Understanding layers in Photoshop was one of the things that seriously changed the quality of my works. As I said it previously in this Procreate post, the layer tool is used by artists with almost every project. Learning how to use them is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your digital art skills.

In this post, we’ll cover how layers work and the basics of creating and using layers in Photoshop.

What is layer ?

With traditional art, you can’t suddenly move your objects behind or in front of other objects. You just decide how things are going to be positioned and draw them down on your paper that way. Then, you can’t change anything. You’d have to redo your artwork from the beginning.

With digital art, things don’t work that way. The layer feature gives you the possibility to draw behind or in front of other elements, to reorganize, move and play around with how they are positioned on your canvas overall. You can even make your objects disappear so that you can focus on your background object without distraction. It lets you work on your art in pieces and easily experiment.

You can think of layers as transparent panes of glass stacked on top of one another, which allow different parts of each layer to show through.

Understanding layers in Photoshop
Understanding layers in Photoshop

Understanding layers in Photoshop

Why to use layers?

At this point, you may be wondering why you even need to use layers. Wouldn’t it just be easier to work with everything in your image at once? The truth is, layers give you an amazing amount of flexibility and control because you can edit each layer independently from the rest of the image. Once you become comfortable with layers, you’ll use them all the time.

– Each of the layers can be edited without affecting the others. This is essential for designers who want to add colors, effects, graphics, and text to their original image without affecting the original image. Otherwise, every single change you made would permanently influence the entire image, and you would have to go back to the beginning of your design if you made a mistake.

– When using layers, it may be helpful to turn individual layers on and off to see how they affect the image.

– The order of your layers in Procreate will determine which layers, and any objects drawn on them, are behind or in front of each other. Layers near the bottom are technically behind any layers on top of them. If you want to move an object behind or in front another object, move it down or up your list of layers.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

Understanding layers in Photoshop

Where are the layers in Photoshop ?

Layers are arranged in a stack in the Layers panel, which is usually located in the bottom right of the work area. If the Layers panel is not visible, choose Window > Layers.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to create a new layer in Photoshop ?

To create a new layer, you can click on the New Layer button in the Layers panel (the little square with the + inside). The new layer uses Normal mode with 100% opacity, it is automatically selected and appears in the panel above the layer that was last selected.​

You can also create a new layer and specify a name and options, choose Layer > New > Layer.

 

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to select a layer in Photoshop ?

If you just want to select a layer, click directly on the layer you want to work on.

If you want to select all the objects within a layer, you can put a selection around every object on that layer by holding the Command key (PC: Control key) and clicking on the Layer’s name. This way, you can paint or draw only on the selected areas.

You can also use the auto-select tool. For this, you first need to have the Move Tool selected. You can select it from the top of the toolbar, or by pressing the letter “V” on your keyboard. With the Move Tool active, Auto-Select is found in the Options Bar. In the most recent versions of Photoshop CC, Auto-Select is turned on by default. In earlier versions, you can turn Auto-Select on by clicking inside the checkbox. Then, to automatically select a layer, just click on the layer’s contents in the document.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to select two or more layers ?

In order to select multiple layers, you can hold the Command key and click on the layers you want to select.

If you want to select multiple layers from the following sequence, you can hold the Shift key, click on the first and last layers of the sequence and it will select all layers in between.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

Move a layer above or below another layer ?

The stacking order determines whether a layer appears in front of or behind other layers.

In the Layers panel, select one or more layers. Then drag the layer (or layers) up or down the Layers panel to the new position.
By default, the Background layer must remain at the bottom of the stack (If you want to move the Background layer, you need to convert it into a regular layer first).

You can also choose Layer > Arrange, and then choose Bring To Front, Bring Forward, Send Backward, or Send To Back.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to move a layer to another canvas ?

Right click on the layer name and select Duplicate Layer. You can also click on Layer > Duplicate Layer.

When the dialog pops up, change the destination document from your existing document to your target document.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to create a new group of layers ?

There a different ways to create group from layers in Photoshop:

– Select multiple layers in the Layers panel. Click on Layer > Group Layers.

– Select multiple layers in the Layers panel. Right-click on them. Choose Group from Layers.

– Select multiple layers in the Layers panel. Click on the folder icon at the bottom of the Layers panel to group the layers.

To Ungroup the layers, select the group and choose Layer > Ungroup Layers.
Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to hide a layer ?

In the Layers panel, click the eye icon to the left of a layer to hide its content. Click again in the same spot to reveal the content. This is a useful way to remind yourself what’s on a particular layer.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to lock your layer ?

You can fully or partially lock layers to protect their contents. When a layer is locked, a lock icon appears to the right of the layer name, and the layer cannot be edited or deleted.

Select the layer in the Layers panel, click the Lock all pixels icon in the Layers panel, to lock all layer properties. Click the icon again to unlock them.

Click the Lock Transparency icon in the Layers panel, to lock the transparent areas of the layer, so that no painting occurs in them. Click the icon again to unlock.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to duplicate a layer in Photoshop ?

There are different ways to duplicate a layer :

– Select one or more layers in the Layers panel, click on Layer > Duplicate Layer.

– Right-click the layer name or thumbnail, and choose Duplicate Layer.

– You can also select the layer and drag it to the New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel.

 

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to delete a layer in Photoshop ?

Deleting layers you no longer need reduces the size of your image file, so it’s important to get rid of them.

Again, there are different ways to do it :
– Select one or more layers or groups from the Layers panel. Choose Layers > Delete > Layer.
– Select one or more layers or groups from the Layers panel. Click the Delete icon at the bottom of the Layer panel.
– Select one or more layers or groups from the Layers panel. Right-click, choose Delete Layer.
Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to change the layer opacity ?

A layer’s opacity determines the degree to which it obscures or reveals the layer beneath it. A layer with 1% opacity is nearly transparent, while a layer with 100% opacity is opaque. Transparent areas remain transparent regardless of the opacity setting.

Select the layer in the Layers panel. Enter a value between 0 and 100 for Opacity, or click the arrow at the right of the Opacity box and drag the Opacity slider that appears.
Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to save a picture without background in Photoshop ?

If you want to export your artwork with a transparent background you need to save your image as a PNG. JPEG doesn’t support transparency, so your transparent layer will show up as white.

But before saving your image as a PNG, you need to delete or hide the background layer which is at the bottom of the Layer panel.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to name a layer in Photoshop ?

To rename the new layer, double-click on it and type a new name.

You can also click on Layer>Rename Layer.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to merge layers in Photoshop ?

There are different ways to merge layers :

– Select the layers you want to merge from the Layers panel. Choose Layers > Merge Layers.
– Select the layers you want to merge from the Layers panel. Right-click, choose Merge Layers.
Understanding layers in Photoshop

How to flatten ?

Flattening is merging all visible layers into the background layer to reduce file size.

The easiest way to do it is to click on Layer > Flatten Image.

You can also right-click on any layer. Then choose Flatten Image.

Understanding layers in Photoshop

What are blend modes in Photoshop ?

A blending mode is an effect you can add to a layer to change how the colors blend with colors on lower layers. You can change the look of your image simply by changing the blending modes.

The blending mode of a layer is set to Normal by default. Anything drawn with 100% opacity will appear opaque, so the layer underneath isn’t visible. You can change how the colors blend with lower layers by changing the blending mode.
To change the blending mode of a layer, simply select the layer and change the mode in the drop-down box.

For example, In Normal mode, the color is simply placed on top of the color of the layer below. Darken mode compares the colors of the blending layer and the base layers, and keeps the darker colors. The Multiply mode multiplies the colors of the blending layer and the base layers, resulting in a darker color etc. etc.

Pretty much no one knows what most blend modes do. Just try every blend mode until you find a pleasing result. The outcome may surprise you!

Understanding layers in Photoshop

Understanding Layers in Photoshop

Understanding layers in Procreate

That’s all for now! It’s important to understand layers in digital art, as this will define the quality of your work. As an architect, illustrator and designer, I work with Photoshop and Procreate often and I always use the layers. There’s a lot more to learn from them, but if you’re just starting out, focus on playing around with the settings and have fun.

I hope that this post about understanding layers in Photoshop was useful! If there is anything else you’d like to know about, feel free to ask me and you can also check out my post about layers in Procreate.

If you still have time, check out my other posts here. Come say hi on my Instagram where I also share some of my works.

Understanding layers in Procreate