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Layer Masks - viewed times

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Let me first start by telling you that this tutorial is spread over 3 pages. Click on the blue number 2 or 3 at the top or bottom of this page to visit the other pages.

Layer Masks are a very powerful part of Photoshop and that is for a couple of reasons:

  • Layer Masks are editable selections that play an important role in non destructive editing
  • Layer Masks offer flexibility because they can be almost completely treated as a full gray scale image, which allows the use of filters, selection tools, adjustment tools, etc.
  • They have a visual strength, meaning that with a short look on the layers you can see how they affect the image
  • They offer extra flexibility by being part of vector masks, layer sets, adjustment layers, etc.
  • Layer masks allow you to save selections


Layer Masks are always saved when you save your document.

Layer Mask are quite often used to hide pixels, but can also be used to mask the result of an adjustment layer.
In this introduction we're only going to focus on hiding pixels. later on we'll see how layer masks can be used in combination with adjustment layers and layer sets.

So how do layer masks work? A layer mask is actually telling photoshop how to deal with the layer it's attached to and does this by using shades of gray. Let's focus for now only on black & white masks.

To understand layer masks you have to remember the following:

  • The color black in a layer mask hides the corresponding pixels in the linked layer (actually makes those pixels transparent).
  • The color white leaves the corresponding in the linked layer intact; it doesn't do anything with them

In our example we have two layers in our layers palette;

  • A background layer that is green
  • A layer named Layer 1 that is on top and is color yellow

We also notice a black & white image on the right side of our Layer 1; that's the famous layer mask.

Masks explainedSo what does that mean in our example? It means that the black ellipse is hiding the the corresponding pixels in the yellow layer (Layer 1).
What we see in our document window is always the result of looking down on the layers in the layers palette, starting at the top layer and in most cases ending with a background layer. All these are stacked on top of each other like playing-cards. Our yellow 'card' has a hole in it and that's why it's the only area where we can see the layer underneath, in our case the green layer. The result is a yellow square with in the middle a green ellipse.

So remember; black hides pixels (or hides the result of an adjustment layer)

This tutorial is split into several sections:

  • Creating a Layer Mask (all visible)
  • Creating a Layer Mask (all hidden)
  • Using a brush to paint on the Layer Mask
  • Active Layer Mask
  • Inactive Layer Mask
  • Unlinked Layer Mask
  • Disabling a Layer Mask
  • Deleting a Layer Mask
  • Editing a Layer Mask in the document window
  • Right click on Layer Mask (context menu)
  • Apply Layer Mask
  • Layer Mask with gray
  • Layer Masks and gradients
  • Layer Styles in combination with Layer Masks
  • Vector Mask
  • Combining a Layer Mask with a Vector Mask
  • Combining Layer Masks
  • Using clipping layers with Layer Masks
  • Masks and filters
  • Masks and adjustment layers
  • Masks and selections
  • Shortcuts

Create a Layer Mask (all visible)

You create a new mask by clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon add mask.
This will create by default a white mask, meaning that no pixels of the layer will be affected; our document window will be filled with green:

Create Mask (all visible)

Create a Layer Mask (all hidden)

You'll create a mask that is filled with black when you hold down the Alt key (option key on the Mac) while clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon add mask. This means that all pixels in that layer will be hidden; our document window will be filled with white, since the layer above is completely hidden:

Create Mask (all hidden)

Use a brush to paint on the layer mask

You can also paint on masks using a brush. In this example I drew two lines in black. What is black in the mask will be hidden in the layer:

Paint on Mask

Active Layer Mask

An active Layer Mask can be recognized by:
  • a Layer Mask icon Layer Mask in front of the layer (marked with red circle)
  • a double border surrounding the Layer Mask (marked with red arrow)
Active Layer Mask

Inactive Layer Mask (layer is active instead)

An inactive Layer Mask can be recognized by:
  • a brush icon Brushin front of the layer (marked with red circle)
  • a double border surrounding the layer in the layers palette (red arrow)
Non Active Layer Mask

Unlinked Layer Mask

By default a layer and its masked are linked, meaning that moving the layer will also move the mask or moving the mask will also move the layer. We can unlink the layer and its mask by clicking on the link icon Mask. Both layer and mask can then be moved independently. The red ellipse shows where we have removed the link.

Unlinked Layer Mask

Disable a Layer Mask

You can disable a layer mask by holding down the shift key while clicking on the mask. The layer mask will then be marked with a large red cross.

Disabling a Layer Mask

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