Of Cats And Dragons

Dragon chicken

For Artists: Clipping Masks

Published 2020-05-28
Carol E. Leever

I'm not a professional artist -- more of a hobbyist. And I technically know far more about writing and programming than I do about art. But everything I know about programming and writing were things I learned many years ago. Art is far newer to me -- I'm still learning it. And everything I've learned is still very fresh in my mind. And I'm still constantly struggling to master all of it.

Everything I've learned about art I've learned from watching Youtube videos. But that said, I've literally watched thousands of hours of videos.

Initially I was just trying to learn how to use Photoshop properly. But that quickly morphed into anything art related regardless of the medium (digital, oil, watercolor, etc) or the software used (Photoshop, Krita, Procreate, Art Studio Pro). I figured out the medium doesn't really seem to matter (they all have their 'tricks' but the concepts are the same).

Over the years I've noticed that there are a number of topics that get repeated over and over again in every way imaginable. I couldn't even begin tell you now who I learned these things from because I've seen them in so many different places. I'm not talking the big 'concepts'. Truth is, I don't really understand a lot of that. These are more things I consider 'tricks of the trade'. They are literally "do this and your art gets better" type stuff.

And I've written them all down -- I write notes to myself (they're utterly illegible to anyone else, but I use them all the time). I thought I'd try and write them up for everyone else on the off chance that another beginner might find them useful. And I'll do them in small simple chunks of information (random order). Some of them are connected, some not. Some are more useful than others. But these are the things I see over and over again in all these thousands of hours of tutorials, and they've all be incredibly useful for me.

They don't rely on a specific piece of software. I initially thought about doing a how to use Photoshop or Procreate tutorial -- but that's not really the point of this. All of these things can be done in any type of art software -- Photoshop, Krita, Procreate, Artstudio Pro, Paintstorm Studio, Sketchbook Pro, Corel -- whatever you have, or whatever you can afford. They pretty much all do the same thing.

I thought I'd start with something I went over in my Beginning Guide blog: the clipping mask.

The clipping mask was one of the first things I learned how to do in digital painting. Dozens of tutorials on Youtube explained the use of them, and sometimes even explained the 'how to do' part of the process. But initially it all seemed very complicated to me. Now the process is so 'second nature' to me that I can usually figure out how to create a clipping mask in any program even if they don't called their version of it the same thing.

First, it's a type of 'mask'. I'll have to explain masks later because actual masks are something else entirely. But the long and the short of it is this: it's a way to isolate part of painting so that you can only paint on top of it.

This gives you the freedom to paint quickly, and with broad strokes, without ever having to worry about painting outside the lines.

There are actually 3 different ways of doing this (there are probably more, but I know of 3 of them).

One is with a selection. Use the marquee or selection tool to select an area on a layer. Once the selection is made you can not paint outside that selection, no matter what layer you are on. That means you can create a new layer, paint on that, and you will still be contained within the selected area. The only draw back to this option is that sometimes it's hard to make the selection if the object you are selecting is complicated or has transparencies in it. And the 'marching ants' of the selection tool can get annoying to look out. You can actually 'hide' the selection, but it's really annoying when you forget it's there and you can't figure out why nothing is working.

Every program I've ever tried has a selection tool.

using the selection tool

Two is using the 'alpha lock'. Pretty much every graphic program I've come across has an 'alpha lock' option. They don't always call it the same thing, but it's usually an option on a layer. You click that lock, and then you can't paint outside the objects on that layer. Unlike the selection option which keeps you in place no matter what layer you try to paint on, the alpha lock only works on the specific layer that is locked. You can create other unlocked layers and paint on them anywhere you want, but on the locked layer you can only paint where there is already something there.

using the alpha lock

Which brings us to option 3 -- the Clipping Mask. I call it the 'clipping mask' because that was the name I first learned. Not every program calls it the same thing. But essentially it means creating a new layer above the one where you want to 'stay inside the lines'. Then you clip that new layer to the original one. Now you can paint on that new layer without going outside the lines of the original layer. The best part is that this is all done non-destructively. That means that your original layer is untouched.

using the clipping mask using the clipping mask

You can see in my dragon-chicken (I had to come up with something more interesting than a ball) I created a 'sketch' layer. Then I filled in a 'solid' area to define the shape below the sketch. Then above the solid layer I did some basic shading. I clipped the shading layer to the solid layer so that I stay within the lines without worrying about going outside the lines.

Dragon chicken clipping mask1

Here's what the same image looks like if I turn off the clipping effect. The shading layer is now just a normal layer, no longer contained. You can see that I do not stay within the lines. Having to go through this and carefully erase all the areas I went outside the lines would be a pain.

Dragon chicken clipping mask1

Every art program I've used has some version of a Clipping Mask. You just have to look it up in the HELP section.

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