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Designing with Layer Masks

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at selections and masking, and today we will take masking to yet another level, as we create an entire design using nothing but layer masks. If you’ve been following along, you know that layer masks actually reshape the visible part of the layer, so why not use that capability to create structure in our image?

We will base our design entirely on one single base image – a brushed metal background, that we can create quite easily in a few steps:

Step 1: We start with a simple background with a black and white gradient pattern. My image is 800 x 600, so if you’re using a larger image you may have to scale various parameters accordingly:


Step 2: We use Filter > Noise > Add Noise… and use an amount of 20%, Monochromatic:


Step 3: We blue the noise with Filter > Blur > Motion Blur…, selecting 90 degrees and a distance of 20 pixels:


And there you have it – nice and simple, a brushed metal backdrop. Next, we’ll create a copy of the base layer, and call it “Logo.” We will flip it using Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal:


With the Logo layer selected, we add a mask with Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. This creates a white layer mask, and you remember: Black conceals, White reveals. With the layer mask selected, use the rectangular marquee tool to draw a border slightly inset from the edge of the image:


Now use Select > Inverse and you will have a selection around only the edge of the image. We want to fill this image with black, which you can do by pressing “D” to get the default foreground color of black, then pressing Alt-Backspace (PC) or Option-Delete (Mac) to fill the selection.


Note how the black conceals the edge of the top layer, and the bottom layer shows through in this area. Next, we will use the Custom Shape tool to add some graphical elements to the image.

First, we’ll set up the tool and add some new shapes that you may not have loaded. Here’s the process:

  1. Select the Custom Shape Tool from the Tool Panel.
  2. Set the Shape tool to fill pixels (rather than create shape layers or paths)
  3. Select the dropdown list to choose your custom shape.
  4. To load all the shapes that ship with Photoshop, choose the triangle menu
  5. From the popup menu, choose “All”


You will see a prompt asking if you want to replace the current shapes with “All” shapes. If you’ve created any of your own shapes, you may want to choose “Append,” otherwise choose “OK:”


Now with the full set of shapes loaded, choose the one called “Sign 4:”


You may want to add some guides to help with this step. With the layer mask still selected, and black still the foreground color, drag the shape across the layer, leaving a strip at the top and bottom large enough to add some text:


When you have drawn the shape, the black color in the layer mask creates a “hole” in the top layer allowing you to see through. Black conceals the top layer:


Next, we will change the foreground color to white. you can do this by pressing “X,” this toggles the foreground and background colors. Now, with white as the color, we will add two more shapes over the top of the one we just drew:



Since we’re drawing with white, and White Reveals, where we lay down the white shapes over the black shape, we see the top layer return to visibility:


To add a little pizazz and make the top layer stand out, we’ll add a couple of layer styles. You can click the stylized “f” at the bottom of the Layers panel, or use Layer > Layer Style > Drop Shadow…


After setting the drop shadow parameters as above, click on “Bevel and Emboss” and choose “Chisel Hard,” and adjust the size as appropriate:


This really makes the top layer pop off the page. It’s a nice 3D effect, and it is starting to look like a carved metal plate:


Now we’ll add the text over all. We’ll start by selecting BlackOak Std, Regular, at 44 points and center aligned. Type the text in the areas above and below the logo graphic:



Once you’ve committed the text, hide the text layer completely. Then, duplicate the bottom layer once more and drag it above the Logo layer, so it is above everything like so:


This new layer will become our text effect, and that’s what I’ve named the layer. With the Text Effect layer selected, hover your cursor over the hidden text layer’s thumbnail, and while pressing the Control key (PC) or Command key (Mac), click the thumbnail. This will load the outline of the text as a selection:


Now, with the selection active, and the Text Effect layer selected, click the “Add layer mask” icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. You may recall that if you add a layer mask with an active selection, that selection defines the mask:


And, as expected, we can see the text is white in the new layer mask, revealing the layer, while everything else is black and hidden:


Now, the text needs a little bit more impact to set it off, and we can start by adding the same layer effects we used earlier. In fact, we can copy these layer effects from the lower layer. Just right click the word “Effects” and choose “Copy Layer Style.”


Then, right click the Text Effect layer, and choose “Paste Layer Style:”


We’ll give it just a little more kick by adding one additional layer effect, a color overlay, with these parameters:


And, our effect is complete – a design created from only a single background texture, and a bunch of layer masks and styles. We could go on all day, adding rivets and other decorations:


In this exercise, we used a simple texture and some shapes that are built in to Photoshop, but I hope you’ll take this technique and run with it – use your own shapes and designs, add your own textures and mix it up – you’ll be creating compelling designs based on simple building blocks and these surprisingly simple techniques.

About Michael Hoffman (224 Articles)
Mike has been a photographer, artist, educator, and technophile for most of his life. Early in his career, he created technical illustrations and photographs for electronic equipment manufacturers, and taught classes in computer aided drafting and 3D modeling software. When digital cameras became widely available in the late 1990s, the move was a natural one, and has led to a happy combination of technology, software, photography and art. Mike is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Acrobat, and is well versed in Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, as well as Illustrator and InDesign. He has also contributed his time and efforts to the excellent work being done by Operation Photo Rescue, in restoring photographs damaged by natural disasters. As an active member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, he continues his quest for excellence in art, excellence in design, and excellence in education.

1 Comment on Designing with Layer Masks

  1. Carrie // 02/02/2011 at 2:27 pm //

    Thank you so much for the tutorial. My question is there a way to line up the banners in the middle of the shield after you are done creating your image? My banners and my text were off centered and I selected the hand tool to align them but it wouldn’t pick up those individual things. I hope that makes sense, kinda new at photoshop and really don’t know what I’m talking about.


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