Layers & Masks



Paranormal PSP8--Tutorial Index--New Features--Layers & Masks

There's a lot of information here, and the sheer volume can be a little intimidating.
Don't let it get to you. If you can cook a simple meal, drive a car,  change a tire or do the laundry, you can do this.

Actually, if you managed to get dressed this morning you already did something a whole lot harder than using layers. The only difference is that you've had a lot more years of practice with buttons and shoelaces than with graphics software.

What are Layers?

On the most basic level, PSP layers are like sheets of glass or acetate. You draw or paint or place photos on them, shift them around, change the order and stack them up. And when you look down on the stack, you see the composite image.

That's the description you'll see in nearly every graphics application user manual and most third party books, and when it was first written, it was a perfectly adequate description. When all you are using are raster layers in normal blend mode at 100% opacity, it's still a pretty good description.

It is easy to envision a layer as a sheet of glass, and your image as paint.  You can even make the analogy work for adjustments to opacity by imagining that you are working with oil paint or watercolor or even translucent pigments, like inks or wood stains, rather than opaque enamels or acrylics. But once you move beyond normal mode, the paint on glass convention breaks down.

With the addition of more and more layer blending modes, that big glass sandwich doesn't quite cut it any more. As our software becomes more sophisticated we find we need a new analogy. Today, because of the way that blending modes cause layers to interact with each other, building a complex image is more like applying the many layers of primer, paint and finish materials on the surface of a fine automobile or developing the finish on a piece of furniture with everything from bleaches to wood stains, lacquers and enamels, each new substance applied reacting with the underlying ones.

Not only do we have more and more flexible ways of blending layers, but we have more different kinds of layers to work with now. There's no good way to explain mask layers or adjustment layers via the glass analogy.

We're going to start with some basics, add in what's new and what's changed, and hopefully clear up all the mystery around the power at the core of PSP- the ability to create layered images.

It doesn't matter if you're an artist, webmaster, photographer, painter, illustrator or any other kind of PSP user, until you master using layers and layer masks, you'll never get the most out of the program.

The layers palette contains an enormous amount of power and information. When you get the hang of it, you'll wonder how you ever worked without it.

Even if you're a PSP veteran, enough has changed in version 8 layers and masks that you'll probably pick up some new info here.


 4½ Different Kinds of Layers


 George Seurat (1859-1891)

Seurat is the ultimate example of the artist as scientist. He spent his life studying color theories and the effects of different linear structures. Founder of the 19th-century French school of Neo- Impressionism. His technique for portraying the play of light using tiny brushstrokes of contrasting colours became known as Pointillism. Works in this style include Une Baignade (1883-84) and Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la Grande Jatte (1884-86).




























If a mask layer is in a layer group, it applies only to layers within the group that are lower in the stacking order. This is the default behavior.


If the mask layer is at the main level (rather than in a layer group), it applies to all layers below it in the stacking order.





In a flexible image, you can

Change the text

Change one or more colors

Change the font or even change the mask without having to start over from scratch. Maybe if this is your hobby that's not too important to you, but for those of us who do this for a living, time is worth $$$.







There are 4 basic types of layers supported by PSP8. Raster Layers, Vector Layers, Mask Layers, and Adjustment Layers. 

Nearly 125 years ago, Georges Seurat (see sidebar) pioneered a painting style in which made use of his study of color theory. He created huge compositions with tiny, detached strokes of pure colour too small to be distinguished when looking at the entire work but making his paintings shimmer with brilliance. He determined that if, for example, you placed a tiny dot of pure red next to a dot of pure blue, the eye "sees" violet. Today, offshoots of this same approach are used to produce images on television, film, digital photographs and, yes, your computer monitor.

Raster Layers  contain images or parts of images that are created from tiny dots of color called pixels. Using a process similar to Seurat's paintings, raster images depend on the eye and brain's ability to process images made of solid color pixels as smooth shifts of color.  All photographs are raster images, as are many kinds of drawings and paintings. Raster graphics are the preferred format for photo-realistic images or images containing thousands or millions of colors. Since raster images are composed of pixels, it is more difficult to stretch or re-size a raster image without experiencing blurring or distortion. Use raster layers for displaying subtle changes in tones and colors. Or, use raster layers for objects and raster text on which you want to apply raster-only commands and tools. The effects commands, the painting tools, and many other tools apply only to raster layers


Until recently, graphics programs either used raster data (pixels) or vector data (lines, nodes, and fills), never both at the same time.  In fact most graphics programs are still set up that way. PSP is one of the few editors that can generate both true raster and true vector images. However, because of the very different technology used to create these different types of objects, PSP has to have some way to keep the data separate.  It does this via layers.

Vector Layers are the second type of layer used in PSP. Similar to the technology used in illustration and CAD programs vector objects are made up of by series of nodes (points) joined by lines. These lines can be combined to form closed shapes, and those shapes can have colored, patterned, or gradient fills. One way to think of vectors is that they are like the architecture of a building. The lines forming the support beams and the fills being the materials used to surface the walls and floors. Graphical elements in a vector file are called objects. PSP calls it's pre-defined objects Preset Shapes.

Vector illustration can be very sophisticated and incorporate many shades and gradients, or it can look like line drawings or cartoons. Much of the clipart that ships with programs like Microsoft Word is created in vector format. Since each object is defined by geometric coordinates rather than dots of color, you can move and change its properties over and over again while maintaining its original clarity and crispness. You can easily resize vector images to a thumbnail sketch or a billboard-sized graphic, and you can print in any resolution. Vector images don't become grainy when resized or lose detail and proportion. Smooth curves are easy to define in vector-based programs and they retain their smoothness and continuity even when enlarged. You can change vector-based images into raster formats when needed. (It is not nearly as easy to change rasters to vectors.)Use vector layers to create objects or text that you can easily edit.

To display the names of each of the vector objects on a vector layer, click the plus sign in front of the layer name on the Layer palette.

Vector objects must be on vector layers. If you create a vector object while a raster layer is selected, Paint Shop Pro creates a vector layer just above the current layer. In addition, you cannot move a vector object to a non-vector layer.

Mask Layers are not really new in PSP8, but the terminology and the location of the controls have changed. In PSP7, you could add a mask to a vector or raster layer, and that hasn't changed. You still have that same functionality--plus a few perks you didn't have before. You now find the menu items for masks on the Layers menu rather than on a dedicated Masks menu, and they are displayed differently on the layers palette.

Before I get into the hows and whys, take a look at how they are displayed in the layers palette now.

Old Way

In PSP7, Masks were indicated by a mask icon next to the layer name. Masks had no controls independent from the layer to which they were attached, and you couldn't apply one mask to several layers at the same time.

New Way

In PSP8, a similar combination of background layer, pattern filled layer and mask layer looks like this. New things to note: When you add a mask to an image, PSP automatically created a LAYER GROUP.  This is new in version 8! Layer groups don't only apply to mask layers, they can be used with all types of layers. And this is more than just an extra line in the palette- it gives you some new options. better control and flexibility and a better workflow. I'll tell you a little more about layer groups later, but for right now, let's concentrate on what they mean when you are dealing with mask layers.


Let's say that you have a solid green background layer, a solid  blue second layer, and a third layer that has some vector text on it. You want to be able to apply the same mask to both the vector text layer and to the blue layer without merging the layers or converting the text to a raster layer. Why would you want to do that? Well, one reason is flexibility. (PSP8 is all about "working smarter, not harder."  One way to work smart is to design flexible images. See sidebar. You're going to hear a lot about this concept from me in future tutorials. )

Assume your mask looks like this:


With the mask applied to the vector text with blue layer outside the group, it would look like this

By dragging the blue layer into the layer group, you can produce this: (sorry about the compression)

Remember that the blue, green, and text layers are all unchanged. In earlier versions of PSP, there was no way to do this without merging the layers, sacrificing flexibility. In version 8, because each layer is intact, you can make changes without having to "redo" the image. So one of the biggest changes to mask layers is the ability to use layer groups to apply them to more than one other layer at the same time. You can also use layer groups to prevent a mask from being applied to one or more layers.


Everybody knows that I am very fond of the folks at Jasc, but I just read the PSP8 help file on masks and if I didn't already know how they worked, I'd be completely confused now.

"Here's the 411"

Masks are like Halloween or masquerade costumes for your images or layers: that is, they don't change what's underneath, they just change the appearance on the outside. When you were 6 and trick-0r-treated as a chicken or pumpkin or ghost, you  didn't really become those things, you just looked like you did.

Same concept here. The layers to which a mask is applied do not really change, they just look like they do.

Masks are grayscale images that are used to hide or reveal the information on the layer or layers underneath it. Wherever the mask is pure black, it will hide all the information on the layer below. Wherever the mask is pure white, it will not hide any information on the layer below. Where the mask is gray, it turns the area semitransparent. This is really confusing to a lot of folks, so I'm calling in an assistant>  Barbara Eden!

(Knew this would wake you guys up!) Imagine that Barbara I the picture to the right is your layer. Imagine her costume is the mask. OK-- painting on a mask layer with black is like her red vest-- it hides everything below it. No little skin molecules are visible. Painting with white is like the area of her midriff. All her skin is visible. Painting with various shades of gray produces the effect of her skirt-- you can sort-of see what's going on under there, but the details aren't 100% clear. (The tech support people at Jasc may never forgive me for this one, but I'll bet you don't forget it!)

You can use the masks that ship with the product (Choose Layers>Load/Save Mask>Load Mask from Disk) paint one on a mask layer using various tools and brushes or even gradients, or create them from another image. (Remember that it uses the luminance values, not the colors-- masks are always grayscale)

To save your own grayscale mask to use over and over again or to share with someone else, choose Layers>Load/Save Mask/Save Mask to Disk)  There's one that creates a starburst or fireworks effect on the Resources page

And, for a fun project that uses mask layers and layer groups, try the Born to Be Wild tutorial, where we combine a lovely lady and a lethal cheetah into one arresting, if a little bizarre, image.

That brings us to the last unique kind of layer, the Adjustment Layer. Once you've got your mind around masks, adjustment layers are a snap.

Adjustment layers are, in some ways, the kissing cousins of masks. They don't really change the image either, they just temporarily change the way it looks. Turn off the layer, and you're right back to the original.

There are 9 kinds of adjustment layers: Brightness/Contrast, Channel Mixer, Color Balance, Curves, Hue/Saturation/Lightness, Invert, Levels, Posterize, and Threshold. Each one works exactly like the adjustment or effect with the same name.

Why bother? because these are like temporary hair color- if you don't like it, you can change it without changing everything else in the image or starting over.  No harm, no foul. Flexible images again. These are what's called non-destructive changes.

Background Layers

 There's also something called a Background Layer. It isn't really a kind of layer all by itself. (Hence the 4½ ) It is special kind of raster layer that

    a) sits on the bottom of the stack
    b) can't be renamed
    c) cannot display transparency
    d) cannot be moved up or down in the stack
    e) cannot be moved with the mover tool
    f)  on which you cannot use the Background Eraser, oddly enough

    Sounds pretty limited, huh? It is, but there are some things you can ONLY do on a background layer. The first 2 that come to mind are

    a) add borders
    b) use the scratch removal tool

    When you try to use a tool, adjustment or an effect that can only be used on a background layer, you'll either see the tool grayed out or you'll get a prompt to flatten your image into a single layer.



A tiny detail from the 1884 Seurat painting Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grand Jatte. Seurat worked in HUGE scale. The original is over 9 feet across. To see a photo of the original, click HERE






































































Insert contents.
Insert contents.