Layer Masks and Clipping Masks explained

So I guess that you’ve decided that it’s high time for you to learn what Layer Masks and Clipping Masks are and how they can be useful for you in digital illustration? In this post, I’ll try to explain them are as simple as possible but not simpler than that.

Layer Masks can be compared with what erasers do, basically you can remove parts of an image without actually erasing those parts. As you may have noticed, when you create a Layer Mask, you get an additional window next to your layer, which typically is a white board. Once that’s open, you need to use a black color to hide a part of your image or a white color to bring it back. In addition  you can use any value in the black and white gradient to increase or decrease the intensity of the hide/reveal.

This would make them a lot more convenient than erasers, because of a few key features:

  1. Your .PSD image doesn’t get as heavy in size as it would if you just copy the image in to a new layer and use the eraser on it.
  2. You use fewer layers. This one’s true only if you use this technique: duplicating a layer > erase parts of the new layer, keeping the original layer safe.
  3. Unlimited undo’s!*

*As a note to point 3, the undo’s are not in the standard sense of using Ctrl+Z, but what I mean is that if you hide something with the black color, you can always bring it back with the white color.

Generally speaking this is the whole philosophy behind Layer Masks, they simply hide and reveal parts of an image in the Layers you’ve added them to. I believe that they should have named the feature “Cloaking layer” because first and foremost it sounds cooler and I believe that it better describes the functionality of the option. Imagine the Harry Potter invisibility cloak.

Clipping Masks on the other hand do not really have the same functionality as Layer Masks. Generally the two things they have in common is that both of them have the word “Mask” in the name and that they work with layers.

That said, Clipping Masks start off as new Layers (just like any other Layer that you normally add). Once created, you attach them or “Clip” them on the layer below. After that whatever you draw on the Clipping Mask Layer will be in the shape and opacity of the Layer you’ve attached them to.

For example, let’s say that you have a circle on Layer 1, then you go ahead and attach a Clipping Mask on to that Layer. When you start painting something, you will be only able to paint within that circle.

How are Clipping Masks useful, you ask?

Imagine you create an awesome line art, you add all the base colors on different layers. Then you go ahead and attach a Clipping Mask on to every base color layer, this would allow you to create shadows and highlights without worrying that you will get in the base color of the other layers.

Can’t you do that with “Preserve Layer Transparency”?

Sure you can, however using Clipping Masks will benefit you in the sense that you can fix stuff more accurately and in ways that wouldn’t really work with “Preserve Layer Transparency”. For example lets say you’ve attached a few Clipping Masks on to a base color layer. You’ve got a Mask for shadows, highlights and additional details. Now imagine that you’ve done quite a bit of work on those layers but you suddenly feel that instead of that red shadow you’ve added, magenta would work better. If you’ve used the “Preserve Layer Transparency” option, fixing the shadows may mess up the details you’ve put in or the highlights. With the Clipping Masks, you will be able to go to the shadows Layer, tweak it’s hue until you reach the color you wanted and then continue working on your other stuff.

On the image above, every color I’ve pointed out can be edited on its own with the “Preserve Transparency” technique. This allows you to change stuff without messing up the other things you’ve put on top or below.

Hope that now the Layer Masks and Clipping Masks are a bit clearer.



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