Algorithm/DIY: Let’s Tear It Up

One of the best things about being a graphic designer is that the field is a “bottomless pit” of learning. A few months ago, I wanted to learn the torn paper effect that I saw on the movie poster for the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for my own creation. While I thought I was in over my head with the task, it is not as hard as it looks and I was pleased with the result.

I realize that not everyone reading this blog is a graphic designer, so if you do not own Photoshop, you can test out a free 30 day trial at and follow along.

Choose your photo – I took a photo (going for a mug shot look) and erased the area where I wanted the tear, in this case, my mouth. I have been told I am a talkative fellow, so the idea was to erase the area around my mouth (which people that know me got a kick out of). I used the same technique for other layers that I wanted the tear. Now to touch up the erase marks…

Original Mugshot

Pick your eraser – This is the key to creating the “tear.” I did a “spotty” job erasing the edges, as to give the sense of an authentic, messy torn look. When in the Eraser tool, go to Brush and select a preset (I chose 14x). Next, head over to the Brush Options window (seen below), change the Shape Dynamics settings to create a “spotty” stroke. To do this, I lowered the smoothness and adjusted the shape dynamics in the brush presets.

Brush Presets

Pick your paintbrush – Torn paper has a texture to it. Underneath the torn layers, I added in another layer using an off-white paper color, as seen below.

Paint Brush Setting Same As Eraser Settings

Now, the easy part here for the brush stroke, is to use the exact same preset as in the erase brush tool. Now to have this look a bit more authentic, we will add a filter. Go to Filters, then add Texturizer (as seen below).

Texturizer Settings

The default settings work fine here. Within the document, this is a rough idea of what the tear with the texture may look like.

For the final version of my design, I used this technique on several different layers to give the piece a sense of depth. It is a little time consuming, but once you get a feel for modifying the brush settings, it gets easier. Now, if only I can follow the message of the poster…

Final Version

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4 Responses
  1. Ashley says:

    I am a graphic designer and use photoshop all the time and I couldn’t follow along at all. I think you didn’t give enough background on what you were using (multiple layers or images, what brush menu to use, etc.). You had the advantage here of being able to use screen shots but you jumped ahead of the instructions. Right away you said you erased the part over your mouth but the image doesn’t show that. You also said you “used the same effect for the other layers that you wanted the tear,” and kept indicating that there were other layers but this is vague and we don’t see you using them in this application until the end when the image shows we are clearly missing something. To someone that doesn’t know photoshop very well, this could be very confusing. Maybe a screen shot of your layers window would be helpful to illustrate there are multiple images involved here. You also added text in your final version but there is no mention of how to do that. Using a brush ‘preset’ is fine but every image size is different so maybe say something like, “choose a brush diameter that will cover the area you want to erase. You can do this by adjusting the slider left and right and moving your mouse cursor over the image to test the size.”

    Sorry, I thought oh cool at first but there are not enough instructions to get it done.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I was very unclear with my algorithm. The intended goal was to teach only the “tearing effect” method in Photoshop. I referenced and alluded to a project I worked on, but did not talk about some of the other layers I used or the text, as I felt it would take well over 1,000 words to describe and lose the reader (even more).The intention (which I did not clearly state) was to talk about that one method rather than sound redundant and talk about an entire design.

    With that said, this technique was a bit much to clearly explain and I realize it needs to be a lot more interesting for a casual reader to follow. I attempted to stay away from being too technical, but instead came off too vague and confusing. Now I know why we are encouraged to edit…

  3. Stacy Gitlin says:

    Hi Jon,
    The finished product looks great. I don’t have all that much background with Photoshop so I didn’t understand much. But it looks like you got the desired effect with your poster. I did like how you gave the reader a chance to follow along with the trial program and the photos of your process. I agree with Ashley about some things being confusing. The toughest part for me when I was writing was not using terms within the instructions that needed their own explaination. And if they were required, making sure to explain them as well. All seemed a bit too complicated without a glossary.
    But no doubt my instructions were also very confusing to a non-rower.
    Without being an advanced Photoshop user, I can’t give any more specific of an opinion on how clear the instructions are.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks Stacy,

    I had trouble trying to walk the fine line between being technical and not overwhelm the reader. I didn’t choose the best tutorial to start off with, which is why a good deal of Photoshop tutorials are in video format, I suppose. Good points though, better to be too descriptive with the terms than not enough. Your review is coming shortly…

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