How to Make Screen Tones! — Part 1


You see screen tones just about everywhere. In your comic books, advertisements, and on even on television. Sometimes screen tones get referred to as screens, tones, or zip-a-tone. They come in a variety of densities, gradients, patterns. They also come in a variety of textures as well. (lines, diamonds, grit, etc)  When you apply screen tones to an illustration, you’d first carefully cut out a piece. Then apply it by burnishing it down to the paper. In this post, I’ll show you how to make screen tones for you own project and illustration using Adobe PhotoShop. In Part 1, I’ll also show you different techniques for creating screen tones and ways to apply your digital tones.

(I have a video version of this tutorial up here 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.


Let’s Start with the Basics of Making a Screen Tone:

In PhotoShop, we’ll utilized the indispensable Color Halftone filter. This can be found by clicking in the Filter menu > PixelateColor Halftone. The Color Halftone filter simulates a CMYK color separation, with each channel broken down in to 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). But 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 it’s default settings. Than check out your Channels pallet.

Color Halftone window

A look at the Color Halftone window:
Inside we can control the maximum radius (size) of our dots. Channels 1 – 4 will fauximulate our CMYK channels. The number in each blank represent 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’s 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 photo
Deleter White photo

Deleter white screened
Deleter white after Color Halftone filter

As you can tell the filter obliterates any detail from the Deleter White jar photo. Yet the smaller the dots you use, the finer the detail the screens can create.

Now that we have an understanding of what the Color Halftone filter is capable of, let’s get to the meat of this post, how to make screen tones in PhotoShop. The first thing we need to consider is how your image will be reproduced. Will it be for print or web? Will your image be reduced in its final form? These two questions will make you consider the max size/radius of your dots, and weather or not you’ll be able to layer your screens, resulting in an unpleasant moire effect. Considering these questions, you will want to ensure that your screens don’t get destroyed in the end product, especially if it’s going to be used as a stylistic touch.


Creating a Basic Screen Tone

For our example, let’s go back to our back 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

We’ve just created a black and white screen tone. Now let’s try using a 45 degree angle and a smaller radius:

screen shot of Color Halftone window with all channels at 45 degrees screen tone at 45 degrees


Creating Screens with Grays

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

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

Now with our gray-scale, 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 try 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)

Just so I don’t forget, Let’s briefly go over how to create screen tones with gradations. You 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 brush work I did using a soft edge:

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 screens can be useful for creating shadows within your screened areas. Weather to you choose to use this technique or not will be an artistic decision on your part. The reason why I say that is whenever you combine 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 be shrunken down. (Example: most artwork for comic books in North American are drawn in a 11 x 15 inch image area, and shrunken down at around 60%.)

First we’ll start a middle gray fill. (You can set that in your Color PalletTo 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 start with my 50% grey fill in PhotoShop, and converted into a 45° screen tone. (Click to enlarge.)

Layers PalletNext, 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 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 to 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 any of your selection tools, your Brush Tool (B key), or Gradient Tool (G key).

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

My combined screens.
My combined screens on two different layers.

Scratching Out Screens

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

In PhotoShop we’ll make a new screen tone by creating an 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)  (make sure your brush has a Hardness of 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 cloud, transitions, 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 realize how long this post has become) I’ll show you how to apply what we’ve learned to some line art. So until Part 2, go ahead make some screen tones in PhotoShop, and play around with the techniques we’ve just learn.


© 2013 Chris Hilbig