How to create twirl art in Photoshop

How To Create Twirl Art In Photoshop

Written by Steve Patterson.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to turn your photos into colorful, abstract twirl art effects in Photoshop! Twirl art is where we take an image, blur it, and then twirl it around its center. We then make a copy of the effect, twirl it in the opposite direction, and then blend the two versions together. We can even take things further and mirror the effect to create symmetrical twirl art!

Here's an example of what the main effect will look like when we're done. The colors will depend entirely on your image:

How to make twirl art in Photoshop
The initial twirl art effect.

And here's the symmetrical version. We'll learn how to make both versions in this tutorial. I'll be using the latest version of Photoshop CC but any version from CS3 and up will work:

How to make symmetrical twirl art in Photoshop
The symmetrical twirl art effect.

Let's get started!

How To Create Twirl Art In Photoshop

Step 1: Open your image

Open the image you want to use for your twirl art effect. I'll use this image that I downloaded from Adobe Stock:

The image that will be used for the twirl art effect
The original image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

Step 2: Duplicate the image

The first thing we'll want to do is duplicate and resize our image. The reason is that, to create the twirl art effect, we'll be using smart filters, and we'll be experimenting with their settings. Smart filters can be very demanding on your computer, and a large, high resolution image can really slow things down. What you'll want to do instead is work on a separate, smaller version of your image. Once you're happy with the results, you can easily replace the smaller version with the original, full size version, as we'll see how to do later. If you're already working with a small image, you can skip this step.

To duplicate the image, go up to the Image menu in the Menu Bar and choose Duplicate:

Selecting the Duplicate command under the Image menu in Photoshop
Going to Image > Duplicate.

In the Duplicate Image dialog box, name the image "Twirl", and then click OK:

Naming the duplicate image 'Twirl'
Naming the duplicate "Twirl".

A copy of the image opens in a separate document which we can see by looking at the document tabs along the top:

The duplicate image opens in a separate document
The original and duplicate images are in separate tabbed documents.

Step 3: Resize the image

To resize the image and make it smaller, go back up to the Image menu and this time, choose Image Size:

Choosing the Image Size command in Photoshop
Going to Image > Image Size.

This opens the Image Size dialog box. If we look at the Dimensions in the upper right, we see that my image currently has a width of 4500 px and a height of 2999 px:

The Image Size dialog box in Photoshop showing the current dimensions of the image
The current dimensions of the image.

To reduce the size of the image, first make sure that the Resample option is checked and that it's set to Automatic. Then, enter a new size into the Width and Height fields. I'll set both of them to 50 Percent. In the Dimensions section at the top, we see that this will reduce the width of my image to 2250 px and the height to 1500 px, which should keep things running faster. Click OK to resize the image and close the dialog box:

Resampling the image to 50 percent of its original size in Photoshop
Making the image smaller.

I'll zoom in on the image by going up to the View menu and choosing Fit on Screen:

Choosing the Fit on Screen command in Photoshop
Going to View > Fit on Screen.

And now we're ready to create the twirl art effect:

The small version of the image that we'll be using to create the Twirl Art effect
The small version of the image is ready to go.

Related: How to enlarge images without losing quality in Photoshop CC

Step 4: Convert the image into a smart object

Before we can start adding smart filters, we first need to convert our image into a smart object. In the Layers panel, we see the image on the Background layer. Double-click on the name "Background" to rename it:

Double-clicking on the Background layer's name in the Layers panel in Photoshop
Double-clicking on the Background layer's name.

In the New Layer dialog box, name the layer "Photo" and then click OK:

Renaming the Background layer in Photoshop
Renaming the Background layer "Photo".

Then, click the menu icon in the upper right of the Layers panel:

Opening the Layers panel menu in Photoshop
Opening the Layers panel menu.

And choose Convert to Smart Object:

Choosing the Convert to Smart Object command in Photoshop
Choosing "Convert to Smart Object" from the menu.

A smart object icon appears in the lower right of the "Photo" layer's preview thumbnail, letting us know that the layer is now a smart object:

The smart object icon in the layer preview thumbnail
The smart object icon.

Step 5: Apply the Mezzotint filter

The first filter we'll apply is Mezzotint. Go up to the Filter menu, choose Pixelate, and then choose Mezzotint:

Choosing the Mezzotint filter as the first filter for the Twirl Art effect
Going to Filter > Pixelate > Mezzotint.

This opens the Mezzotint filter's dialog box. This filter adds random, high contrast and highly saturated strokes, lines or dots to the image depending on which setting you choose for the Type option at the bottom. This will add more detail, contrast and color to the effect. There's no "correct" setting to choose here, so we'll come back later and experiment. For now, I'll choose Long Strokes. Click OK to close the dialog box:

Setting the Mezzotint filter Type to Long Strokes
Setting the Type option to Long Strokes.

And here's what the Mezzotint effect looks like:

The image after applying the Mezzotint filter in Photoshop
The image after applying the Mezzotint filter.

If we look in the Layers panel, we see the Mezzotint filter listed as our first smart filter:

The Mezzotint Smart Filter in the Layers panel
The Mezzotint smart filter.

Step 6: Apply the Radial Blur filter

Next, we need to blur the image using Photoshop's Radial Blur filter. And to create the amount of blur we need, we'll run the filter three times. Go up to the Filter menu, choose Blur, and then choose Radial Blur:

Choosing the Radial Blur filter in Photoshop
Going to Filter > Blur > Radial Blur.

In the Radial Blur dialog box, set the Amount to 100, the Blur Method to Zoom, and the Quality to Draft. Using the lowest quality setting will let the filter run as quickly as possible:

The initial Radial Blur filter settings
The initial Radial Blur settings.

Click OK to close the dialog box and apply the filter. And here's what the first pass of Radial Blur looks like. The result is very noisy because we had the quality set so low, but we'll clean it up in a moment:

The first pass of the Radial Blur filter
The first pass of the Radial Blur filter.

Step 7: Apply Radial Blur a second time

To apply Radial Blur a second time, go back up to the Filter menu, and because Radial Blur was the last filter we used, you'll find it at the top of the list:

Selecting Radial Blur from the top of the Filter menu in Photoshop
Selecting Radial Blur from the top of the Filter menu.

Leave all of the settings the same (Amount at 100, Blur Method set to Zoom and Quality at Draft), and just click OK:

Reapplying Radial Blur using the same settings
Reapplying Radial Blur using the same settings.

Photoshop applies the filter a second time, and here's the result. It still looks noisy, but we'll clean it up next:

The second pass of the Radial Blur filter
The second pass of the Radial Blur filter.

Step 8: Apply Radial Blur a third time

Go back up to the Filter menu and once again choose Radial Blur:

Again selecting Radial Blur from the top of the Filter menu in Photoshop
Again selecting Radial Blur from the top of the Filter menu.

This time, leave the Amount set to 100 and the Blur Method set to Zoom, but change the Quality from Draft to Best:

Changing the Radial Blur quality to Best
Increasing the Quality from Draft to Best.

Click OK to run the filter a third time. Since we've increased the quality, the filter will take a bit longer to run, but the final result looks much better, and the noise from the first two passes is gone:

The third pass of the Radial Blur filter
The higher quality of the third pass cleans up the effect nicely.

In the Layers panel, we see all three passes of the Radial Blur filter listed as separate smart filters above the Mezzotint filter:

The Layers panel showing the Mezzotint and three Radial Blur Smart Filters
The Layers panel showing four smart filters.

Related: Create a Radial Blur action zoom effect!

Step 9: Apply the Twirl filter

To add the twirl to the twirl art effect, we'll use Photoshop's Twirl filter. Go up to the Filter menu, choose Distort, and then choose Twirl:

Selecting the Twirl filter in Photoshop
Going to Filter > Distort > Twirl.

In the Twirl dialog box, use the Angle slider at the bottom to twist and twirl the image around its center. Drag to the right to twirl clockwise or to the left to twirl counterclockwise. The further you drag, the greater the effect. I'll set my Angle value to 120 degrees:

Twirling the image with the Twirl filter in Photoshop
Use the Angle slider to add the twirl.

Click OK to close the dialog box, and here we see the image swirling around its center:

A twirl effect created with the Twirl filter in Photoshop
The initial twirl effect.

Step 10: Edit the effect

In the Layers panel, we see the Twirl filter listed as a smart filter above the others. If you want to try a different twirl amount at any time, double-click on the Twirl filter's name to re-open its dialog box. Drag the Angle slider left or right, and then click OK to accept it:

The Layers panel showing the Twirl smart filter
You can edit the twirl amount by re-opening the Twirl smart filter.

You can also go back and try different settings for the Mezzotint filter. Double-click on it's name to re-open the dialog box:

Double-clicking on the Mezzotint smart filter in the Layers panel
Double-clicking on the Mezzotint smart filter.

Photoshop will pop open a message telling you that your other smart filters will be turned off while you're editing the Mezzotint filter. That's because Photoshop applies smart filters from bottom to top. So in this case, it's applying Mezzotint first, then each of the three Radial Blur filters, and then the Twirl filter. To show an accurate preview of the Mezzotint filter, it needs to turn off those other filters temporarily. Click OK:

Smart filters stacked on top of this filter will not preview while this filter is being edited
The other smart filters will be turned off while you're editing the Mezzotint filter.

In the Mezzotint filter dialog box, I'll change the Type from Long Strokes to something different, like Coarse Dots, and then I'll click OK to accept it:

Editing the Mezzotint Smart Filter in Photoshop
Trying a different setting for the Type option.

Photoshop turns the other smart filters back on, and here's the result. The Coarse Dots setting creates an effect with less contrast and color saturation, but we also see more detail in the lines:

The twirl effect with the Mezzotint filter set to Coarse Dots
The twirl effect with the Mezzotint filter set to Coarse Dots.

Comparing the two settings

You can quickly compare your new filter setting with the previous setting by pressing Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) on your keyboard. Press it once to undo your last step and view the previous filter setting (Long Strokes). Press it again to redo the step and view the new setting (Coarse Dots). In my case, I like the high contrast version better, so I'll stick with Long Strokes. You can try out the other Type settings as well to see which one you like best for your image.

Step 11: Duplicate the smart object

Next, we need to make a copy of our smart object. In the Layers panel, click on the smart object and drag it down onto the New Layer icon:

Dragging the Smart Object onto the New Layrr icon in the Layers panel
Dragging the "Photo" smart object onto the New Layer icon.

A copy, with all of our smart filters applied, appears above the original:

The Layers panel showing two copies of the Smart Object with the Smart Filters applied
The Layers panel showing two separate versions of the effect.

Step 12: Twirl the copy in the opposite direction

Double-click on the Twirl smart filter below the copy to open its dialog box:

Editing the Twirl smart filter below the 'Photo copy' layer
Editing the Twirl smart filter below the "Photo copy" layer.

Drag the Angle slider left or right so that the copy is twirling in the opposite direction. Since I used a value of 120 degrees for my original twirl, I'll set the copy to -120 degrees. Of course, you don't have to make them exact opposites. I'm just keeping things simple. Click OK to close the dialog box:

Changing the angle of the twirl to the opposite direction
Changing the angle to the opposite direction.

And here's the result, with the copy swirling in the opposite direction:

The copy of the smart object is now twirling in the opposite direction as the original
The effect after changing the angle of the twirl.

Step 13: Blend the two twirl effects together

To create the real twirl art effect, we need to blend both of our twirls together. We can do that by changing the blend mode of the "Photo copy" smart object. You'll find the Blend Mode option in the upper left of the Layers panel. By default, it's set to Normal. The three blend modes that usually work best for this effect are Darken, Lighten and Pin Light. I'll start with Darken:

Changing the blend mode of the smart object to Darken
Changing the blend mode from Normal to Darken.

The Darken blend mode looks at both layers, or both smart objects in this case, and keeps whichever pixels between them that are darker:

The twirl art effect using the Darken blend mode in Photoshop
The twirl art effect using the Darken blend mode.

Next, I'll try the Lighten blend mode:

Changing the blend mode of the smart object to Lighten
Changing the blend mode from Darken to Lighten.

Lighten is the opposite of Darken. It keeps whichever pixels between the two layers that are lighter:

The twirl art effect using the Lighten blend mode in Photoshop
The twirl art effect using the Lighten blend mode.

And if I switch to the Pin Light blend mode:

Changing the blend mode of the smart object to Pin Light
Trying the Pin Light blend mode.

We see that Pin Light creates a combination of the Darken and Lighten modes:

The twirl art effect using the Pin Light blend mode in Photoshop
The twirl art effect using Pin Light.

For this image, I think the Lighten blend mode works best, so I'll go with that:

How to create twirl art in Photoshop
Lighten creates the best version of the three.

Step 14: Experiment again with the filter settings

At this point, you can still go back and experiment with different filter settings for either of the two smart objects. Just double-click on a Twirl or Mezzotint filter to re-open its dialog box and make your changes. For example, I'll double-click on the Mezzotint filter for the "Photo copy" smart object:

Editing the Mezzotint filter for the 'Photo copy' smart object
Opening the Mezzotint filter dialog box.

Photoshop again pops open the message telling me that the smart filters above it will be turned off while I'm editing the filter. I'll click OK to accept it:

Smart filters stacked on top of this filter will not preview while this filter is being edited
The other smart filters will be turned off while you're editing the Mezzotint filter.

Then, I'll change the Type option from Long Strokes to the same Coarse Dots setting we tried earlier:

Changing the Mezzotint filter Type option to Coarse Dots
Changing the Type option to Coarse Dots.

Here's a comparison of the two settings. The original Long Strokes setting is on the left and Coarse Dots is on the right. Again, the Coarse Dots version shows less contrast but more detail. Press Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) on your keyboard to switch between the two. I think I still like the higher contrast version better, so I'll stick with Long Strokes for both smart objects:

A comparison of the twirl art effect with different Mezzotint filter settings
The effect with the Mezzotint filter set to Long Strokes (left) and Coarse Dots (right).

You can also try turning off one of the Radial Blur filters for the "Photo copy" smart object. This will add a bit more sharpness to the effect and bump up the contrast. You'll want to leave the top Radial Blur filter on (the one directly below the Twirl filter) since that's the one we applied with the highest quality. But you can turn off either (or both) of the other two Radial Blur filters below it by clicking the filter's visibility icon. Click it again to turn the filter back on:

Turning off the bottom Radial Blur filter for the 'Photo copy' smart object
Turning off the bottom Radial Blur filter for the "Photo copy" smart object.

And here, after turning off one of the Radial Blur filters, is my final Twirl Art effect. We'll learn how to upscale the effect to the high resolution version next:

The low resolution twirl art effect is done
The final result.

Creating The High Resolution Version

If you created a smaller version of your image back at the beginning of the tutorial, then once you're happy with the twirl effect, you'll want to swap out the smaller version with the original high resolution image. Here's how to do it.

Step 15: Select the original image document

First, switch over to the document that holds your original image by clicking on its tab:

Switching to the Photoshop document that holds the original image
Selecting the original image document.

Step 16: Select and copy the image

Select the image by going up to the Select menu and choosing All:

Choosing the Select All command in Photoshop
Going to Select > All.

Then go up to the Edit menu and choose Copy:

Choosing the Copy command in Photoshop
Going to Edit > Copy.

Step 17: Switch back to the "Twirl" document

Switch back to the twirl effect's document by clicking its tab:

Selecting the twirl effect document in Photoshop
Selecting the "Twirl" document.

Step 18: Replace the contents of the smart object

In the "Twirl" document, double-click on either of the smart object thumbnails in the Layers panel:

Double-clicking the thumbnail for the 'Photo copy' smart object in Photoshop
Double-clicking the "Photo copy" thumbnail.

This opens the contents of the smart object, which currently holds the small version of the image, in a separate document named "Photo.psb":

The contents of the smart object open in a third document
The contents of the smart object open in a third document.

Paste the original, full size image into the document by going up to the Edit menu and choosing Paste:

Pasting the full size image into the smart object document
Going to Edit > Paste.

Since the original image is larger than the smaller version, it won't initially fit. Much of it will be cropped away:

The original image is too big to fit in the document
Only part of the original image is visible in the smart object document.

To view the entire image, go up to the Image menu and choose Reveal All:

Choosing the Reveal All command in Photoshop
Going to Image > Reveal All.

Photoshop expands the size of the canvas so that the entire image is visible:

The full size image now fits inside the smart object
The full size image now fits inside the smart object.

Step 19: Save and close the "Photo.psb" document

To officially replace the contents of the smart object with the original image, we need to save the document. Go up to the File menu and choose Save:

Choosing the Save command in Photoshop
Going to File > Save.

A progress bar will appear letting you know that Photoshop is updating the contents of the smart object:

The progress bar showing the smart object contents being updated
Updating a smart object can take a while.

When Photoshop is done saving the document, you can close it by going up to the File menu and choosing Close:

Choosing the Close command in Photoshop
Going to File > Close.

Step 20: Render the high resolution twirl effect

Back in the "Twirl" document, we have the same problem where much of the effect is being cropped away. Again, it's because the original image is much larger than the smaller version we were using:

The twirl effect is too big to fit inside the document
This time, the twirl effect is too big to fit.

To reveal the entire effect, go back up to the Image menu and once again choose Reveal All:

Again choosing the Reveal All command in Photoshop
Going back to Image > Reveal All.

Another progress bar will appear, this time telling you that Photoshop is rendering the smart filters. This part may take some time:

Again choosing the Reveal All command in Photoshop
Rendering the high resolution version of the effect.

When it's done, the final result appears in its more detailed, high-resolution glory:

How to create twirl art in Photoshop
The final, high resolution twirl art effect.

Creating Symmetrical Twirl Art

At this point, the main twirl art effect is complete. But let's take it one step further and create a symmetrical version. Here's how to do it.

Step 21: Merge both smart objects onto a new layer

In the Layers panel, make sure the "Photo copy" smart object at the top is selected:

Selecting the 'Photo copy' smart object
Selecting the "Photo copy" smart object.

Then, on your keyboard, press Shift+Ctrl+Alt+E (Win) / Shift+Command+Option+E (Mac) to merge both smart objects onto a new layer above them. This time, we're working with a normal layer, so you won't see any smart filters listed below it:

Merging the twirl art effect onto a new layer
A merged copy of the effect appears above the smart objects.

Step 22: Flip the layer horizontally

Go up to the Edit menu, choose Transform, and then choose Flip Horizontal:

Choosing the Flip Horizontal command in Photoshop
Going to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal.

This flips the effect horizontally:

The result after flipping the twirl art effect horizontally
The effect after flipping it horizontally.

Step 23: Change the blend mode of the merged layer

Finally, to blend the flipped version in with the original, simply change the blend mode of the merged layer ("Layer 1") to either Darken, Lighten or Pin Light. Choose the one that gives you the best result. With my image, the Darken mode works best:

Setting the blend mode of the flipped image to Darken
Setting the blend mode to Darken.

And here, after changing the blend mode of the merged layer, is my symmetrical twirl art effect:

How to create symmetrical twirl art in Photoshop
The final result.

And there we have it! That's how to create twirl art, and symmetrical twirl art, using smart filters and layer blend modes in Photoshop! For a similar effect, check out our Flip, Mirror and Rotate Images tutorial. Or visit our Photo Effects section for more tutorials!


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