One of the coolest things about Photoshop is the ability to create something realistic-looking out of thin air. Smoke is one of Photoshop’s most impressive things to create from scratch. Believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make smoke in Photoshop, either. 

In this article, I will show you how to make realistic smoke from scratch in Photoshop and how to use realistic-looking smoke brushes to create the effect much faster. 

So before we get started, be sure to get these five free smoke brushes for Photoshop if you want to save yourself a ton of time!

How To Create Smoke From Scratch In Photoshop

This first example teaches you how to form a normal brushstroke into a realistic-looking wisp of smoke. 

Step 1: Set Up Your Brush 

Before you lay down any brushstrokes, you must first set up your brush. 

First, add a new layer to your design by clicking the Create A New Layer button in the Layers Panel. Your brushstrokes will go on this new layer. 

With your new layer added, change your Foreground Color to white. 

Select the Brush Tool (B) in the Toolbar

In the Options Bar, click on Brush Preset Picker. In the list of available brushes, choose the Soft Round Brush

The size of the brush stroke you need depends on the size of your project. The general rule of thumb is that you want your first brush stroke to be a good size, usually between 250 px to 400 px. 

As for the rest of the options: 

  • Keep your Hardness at 0%
  • Keep your Opacity at 100%
  • Set the Flow to 40%

Step 2: Add Your First Stroke 

Once your brush is set up, it’s time to add your first stroke. This stroke is one of the most important elements of this effect, as it acts as a base for the rest of the effect. 

The most common way to shape this first brushstroke is in the shape of an S. Just move your mouse slowly in an S-shaped motion. 

Step 3: Add Additional Brushstrokes

To add dimension to your first brushstroke, you will want to add at least two more brushstrokes. 

For your second brush stroke, cut the size of your brush in half. You can do this in the Options Bar or by pressing [

Drag your mouse around the edge of the first stroke. The second brushstroke should appear slightly bolder than the first one. 

For the third brushstroke, increase the Smoothing to 100%. This will keep your stroke as tight as possible. 

Run your third brushstroke around the other edge of your first stroke. 

Step 4: Convert Your Brushstrokes To A Smart Object

You must convert your layer into a smart object to properly manipulate your brushstrokes. 

To do this, select your layer, right-click or click on the Hamburger Menu. Select Convert To Smart Object

You will know this worked when you see the smart object icon in the corner of the layer’s thumbnail. 

Step 5: Add The Maximum Filter 

Applying the Maximum filter to your smoke effect will spread out the white areas of your brushstrokes and choke in the black areas. This filter is the core of the smoke effect. 

To apply this filter, select your layer, then go to Filter > Other > Maximum

In the Maximum Properties Panel, ensure Preview is checked, and that Preserve is set to Roundness. You can use the Radius slider to adjust the effect to what looks best. Click OK when ready.

Step 6: Adjust Your Smoke Effect With A Transform Mesh

Before using the Transform Mesh, you need to ensure your layer is in Free Transform mode. Go to Edit > Free Transform, or press Control + T (Win) or Command + T (Mac)

Once your layer is in Free Transform mode, click on the Warp Tool button in the Options Bar

You will now see a grid laid over your layer. The default grid will have nine squares. You can change the grid layout in the Options Bar with the Grid Drop-Down menu. The lower you go down the list, the more squares you will have on your grid. 

You can adjust your smoke effect by manipulating the mesh’s lines, anchor points, and intersections. 

If you need to, add more lines to your mesh with the Split options in the Options Bar

Take the time to adjust your smoke effect with the mesh so that it forms contours the way you need it to. 

Once you’re done forming your smoke effect, press Enter to accept the changes. 

Step 7: Add Another Base Brush Stroke 

You now have a pretty solid smoke effect. To give this effect more dimension, you need to do everything you just did a second time, forming a second smoke effect near the first. 

These steps are mostly the same, so I’ll give a quick rundown:

First, add a new layer in the Layers Panel with the Create A New Layer button. Your second smoke effect will be on this new layer. 

Next, select the Brush Tool and make sure the Smoothing is set to 0%

Set your size to the same size as your first base brushstroke. 

Brush an S-shaped brushstroke so it overlaps your smoke effect. 

Step 8: Add Additional Brushstrokes 

With your base brushstroke laid down, set your brush size in half. 

Brush down the edge of your base brushstroke. 

For the third brushstroke, adjust the Smoothing to 100% and the size of your brush to half its size again. 

Overlap this stroke down your second brushstroke. 

Due to the brush size and the smoothing effect, this brushstroke should be the most noticeable. 

Step 9: Convert The New Smoke Layer To A Smart Object

With your new smoke layer selected, click on the Hamburger Menu, then select Convert To Smart Object

Step 10: Apply The Maximum Filter To The New Smoke Layer 

With the new smoke layer selected, go to Filter > Other > Maximum

Adjust the Radius slider to where you need it, then click OK. Your second smoke effect is now complete. 

Step 11: Taper The Effect

To make your smoke effect look more realistic, you can taper it, so it looks like smoke is coming from a center point. 

First, select your first layer, then click the Mask button to add a mask to the layer. You will see this reflected in the Layers Panel. Make sure the mask itself is selected. 

Then, change your Foreground Color to black. Now, the areas you brush over will conceal the pixels on this layer. 

With the Brush Tool, brush each side of the end of your smoke effect until you form a more tapered shape. 

Step 12: Add The Placeholder Background Effect 

To add even more realism to your effect, you can add a little background smoke. 

To start, add a new layer with the Add New Layer button

Make sure your Foreground Color is white. 

With your Brush Tool (B) selected, hold the ] key to make the size of your brush more than double the size of your smoke effect. 

Click once on your smoke effect to leave a big white dot on your smoke effect. 

Step 13: Create A Clouds Layer 

Add one final layer to the Layers Panel

Make sure your Background Color is white. 

Double-click the Foreground Color to open the Color Picker Properties Panel

If you move your mouse outside the Color Picker, your mouse will turn into an Eyedropper Tool. Choose a color that best represents the background by clicking on a good base color. 

Once your Foreground and Background are set, go to Filter > Render > Clouds. This will fill the screen with computer-generated clouds using a combination of your background and foreground colors. 

Step 14: Clip The Clouds Layer To The Placeholder Layer 

Obviously, you can’t leave your design like it is so far. You want the cloud layer only to fill in the placeholder dot. 

To do this, right-click the clouds layer, choose Create Clipping Mask from the list, or press Alt + Control + G (Win) or Option + Command + G (Mac)

You will know if this worked if you see an arrow on the clouds layer pointing down. 

Your cloud layer should now be contained within the white dot, giving an almost mist-like feel. 

Step 15: Polish Your Smoke Effect  

If you want to move the background smoke effect, press V to activate the Move Tool. Drag the background effect where it looks the best.  

If you need to, you can adjust the Opacity of the effect by selecting the background smoke layer and adjusting the Opacity slider

If you need to move the entire smoke effect, select all your layers except your background and then right-click them. Select Merge Layers. If you need might need to make changes to the layers, later on, save a copy before you merge the layers. Once the layers are merged, you can no longer edit the individual layers, so this should be done at the end of the editing process.

You can now select that merged layer and drag it to where you need it. 

The last way to polish your smoke effect is to bring down the fill of the layer.

To do this, select your layer, then adjust the Fill to what looks the best for you.  

You now have a complete, realistic smoke effect. 

How To Use Smoke Brushes In Photoshop To Save Time

As you may have noticed, it took a lot of steps to make that smoke effect. You can make a similar-looking result much faster using a smoke brush. 

Step 1: Download Your Smoke Brushes 

Before you can start using smoke brushes in your work, you first need to download some Photoshop brushes. 

To make life easy, I’ve created 5 free smoke brushes for Photoshop that you can download here. I’ll be using this brush pack in the following examples.

Step 2: Import Your Smoke Brushes 

Once your smoke brushes are downloaded, select the Brush Tool (B) and open the brush tip preset panel. 

In the window that pops up, click on the Gear Icon and select Import Brushes.

From here, you can click on the Brush Settings button to find your imported brushes. 

Step 3: Set Up Your Brush And Add A New Layer 

Now that you have access to your Smoke Brushes make sure your Foreground Color is white. Then, add a new layer in the Layers Panel with the Create A New Layer button

Step 4: Add Your Brushstrokes 

After your new layer is placed, use one of your smoke brushes to brush a smoke-like form in the shape of an S. Since these are premade smoke effects, think of them like a stamp rather than a brush. Clicking once over the image to apply the smokey effect.

You can combine multiple brushes are varying opacities to get a variety of unique effects.

Step 5: Use The Transform Mesh To Form Your Shape  

To make it easier to use the Transform adjustment, select all of the layers besides the background. Right-click on your selection, then pick Merge Layers. This will merge all the layers into one.

Now that your layers are merged into one, select your new merged layer, then click on the Warp button. 

You will now have a grid where you can manipulate the shape of your form. You can add more squares to your grid in the Options Bar

Use the grid to help shape your smoke form the way you want it. 

Step 6: Adjust The Opacity And Fill Of Your Smoke Layer 

Once your smoke is properly formed, you can adjust the Opacity and Fill with their respective sliders in the Layers Panel. 

You should now have a realistic-looking form of smoke.