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It’s used in sacred ceremonies. It’s used to cleanse. It’s linked to the spirit world. It makes breath visible. It’s a sign of danger. Fire precedes it. It’s pollution. It stops breath. Smoke is a powerful symbol.
Compositionally, smoke is extraordinarily flexible. It can be thick or thin, heavy or diffuse, contained or scattered, simple or complex. You can draw a line in any direction, linking two objects or creating a new focus of attention. You can literally draw the eye to any point in an image along any path.
The complexity and variety found in smoke effects gives you an extraordinary degree of artistic license without compromising realism. That said, if you plan to incorporate the effect into your work, it pays to closely study the appearance smoke in the real world. There’s a logic to the way smoke unfurls. It’s tighter and more energetic closer to the source, more diffuse and calmer when it’s further away. It billows, curls, and twists in undulating arcs, rarely making a sharp turn. While it can drift quickly or slowly, it rarely descends; it usually ascends. It’s amazing to me that something so complex can be so easily rendered by hand, using Photoshop.

1.Draw and distort a line.
Starting with a Background layer filled with black, use the Paintbrush to paint a white line on a new layer in a Layer Set entitled Smoke. Then, distort the line. Use the Smudge Tool to pull through, push out of, wiggle, or twirl portions of the white line until a desired effect is achieved. The more you distort the line the more blurred it becomes. Use the History Brush to selectively undo distorted areas as desired.

2.Refine the effect.

Use Liquify (Filter > Liquify) to create further distortions. Unlike the Smudge Tool, Liquify will not introduce blurring with distortion. Use Liquify’s Reconstruct Tool to undo distortions selectively. Unlike using the History Brush, the Reconstruct Tool allows you to pick a transitional state between undistorted and fully distorted.

3.Build up a more complex effect.
Repeat as many times as desired keeping separate elements on separate layers.
4.Reposition the elements.
Use the Move Tool to reposition select elements. Use Free Transform (Edit > Free Transform) to scale or distort select elements.

5.Create a halo.
Turn off the Background Layer. Create a new layer and place it at the bottom of the Smoke Layer Set. Hold the Alt and Ctrl keys (Windows) or Option and Command keys (Mac OS) and select Merge Visible. This copies all the visible information from multiple layers onto the one layer you have targeted, without flattening your image. Use the filter Gaussian Blur to blur this layer. Lower its opacity as desired. Repeat if necessary.
6.Optionally, add noise.
At the top of the Smoke Layer Set, create a new layer filled with 50% gray, set to Overlay mode, and filter it with either Noise or Grain. Reduce Opacity and Saturation as desired.
7.Import the effect into a new destination.
Drag and drop the Smoke Layer Set into a new destination. Modify position and opacity as desired. Further distortion may be desired. Elements within a single Layer Set can be shuffled and recombined to create multiple effects that have varied appearances.
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