by Weston Maggio

How to Make a Neon Sign in Adobe Photoshop with a Wacom Tablet

The invention of the neon sign dates back more than a hundred years and the technology behind them dates back even further. These roadside icons can run you a couple of hundred bucks today, but you can make your own by spending a little time working in Adobe Photoshop.

When it comes to making a neon sign in Photoshop, I’ve seen some good jobs and some bad jobs. What defines "good" and "bad" is ultimately determined by the destination and purpose of the piece. You can simulate neon pretty quickly with a minimally tweaked layer style. Or, by spending a little more time, you can combine a series of layer styles and some hand drawn elements to create a photo-realistic image. Again, which job is ideal depends on what you intend to do with the final piece.

Instead of walking through the mundane task of making the neon part of an existing sign, I thought that it would be more beneficial to provide you with some tips on making neon more believable!

I’m not going to skip out entirely on the step-by-step process. I’m going to do you one better! I have recorded a Photoshop Action that will walk you through the process of creating neon. This Action will enable you to spend more time on making the image look convincing. 

Watch the video, download the Action, and use it to create some neon:



Download the Action, Neon Glow 

Not an expert on Photoshop Actions? No Problem! Check out this primer on Using Photoshop Actions to learn what to do with the Action that I created.

5 Tips for Making Your Neon Believable 

Check Your References

Take a look at some authentic neon signs. Look closely at how a craftsperson bends the glass tubes. Take note of how they sections are joined to one another. Look especially at what is going on in the background. The frame, the wires, etc. These elements, though subtle, can make or break your look.

Neon Signs Don’t Levitate

Cheap and cheesy neon effects appear to float in mid-air. Don’t settle for a neon effect alone. Neon tubes are typically attached to pegs to make them stand off of a wall or other surface. More often than not, the pegs are affixed in a frame. Be sure to angle the pegs and frame in perspective.

Wire it Up

Single color neon signs are commonly made of a single, continuous, tube bent numerous times. This tube is then filled with various gases and electrified by inserting electrodes in the ends of the tubes. The electrodes are then connected to a transformer (box). When voltage is applied to the electrodes, you get that neon glow. Add the mechanics to make your neon glow.

Also note that portions of tubes are sometimes painted black to appear as if they are separate segments. This “trick” gives the appearance of numerous tubes joined together. Be sure to join your letters at the their ends with “blacked out” tubes. 

Embrace Irregularities

The color of a neon sign is determined by the kind of glass tubing it's made of, along with the gases inside. Over time, these gases disperse and permeate the glass making them fade in color. Additionally, changes in voltage can affect the intensity of the glow. Embrace these facts. Brush on highlights and shadows to your tubes to show discoloration. Especially at the joints and where tubes overlap.

Make Your Sign Stand Out

Your neon glow should be the center of attention. Darken the color of the wall or surface that it is mounted on. Additionally, play close attention to the depth of field. That is, your neon should appear sharper than the surface behind it. Consider blurring the background slightly so as to not compete with your sign.

Creating the Neon Layer Style 

If you are inclined to create neon from scratch, you can find the settings that I used in the creation of the Neon Glow Action below. Note: As part of the Action, I created layers from the Layer Styles. This process separates the effects from a Layer Style into their own layer. This can have an effect on the results that you arrive at from applying the settings found below.

Drop Shadow


Inner Glow


Outer Glow

Follow Wacom on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, G+, Tumblr and Pinterest.