Elements Creative Masking


Before you proceed with this creative masking tutorial, you might like to check out your understanding of layers. The blending mode and opacity values change the way in which the pixels in the upper layer control the pixels in the lower layer.

In a similar fashion, masks change the way in which the pixels in the upper layer control the visibility of the pixels in the lower layer.

In this tutorial, we'll look at
  • What is a mask, exactly?
  • Different ways of making a mask.
  • How to use a mask.
  • Saving a mask to use later.
  • Other uses for the masks you might have saved.
I’ll be using Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 for the first two examples and Elements 7 with the plugin Elements XXL 2.5 from The Plugin Site for the final creative masking example.

This plugin is fabulous and allows you to access the powerful parts of the program which Adobe has to have in  place for the software to run but they’ve not given you the dialogue boxes to access. Some other powerful stuff in there too. It’s worth a look to unleash the potential of Elements.

We’ll not need it for the basic stuff in this tutorial. If you own Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 or an older version, Elements XXL will allow you to access many aspects of layering and masking which are discussed in this tutorial.

For this creative masking tutorial you'll need ...

  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 or later (or an earlier version with access to Elements XXL).
  • Some ready-made masks or something to make them from (details in the tutorial).
  • Opaque or semi-opaque items and a flatbed scanner are useful for mask creation.
  • You can use images with a bit of manipulation; there are sites offering ready-made masks.
  • A few images which are sympathetic to each other and you’d like to blend together.
  • Imagination.

What Is A Mask?

creative masking layer and maskA mask is part of a layer and is made from black and white pixels only.  You append or add a mask to the layer on which it is to operate, just like you'd add an adjustment layer like you’d do in the Layer menu or through the layers dialogue buttons.  An adjustment layer always includes a layer mask.

When you add a mask to a layer the mask is white in colour. no matter if you're doing normal masking or creative masking like we'll be doing in this tutorial.

The white part of the mask prevents any image information from the bottom layer showing
through into the top layer and the black part of the mask (painted onto the white) allows image information to show through from the lower layer, hence the digital editing rule "white conceals and black reveals".

So in an image made from two image layers, you'd normally attach the mask to the top layer.
The black part of the mask prevents any image information showing from the top layer, but the
image directly below it in the bottom layer is visible. The white part of the mask shows image
information from the top layer, but the image directly below it in the bottom layer is not visible.

Things become a little more interesting when you paint shades of grey on the mask; the effect is just like setting the opacity of a blend mode to a value less than 100%.

How To Make A Mask

  1. By painting directly onto the mask layer.
  2. From a selection chosen by you.
  3. From a selection generated by the software.
  4. Imported from a third party.
  5. Imported from a file generated earlier by you.
  6. From scanned or photographed objects.

Making a simple frame as an introduction to creative masking

Load an image into Adobe Photoshop Elements - this one will do quite nicely ...

creative masking original image

 Now add an empty layer - Layer > New > Layer.

(Did you know you can make the Layers Thumbnails larger if you find them too small?    Go to the top right part of the layers palette (outlined in red) and click on it.  On the bottom of the panel select Panel Options and on the Panel Options screen choose the size of layer view you like.)  

creative masks panel options

A hatched thumbnail is shown in the layers palette (as above) to indicate a transparent layer has been added. Because the layer is transparent the bottom layer remains visible

With white as the foreground colour use the Paint Bucket to fill the layer with white.  Alternatively you can go to Edit > Fill and select Contents: White.

creative mask reveal mask
The image is covered by white paint and the image disappears

Make sure this top layer remains
selected and then Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All.

This adds a mask to the top layer hiding its contents so the background layer or lower layer is again revealed.

Creative Masking with a downloaded mask.

I’ve chosen a free download mask from the web I did a Google search for "free Photoshop masks" (and got loads of hits) and I’d advise that a simple search is the place to go for your first creative masking attempts.

creative masks mask search
Results for 'Free Photoshop Masks' Search

Choose the mask you want to use, save it to your computer and then load it in Photoshop Elements.

creative masks pastedMake sure the Mask is active and then Select > All and then Edit > Copy.

Select the image you are masking, ALT-click (Option-Click) on the mask to activate it and then
CTRL-V (Cmd-V) to paste the mask image into the Layer Mask.

To resize the mask image, select the move tool, click on the mask image within the workspace and use the handles to re-size it and rotate it according to your needs.

If your mask is white on a black background then you've got the 'wrong' configuration.  The hole in the centre needs to be black rather than white.  After resizing and rotating, click onto the mask and invert it by pressing Ctrl-I (Cmd-I) which inverts the mask to black on white, that is, the hole is punched into the centre.

When you're happy with the result, the green 'tick' confirms. Then as you click on the background layer, the masked image is revealed as a picture on a white background. If you
want to have a different coloured background, simply add a coloured fill as you create the top

When you’re happy with the masked frame result, the green ‘tick’ confirms. Then as you click on the background layer, the masked image is revealed as a picture on a white background. If you
want to have a different coloured background, simply add a coloured fill as you create the top

creative masking after applying mask

Creative Masking by Painting on the Mask

cm-brush set up
With these brush settings
This is the result after painting with the Brush Tool

creative masking brushed mask

For creative masking that's a nice one ...!

You can make a painted mask very easily in Adobe Photoshop Elements, save it, edit it and use it many times. The brushes and polygon tool make this a simple task.

The size of mask is important but not overly so. A 1000px, 300ppi square is a good starting point. The ‘edge’ of the masked area needs thought.

Brushed images can be hard or soft at the transition point between black and white; the polygon will give a hard edge which may need to be softened.

When you've created your mask you can save it for future use.

The angular configuration (rotation) of the mask and its horizontal and vertical location may need changing.

You can change the rotation and position of the mask once it's in position in the layer mask.

The Move Tool has all of these features which will allow perfect positioning.

Image > Size > Canvas Size will let you add to the mask should you need to make the surrounding larger. The best methodology is to make a white background and paint in black or grey in the locations in which you want to ‘punch a hole’ in the top layer to reveal the one below it.

But first you need to make the layer sandwich.

The method to apply creative masking is similar to the one described above.

These two images are from the same original.  The "artsy" one has been through Topaz Impression.

Load the two images and the mask image so you've got the three layer sandwich ...

creative masks 1 creative masking 2

Drag one of the images onto the other image in the workspace. Make sure this top layer remains
selected and here's the mask I made using the brush painting method ...

Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All

This will add an empty layer mask to the top layer hiding its contents so the background layer or lower layer is again revealed.

creative masking brushed maskingClick onto the image you want to use as a mask (in this case the brush stroke mask) then Select > All and Edit > Copy.

Now activate the top layer of your layer sandwich. ALT-click (Option-click) on the Layer Mask to make it visible in the workspace and then paste in the mask (Ctrl-V (Cmd-V).

If the mask isn't the correct size or orientation then select the Move tool and make whatever changes you need.  When you're done making modifications, click on the little green checkmark.

Now click on the image thumbnail in the top layer to see how it looks.

This is the Layers Palette after adding the mask.

creative mask

creative masks masked image

Elements XXL

I’ve chosen Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 with Elements XXL2.5 to make my illustration. Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 can’t achieve this on its own; Elements XXL allows you access to a finer black and white conversion.  In Adobe Photoshop Elements, the controls to convert the image are very basic.

Adobe Photoshop Elements with Elements XXL2.5 releases the sliders to control the saturation and brightness levels of more colours so you get more control over the tones in the image.  When you're converting an image into a mask, the different levels of grey are important in the control of the areas where the two image layers blend into each other thus making an implied third layer of interest.
creative masking elements xxl
The leaves were scanned on a flatbed scanner; in Adobe Photoshop Elements 7 with Elements XXL2.5 and the mask was made from this image; the layers were created;  the layer mask was added.

Using Adobe Photoshop Elements 11 with Elements XXL 2.5 gave me the control over which hues in the leaves became which tones in the Black & White conversion, so becoming different qualities of grey in the mask, so blending the two picture layers.

Enhance > Black and White is highlighted in blue in my version of Elements 11 because I'm running Elements XXL 2.5.  That's what allows me to access the enhanced Black & White conversion tools.

I’d give Elements XXL2.5 from The Plug-In Site very serious consideration if I wanted to unleash the full potential of Adobe Photoshop Elements, especially early versions.

creative mask leaf for mask

creative mask paistshop 7 mask

creative mask masked image

Creative Masking
Page Links

What is a Mask?

Making a Creative Mask.
Elements XXL

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