How To Use The Gradient Tool In Photoshop

The gradient tool is a powerful tool that can fade your photos’ edges, apply colors, or even adjust your layer masks. Although relatively simple to use, there is a lot more “under the hood” of the gradient tool than you might realize. With a better understanding of the gradient tool, you can better control how your gradients look and what parts of your photo they will affect.

To create a new gradient in Photoshop, access the Gradient Tool (G), and click on the gradient editor. Here you can choose a preset gradient or create your own. With a gradient selected, click and drag out on your canvas to create a new gradient. Depending on how far you drag your cursor, you can change how “soft” or “hard” the edge of your gradient appears.

Let’s take a deep dive into the specifics of gradients in Photoshop to help you better understand this tool and how it operates.

What Is A “Gradient” In Photoshop?

By definition, a gradient is a continuous transition from one color to another. A gradient can vary from smooth changes between color values to harsh noticeable edges. They can vary in shape from a linear gradient to others in circular, diamond, or line shapes. In Photoshop, a gradient can be used to apply a progression of color from one tone to another with a wide array of customizable settings.

In layman’s terms, gradients are used to create a faded look between different colors. A gradient will always be made up of two or more color values since it needs to transition from one hue to another. You can even create transparent gradients that transition from solid color to transparency. These are perfect for fading the edges of a photo or making gradient adjustments on a layer mask.

A Keyboard Shortcut For Accessing The Gradient Tool

An easy keyboard shortcut you can use for accessing the Gradient Tool in Photoshop is by pressing G on your keyboard. Pressing G will select the Gradient Tool so you can instantly begin adjusting settings and creating gradients as you wish.

How To Make A New Gradient With The Gradient Tool

Let’s walk through the basics of creating a new gradient in Photoshop. To start things off, press G or click on the Gradient Tool found in your toolbar.

The Gradient Editor

The first thing you need to access is the gradient editor. The gradient editor allows you to choose from a wide array of preset gradients or let you create your own. To make life easy, you’ll want to understand the uses of each section of the gradient editor. Here’s how it all breaks down:

– The Presets Window

The largest section of your gradient editor is the preset window. In older versions of Photoshop, these presets were quite sparse with very few options. However, there are a handful of great gradient options scattered throughout different color folders in newer updates to Photoshop CC. This makes it easy to find a perfect gradient to suit the exact color needs of your project.

Preset gradients can be used as-is or as a template for your own custom gradients. To select a preset option, open any color folder, and click on your desired preset. The gradient preset will then appear in your gradient bar just below the presets window.

– The Gradient Bar

The gradient bar is where all the magic happens. This bar gives you a live preview of what your gradient will look like once it’s applied onto your canvas. Within this bar, you have a few options to customize how your gradient appears. From gradient type, smoothness, and color, there’s nothing you can’t adjust.

The gradient type chooses whether your gradient is made up of color or noise values. For most purposes, color is the option you’ll want to go with. This option will create a smooth transition between multiple solid colors and can work well for any purpose.

On the other hand, noise gradients don’t use specific colors but instead let you alter the hue, saturation, and luminosity of noise. This gradient type tends to appear far more randomized and is harder to control.

As for the smoothness, this slider will dictate how smooth the transition is between each color value.

With a smoothness of 100%, there will be a very soft transition between each color. However, with a 0% smoothness, the transition between colors will appear slightly more abrupt. For general use, leaving the smoothness slider at 100% will work perfectly fine.

– Gradient Colors

The gradient colors are represented by the color swatches located at their respective starting points. In the example below, there is a color swatch on both the left and right side of the gradient. That means the colors will be most noticeable on their separate ends, while they will transition from one to another throughout the middle.

The colors of your gradient can be changed at any time by clicking on these color swatches. You can either double click on the color swatch to open the color picker or press the swatch, then select the color box option below.

Any of your gradient colors can be moved to make them more or less dominant in your gradient. For example, if I move the left color towards the right, you can see how it becomes more noticeable in the gradient. That’s because there is less space for the two colors to transition from one to another.

If you want to add additional colors to your gradient, click anywhere beneath the gradient bar to add a new color swatch. A new color will appear that can be edited the same as before.

You can create as many new color points as you wish, and all of them can be moved independently to alter where they sit within your gradient.

– Gradient Midpoints

Looking between the color swatches, you’ll notice a diamond shape. This is called your gradient midpoint. These midpoints control where the halfway mark is between one color and another.

You can move your gradient midpoints to favor a certain color. This can be a good idea if you want one color to be more visible than another.

After you’ve gone through your gradient editor and chosen all the settings you want for your new gradient, click OK to exit the gradient editor.

Types Of Gradients

Not all gradients are made the same in Photoshop. In fact, there are five different types of gradients you can create. Luckily, changing between them all takes less than a second.

You can find all your gradient types directly beside the gradient editor. You can select different ones by clicking on their icon or using your ] or [ bracket keys to cycle through them. Let’s go through each one individually and see what they do.

1. Linear Gradient

Starting with the leftmost option, this gradient is called the linear gradient. It creates a straight line for the gradients to transition from and is the most versatile gradient to use. Using this gradient, your colors will transition in a continuous, linear fashion, typical of any generic gradient.

2. Radial Gradient

The radial gradient creates a “gradient burst,” starting from one color in the middle and fading radially to the other colors. This option is great for applying to layer masks or fading circular sections of your layers.

3. Angle Gradient

An angle gradient will take up your entire layer and transition from one color to another in a counter-clockwise rotation. Wherever you start your gradient will be the hard edge between the first and last color of your gradient.

This gradient type is far more specialized compared to some of the other gradient types in Photoshop. You likely won’t find yourself using this option as frequently.

4. Reflected Gradient

The reflected gradient essentially creates a gradient line. The further you drag when creating your gradient, the wider this gradient effect will become. This type of gradient is great for placing against horizontal or vertical edges in your images.

5. Diamond Gradient

Lastly, the diamond gradient creates a star-shaped gradient that fades in a unique way. This is a useful option when you want to create circular gradients but want more variance of intensity between colors.

– Gradient Tool Settings Explained

With your gradient editor sorted, and your gradient type chosen, you’ll need to go through the rest of your settings bar before actually making a gradient in Photoshop. These additional settings will be found within the gradient tool settings bar and only take a few seconds to work through.

The first option you have is the blend mode of your gradient. These blend modes operate the same as layer blend modes but will only be applied to your new gradients. For general use, leave the gradient blend mode set to “Normal.”

Next, your opacity option will alter the visibility of your gradient adjustments. To ensure your gradient is completely visible, I’d recommend leaving your opacity set to 100%. After all, you can always adjust the layer opacity later when you apply your gradient onto a new layer. In that sense, the opacity option becomes slightly redundant.

Lastly, you’ll see three checkboxes reading reverse, dither, and transparency.

By checking off the reverse option, your gradient will switch sides and reverse itself. This is useful if you want certain colors of your gradient to be applied from another side. However useful, this option only needs to be used in certain instances.

The dither option helps to ensure there is a smooth transition between different tones in your gradient. Without the dither option checked off, you can end up with banding in your gradient. To ensure you have a high quality and seamless gradient, make sure the dither option is checked off.

Finally, the transparent option allows you to create transparency when you have a transparent value in your gradient. For example, if you’re creating a foreground to transparent gradient, the transparency will not be visible unless the transparency option is checked off. To make life easy, make sure this box is checked off as well, regardless of whether or not you’re creating a transparent gradient.

Creating A New Gradient On Your Canvas

When you create a gradient, you can apply it directly onto a layer, or you can create a gradient fill layer. Both options will get the job done but have certain pros and cons.

– Applying Gradients Onto A Layer

The first option is to apply your gradient directly onto a new layer. This option feels the most natural and makes it easy to draw out your gradient exactly where you need it.

After going through your gradient tool settings, create a new layer for your gradient layer. This way, you can ensure you’re editing non-destructively and have more control later on.

With your new layer selected, click and drag to apply your gradient onto the layer. Depending on how far you drag between the two gradient points, you can create a hard or soft edge look to your gradient. In this case, I’ll go for a softer look and drag my gradient points far apart.

With that, you’ve applied your gradient onto a new layer, and it appears exactly as it did in your gradient editor! Easy peasy.

– Creating A Gradient Fill Layer

With a gradient fill layer, you have slightly less control over the size and location of your gradient. However, if you want a general gradient coming from the edge of your frame, this option works perfectly. The big advantage of gradient fill layers is that they can be customized in ways that aren’t possible when applying gradients directly onto a layer.

To create a new gradient fill layer, go Layer > New Fill Layer > Gradient.

A gradient fill dialogue box will appear with all of the gradient settings options you’ve learned so far. By double-clicking on the gradient box, you can access the gradient editor and fine-tune your gradients look.

From there, you can alter the angle, style, scale, and other settings options that will alter the look of your gradient.

Once happy with your settings, click OK.

Now you’ll have a gradient fill layer instead of a regular layer. If you want to make adjustments to this gradient layer, simply double click on the gradient box to reopen the gradient settings.

How To Make A Custom Gradient In Photoshop

No matter which type of gradient you choose to work with, sometimes the preset options don’t offer what you’re looking for. Luckily, you can create your very own custom gradients with ease.

Within the gradients editor, double click on any of the color swatches to change the color.

You can add additional colors by clicking anywhere along the gradient bar. Continue this until you have the colors and gradients set to your liking.

And with that, you’ve created your very own custom gradient that is ready for use!

Saving Custom Gradients As A Gradient Preset

If you’re going to spend the time to make a custom gradient, you might as well save all your hard work. Fortunately, you can save any custom gradient as a gradient preset in Photoshop.

After you’ve created a custom gradient you want to save, create a new name for your gradient. This will make it easier to identify later on.

Next, click the “New” button to save your gradient.

Now your custom gradient will appear as its very own preset at the bottom of your presets window!

Creating Transparent Gradients

Although I’ve talked extensively about working with transparent gradients in this post, let’s quickly cover some of the footnotes for creating these gradients.

To create a transparent gradient, select your gradient tool (G) and open your gradient editor.

Within the presets window, open the “basics” folder and selected the “foreground to transparent” gradient.

Rather than selecting a color here in the gradient editor, you’ll only need to change your active foreground color. To do this, click OK on your gradient editor and then select your foreground color at the bottom of your toolbar.

Your color picker will open, allowing you to select any color you wish. Whatever color you choose will be the color for your transparent gradient. Once happy with the color, click OK to save your changes.

Looking up to your gradient editor, you can see the new color changes shown in the gradient preview.

After selecting your gradient type, create a new layer, and click and drag to apply your foreground to transparent gradient.

Now you’ve successfully created a transparent gradient!

Learn More: The Complete Guide To Transparent Gradients In Photoshop

Making A Gradient Background In Photoshop

If you want your entire canvas background to be a gradient, you’ll need to do this after creating a new document. Since there isn’t a new gradient background option in the new document dialogue box, you’ll have to resort to other workarounds.

With your background layer selected, grab your gradient tool (G) and go through all the necessary settings in the upper settings bar.

Next, select your gradient type and click and drag across your canvas to apply a new gradient. Since your background layer is selected, the white background will be replaced by your active gradient.

Now, what if you don’t have a background layer?

In that case, simply apply your gradient onto a new layer. Once applied, click and drag your layer to the bottom of your layer stack. This will now serve as your “background” layer gradient!

How To Change Gradient Color

At this point, you know how to change the color of a gradient before you actually create one. So how can you change the colors of an already existing gradient? Well, it all depends on the type of gradient you’ve created. If you applied a multi-colored gradient onto a layer, you wouldn’t be able to change the color without redoing it completely.

Since these types of gradients are permanently applied, there’s no way of reaccessing the original gradient settings. There is an exception to this with transparent gradients that I share here.

With that said, all is not lost. That’s because, with a gradient fill layer, you can easily change the color of your gradient at any point in your project.

As you learned above, a new gradient fill layer is created by going to Layer > New Fill Layer > Gradient. 

Since gradient fill layers are editable, all you need to do is double click on the gradient icon in your layer. This will reopen the gradient fill settings where you can make adjustments to your active gradient.

By clicking on your gradient editor, you’ll gain access to your gradient settings, including the color. Here you can adjust the color swatches to alter the color of your existing gradient.

Since you always have access to these gradient settings when using gradient fill layers, you can change the color at any time without much hassle!

How To Rotate Or Reverse Your Photoshop Gradients

Similar to changing color, you cannot reverse or rotate gradients that are applied directly onto a regular layer. Since they’re applied permanently, there’s no easy way of adjusting them. However, the only workaround is to use your Move Tool to reposition your existing gradient into a more suitable position. This isn’t the most effective way of doing things, but it will get the job done.

Alternatively, you can try creating a completely new gradient in the new orientation you’re looking for.

The better way of rotating or reversing a gradient in Photoshop is, once again, with a gradient fill layer.

By double-clicking on your gradient fill layer icon, you will get access to your gradient settings. In this dialogue box, you’ll find an angle option as well as a “reverse” checkbox.

To adjust the gradient angle, click in the circle, and drag your cursor to alter the angle. This will give you a real-time preview of the updated gradient angle on your canvas.

If you want to reverse the colors of your gradient, check off the “reverse” option. This will switch which side of the gradient your colors are coming from. It doesn’t get easier than that!

The gradient tool in Photoshop is an impressive tool with endless opportunities for customization. Whether you’re applying a gradient to text, a background layer, a layer mask, or shapes, the gradient tool will do it all. Although the easiest way of creating gradients is to apply it directly onto a new layer, it can be more advantageous to create a new gradient fill layer. That way, you always have the option to make adjustments to your gradient later on in your project. Now that you know how to use the gradient tool in Photoshop start practicing and seeing what awesome gradient effects you can create!

Happy Editing!

– Brendan 🙂