Clipping masks are among the most powerful, yet most misunderstood features in Photoshop. While most people are familiar with layer masks, clipping masks are still woefully underutilized, despite their flexibility. You can attribute much of it to a basic misunderstanding of how they work and how they differ from layer masks, and a general reluctance among designers to try out a (relatively) new tool.
This tutorial aims to solve that. Below, we’ll first learn how clipping masks differ from layer masks, then we’ll move on to a short tutorial that will demonstrate the power of these masks.
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Understanding Masks in Photoshop
Before we can dive deeper into clipping masks, we first need to understand how masks actually work in Photoshop.
Masks effectively act as transparency controllers in Photoshop. When a mask is active, it makes the underlying layer transparent (the degree of transparency can be controlled as well). When it is switched off, the layer becomes opaque again. Think of it like a mask in real life, except in reverse – putting on the mask reveals what’s underneath (instead of hiding it).
Clipping Masks vs. Layer Masks
Clipping masks are theoretically similar to layer masks, albeit with a few key differences:
Clipping masks can be applied to multiple layers, while layer masks work on just single layers.
Clipping masks act as layers themselves and thus, can be stacked, just like normal layer. A layer mask, on the other hand, is merely a modification of a layer.
Since clipping masks act as layers, you can apply multiple effects to them. In contrast, layer masks can only be used to control transparency of underlying layer.
We covered clipping masks and layer masks in some detail in our previous tutorial on masking in Photoshop. Take a look at this tutorial to get a quick grasp of how masks work.
To learn how to work with clipping masks, read on.
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Using Clipping Masks: A Step by Step Tutorial
For this tutorial, we’ll create the image shown below:
This isn’t anything elaborate, but it’s perfect for illustrating what you can do with clipping masks. Follow the steps given below to learn how to create it:
Step 2: Now open the chameleon picture in Photoshop. Right click on the picture layer in the Layer panel and select “Layer from Background”.
Step 3: Create a new layer (CTRL + SHIFT + N). This will form our base layer for the clipping mask.
Step 4: Select Ellipse Tool from the toolbox and draw a circular shape in the center of the canvas on your newly created layer. Don’t worry about the fill or the stroke; these are irrelevant for us right now.
This is what your canvas should look like now:
Step 5: Now drag the layer with this newly created circular shape below the layer with the chameleon picture as shown below:
Right click on the chameleon layer (Layer 0) and select Create Clipping Mask from the contextual menu.
The chameleon picture should now fold inside the circular shape, like this:
Congratulations, you’ve now officially created a clipping mask!
Now add a background layer (create a new fill layer and drag it to the bottom of all other layers) and move on to the next step to create our colorful border.
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Step 6: Create a new layer (again, CTRL + SHIFT + N). Hit CTRL + A to select the entire layer. Then click on Edit – > Stroke.
In the window that pops open, select a heavy width (around 10-15px). You can pick any color since it will be covered by our colored image anyway.
This will create a 15px border around our image.
Step 7: Now open the second image we downloaded in Step 1 in a new window and copy-paste it into the current document.
This is what your canvas should look like now:
Step 8: Drag this newly created image layer above the border layer we created in Step 6. Right click on it and select Create Clipping Mask as shown in Step 5. This is what your Layers panel should look like now:
You’ll notice that the background of the border has now changed to the colors of the picture. If you select the picture layer, you can even drag it around or resize it to get the right color distribution, such that your finished image looks like this:
You can expand this further and add some colored text:
Or throw in a border around the chameleon:
This just illustrates the power of clipping masks. You’ll use them extensively in your Photoshop work to change backgrounds, add patterns, and alter textures. Mastering clipping and layer masks will go a long way in helping you transition to ‘Photoshop Pro’ status. You can learn more about using masks effectively in this course on foundations of Photoshop.