What is Clipping Mask?

Similar to Photoshop’s layer mask feature, a clipping mask allows you to apply a mask to multiple layers at once. By default, the bottom layer sets the boundaries for the overall group. Depending on your base layer’s content, the above layers will be affected in certain ways. Below, we’ve outlined how to use clipping masks successfully in Photoshop, so that you can come up with more creative layering in your photography and design work.  

How do clipping masks differ from layer masks?

Both mask approaches allow you to obscure certain sections of a layer, but layer masks require you to specify which sections you want to mask. Using the paint tools, you fill in certain areas with black (“mask”), white (“show”), or gray (“partially mask”) to tell Photoshop what to do. So what is clipping mask doing differently? In essence, the feature uses each layer’s contents to determine what to mask on the layer above it. Clipping masks can be more intuitive and fun to use than layer masks, and there are many imaginative ways to apply them.

How do I create a clipping mask in Photoshop?

  1. To become proficient with clipping masks, we first need to understand how a layer’s content and transparent areas are divided up. To get a better sense of this, you can load an image into Photoshop, so that it shows up in the Layers panel as the “Background” layer. Rename this image “Layer 1”, and then create a blank layer below it by clicking on the “New Layer” icon. You can name the blank layer “Layer 0”.  
  2. With “Layer 0” below our original image in the Layers panel, you can see the basics of how clipping masks work. To create a clipping mask, you first need to make sure that “Layer 1” is selected as the active layer. Click on “Layer 1” in the panel, so that it’s highlighted in blue.
  3. Then, select “Create Clipping Mask” from the Layers section of the top menu bar. This will create a clipping mask with the blank “Layer 0” as the bottom layer, and “Layer 1” will now be affected by it. Here, when a blank layer is masking the other layers, no content will be shown. This is just a quick example, and you can undo the clipping mask by going back to the Layers menu and selecting “Release Clipping Mask”. You’ll know that the mask has been removed when “Layer 1” is no longer indented in the Layers panel.  
  4. Now, if we draw a shape in “Layer 0” and fill it in with black, it will form the basis for a totally different clipping mask. To do this, you can use any of the selection tools (like the Rectangular Marquee tool), draw on the blank layer, and then choose “Fill” from the Edit menu. A new dialog box will appear, allowing you to choose how opaque you want the fill to be, and these settings will also affect the final clipping mask.
  5. Next, deselect the shape’s outline by going to the Select menu and choosing “Deselect”. If you create a clipping mask using the previous steps, “Layer 0” will now hide everything from “Layer 1” that is outside of the shape outline, but show everything inside it. If you’re not happy with what’s visible in the clipping mask, you can quickly select the Move tool and adjust the position of “Layer 1”, or any other layers you decide to create. Have fun, and don’t be afraid to experiment!
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