Tutorial: Better Way to Remove White (Without A Filter!)

Okay, as an illustrator, I frequently find myself needing to remove all white from a layer in Photoshop.  I’ve been doing this with a filter called Kill White which I talked about here.  But I always thought this was such an obvious need, why doesn’t Photoshop come with a tool that does this already?  Something in their filters or maybe in Image->Adjust?  But I’d never found it.

Now, of course, had I taken any formal Photoshop classes I might have learned the trick from a professor.  But as it is I learned Photoshop on-the-job, on my own, and from the occasional online tutorial.  So, although I’m well-versed in the day-to-day operation of Photoshop (and even many obscure things that it can do) I do have the odd hole in my skill set.

Well, a few weeks ago I filled one of these holes.  I found how you properly remove white from a layer.  Without any add-on filters.  I’m sorry I can’t cite my source.  I think I saw the explanation on tumblr.  But I’m really not sure where.  But whoever the mysterious educator was, you have my gratitude.

Anyhow, here’s what you do.  (And it’s stupid easy, btw.)  You know that CHANNELS tab you probably never use and have no idea what it does besides change your image funny colors when you hide one channel or another?  Well, it uses that.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to the Window menu and go down to Channels.  Click that.

Now you see it?  Okay, good.  Remember where it is, but go over to layers tab for the moment.  Choose the layer you want to remove white from.  Make sure it isn’t the background layer.  If it is, copy or convert it to a regular layer.  Select that layer.

Now go back to channels.  All four channels are selected.  Leave that as it is.  Look at the bottom of the channel window.  There’s a line of symbols.  A dotted circle (Load channel as selection), square with a circle in the middle of it (Save selection as channel), rectangle with the corner folded over that means new (Create new channel), and the trash can (Delete selected channel).  So, that first symbol is the one that matters.  The load channel as selection.  With all four channels selected (as they were when you got there) click that dotted circle.

That automatically selects all the white in the layer.  Not just all the white, but if the pixel is 20% white and the rest some color, it is selecting that 20% white but not the 80% color.  Don’t ask me how it does that, just accept it.  So, now, while all the white in your image is selected, press your delete key.

Now click Select->Deselect.

And you’re done.  Your white is gone leaving only your lines.

Can’t see it?  Add a new layer under the one you were working with and fill it with white.  See it now?  Good.  🙂

One more fun thing.  If you wanted to tint or monochrome all the lines, this is a really good time.  Or if the lines seem too light to you after removing the white.  So, go reselect all the transparent stuff that used to be white before you deleted it.  Do this by clicking Select->Reselect.  Then click Select->Inverse.

Now all the stuff that is not white is selected.  And selected so that the 20% transparency on the pixel (previously 20% white) is not selected, only the colored 80% of that pixel.  So, if you want, just paint over that layer with a big brush of whatever darkish color you want.

Now, Select->Deselect.

There you go.

I guess I really should take the time to learn what else the Channels tool actually does, huh?

25 thoughts on “Tutorial: Better Way to Remove White (Without A Filter!)

  1. daynesislendesign says:

    Thanks for being so honest and sharing this trick. I know I will use this trick a lot. I have always liked Corel Painter better for bringing in line work with a transparent background, because all you have to do is set the line layer to multiply. Now I can use Photoshop the same way using this trick.

    • Karen B. Jones says:

      I considered if this is something I should have already known. But I think it’s fairly obscure. I mean, just the fact someone created a filter to do this when you could already just do it if you knew the trick shows that it probably wasn’t a commonly-known trick. Two filters, actually. There was Remove White clear back in Photoshop 6. Then, I posted about the Kill White filter, which got quite a few hits, and no one commented, “Hey, why don’t you just do the thing with the channels?” Which I would expect to have gotten if it were a well-known technique. I did get a few, “I use this technique, but it isn’t that accurate, I’ll try this instead,” sort of comments. I also didn’t get anyone from the SCBWI illustrator’s group correcting me, though there were some photoshop artists there. The tutorial I got this channels trick from said something about seeing so many convoluted techniques for doing this and that this one is much easier. So, apparently lots of artists have been trying to figure out ways to do this without stumbling onto channel tool.

      So, from all that I gather that this channels technique isn’t well-known. So, I don’t feel bad about not knowing about it and touting the virtues of a cumbersome filter instead. Now that I know a better way, though, I wanted to share it.

    • Karen B. Jones says:

      Glad I could help. Sorry I told you to use the filter before. I didn’t know.

      You can also, depending on what you’re doing, put the layer up as the top layer and switch it’s blending mode to multiply. That does more-or-less (though not exactly) the same thing.

    • Karen B. Jones says:

      You’re welcome. I hope this saves you some time. The filter works too, but it’s a bit of a pain to install it. There’s also another filter I recently heard of called Eliminate White that, apparently, does the same thing.

      So, there are several ways to do this.

  2. Joeri Schouten says:

    Or, you just copy your line drawing, make a new layer, enter quick mask, paste your drawing there, exit quick mask so you’ve got a selection based on the black&white in your drawing, invert selection and fill it with black. Tadaa!

  3. Mike says:

    Hi Karen, I noticed your blowing up my website again. 🙂

    To answer a few questions,
    1: how can you partially select a pixel?
    this isn’t really a binary selection, (include/ exclude) its really a effect multiplier that indicated how much a pixel should be effected by the desired operation (which is stored 0.0 to 1.0). So a 50% selected pixel is going to be =((effect value) x 0.5) + (pixel value).

    This technique doesn’t exactly select only the white. It selects pixels bases on their value which there are several ways to do this but this one is new to me. I would warn that this does work great if you desire a grayscale or black and white image, but can very harsh on colors. I’d recommend duplicating any layer you use this on and then combining them together. This should help limit the color loss.

    The primary reason killwhite was invented was to protect colors. It can also protect the very wispy lines of a pencil drawing that could get negatively effected by this technique.


    • Karen B. Jones says:

      Well, the traffic’s actually thanks to Illustration Friday. They reblogged my article about your filter again.

      Thanks for the clarification about how your filter works. I still really like your filter, but since I mostly only use it for pulling out the white from a black-greyscale-and-white drawing, I’ve found that this other technique works just as well for me. And without having to install something. (Which was kinda a pain to do.)

      Your filter was immensely helpful to me for awhile, so I am quite grateful that you wrote it, even though I don’t use it much anymore. 🙂

  4. Vickie Adams says:

    I am also self taught and have been trying to do this forever. I took a line drawing and followed your steps. It seemed to work as the line drawing was there w the gray “checkered” background. I added a new layer and using the bucket tool, put in the white. The line drawing was completely covered. Don’t know what I’m doing wrong.

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