The Language of Layers
It may take time, but learning to use Photoshop’s layer system is the key to unlocking the software’s versatility
1 The layers system
Right up there with the History function in my Most Useful Features of Photoshop for Artists list is the whole concept of layers. In the same way that traditional animators will use several sheets of acetate in a single shot, painting different parts of your picture on different layers enables them to be edited separately while still being viewable as a whole.
2 Creating layers
In most default viewing modes, the Layers window will be visible and either attached to the right side of the screen or floating around somewhere. You can use Window>Layers to toggle it on and off. New documents will just have a background layer, but clicking the dropdown menu at the top right will give you a range of options, such as Create, Duplicate and Merge.
3 Locking layers
Sometimes when painting, I’ll need to add a gradient to an area without changing its edges, and that’s when Layer Locking comes in handy. By clicking the small chequerboard icon in the Layers window, any translucent areas will be unaffected by the tools, remaining clear. You can freely brush without changing the all-important silhouette of what you’re painting.
Complex assignments can lead to Photoshop files with over 100 layers, and when that happens you want to stay organised. Holding down Ctrl or Cmd enables you to click and highlight multiple layers at once. Then go to New Group From Layers in the drop-down menu. You’re then asked to name the group. Now those layers will move together and be editable as a group by highlighting the group folder instead of the individual layer for whatever painting action you’re using.
5 Adjust the Opacity
Another useful function of layers is the ability to control their transparency. Up in the right corner of the Layers window is a drop-down slider labelled Opacity, which enables you do just that. This comes in handy for a variety of effects, such as creating sheer clothing, smoke and light beams.
6 Backup saves
I like to create multiple save files for each image, in case one becomes corrupted or if I make some huge mistake and save before realising it. This way I always have several versions that are, at most, only a few hours less developed than what I was just working on. When this happens, I’ll often open an older save file, delete the offending layer, and drag my replacement from the old file (or a completely different illustration) over into the Layers window in my most recent iteration.
New brush strokes won’t break established edges while layer is locked
Drag to another Photoshop file