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Friday, July 29, 2011

Photoshop Tips: How to use the Quick Mask & Layers Mask to Edit Art

The layer mask is a very powerful, time saving and useful tool to select, isolate, and extract images from a painting that has been placed on one layer in Photoshop. By using the layer mask with other tools and methods, images can be accurately isolated from backgrounds even if they contain fine detail such as hair, fur, and leaves. Multiple paintings can be combined into a single image by hiding portions of the layers to reveal the layers below, backgrounds can be changed without permanently erasing the original painting, and colors can be easily altered.

At first glance, using the layer mask seems difficult but in reality it is simple. But first, a person needs to understand how layers and masks work in Photoshop. View the following elementary but unfortunately boring video tutorial "Photoshop Tutorial #3 - Masks & Layers Essentials" to learn how to use them. Note: The video shows a bonus tip on using keystrokes and the mouse to unlock the background layer (Mac = option key + double click mouse on the layer; Windows = alt key + double click).

Layer masks are edited with brushes or selection tools. In the layer mask the areas painted black are hidden, the areas in white are visible, and areas painted in shades of gray appear in various levels of transparency. Layer masks are nondestructive so that they can be re-edited or deleted without losing the pixels they hide.

Photoshop CS5 has two tools for masking. The quick mask is located at the bottom of the tool bar (rectangle icon with a circle in the middle). Use the keystroke Q to toggle it on and off. The quick mask can be used to select areas to be removed or moved to another layer instead of using the magic wand, marquee or lasso tools. It works well for selecting images but the layer mask (also available in earlier versions of Photoshop) should be used if the artist wishes to preserve the original image and have the opportunity to later re-edit the mask. The layer mask is located at the bottom of the layers panel (rectangle icon with a circle in the center) or open the mask panel under Window / Masks in the Photoshop control bar at the top of the window.

Below are a few ways to use the quick and layer masks to enhance and edit art.
1. Extracting images
Sometimes images from scanned art need to be extracted from the rest of the art to use them for patterns and additional art for collections. An easy, fast, and accurate way to do so is by using the quick mask and the layer mask.

The picture at the top of this article illustrates extracting a butterfly from art by using the layer mask. To make it easy and fast to mask the background and extract the butterfly, the butterfly was masked by using a black-colored and small sharp-edged brush. Then the mask was inverted so that the area around the butterfly was masked leaving the butterfly unmasked. I find that using layer masks a better method in extracting images than the magic wand or other tools because the outline of the images are smoother with no jaggies.

To see other methods in extracting images beside and including using masks, read "Photoshop Tip: Four methods to Extract Images/Icons from Scanned Art." Also view "Photoshop Tutorial: Make Selection With the Quick Mask" video to see a demonstration on using quick masks. And view "Tutorial Photoshop CS5 Layers and Masks Exercise" video to see a demonstration on using layer masks to isolate images on multiple layers to create a different picture.

Using the layer mask on alpha channels work well in extracting more difficult images such as fine hair. View "Photoshop CS5 Tutorial - Introduction to Alpha Channels and Layer Masks" video to learn how. Note: I found this video very informative and the result absolutely amazing.

2. Replacing colors
Masks can be use to isolate a portion of the image on the layer. That way colors can be changed only to the masked portion and not to the entire image. Read "Photoshop Tip: Six Ways to Replace Colors" for information and links to videos demonstrating how to change colors using masks.

3. Creating Repeating Patterns
Using several Photoshop tools including masks can simplify the repeat process when creating patterns. Read "Creating Repeat Patterns with Photoshop, Illustrator and Artlandia Plug-in Software" for information and links to videos.

4. Blending images together
To create collages sometimes the edges of the images would look better if the they blend into one another. This can be easily done with the gradient tool and layer mask. View "Blending Two Photographs Together in Phototoshop - Using Mask" video to see how easy it can be done.

The above are only a few examples on how masks can be used to edit art. I hope that they will save you time in extracting images and icons, combining them into new art for collections, and inspire you to create some amazing backgrounds.

I welcome any comments. Please click on comments section at the bottom to write your comment.


  1. Thanks for the refresher course!
    It's been a long time since my Photoshop class.
    What you don't use you lose.

  2. exactly. refresher course is important to recall those things or ideas.