Today, I want to show you how you can create gradient calligraphy in Photoshop with just several easy steps. This is a great way to colorize your work digitally with a nice realistic gradient overlay. I’ve seen a number of artists do this with their work on Instagram. I thought it looked really neat so I figured I’d give it a shot myself. Turns out it’s quite easy, so I wanted to share the steps so you can do it too. The only thing you’ll need is Photoshop, a camera, and the piece of calligraphy you want to manipulate.

Gradient Calligraphy in Photoshop

The Final Product

Step 1: Photograph Your Calligraphy

Pick a piece you’ve done recently and photograph it. You don’t need any sort of fancy DSLR camera. I took this photo with my iPhone and uploaded it to my computer. Nothing special! Just try to get the focus as sharp as possible so that the letters are easier to isolate when we import it to Photoshop.

Calligraphy image by Jake Rainis

iPhone Photo

Step 2: Enhance in Photoshop

Bring your image into Photoshop. Before we add the gradient effect, adjust the image contrast as necessary. The goal here is to have as much contrast between the letters and the paper as possible without blowing out the image. I’ve used the Levels adjustment to make the darks darker and the lights lighter.

Adjusting the contrast in Photoshop

Adjusting the contrast in Photoshop

Step 3: Isolate the Letters

Select the Magic Wand tool from the menu on the left. Along the top utility bar, you’ll see options to configure this tool. The two you want to adjust will be Tolerance and Contiguous. How you set your tolerance will depend on the complexity of the image, so you might need to play around here. In this example, I’ve set it to 50. Make sure Contiguous is unchecked. This will make sure you capture all of the inner details of your composition. Now, click on the page in your photograph. This should create a selection that captures your entire page. If it doesn’t, keep playing with the Tolerance setting.

Selecting the page

Selecting the page

Step 4: Create a Layer Mask

With your selection in place, click the Add layer mask button on the bottom of the layers panel. This should alter your layer so the only thing you are able to see is the page itself with the calligraphy and background (if applicable) cut out of it. Add a layer below this and color it in and you should be able to see the color underneath through your layer mask.

Creating a layer mask

Creating a layer mask

Step 5: Edit Your Layer Mask

If you have area around the photo like I do in my example, you’ll want to fix the mask. In my situation, I have the table in the background behind my page being masked. To correct this, click on the mask next to your layer and select white as your foreground color. Next, select the brush tool and begin “painting” the area where your background is hidden. This should start to reveal your background as you reduce the mask area with your brush.

Fixing the layer mask

Fixing the layer mask

Step 6: Layer the Image to Make More Realistic

Almost there! This looks pretty good, but because of the solid colors showing through, it doesn’t look very real. You’ll notice in my original picture that you can see the ink blending as I overlay strokes. Let’s bring that back.

First, duplicate the layer you’re working with and place it directly beneath. When you duplicate it, it will carry over the layer mask with it. Delete the layer mask on the lower layer. Then, adjust the opacity of this layer so that it’s mostly transparent, but still visible enough to let the stroke textures show through the masked layer above it.

Fixing the layer mask

Adjusting the subsequent layer

Working with White on Black

This effect can be achieved via the exact same process if your calligraphy piece is done with white ink on black paper. Just make sure you adjust the contrast accordingly to get the paper as dark as possible.

Before

Before
After

After

Video Demonstration

If you didn’t quite follow, check out this video tutorial to see it done in real time: