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Look into smart objects. You should be able to make an action that creates a new doc and aligns nine duplicate smart object tiles on a new 3 x 3 grid. Using align to selection and align layers you can build the thing completely in an action (given some reasonable upper bounds for the canvas, say 10k pixels, meaning a tile of > 3334 pixels square will fail ).
You won't be able to see your edits in real time, and this is I'm sure what you're after. Instead, you'll have to double-click one smart object (any smart object on the 3 x 3 grid, they're all the same), edit it, command/ctrl-s, command/ctrl-w and THEN see your edits populate the grid. I can help you with the action if you'd like.
Thank you very much. I have an action that will allign 9 duplicates of the last thing I copied but I still have to go back and forth between documents (from the 512x512 to the 1536x1536). I am new to smart objects and haven't had a chance to really look at them (other than a couple of filter applications I stumbled on) but I'm more than happy to learn and I'll hit the internet first thing in the morning. If I'm understanding you correctly, that will allow me to work and preview on the same document (even if I have to update it manually) which will certainly help.
A couple of points: 1) you don't need to close the smart object to update. Just command-s will do. 2) The align to selection was a red herring. You can use a flip horizontal / vertical by center then flip horizontal / vertical by corner to align the tiles.
Make your tile file (let's say 512 px x 512 px). Right click to the right of layer name to create a smart object. It could be not just one layer but several, a whole stack, all highlighted blue. I would start recording just before doing this and have the first action step be "convert to smart object". Keep recording. Create a new doc, making it 3 times bigger than your largest imaginable tile. Lets say 3000 px by 3000 px, where no tile created with this action can be larger than 1000 px square. But it could be 10k x 10k. Just much much bigger than you'll ever need. Move the smart object from your original file to the new doc. Name the smart object in the new doc something (while it is the current layer).
Now we're all in the new doc. Old doc is pretty much trash.
Duplicate it 8 times (NOT "new smart object via copy", instead use layer > duplicate). You can name these tiles whatever you like to keep them straight. Then use the align layer function to align 3 tiles to the top left corner of the canvas. Now flip horizontal the second tile using the center proxy, then flip it again using the corner proxy. That should tile it up against number 1. Repeat twice to get the third tile into place. Repeat this pattern to fill out the grid.
Then load the transparency of all nine layers, adding to the selection each time, and then crop to the selection.
Once you're done, if you double click on any smart object in the grid, it will open up just as your original doc, and you can make edits. Save to see the changes pass through to the large grid.
Or if you have Photoshop extended just use the 3D feature that does all that for you...
I do have CS4 Extended. It took me a bit of surfing to find the feature you were talking about as almost every single tile tutorial out there involves the "offset" filter. I did manage to find this, however, and it looks like pretty much exactly what I was talking about. I'll have to give it a shot when I get home.
(It's at the very bottom)
Create a tile for a repeating texture
A repeating texture is composed of identical tiles in a grid pattern. A repeating texture can provide more realistic surface coverage of the model, use less storage, and improve rendering performance. You can convert any 2D file into a tiled painting. After previewing how multiple tiles interact in the painting, you save one tile for use as a repeating texture.
Open a 2D file.
Select one or more layers in the file, then choose 3D > New Tiled Painting.
The 2D file is converted to a 3D plane containing nine identical tiles of the original content. Image dimensions remain the same.
Edit the tiled texture with painting tools, filters, or other techniques. (Changes you make to one tile automatically appear in the others.)
To load the tile as a repeating texture, open a 3D model file. In the Materials section of the 3D panel, choose Load Texture from the Diffuse menu, and select the file you saved above.
While not flawless, this is pretty much exactly the type of tool I was looking for. I found a couple of issues with painting over from one tile to the next, but it works relatively well overall and is great for outlining and previewing tiles.