How to Effectively Use Clipping Masks in Photoshop

In this tutorial, you will learn necessary knowledge about how clipping masks works in Photoshop, and how to effectively use it in your workflow.

In this tutorial, you will learn necessary knowledge about how clipping masks works in Photoshop, and how to effectively use it in your workflow.

With a simple example, we are looking at principles behind the work and the features of clipping masks. That will help you to work more productively with layers, layer masks, selections, and when you need to isolate something. Let’s dive into it!

What You’ll be Creating

We’ll start with a little theory. You will learn the basic idea and principles that underlie the clipping mask, look at the possibilities and principles of work. As a practical example, we will create a recursive image effect. Place the target image, separate the fragment with the screen from the background. Make a copy of the background image on it and use a clipping mask to limit the spread to the screen area. Next, we will try different options for how you can use the clipping mask in your workflow.

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Tutorial Resources

Lilly, the surf cat (2400×1600) Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


Clipping Mask is a useful feature in many workflows, whether you are an artist or photo manipulator, retoucher, or designer. It’s hard to find where this doesn’t apply. It all depends on your style and work preferences.

Clipping Mask allows us to wrap content from one layer to the content only of the layer below. Imagine this as something taking the form of something else, for example, like a wrapper. I call this content because both layers can be very different. That could be anything depending on the circumstances and work situations.

Here are several examples: image, texture, shape, text, part of the painting, vector piece, adjustment layer, etc. At the same time, both layers can contain transparent areas, layer masks, and different blending modes. Content from the layer above is applied to the opaque areas of the layer below.

Step 1

Let’s try it ourselves. First, open the target image to which you want to apply the mask. Go to File > Open or use the keyboard shortcut Cmd (Mac)/Ctrl (Win) + O.

Place the image to use on the target layer in Photoshop. Go to File > Place Embedded and locate the desired image on your hard drive. I will reuse the same image to create a recursive effect.

Step 2

When images are in place, let’s separate the area of interest from the main image. To do that, I use the Quick Selection Tool (W) and make a selection of the screen without the black border. Try to keep the neat selection that contains all the space without gaps.

Step 3

Duplicate the contents of the selection on a new layer. I prefer to use for this Cmd/Ctrl + J shortcut or use Edit > Copy/Paste. Also, duplicate the background layer (Cmd/Ctrl + J or Layer > Duplicate layer) and drag and drop it above the cutout screen layer at the top of the Layers panel.

Step 4

There are several ways to create a clipping mask, but they should have one common layer. The content of which you want to position on a specific layer must be above the layer to which you apply it. You have several ways to do that:

  1. Hold Opt/Alt on the keyboard, and when the pointer change it’s appearance to a downward pointing arrow and click between layers in the layer stack on the layer panel;
  2. Use Cmd/Ctrl + Opt/Alt + G keyboard shortcut;
  3. Make right-click on the layer and select “Create Clipping Mask” from the drop-down menu;
  4. Go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask option

You will understand that the clipping mask works according to several criteria, the first one: will appear an arrow pointing down next to the layer. The second one is that the content from the top layer will shape the silhouette of the bottom layer.

It can be controlled by enabling or disabling at any time. Just repeat the method you use the same as applying the clipping mask.

Step 5

If the layer is all transparent, you will not see anything, but it is worth painting or in any other way to fill the layer with graphics, as the mask will begin to influence these areas.

Like the silhouette of the layer below filled with content from the layer above it. If the layer below has no transparent areas without an image or takes the size of the entire working document.

The clipping mask will not be visible expressively and all the mask content will take up the entire image space below how much it’s content allows. Use the Free Transform Tool (Cmd/Ctrl + T or Edit > Free Transform) to position and scale the background image slightly larger than the cutout screen layer. Hold down Opt/Alt key on the keyboard to scale the image proportionally from the center.

Step 6

A common example is when you apply multiple adjustment layers. Or you want to change the color, but not affect the layers below or the background. Most often, this is applied to adjustment layers so that they affect an isolated area and not the entire working canvas.

Let’s try this and use an adjustment layer to brighten the screen. Add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast or use the icon at the bottom of the Layers panel). Set Brightness: +15, Contrast: -50.

At the bottom of the Properties panel, click the button with an arrow pointing down next to the layer. Now you clipped an adjustment layer to the cutout screen layer.

Step 7

I repeat the steps several times and place new copies in the screen area to create a recursion effect. Clipping Masks fit almost any workflows were necessary to limit the impact to a certain area, and at the same time, keep the possibility of additional editing by using a layer mask.

In such a simple way, you limit the texture applied to a specific area when you constrain the effect of one photograph to the shape of another layer. Most often used in photo manipulation, design and mock-ups, texturing and retouching.

Step 8

You can create clipping masks to the group with layers. Let’s group the recursive layers with the screen by selecting them by holding down the Shift key and click. Use Cmd/Ctrl + G shortcut or go to Layer > Group Layers.

Clipping Masks works with all kinds of layers in Photoshop, adjustment layers, regular and smart layers, shapes, but you cannot clip group to a group. Only layers to layers or layers to a group, not vice versa. You can make a chain of the layers of any length, even from all layers in your project, but they will take the form of the main layer to what they clipped.

Step 9

Next, add “Hue/Saturation” adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation) with a Saturation: – 70 settings.

That will slightly reduce the saturation of images inside the screen. There can be not one, but a whole chain of many layers using one layer as a mask.

Step 10

By using clipping masks, you can always continue your normal workflow and affect all layers at the same time. Look, I toned the entire image with the “Color Lookup” adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Lookup) with 3DLUT FileSoft_Warming.loot preset. This layer affects all layers below.


With such a simple method, you do not need to make a selection or use a layer mask, which may be required for other tasks.

You don’t waste the extra opportunity to continue modifying both layers or isolate sections. Keep in mind the sequence of layers and remember that non-clipping layers affect all layers below at the layer stack. That’s all! Enjoy your final result.

Here, my final artwork.

Do not be afraid to go beyond software, style, and genre. But, most importantly – do not hesitate to create and experiment! Thank you for your attention and good luck to you in your creative projects! Have something to add or ask? Use the comment section below.

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