If you spend a great deal of time working with multilayered Photoshop files, you don't need me to tell you that keeping track of all those layers can be confusing. Happily, Adobe Photoshop is chock-full of features that help with the layer-wrangling process. And by taming all those layers, you can take advantage of the creative power that well-managed layers confer.
In case the mere mention of the word "management" zaps your creative energy, I've brought a friend to help (see Figure 1). This creature — inspired by a collaborative pencil-and-paper effort between me and my son, Sam — has been summoned to digital life with a complex series of Photoshop shape layers and layer effects to help me demonstrate the true creative power of layers.
This little green would-be overlord reveals five layer-themed superpowers that you can master.
Fastidiously naming your layers allows you to find the item you want to work on while you still remember what you want to do with it once you find it.
Perhaps, for instance, you wanted to do some work on those delightfully expressive bags under the creature's right eye. With the Move tool, you can right-click anywhere in a document and get a list of the layers that have pixels in that spot (see Video 1). This is convenient, but keep in mind that you don't want to have to choose between 23 layers with the default name "Ellipse n."
Video 1. Pinpointing a properly named layer is much easier when the desired layer doesn't have the default name "Ellipse 23."
Naming layers has never been easier. Double-click the name of any layer to rename it, and then press Tab to rename the next layer down. Press Shift-Tab to rename the layer above. This feature is so efficient, you have no excuse for nondescript layer names in the post-CS6 era.
Layer styles let you create completely editable effects that can replace meticulous (tedious) trial-and-error painting. As I mentioned, this creature comprises mostly shape layers, to which I've applied a complex cocktail of layer styles. Despite his volumetric transformation, I almost never had to use the Brush tool.
For example, the right eye starts as a simple ellipse. The first layer style I created — a gradient overlay — gives it the signature alien green color and begins to give the eye some volume (see Video 2).
Video 2. The Gradient Overlay style immediately gives his eyelid some shape.
Then the Inner Shadow layer style increases the volumetric effect (see Figure 2).
Layer styles can be applied with a certain mathematical efficiency and changed any time you want, and yet they do the same heavy lifting that the application of decidedly undynamic pixels would do.
A carefully crafted layer effect can be instantly reused on a different layer. You can easily copy layer styles, or combinations of multiple layer styles, to another layer by pressing Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS) and dragging from the fx icon on one layer to the other. If I wanted the General Eyelid style to serve as a starting point for the bags under the creature's eye, I just need to drag it into place. Then I can adjust at will. For instance, I can add a drop shadow to the existing set of layer styles (see Video 3).
Video 3. Adding a Drop Shadow layer style to the collection I copied from the top eyelid renders this eye bag suitably baggy.
Or you can right-click an empty part of the layer whose style you wish to lift and choose Copy Layer Style. Then navigate to the layer you want to apply the style to, right-click, and choose Paste Layer Style. I used this method as a starting point for the body of my creature (see Figure 3). Again, I can add or adjust to suit the new layer's needs. I can even adjust the existing Inner Shadow style to meet the requirements of this particular layer. (In the case of the Body layer, it means making that style much larger.)
Once you organize your layers into groups, you can apply a mask or effect to that whole group in one fell swoop. Layer groups are an excellent way to keep track of which layers are serving which purpose in your document.
For instance, in this file, I have groups dedicated to my creation's eyes, nose and mouth, clothing, hair, and so forth. To create a group, just choose the layers you need, go to the Layers panel flyout menu, and choose New Group From Layers. (In Photoshop CC, you can also right-click the image window with the Rectangular marquee active and get this same command.)
You can create and alter subgroups the same way as well. For example, for this image, when I decided to tone down the edges of the bags under the alien's eyes, I applied a layer mask to the Eye Bags subgroup of the Eyes layer group. I just used the familiar method of selecting the subgroup entry in the Layers panel and then clicking the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the panel. Then I could paint away the right edge of the bags (see Video 4).
Video 4. You can apply a layer mask or layer style to an entire group of layers at once.
Layer comps allow you to capture a particular configuration of your document for quick retrieval. For years, I saw this feature demonstrated as a handy but rather quotidian way to show clients variations on text treatments or color schemes. But the power of layer comps is much more interesting to me when it tells a progressive story.
Sam and I put our creative heads together and drew the alien in a collaborative, one-upmanship style. ("Oh, you think he should have a pointy ear? I think he should have a round ear and wear a pointy prosthetic to confuse the unsuspecting humans.") I brought our creature to digital life — with his texture, color, and volume — by using layers to build on that original sketch. Using layer comps enabled me to quickly capture the various development stages of the monster-alien (see Video 5). (I also used them as fodder for the animation you saw in Figure 1.)
To create a layer comp, you simply need to turn on the particular combination of layer visibility and layer effects that you want to capture, and then click the page icon at the bottom of the Layer Comps panel. Photoshop will ask you to name your comp (one bit of management you can't avoid) and give you the opportunity to capture the Visibility (yes), Position (maybe, but use with caution), and Appearance (yes) of this variation of your project.
Don't dread good layer management. Ultimately, this process that feels (and sounds) like upkeep really does provide you with creative opportunities you wouldn't otherwise have. Think of layer management as another tool in your arsenal of artistic expression.
Video 5. Layer comps let you quickly capture stages of a project.
Deke McClelland is an expert in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop Elements. He has written scores of best-selling software books and recorded thousands of hours of video training, which have garnered millions of views. To ask questions, find answers, and discover weekly tips and tricks, visit deke.com.