Photoshop Clipping Mask

A Photoshop clipping mask is an extremely powerful tool that is a vital part of non destructive editing. In this lesson, I go over how to create and apply clipping masks to a drawing and how it can save the artist time by creating correctable variations of a drawing idea.

A lot of lessons I have on this site will reference this particular tool. I find it irreplaceable for the type of artwork that I do. Even if the styles differ from artist to artist, the advantages of using this tool are unlimited as it can cater it to any form of drawing or photo editing.

But since this site is focus is on art, I will use this opportunity to apply the concept of a Photoshop clipping mask to a digital painting. I hope to highlight the quality of life and flexibility that artists can potentially create using this editing tool.

For the example itself, the drawing is part of an armor piece for a particular character. The base of this armor can be done with the most basic drawing tools. Without further ado, let's learn about the conditions and advantages of making a clipping mask in Photoshop!

Photoshop clipping mask: the base layer

The drawing of the armor is drawn with the chalk head. My pen pressure is on 100% to guaranteed that each brush stroke will make a nice solid object. The idea is to have the shape of the armor wrap around the character. Position wise, it is on top of the character layer.

In order to add simple tones to make it look 3D, I preserved the transparency to draw in large areas of light and dark tones to give it some topography. By locking the entire shape down, I am guaranteeing that any lines drawn will not go outside the boundaries of the armor's shape.

Photoshop clipping mask step 1 from

While blocking in the armor with a chalk brush yields nice textures, I've also added some shadow using a large soft brush. This will create some depth in the armor, through shading gradients from the soft brush head, so I can see how I can wrap additional designs on the body.

Fast forwarding the entire drawing a bit, I've added many layers on top of the original armor object currently hidden away in the screen shot. This is only for position purposes just to show layer hierarchy and can be revealed at anytime by clicking the box to the left to display an 'eye'.

Photoshop clipping mask: revealing the designs

In this particular step, I have gone ahead and revealed those layers on top of the base layer. There are three layers each with different designs that stack on top of one another. In each design layer, I draw the details through a locked state to give it a little more depth without fear of the brush strokes going outside the design boundaries.

I can also unlock the layer if I ever wanted to expand the design a bit more before locking it again to work out the shading. Since each of the designs is on separate layers, I can always go back and forth between each design until I get a composition that I like.

Photoshop clipping mask step 2 from

The take away from this screen shot is that the designs do not conform to the base layer. That is, it's all over the place with its own borders and boundaries. Technically, I could just erase into these layers to have it conform to the base layer.

However, it doesn't allow room for mistakes as I have to erase perfectly to match the contour of the base layer. This is where a clipping mask would be handy here! This tool will make sure all the designs will conform to the shape of the specified base armor layer.

Creating a Photoshop clipping mask

To create a Photoshop clipping mask, I hold down the ALT key on the keyboard. I then position the mouse cursor right under the layer that I want to change. Aim the mouse so that it's on the bottom 'line' separating one layer from another.

With the ALT key still pressed down, the cursor will change into a white box with the arrow pointing downwards. From there, I just click the left mouse button to confirm the selection to change the regular layer into a clipping mask. In the example, I have repeated the process to the three design layers.

Photoshop clipping mask step 3 from

If done successfully, all the layers will conform to the shape of the base armor layer. Visually, the layers will have moved inwards in the layers box (signified by an arrow pointing downwards). Now I am free to continue editing these design layers anyway I want.

Should I ever need to edit or change the shape of the base layer, even a few pixels here and there, I don't need to worry about redrawing any of the detailed layers in. This is why clipping masks offer a huge advantage rather than erasing topmost layers to fit an underlying shape.

Adjusting Photoshop clipping mask details

Since each mask is still a layer, I can go ahead and treat each layer as per normal individually. That means I can change the blend mode, continue to paint on it, move it around, etc. For instance, I found the white design too strong.

Therefore, I changed the blend mode from 'normal' to 'soft light'. This will reveal a bit of the armor coloring underneath. I can even mute the base armor color as it is completely independent of the detailed layers. Already, I can play around with the colors as I see fit.

Photoshop clipping mask step 4 from

In this step, I have included one more clipping layer that contains all the shadow information of the armor piece. Why is this important? In many of the drawing guides, shading through proper use of light and shadows is a requirement.

Having a Photoshop clipping mask or two that is purely focused on light and shadows is a great way to learn shading. Since it's completely reversible, the artist has many options to play with directional light without damaging the original drawing underneath.

Even though this example highlights the advantage of clipping masks, there is one key thing that artists must be aware of: computer resources. Adding multiple masks will take up a lot of memory. This is especially true when I am able to turn almost anything into clipping masks.

Adjustment layers, smart objects, layer masks, etc. can be changed into clipping masks so long as it is stackable, which will further increase computer resources. This is a balancing act that the artist will need to be aware of. So plan accordingly or reduce the amount as necessary!