The Digital Eye: The Art of Grunge

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It’s unlikely that the end of the world is going to happen anytime soon but in the minds of many creative artists it’s already here. Cinema, print media, and websites have all taken on the challenge of portraying the dystopian world whose inhabitants struggle to survive on a daily basis against formidable odds such as earthquakes, tornados, wars, extraterrestrials, monsters, dragons and, let’s not forget, evil mutant zombies. The “Dark Side” has been a common theme for a long time and the graphic elements in media that portray a dystopian view of the world have specific characteristics that invoke rack, ruin, and doom (see Figure 1).

We find distressed graphic elements (sometimes called “Grunge Graphics”) in advertisements, illustrations, graphic novels, vehicle wraps, T-shirts, and of course, movies. Grunge images can be faded, dull and dirty. These types of images are ubiquitous nowadays as the public demands more drama and realism in storytelling and advertising. Techniques that are used to create Grunge images can also be used to make images appear aged or “vintage” (see Figure 2). This article will explore the typical characteristics of distressed graphics and demonstrate ways to achieve these effects.

The Psychology of Grunge

Grunge as a graphic design style that emerged as a trend in the 1990s. One of the key figures in its inception was the graphic designer, David Carson, who has been ordained “The Father of Grunge.” Carson’s original designs appeared grainy and tattered. Words, textures, and backgrounds contained in posters and ads were composed using elements that would have been previously considered to be design errors. They were messy, dirty, grainy or broken.

Grunge as a style became ubiquitous throughout the years and it turned out to be the largest, most widespread movement in recent design history. Grunge evokes the idea of neglect and deterioration by natural elements. Leave any vulnerable object in the sun and weather for a time and it will fade, buckle, erode and ultimately turn to dust. Metaphorically, Grunge graphics imply the neglect and deconstruction of the social order and the urban landscape. More so, Grunge design offers a more pragmatic approach to visual communication by incorporating less ideal and more realistic elements that reflect the real, less glitzy world we actually live in.

The Grunge Color Palette

In most cases Grunge designs use subdued desaturated, colors (see Figure 3), primarily browns, beiges, greys and blacks and sometimes muted blues, purples and ochers. Vivid colors are confined to very small areas for counterpoint or not used at all, with more natural and subdued colors dominating the majority of the design.

Edges frequently fade to darkness or to a blur giving a vignette effect and focusing on the center of the content.


Grainy textures and background images are essential in every Grunge design. Photoshop of course, is the best software to use to create the Grunge effect. A texture is usually superimposed over the critical content on a separate layer and modified by reducing opacity or applying a blend mode to the layer. Thousands of grungy textures are available on for free online (see Figure 4), or you can make your own by photographing fragments of wood, dirt, sand, brick, mud, grass, stone, stains or anything that provides an irregular surface texture. The texture is often monochromatically colored with browns warm grays or ocher. This effect is achieved by applying a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and checking the Colorize box to automatically tint the image with a grungy foreground color (as in Figure 5). Another reliable method is to create a Photo Filter adjustment layer using an ocher or brown colored filter and placing it immediately above and “clipped” to the texture (see Figures 6A, 6B, 6C). A blend mode or opacity adjustment will blend the texture into the content layer … and viola! You’ve just distressed the image and sent it to the dark side.

To intensify the effect, the same texture can be applied multiple times on multiple layers with different blend modes, or several different textures can be applied on separate layers. As always, experimentation is the key to success.

Grunge Brushes

In Grunge design, Photoshop brushes are frequently used to apply textures. Brushes offer the advantage of more control over smaller areas in the application of texture. As with textures, Grunge brush sets are available online. Here is one resource (among many) for all kinds of grungy stuff: http://wefunction.com/roundup-of-essential-grunge-design-resources.

Of course you can make your own Grunge texture brushes — Here’s how:

  • Open an image of a texture.
  •  Select the area of the texture with one of the selection tools (see Figure 7A).
  • From the edit menu choose Define Brush Preset.
  • Name the brush (see Figure 7B).
  • In the tools panel choose the Brush tool and a foreground color. In the Options bar set the size and opacity of the brush.
  • Make a selection of the shape you want to fill, create a new layer and begin painting (see Figure 7C).

Distress Filters

Filters are yet another option for distressing image content. In combination with Grunge textures and brushes the results can be really startling. There are several filters in the Filter Gallery (Filter>Filter Gallery) that produce grainy effects (see Figure 8) including the Texturizer, Grain, Poster Edges, Film Grain and Glass Filters among others. All of these filters are destructive when applied directly to the layer content, so for the purpose of maintaining a dynamic workflow, it pays to convert the layer to a smart object (the command is in the Layers panel pull down menu) before applying the filter. This way the filter can be easily modified at any time during the process. A mask is automatically created and can be modified to control the regions and intensity where the filter is applied.

The Filter Gallery interface has controls that enable you to create an infinite number of variations. In addition, you can stack multiple filters and see the results of these combinations in the preview window in real time.

Grungy Edges

Distressed borders along the edges enhance the Grunge effect. If an edge looks torn, crumpled, broken, or dirty or grainy, the content inside will reflect the same quality. Like backgrounds and brushes, countless Grunge borders are available online (see Figure 9). Distressing a border can be achieved in Photoshop with filters, backgrounds brushes and layer styles, in a similar fashion to distressing type. The next section describes how to Grunge a typeface. Similar techniques can be applied to a border or for that matter, any element in the Grunge layout.

Grunge Tutorials

Like it or not, the Grunge look is here to stay and you may find it to be appropriate for many print, large format or Web advertising situations. The process of making a graphic look beat-up, eroded or dirty is really fun because you can be creative and destructive at the same time. There are dozens of online tutorials that will teach you methods to produce numerous Grunge effects. Here are a few websites that will get you started. Have a look at them and give it a try:

  • Envato
  • Smashing Magazine
  • Template Monster
Stephen Romaniello

Stephen Romaniello

Stephen Romaniello is an artist and educator teaching digital art at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, for over 20 years. He is a certified instructor in Adobe Photoshop and the author of several books on the creative use of digital graphics software. Steve is the founder of GlobalEye systems, a company that offers training and consulting in digital graphics software and creative imaging.

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