Welcome to The Digital Art Studio

Digital Art Studio 1: Customizing Photoshop shortcuts

This is the first post in a new series we’re calling The Digital Art Studio. Here I’ll share with you some of the ways I integrate digital tools into my creative workflow. These posts will generally be fairly short and will mainly focus on the digital aspect to how I create artwork. Projects will alternate between each of the different apps (mostly Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator), some will move between apps, and others will touch on how I integrate traditional and digital tools together.

I intended this first post to be a dive into a cool project, but realized that before I get down to work in my digital studio, I always make sure that it’s set up so I’m able to move quickly, intuitively, and smoothly. It’s the digital equivalent of scraping down my palette and squeezing out new paint. Things must be set up properly if you’re going to work smoothly. So if I’m sitting down at a new machine, or I’ve recently reinstalled Photoshop or trashed preferences, my checklist means modifying a few preferences (such as turning off some of the Zoom settings and choosing the lightest User Interface), and setting up a few custom keyboard shortcuts. This checklist is different for each app, and it will be different for you than for me.

In order to feel free to experiment, brainstorm, and try out creative ideas, you need to know that you can easily go back a step, multiple steps, to a previous step, or to the beginning. There are lots of things that I do to set up a safe and adaptable environment for experimenting in each of the apps, but in this post I’m going to focus just on customizing keyboard shortcuts in Photoshop for Convert to Smart Object and Undo. These two small changes hugely impact my ability to create a safe working environment that encourages me to freely experiment creatively.

If you’re already using smart objects, then you need to set up this shortcut. If you’re not already using smart objects, then you must start using them right now! When folks ask me to help them with something in Photoshop, the first thing I ask is: “do you ever work ‘destructively’ to alter the pixels on your main image or before you do any transformations?” If they say “yes” then I say (as I’m going to now say to you):

Never (never) ever do anything destructive to your image. There are lots of ways to accomplish this, but four in particular are essential:

  • To remove parts of an image, always use masks (don’t erase pixels).
  • Do retouching on layers above the main image layer.
  • Duplicate a layer before you do anything permanent.
  • Before you perform any transformations or apply any filters, convert your images into smart objects.

Making a Shortcut for Convert to Smart Object in Photoshop

By default, converting an existing Photoshop layer to a smart object means choosing a panel menu item. This takes way too much effort, especially since you’re going to be doing this a lot. To set up this as a shortcut, choose Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts. In the in the upper left of the dialog, choose Keyboard Shortcuts, then in the Shortcuts for pop-up, choose Panel Menus. Now scroll down until you find Layers. Click on the Layers disclosure arrow and scroll down to find Convert to Smart Object.

The key to assigning a keyboard shortcut is that it needs to be something you’ll remember. Smart Object—how am I going to remember it? My thinking went like this: the S key for shortcuts is used for all the varieties of saving, so instead use O for object. There’s a magic shortcut in Illustrator and InDesign that’s Command-Shift-O, it outlines fonts within a selection—something we don’t need in Photoshop. But turns out in Photoshop that invokes Bridge, so I figured I could remember all the modifier keys plus O (Command-Shift-Option-O) for Objects. But choose one that you will remember. When you’ve decided on a shortcut that works for you, click outside the field and then OK.


If it’s possible that I might want to transform, crop, or apply a filter to a layer, then I make certain to first convert it to a smart object. To do this, select the layer with the image that you want to convert and apply your new shortcut. If you had a layer mask applied to that layer before converting it, then your smart object will display as if that mask were applied to it. You’ll see a new icon where your image was. Now you can apply smart filters, add additional layer masks, or use Command-T/CTRL-T to transform that Smart Object to your heart’s delight.

The benefits of working “Smart” are almost endless. With smart filters, you can turn filter effects off and on, or combine them. With transformations of smart objects, you minimize the degradations of your image because only the current iteration of your image is calculated as one transformation when you print/export or save. To edit the image itself (including adding layer masks or additional layers!), Option/Alt-double-click on the Smart Object icon in the Layers panel. Save changes to apply to the image within your master document’s Smart Layer, or use Save As to save this version as its own file.

There are infinite ways to work with smart objects, but for now just setting up these two shortcuts will allows you to forget about all that settings stuff and get down to the important stuff—being creative and productive.

Changing Photoshop’s Undo Shortcut

If you only use Photoshop and are fine with the way it handles Undo, then you can skip this part. But if you’re like me, you use Photoshop in concert with other apps like InDesign and Illustrator, and you may want the shortcuts to be consistent across apps. Pretty much everyone knows the standard Cut/Copy/Paste/Undo/Save shortcuts, which all work the same everywhere…except for Photoshop.

Undo is one of those things we all need all the time. At some point in our digital evolution, Undo evolved to become multiple Undo. And that was a wonderful thing. In most apps, Command-Z/ CTRL-Z will keep stepping you back in time, while repeating Command-Shift-Z/CTRL-Shift-Z will Redo it back again. But for some strange reason, Photoshop separates “Undo once”, from the “Undo more” command (or what they call Step Backwards). Choosing Undo again doesn’t step you back in Photoshop, it’s just toggles Undo/Redo. That’s just wrong! And frankly, whenever I have my hands on a version of Photoshop where this hasn’t been fixed, I panic and wonder why I can’t Undo more than one step. Did I do something wrong? Then I remember, “Oh right, we have to set this up the right way!”

Why doesn’t Photoshop work like all other apps—especially its close cousins Illustrator and InDesign? There’s probably a good reason (I suspect folks who already had it memorized staged a revolt?), but if you haven’t done this yet, and you switch between Photoshop and other apps, I highly recommend you try this. It might take you a little while to re-learn it, but since this is something almost all other apps do, you should be able to adapt without too much angst.

To “fix” Photoshop’s Undo shortcut, go to Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts, and choose Application Menus from the pop-up. Next, click on the disclosure arrow to the left of Edit to reveal its menu items to find Step Backward. Click in the field with that shortcut, and type Command-Z for Mac, or CTRL-Z for Windows. You’ll see a warning that this is in use for Undo/Redo. I click outside that field to Accept it, leaving the original one unassigned but you can reassign Undo/Redo to another shortcut if you wish.


Little Things Add Up Over Time

Taking just a little time to customize your shortcuts and preferences can really help you feel more comfortable and productive with your apps. The tasks you’ll want to customize are likely to be different from mine. And each app likely will demand its own areas of customization. Of course, this can all change the next time you upgrade or switch to another app. But the main thing is for you to make a commitment to fixing all the little things that are repetitive or frustrating in your workflow—and then make note of what you did so you can apply it again in the case of a reset or reinstall.

Do you have shortcuts that you added or customized in Photoshop so you could work faster or easier? Share them in the comments!

Posted on: June 22, 2016

Sharon Steuer

For more than three decades Sharon has explored new ways to merging of traditional and digital painting, drawing, printmaking and collage. Her many books, articles, and videos about creating art with digital tools include the fourteen editions of the award-winning Adobe Illustrator WOW! Books series, her Digital Art Studio column on CreativePro.com, as well as Creative Thinking in Photoshop and “Artistic Painting with Illustrator” courses on lynda.com. Sharon’s artwork in all forms has appeared in many books and magazines, and has been exhibited widely, with awards from the national Faber Birren Color Award, Windsor Newton Painting award, and a Connecticut Commission on the Arts Fellowship Grant. Sharon's painting studio is in San Francisco, though you may spot her secretly drawing portraits on public transit. Please connect with Sharon via @sharonsteuer on Instagram, fb, twitter) See more artwork and sign up for her occasional emails via sharonsteuer.com

8 Comments on Welcome to The Digital Art Studio

  1. Congratulations on the new blog, Sharon. I look forward to your great tips!

  2. Kay Gregory-Clark

    June 26, 2016 at 9:02 am

    I’m a very longtime Photoshop user, but haven’t mastered all the features by any means. Right now I’m using PSE 11, so I’m wondering if your blog will help me. I can’t find the very first reference—keyboard shortcuts under Edit. So before I go any further, I thought I’d better check. Thanks a bunch!

    • HI Kay.
      I haven’t used Elements in a very long time, so can’t tell you for sure.
      Although there are some folks who have posted info on Smart Objects in PSE, the official Adobe info seems to say that this is one of the things you can’t do with PE but can in PS (along with working in CMYK, channels, Layer Comps, etc.):
      If you can get a hold of PS CS6 you will be able to work with all of those features.

  3. Thanks Sharon! So tired of colleagues who “know Photoshop” and then proceed with destructive editing and endless copies of edited versions.

  4. Thanks for sharing usefull tips with us. We are a digital creative agency and we encourage our new starters to read your blog for latest news about design.

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