color Halftone Filter:

In PhotoShop, we’ll utilize the indispensable Color Halftone filter. This can be found by clicking in the Filter menu > Pixelate Color Halftone. The Color Halftone filter simulates a CMYK color separation, with each channel broken down into a dot-patten or screen.

Given the fact that most of us use RGB mode for our images, the separations will actually be in RGB (Red, Green, and Blue). If your image is in CMYK, Lab, or any other color mode, the Color Halftone filter will break your image down accordingly. Try creating a new image, fill it with any color, and run the Color Halftone filter using its default settings. Then check out your Channels pallet.

A Look at the Color Halftone Window

Color Halftone window

Inside the Color Halftone pallet, we can control the maximum radius (size) of our dots. Channels 1 – 4 will act as our CMYK channels. The number in each blank represents the angle (in degrees) at which each screen will be laid out. A change to any of these numbers will rotate that channel and change the end result of your image

Here are some examples of what the Color Halftone filter is capable of:

A solid (50%) middle grey fill
A solid (50%) middle grey fill
Middle grey fill after Halftone Screen filter
Middle grey fill after Halftone Screen filter
Deleter White photoDeleter White photoDeleter white screenedDeleter white after Color Halftone filter

As you can tell the filter obliterates any fine detail from the Deleter White jar photo. The larger the dots, the more detail that will be lost.

What to Consider Before Creating a New Screen Tone

Now that we have an understanding of what the Color Halftone filter is capable of, let’s use it to make some screens in PhotoShop! The first thing we need to consider is how your image will be reproduced. Second, will it be for print or web? Will your image be reduced in its final form? (Yes, you can enlarge a raster image, but it will look pixelated and print poorly.)

These two questions will make you consider the max size/radius of your dots, and whether or not you’ll be able to layer your screens, resulting in an unpleasant moire effect. Answering these questions will also ensure that your screens don’t get destroyed in the end product, especially if your screens are going to be used as a stylistic touch.

Creating a Basic Screen Tone

For our example, let’s go back to our middle-grey fill. We’ll open up the Color Halftone window again, and type in 90° for our angle in every channel. The result:

A screen tone created from a 50% grey fill
A screen tone created from a 50% grey fill

Now let’s try making a screentone with a 45-degree angle and a smaller radius:

screen shot of Color Halftone window with all channels at 45 degreesscreen tone at 45 degrees
Creating a screentone with a 45° angle using the Color Halftone filter.

Creating Screens Tones with Grays

Let’s try a creating a range of different grays from 10% to 90%:

A grey scale with its screen tone counterpart.
A greyscale with its screen tone counterpart.

Now with our grayscale, we have an idea of what the possibilities are. With PhotoShop, we can use greys to create an endless array of screen tones. Let’s start with a white to black gradient:

A grey scale from white to black, converted to screens.
A grey-scale from white to black converted to screens. (Top is a 45° angle, Bottom is a 90° angle)

Converting Gradients Into Screens

Let’s briefly go over how to create screen tones with gradations. Select your Gradient Tool (keystroke G) from PhotoShop’s tool pallet. Click and drag across the area you wish to fill with a gradient. (This can also be done inside a selection.)

Gradient setup in Photoshop
Basics for using the Gradient Tool in PhotoShop.

We can also do the same after any type of airbrushing technique, which you can do with PhotoShop’s Brush Tool and a soft brush setting. Here’s a sample of some brushwork I did using a soft-edged brush:

A sample of some airbrush work in PhotoShop
A sample of some airbrush work in PhotoShop.
Airbrush same converted to screen tones.
Airbrush same converted to screen tones.

The samples above should give you a pretty good idea of what can be accomplished in PhotoShop.

Overlaying Screens

Overlaying screentones can be useful for creating shadows within your screened areas. Whether you choose to use this technique or not will be an artistic decision on your part. The reason why I say this is because whenever you overlap two or more tones together, you’ll usually create a mioré effect/pattern. This can be a good or bad thing depending upon the result.

Sometimes it’ll work and other times it’ll just irritate the eye. And if you plan on taking your work to press, there is the possibility of your screens getting completely obliterated, especially if your work is going to be shrunken down. (Example: most artwork for comic books in North America are drawn in an 11 x 15 inch image area, and shrank down at around 60%.)

Layering Screens in PhotoShop

First, we’ll start a middle gray fill. (You can set that in your Color Pallet. To fill your square with your new foreground color,  use the keystroke option/alt and delete.) Then we’ll open up the Color Halftone filter, in the Filter menu > Pixelate > Color Halftone. For my demonstration, I’m using a 6-pixel max radius, and all of my channels are set to a 45-degree angle.

I start with my 50% grey fill.
I started with a 50% grey fill in PhotoShop, and converted it into a 45° screen tone. (Click to enlarge.)
Layers Pallet in Adobe PhotoShop

Next, we’ll create a new layer for our next screen tone. This can be accomplished by either clicking the New Layer button in the Layers pallet or clicking in the Layer menu > New Layer… 

After we create a new layer, you can either fill the entire layer with another or grey or make a selection with the Lasso Tool (L key) or one of the Marquee Tools (M key).

If you do fill the entire layer, you’ll have the benefit of using a Layer Mask, which will allow you to define the area without harming the actual screen on your layer. You can create a new Layer Mask by either clicking the Add New Layer Mask button in your Layers pallet or clicking the Layer menu > Layer Mask > Reveal All or Hide All. After creating your new Layer Mask, you can use any of your selection tools (L key for the Lasso Tool or M key for the Maque Tool), your Brush Tool (B key), or Gradient Tool (G key).

The end result can be sometimes interesting. The weird bump I created was done by the Circle Marquee Tool that has its Feather setting set to 50 pixels.

My combined screenstones in Adobe PhotoShop.
My combined screens are on two different layers.

Scratching Out Screen Tones

Our next technique is as advertised. If we were to do this in the real world, we’d either use a blade or exacto knife [amazon] to scratch away at the screen tone. Or you’d grab a brush [amazon] and some white paint [amazon] to hatch across the screen.

In PhotoShop we’ll make a new screen tone by creating a new layer (either clicking the New Layer button in the Layers pallet, or clicking in the Layer menu > New Layer…), fill it with a gray, and then run the Color Halftone filter (in the Filter menu > Pixelate > Color Halftone). It doesn’t matter what settings you use.

Create a new Layer Mask (by clicking the Add New Layer Mask button in your Layers pallet or clicking the Layer menu > Layer Mask Reveal All or Hide All.) We’ll use our new Layer Mask and our Brush Tool (B key), with the Hardness set to 100%, to scratch away at our screen tone. With your Brush tool, you’ll build up hatch marks on your Layer Mask. Depending upon what you’re trying to achieve will determine the size of your brush. For the cloud in the sample below, I started with a large brush. Then around the space, I scratched or hatched away with a smaller brush.

A sample of the Scratch technique.
A sample of the Scratch technique.

I’ve seen this technique used in mangas for clouds, transitions, beams of light, high-lights, and overly-dramatic scenes. Play with this technique for a while. You’ll never know what you’ll come up with.


 Next Time…

Next time, (because I hadn’t realized how long this post has become) I’ll show you how to apply screentones to some line art. Before you read that tutorial, go ahead make some screen tones in PhotoShop. Play around with the techniques we’ve just learned. Post your results on Twitter and use the hashtag #ScreenTones

© 2013, 2022 Chris Hilbig, Updated March 23, 2022