Faking a CRT Look with Photoshop

A pixel illustration with a limited palette (that is shown with swatches on the right) of yellow sunflowers against a vibrant plain blue background, with a false CRT scanline look added.

Okay, lets make a fake CRT look on some pixel art. This is all Photoshop based! Procreate just isn’t as robust and hates single pixel action.

It’s not a perfect tutorial, but it is a good jumping-off point to play around. I half wrote this out so I remember what I did, because I like how it looks. Whether it’s super accurate is up for debate, but the vibe is there.

A limited-pallete pixel illustration of a line of palm trees in front of a blue sky with thin clouds. The palm trees are grouped three to the left and two on the right. Between the gropus is a small moon. The image has a false CRT scanline look to it that smooths a lot of the rougher gradients on the clouds and trees, especially on the palm trunks.

The source here helped a lot in figuring out how to offset the various colour channels: https://www.reddit.com/r/photoshop/comments/yw32o/comment/c5zkkqy/

Open your image – now you gotta make a choice here at the start: 

Do you want a more big-pixel, video game look? 

  • Make no change in size to your file at this time.

Do you want a smoother, computer monitor look? 

  • Increase your file size by 3x. So, if you have a 640×480 image, set it to 1920×1440, using Nearest Neighbour (preserve hard edges).

In a new, 1×3 pixel document, I made the alternating patterns described in the first source link. One each in a horizontal layout for red, green, and blue channels, and one in vertical for all channels. I defined each as a pattern in Photoshop, naming them for the channels.

A visual version of the written explanation in the Reddit link prior of how to make 1x3 pixel patterns for deleting colour channels.

I then duplicated my image, and for each channel on the duplicated layer I then would:

  1. Make sure you’re on default colours (white background, black foreground).
  2. Pour the pattern in a fresh layer.
  3. Select that layer.
  4. Go to the appropriate channel.
  5. Delete the selection.
A 2x2 grid of the same pixel illustration of sunflowers against a plain blue background, showing the progression of each step of channel deletion. By the end, the image is much lighter and kind of looks plaid.

You end up with a very bright and blown-out thing. Then! 

  1. Apply Gaussian Blur to taste. I did 3.0 on a 640×480 canvas.
  2. Set to Linear Dodge (add).

oOH, aesthetic! If it’s too much, don’t worry we tone it down later.

A two-piece image of the steps descriped. On the left is the result of adding gaussian blur. The kind of plaid sunflower image from before is now pleasantly blurry and bright. On the right, the Linear Dodge has added a kind of angelic glow to the original image.

Now for the scanlines. For this part I used this guide: https://www.reddit.com/r/photoshop/comments/yw32o/comment/c5zdd0a/

You have to make a “kernel” that you will define as a pattern. What you want is basically a white centre or dot that gradiates out. You’ll probably have to muck with this some! But you’re going to use it as a mask and bless masks, they’re very adjustable too.

A blown-up image of what kind of kernel to build a pour pattern from. It's more or less a white cross in the upper half of the 3x6 shape that fades out into dark grey at the bottom.

Underneath the untouched layer of your original image, make a layer in black or dark blue or purple. You’ll want to play around a bit. I like using using hex #0a0049.

Then, add a mask to your untouched original image layer and pour the “kernel” pattern. It’ll look a bit crap!

A screencap of a Photoshop window showing the kind of janky appearance of the initial application of the kernel pattern. The layers used are shown, and match everything previously described.

From here it is all sort of fudging and messing about. To get the final image here I:

  1. Added a mask to the glowy layer in a radial gradient of white-to-black, so the centre of the image had a brighter look.
  2. Reduced the density of the mask to 77% and feathered it to 0.8% (you get to mask options by double-clicking on the mask).

To show you how the scanline pattern you pour makes a difference, the image on the left has the more gentle gradient I showed above and the one on the right has a harder line from white to more actual black.

A side-by-side image of the fake crt sunflower image. The image on the left feels overly sharp. On the right there is a soft vignette and general dimness that feels more like you're looking at a screen.

And here’s a zoomed-in.

A zoomed-in crop of the faked CRT image. The individual pixke edges are more transparent but the glowiness and CRT lines are doing their work smoothing it. It looks not bad as a fake screen, tbh.

Anyway, it’s a game of messing around and personal taste. Here’s the difference between the chunkier and the smoother looks on a different test:

The palm tree image shown at the start of the post, but in a side-by-side version with the chunkier CRT look on the left and a smoother but definitely not smooth-smooth version on the right.

Because you’re deleting pixels from colour channels, the size and the hue of colours makes a big difference in the final piece! 

Anyway, have fun, keep playing around (I know I will) and enjoy playing with some very specific nostalgia.

Also published on Medium.