5 Tips for Using Layer Masks in Digital Painting

How to Use Layer Masks in Digital Painting: 5 Amazing Tips

Cover Illustration By: Ilse Harting

Think of layer masks as a 'non-destructive' Eraser Tool...

They make it possible to hide, rather than delete, parts of your layer. This gives you a lot of flexibility, allowing you to bring back your hidden values again at any time.

Though many painters understand the basic principles of how layer masks work, Photoshop actually gives us some very powerful tools that make them infinitely more powerful.

We’ve gathered 5 incredibly useful tips, that are guaranteed to improve your digital paintings:

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1. Stacking Layer Masks with Groups

There are many situations in which it would be useful to apply more than a single mask to a layer.

For example, you may want to preserve the hard edges of a mask, while further adding to the already masked area with soft brushes.

Simply adding a second Layer Mask won’t work – Photoshop will create another Mask, but it will be a Vector Mask, which you can’t paint on (more on that in a minute).

Instead, here’s what you can do:

Layer Masks: Stacked Masks Within Groups
  1. Place the Layer within a Group
  2. Apply a Mask to this Group

You can keep stacking this infinitely. if you need another layer mask, just put the group within another group, and put a layer mask on that!

2. Shortcut: Temporarily Disabling Masks

Sometimes, you may want to check to see what your layer would look like without a mask.

You could delete your mask and then undo that action, but this is slow.

Besides, if you perform too many other actions, you may not be able to go back to the stage where you deleted it.

A much better solution is to temporarily hide the layer mask, by simply pressing SHIFT + clicking on the specific mask. The mask will be hidden, and the Layer Panel will show the temporarily disabled mask with a red cross, as shown below:

Shortcut: Disabling Layer Masks

To restore the Mask, repeat pressing SHIFT+Click on the mask.

This is especially useful when you’re stacking layer masks in groups. If you’d like to see your work without one of the masks, you can’t just hide the group (as that would also hide everything else, along with the mask).

Instead, you can simply SHIFT+Click on the individual group’s masks to temporarily hide them.

3. Preserve Your Edges with a Vector Mask

If you’d like to create a mask within a mask, but don’t want to clutter up your layers panel with stacked groups, you have a second option: the vector mask.

To create a vector mask, simply select a layer with a mask, and click on the ‘Add Layer Mask’ button at the bottom of the Layer Panel again.

How to make a vector mask

Like a stacked group layer, the vector mask will allow you to create a ‘boundry’, so that no matter what you paint on the regular layer mask, it will only show up within the constraints of the vector mask.

Unlike a regular mask, vector masks are created with the Pen Tool. To begin, simply fill in the shape you’d like to mask with the Pen Tool, making sure it is set to Path (not Shape).

Vector Mask Pt. 1

With the vector mask in place, you can switch back to the regular mask.

This could for example be used to add shadows to a portrait. First you would use a vector mask to ensure the shadow is applied only to the face. Then, you can use the regular layer mask to fade this in areas such as the forehead, eyes, nose, and cheekbones.

Vector Mask Pt. 2

Tip: Afterwards, you can refine the edges of your Vector Mask by simply moving the anchor points with the Arrow tool.

4. Adding Texture to, and with a Mask

You can add texture to your layer mask by painting on it with textured brushes.

What many people don’t know, however, is that it’s actually possible to use antire picture of a texture (such as paper or concrete) directly as a mask.

To do this, first open the file containing the texture you want to use. Make sure it is in black and white.

Adding texture with a layer mask in Photoshop

Next, create a layer mask on the layer you’d like to apply to texture to, and then Alt + Click on it to isolate it. You can now copy and paste the photo of the texture directly onto the mask.

Click on the Layer Thumbnail in the Layer’s Panel to go back to the regular view of your layer.

Once you go back to the Layer that contains your work, you will see that the texture has been added to your work. Just like that—you have a portrait that looks like it’s painted on concrete!

Adding texture to your portrait with layer masks

5. Controlling the Opacity of your Masks

Just like layers, you can raise and lower the opacity of your masks.

This is especially useful when used in conjunction with Tip 4. After you’ve applied a texture to your mask, you may want to lower it’s visibility, to make it slightly less apparent.

To do so, simply double-click the mask, and adjust the density. A lower density will make the mask look less opaque in your work.

Layer Mask Density

As you can see, masks are an incredibly versatile tool in digital painting!

Now have a play around with these techniques, and see the many wonderful ways you can apply them to your own paintings!


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