Life hack: Using Photoshop for super-fast renovation mockups

This life hack is simple, powerful, and while Photoshop is nice to use, it's not required. You don't need expensive software or artistic talent either.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

A friend of mine used to be a matte painting artist at Industrial Light & Magic. He painted (using real brushes and paints) some of the more famous backgrounds seen in classic Lucasfilm scenes.

As a side gig, he did architectural renderings, which I didn't even know was a thing until he showed me his work. For one project, he was given a photograph of a San Francisco neighborhood and his job was to paint in a proposed building and make it look as real as the photo. This was in the days before Photoshop, so the skill necessary to do this kind of work was restricted to, well, ILM-quality artists.

Also: How to speed up your photo editing with Photoshop actions Techrepublic

The idea of taking a picture and modifying it to show what something might eventually look like stuck with me as a life hack. I don't have anything resembling my friend's artistic skill. Still, I've used Photoshop to pre-vis (previsualize) many projects I worked on. I even used a very early version of Photoshop to pre-vis what I'd look like with a beard (and yeah, it was waaay better).

I pulled out this particular life hack last week to help a contractor understand what I wanted in my new house. I tried describing how my wife and I wanted the drywall to cover some ductwork in a bathroom, and he just didn't get it.

I took a couple of iPhone snapshots of the area we needed him to work on. The image on the left shows the duct as it is now. The image on the right shows how I want the area to look.


Here, two simple polygons were drawn to represent a box.

As you can see, my Photoshop artwork isn't perfect. But all it took was using the Polygonal Lasso Tool to click on points that roughly approximated the polygon shapes. I then used the Eyedropper tool to pick up a paint shade, and the Bucket tool to fill the selection. By using a few different shades from the existing image, a simple representation was created in about five minutes.

Also: Fake house? Use Google Street View to travel through time and expose flippers

The upper duct was a bit of a bigger challenge. My wife wants to do a major redesign of this bathroom once we get moved in, but we need the holes that open into the attic sealed up now. As you can see, the upper duct sticks out a bit from the wall unit. So I tried a couple of designs, including a box that went all the way down to the floor, but we finally settled on this approach:


This is also simple polygons, just a couple more were drawn.

You don't really need to know this for our discussion, but I know you're going to ask. We chose not to extend the wall out because we'd have to redo tile on the floor, and we're trying to save some money given how expensive this project has been.

Both of these duct covering pre-vis examples were done with just the three tools I described above. But for another project, I had to use the Rubber Stamp tool to copy texture and shading.

For some reason, the master bedroom has this structure as the focal point. I have no idea what's supposed to go inside each of those red-backed columns, but it's not what we want. I had planned to modify this area myself, but work projects filled my calendar between now and the move-in date, so we asked our contractor to do it instead.


We have no idea why the previous owner built these tall sections, but they have to go.

He needed to not only know what we wanted done, but also to understand why. I first created the image below, covering over the vertical shelf dividers and creating a single blue background. Then I added some notes on dimensions, just so he had them as well.


The 2-inch hole is for standard wire grommets.

He still couldn't quite picture why we wanted this done this way, so I found the model number of my TV, did a search online, and found an image with a solid white background. I dropped it into Photoshop, used the Magic Wand to select the white areas, and deleted them. I wasn't concerned if I had a perfect matte, just that the contractor could see what I wanted done.


Ah, that's better. Room for a nice big TV.

You can see I didn't bother with distorting the TV to match the distortion in the shelving unit. I could have pulled the upper left corner out and up, but this was a quick visualization as a communication tool, not a piece of art.

And that's the point. Almost anyone can do a simple pre-vis for a home remodel, an office redesign, or even to get a feel for colors or patterns. You don't even need to use Photoshop. Pretty much anything will do, even Microsoft Paint. All you're doing is communicating an idea, so you don't need much in the way of art or Photoshop skills.

Also: Smart tech for your home renovation CNET

Doing these sorts of quick mock-ups can be powerful. They can help you get buy-in and they can allow you to explore a number of alternatives before committing to costly work.

If you do any mock-ups that help you previsualize a project, let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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