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Photoshop Arrays: Batch Duplication and Transformation

Andrew is a freelance artist and Illustration student, currently working on an MFA.

When working in Photoshop, it is often necessary to duplicate a layer multiple times to get the effect you're after. Maybe you want to create a background pattern, or create a series of windows across the side of a building. Whatever the case, creating them individually is not only rather tedious, but subject to inaccuracy. Fortunately, Adobe has built in a simple, but effective, tool to ease this process. Unfortunately, they've made it accessible only by shortcut key combinations, which makes the tool somewhat inaccessible to those who are unaccustomed to using shortcuts.

For this tutorial, I’ll be working with just a few primitive shapes and making a polka-dot pattern. Though a simple example, my hope is that you'll be able to see a number of ways in which this technique can be applied to your own work .

I am working with Photoshop CS5, but I have no way of testing whether or not this works in earlier versions. For those who are working with different versions, I would be most grateful if you'd let me know in the comments how it works in your version of Photoshop.


Step 1: Open Photoshop and Activate Grid

First, open Photoshop and either hit Ctrl/command +N on the keyboard or go to file>new. If you’d like to follow along with me, I’ll be working with a 9”x12” document at 300 ppi with a white background. You might also want to activate the grid (shortcut Ctrl/command + ‘) and snapping, (shortcut Shift + Ctrl/Command + ;) to help with spacing. You may also want to check that it is set to snap to the grid under (View > snap to > grid).


Step 2: Choose or Create Your Shape

The next thing to do is just to create the shape you want do duplicate. If you’re using your own piece of a photograph or painting you’ll want to have that cut out and on a separate layer. Once you’ve done that, go on to step three.

If you’re following along I’m going to be using vector shapes for this polka-dot pattern. You’ll find the ellipse tool on the tools palette with the other primitive shapes like the rectangle, line and polygon tool.

*if it’s not at the top of the stack you may have to click and hold down for a moment on whichever tool is at the top in order to access it.* Otherwise you can just hold down shift and tap U to scroll through the primitives tool stack until it lands on the ellipse tool. You’ll also want to make sure that it set to the appropriate path type for what you’re doing. I have it set to “shape layers” at the moment but it will work with any kind of shape or path.

Drag out your shape, holding the shift key to make sure it’s a perfect circle. If you also hold the Alt/option key it will expand from the center instead of the top left corner. It helps to make sure that it is centered on an intersection on the grid. I’ll leave the size up to you but mine has a radius of three spaces on the grid.


Step 3: Transform Your Shape

Once your shape is ready, the next step is a bit tricky to remember because it depends on a specific combination of keyboard shortcuts to make it work. We’re going to use a variant of the “free transform” tool shortcut that duplicates things as you transform them.

Note to Consider Before Completing This Step

If you’re working with regular raster layers Photoshop will automatically create a new layer for each duplicate. If you don’t want to end up with a huge stack of layers there’s an easy way to keep all of the added shapes on the same layer. Simply use the marquis tool or the magic wand or any of the other selection techniques to select the shape you want to transform, then, with the little marching ants around it, proceed.

If you’re working with vector shape layers like me, Photoshop behaves a little strangely because of the way it treats them as vector masks on layers of pure color. When you perform this step and transform and duplicate the shape with only the layer selected, not the layer mask it will create a new layer. Later on, when you go to start step four and perform the batch transformations Photoshop will quit making new layers. Instead it will make all of your batch duplicates on the same layer mask, leaving you with one layer with the original shape on it, and another with all of the duplicates. To avoid having to get the shapes back on the same layer later, it’s easiest to just make sure to select the layer mask itself at this stage.

Instructions for Transforming Your Shape

Press ctrl/cmd + alt/option + T

The typical transform box appears around the shape you have selected but when you drag it you’ll notice that a duplicate that appears and that there is now an additional layer in your layers palette. Holding down Shift as you drag will cause it to move in a perfectly straight line. If you activated the grid earlier it will snap into place. Drag it far enough that its got two grid spaces between it and the original shape.

If you're working on your own project you can also, of course, squash it, stretch it re-size it and rotate it. Try moving the center point (the little circle in the middle of your object) to have the rotation go around different places, rather than just around the object’s own center.

The key is to remember that the transformation you make at this point will be repeated numerous times later on and try to anticipate how it will turn out. You can create some interesting designs, but it may take some playing around.

Hit Enter when you’re done transforming.


Step 4: Reapply Batch Transformations

Finally, this is the part where this technique can save you a HUGE amount of time: reapplying batch transformations.

Press Ctrl/Command + Shift + Alt/Option + T and Photoshop will make another duplicate and apply the same transformation. The more times you press T while holding the Ctrl/Command + Shift and Alt/Option keys down, the more times Photoshop will duplicate the shape and re-apply the transformation.

For my little polka-dot example here I just dragged a duplicate circle down by two grid spaces, a third of its overall diameter, pressed Enter to apply the transformation, then while holding down Ctrl/Command + Shift + Alt/Option I hit T five times. Now I have a total of seven circles.

In order to fill the page, just re-select the vector mask, press ctrl/cmd + alt/option + T and drag duplicates of all of the dots to the right the same two grid spaces, press Enter, then hold down Ctrl/Command + Shift + Alt/Option and tap T a few more times and the page is full.


Step 5: Select and Crop

From here, all that remains to complete the polka-dot pattern is to bring up the black path selection tool again (shortcut A) and select every other column of dots. Just click and drag a box out over the first column, then hold Shift and drag another box out over the next column of dots. With your columns selected, press the regular transform shortcut: Ctrl/command + T and drag it down as shown.

You may also want to crop it so that the polka-dots are even on the edges.


That pretty much sums it up. Hopefully this technique can save you some time in your own work, be it making backgrounds with repeating patterns, creating repeating details in a painting or drawing or creating repeating overlay effects.


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.