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Mastering Masks in Photoshop and Illustrator

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Masking is a technique that every motion designer needs to master. Learn how masks work in Photoshop and Illustrator.

If you work in Photoshop or Illustrator and aren't routinely using masks, you are likely employing lots of convoluted hacks and workarounds to get the result you're after. It's probably painful at times and keeps you up at night. Well, have no fear, Jake Bartlett is here to teach you exactly how image and vector masks work inside of both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

Hidden Mickey?

In this tutorial, Jake, who teaches Photoshop + Illustrator Unleashed in addition to Explainer Camp, walk you through a few examples of how you can use both vector and image-based masks in both apps. Bookmark this one, it's useful AF.

How to Mask Objects in Photoshop and Illustrator


​​What are you going to learn in this tutorial?

You're going to learn several ways of using masks in both Photoshop and Illustrator. More importantly, you'll learn when to use each type of mask. Sometimes you want an image mask, sometimes you want a vector mask, and it's important to know the benefits of each. You'll also pick up a ton of handy workflow tips from Jake.


Admit it. Every time you need to use a clipping mask in Illustrator you have to look up how to do it. Hopefully, this lesson cures you of that ailment.



Did you know Illustrator can use images as masks just like a Luma Matte in After Effects? Gadzooks!



Image masks are incredibly common in Photoshop, and also very powerful. Learn how they work, yada yada yada, then profit.



Photoshop actually has very powerful vector tools as well as the raster tools you're probably familiar with. Vector masks are a secret weapon that you can now wield.


Become Fluent in Photoshop and Illustrator in 8 weeks

Photoshop and Illustrator are the mama and papa of motion design. You'll likely spend about half of your professional life using them, so you might as well know your way around both apps. You may think you know the programs, but if you'd like to really optimize your workflow and learn a ton of new techniques with the help of experienced industry pros, check out Photoshop + Illustrator Unleashed.

Our team is standing by to answer any questions you have about this course or any other class in our curriculum. Please let us know if we can help you in any way!


Tutorial Full Transcript Below 👇:

Jake Bartlett (00:00): Hey, I'm Jake Bartlett. And in this short video, I'm going to teach you how masks work in Photoshop and illustrator masks are powerful. And in a few minutes, you'll be able to use them in your work. Adobe, Photoshop and illustrator are used on just about every motion design project ever. So you need to have a good grasp on how they work in Photoshop and illustrator unleashed. I teach you the ins and outs of both programs from a motion designers perspective. So check that out. If you really want to improve your skills, also, you can download the project files I'm using in this video to follow along or practice this. After you're done watching the details are in the description.

Jake Bartlett (00:46): So what exactly is a mask? Well, it's really just a technique for containing a part of an image or hiding part of an image and illustrator. It's called a clipping mask, and I'm going to show you how that works really quickly. Let's say that I want to have this texture contained within this circle. I'll move this squiggly line group over top of the circle. Obviously it's going outside of it. But if I bring this circle on top of the lines in the layer hierarchy, so I'll just click and drag that circle above it, select both objects, come up to object all the way down to clipping mask and click on make. There you go. That's all there is to it. The squiggly lines are now contained within that shape, but let's say that I wanted to keep that original gray color of the circle and not just have the squiggly lines in the shape of the circle.

Jake Bartlett (01:31): Well, I'll just undo that. And I really easy way of doing this is using what's called the draw inside mode inside of illustrator. And I feel like this is a really little known feature of illustrator. If you're not seeing these three little squares down here, it's probably because your toolbar is collapsed. So make sure that that's expanded so you can see these nice and clearly. But what we need to do is first just cut the squiggly lines hole, select them, press commander, control X, to cut and put them into the clipboard. Then I'll select that circle. Go to this third option, draw inside. We have this new shaped bounding box letting us know that we're in that new drawing mode. And then I'll just paste in place by pressing command shift V or control shift V on a PC. Now, if I click off of this, you'll see that those squiggly lines are contained within the circle, but the circle styling is preserved.

Jake Bartlett (02:20):We look at the layers palette. We have a clip group. If I expand that out, we have the two objects, the ellipse with the underline under it, letting us know that's the object being used as the clipping mask. And then we have the squiggles group from here. I can do whatever I want. I could select just those squiggles and rotate them. I could scale them up or down, change their colors, and once I'm happy with it, I just want to make sure that I go back to draw normal to the standard mode, click off of it. And there we go. So let's take a look at our second example real quick and see how we could use this technique in the real world. This is a file that you can download and follow along with me. Just follow the link in the description of the video.

Jake Bartlett (02:58): So let's say that I want to add some stylized glare to this Lamborghini graphic, and I'll do that using just straight lines. So let me zoom in nice and close, and we're going to use that same draw inside technique. So I'll first select that windshield. Then go into the draw inside mode and then grab my line tool, get rid of my fill by clicking on this little nun icon, switched to my stroke color and make this nice and bright. We'll just get a kind of off white color here for the glare and to start drawing some lines. So I'll just do one maybe right about here. I'm just going to bump up the stroke size to say 25. And then with my selection tool inside of this drawn side mode, I can even duplicate this object by holding option or alt clicking and dragging. And then let's say make that one 15 points instead of 25 and then one more time, duplicate it and make it say four points.

Jake Bartlett (03:50): Okay. So there's my little stylized glare. I'll exit out of this drawing side mode and there we go. We've got those stylized lines. If I don't like the way that they're positioned, I can just double click on one of them to get into isolation mode. So I'm not editing anything else. And then I'll just select those three kind of reposition them, maybe change the angle a little bit. And there we go. I'll, double-click outside to get out of isolation mode. We've got some nice stylized glare reflections. Clipping masks are as simple as that, but there's one other type of mask inside of illustrator called an opacity mask. And for this, I'm going to need a photo to use as the mask. So I'm going to actually lock my car layer, unlocked my background and then expand that out. So I want to bring in my image by coming up to file place.

Jake Bartlett (04:37): And there's this texture JPEG image, and it's just a black and white grungy texture photo I'll click on place and then click where I want the top left corner of the image to be placed. And there we go. We've got our image inside. So let's say I want to use this image as a texture for the background of this graphic, but I want to be able to control the color of it. I don't want it to just make the background darker. Well then opacity mask is perfect for this kind of application. What I'll do first is just hide that layer. And I want to duplicate this background rectangle, so hold option or alt click and drag up just below that photo. And now I have a different rectangle. I'm going to make this a little bit brighter, just so we can distinguish between this color and the background color.

Jake Bartlett (05:19): Next. I want to turn that photo back on and with it selected all cut, just like we did with the squiggly lines, commander control X, then I'll select this new rectangle, go to my properties panel and into the opacity section. This little square right here is what I'm concerned with. It has a no sign on it, but this is where the opacity mask lives. If I double-click like it says to create an opacity mask, it turns black in my rectangle disappears. And that's because in an opacity mask, black pixels equals 100% transparency or invisibility it's 100% see-through and white pixels are 100% opaque or solid and everything else in between white and black is semi-transparent pixels. So because there's nothing in my mask, it is black. And I don't see any part of my image, but remember I had cut that photo from before. So as long as I go to my layers, make sure I'm on that opacity mask.

Jake Bartlett (06:15): And I paste my photo is now pasted inside of this opacity mask. If I go back to my properties into the opacity panel, you can see in the thumbnail of this mask, cause there's my texture and that is being used to shape the opacity of this layer. And if I go back to my normal editing mode, by clicking on this square right here, I could go crazy. You know, this is our purple color, but I could change this to anything I want and it's going to update. So it's using that texture as opacity information, not as color information, which is really great, but this is a really strong looking texture. It's covering up most of our background. If I go back into the past the panel and look at that mask, you can see that most of it is white, and that's why we're seeing so much of the image that we're masking off.

Jake Bartlett (06:59): But if we click on the invert mask, that's literally just going to swap the white and black pixels. So now the majority of the image is being hidden rather than shown. And we have a much lighter, more subtle texture. And obviously I don't want this green kind of toxic color. So let's just change that back to something a little bit more pink or magenta. And if I wanted to, I could even drag this into its own layer. So let's make a new layer, move that texture to it, and then put that on the very top. And now we have this nice little subtle, consistent texture over our entire image, and we can very easily modify its color, but that's how an opacity mask works inside of illustrator.

Jake Bartlett (07:42): Now let's jump into Photoshop and talk about masking techniques inside of this program. Now let's just jump straight into opacity masks because they're very similar to the way that illustrator handles them. So masking inside of Photoshop looks a little bit different in our layers palette is where we're going to see our masks. So with this layer selected, I'm going to come down to this mask icon right down here. It's a rectangle with a hole in it. And if I click on that, it says, add a mask. It's just going to add an empty mask, just like it did in illustrator. When we said make mask, instead of making it pure black, though, it made it pure white. Now you can see that I have these corners around my mask indicating that I'm editing the mask and not the layer. And I'm going to make this a little bit bigger just by going up to my menu settings for the layers palette, going to panel options and then making this nice and big my thumbnail size.

Jake Bartlett (08:31): Just so this is really easy to see if I were to just grab my rectangular marquee tool and draw a rough rectangle around this cassette tape and then fill it with black. I'll just press option or alt on a PC plus delete that will fill my mask with black. You can see it right there that makes it 100% transparent. So I'm going to command or control the to, and then with this still selected, I just want to invert it so that the white becomes black. The black becomes white, very simple command it, just press command or control I on the keyboard. And that will invert whatever you have selected. Now, my mask is revealing the cassette tape and removing the background. Obviously it's not doing a good job because that was a very rough selection, but that again is the basics of how layer masks work in Photoshop.

Jake Bartlett (09:21): It's exactly the same as opacity masks in illustrator. Now the benefit of working with masks rather than just using the eraser tool is that this is completely non-destructive, you're editing a mask, not the original layer. So if I were to press shift and click on this thumbnail, I can still see all of the content that I'm asking out. I'm not deleting or losing any of that data. I can always get back to it. So if I were to enable this again and then switch to say my brush tool, and I just have a soft round brush, I'll make it a little bit bigger. You'll see that I'm going to be painting with black. Meaning I'm going to remove from my mask. I can paint off and say, oh, I accidentally cut off the corner of this cassette. Let me make a background color. So this is a little easier to see.

Jake Bartlett (10:05): I'll just make it a nice, bright yellowy, orangy color, and stick that in the background. Uh, so I cut off the corner of my cassette. Well, all I have to do to get that back is swap my two colors, my foreground and background colors to be white. So that I paint this back in right now. This is not a great example of painting a mask because this is a very clean shape, the cassette tape. So, you know, using a brush tool like this is going to be very imprecise and it's just going to be a lot of back and forth of just adding and then removing from the mask. And it's never going to look all that. Great. So that approach of using a brush tool to mask something out, this rigid is just not something I would do. So let me just brush this back in.

Jake Bartlett (10:47): So I have my whole cassette tape again, and let's zoom in to say this hole right here. This is something that we actually could use a selection tool. Um, this would be very useful for, if I go to my elliptical marquee tool, I can match that oval in here by clicking and dragging, and then I'll hold the space bar to reposition the top left corner and kind of fit it to the whole of that cassette right about there. And then I'll fill that with black. So that's my background color currently. So instead of option deleting, I'm going to command delete to fill with my background color. And again, I have this mask is selected. So it is affecting the mask, not the content of that layer. If I hold down option and alt and click on that mask thumbnail, we can see that resulting mask in better detail.

Jake Bartlett (11:32): And it looks like I even missed a little bit of my mask here to fill back in with white. So we'll just switch to my brush tool and fill that in again. Then I'll press option on all to get out of that while clicking on that thumbnail. And there we go. We now have that whole showing the transparency through there. That's a great use of that selection tool, but generally these raster masks or layer masks are good for really fine details because Photoshop has an entire suite of tools for making really nice selections and masks of hard to mask things like people's hair or blades of grass, things that have semi-transparent pixels that are see-through. Those kinds of masks need to be extremely precise and really clean. And Photoshop just has so many tools designed exactly for making those really tough selections, but there is another type of mask that you can work with inside of Photoshop called a vector mask.

Jake Bartlett (12:24): So if I click on that ad mask button, one more time, I'm going to get a third little thumbnail here, and that is a vector mask. So I'm just going to disable this layer mask by shift, clicking on it, put an X through it. And I'm back to my original unmasked image. So I need to start drawing some vector paths. So I'm just going to switch to the pen tool. So press P on the keyboard, and then I'm going to make sure that I'm drawing a path, not a shape and start tracing this cassette tape. So I'm going to just start right here, right? Where that little knob is click once Ben go up here, click and drag and just start masking this out. Now immediately, my image has disappeared and that's because you can see that it is using this, fill the area of my vector path to mask out this image.

Jake Bartlett (13:13): So just temporarily, I'm also going to disable the vector mask by holding shift and clicking on it so that I can still see my image. And then I'll make sure that I click one more time on it so I can see that vector path and keep working on it. So I'll just click right there on the end and continue masking. Now I'm going to speed this up a little bit. If you want to learn how to use the pen tool, there are lots of resources online. It's also something that I cover inside of Photoshop and illustrator unleashed. So be sure to check that out if you're interested in learning more, but there we go. We have a very quick and rough mask and I can re enable this now by pressing shift and clicking on that thumbnail. And this layer is now masked out. If I click off of the layer, you can see that it's nice and clean edges because it's a vector.

Jake Bartlett (13:54): I can go back into this path and readjust it. Just like being able to adjust the layer mask. It's totally non-destructive. It allows us to work very freely without worrying about losing anything. Now let's say that I want to cut out this section right here. Well, if I have that path selected and I press P to get back to my pen tool and start cutting this out again, I will speed this up. So you don't have to watch me using the pen tool. Now that I've closed that path. You see that it has not cut out anything and that's because it has the same path operation enabled to combine shapes. If I want that to punch a hole out, I need to set it to either subtract front shape or exclude overlapping shapes. So I'll just set it to subtract. So it's removing instead of adding.

Jake Bartlett (14:36): And now that I have that path, I can actually option or alt click and drag that over here and kind of line it up roughly, and then just kind of transform it by pressing command T. And that's very rough, but it kind of gets the done. Now, obviously I could clean up those pads a little bit more, but that's how you can use both layer, masks and vector masks to mask out objects inside of Photoshop. Hopefully that cleared things up for you and showed you just how powerful the masking tools are in Photoshop and illustrator hit subscribe. If you want more tips like this one and make sure to check the description so you can download the project files from this video. If you want to truly learn how to use these two apps with the help of industry pros and fun example projects, check out Photoshop and illustrator unleashed from school of motion. Thanks for watching.

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