Using Masks to Create a Spot Illustration

Spot illustrations, or vignettes, are usually not contained in the familiar rectangle. Unfortunately, that’s the only shape of canvas you can get in Photoshop. However, if you define the shape of your work area before you begin by using a layer mask, you won’t have to worry about “coloring outside the lines” while you are creating your painting.




Create Your Layer Mask

  • Open your drawing in Photoshop and place it on its own layer.

  • Start by creating a new layer set. You can do this by either going to Layer–>New–>Layer Set or by pushing the little button on the bottom of the Layers palette with the picture of a folder on it. Place your drawing layer within it by clicking and dragging.

  • Change your background color. This is just to help you see what you are doing; you can change the background back to white when you are done.

  • Click on your Layer Set, then create your mask by clicking the button that looks like a gray rectangle with a white circle inside it. Notice that a new object has appeared in your layer. This is your mask.

How Masks Work

  • A small icon will appear next to your layer to indicate that you are now painting on your layer mask.

    Note that can only work with black, white, or a shade of gray when you are in this mode. The default makes your foreground color white and your background color black. If you use your eraser now, it will look like you are erasing away your drawing. But if you use your paintbrush tool, you can paint back the areas again. In effect, the color black will fully mask or “erase” away your areas, while white will show completely. So, start erasing the space around your illustration. If you accidentally erase too much, just go paint it back in with white.

    Erasing away using a mask

    Painting it back in

  • Erase all the areas that you don’t want to be affected while you paint. You are, in effect, creating a type of frisket that will protect all the areas around your spot illustration.

    Erasing away the negative space

Create a Mask the Easy Way

If you have a bold, clean drawing, you can use the magic wand tool to create a mask very quickly.

  • Select all the negative space around your object, then Select–>Inverse.

  • Create a new layer set.
  • With your new layer set selected in your Layers palette, create a new mask by pressing the layer mask button. Since you had an area selected first, a mask was created automatically.

    The result of your easy mask.

    How your mask looks in the Layers palette.

Modifying Your Mask

If you have already created your mask, but you want to go in and fix it a little, simply click on the mask in the Layers palette. Make sure that the mask icon appears next to your layer. Now simply paint in black to erase or white to add on.

I decided I wanted legs on the bunny, so I modified the mask.

I then went and fixed the drawing

If you option+click on the mask in your Layers palette, notice that your canvas will change so that your are only seeing your black and white mask. This can help you see it better if you are trying to spot troubled areas. To go back to your normal painting, just option+click it again.

Other Notes About Masks

  • You can also use other tools, such as the gradient, shape, and select tools to help you create your mask.

  • If you are painting all on one layer, you can create a layer mask for just that layer instead of a full layer set.

The Result

Now you can start putting more layers on your painting. Change the mode of your drawing layer to “Multiply” and add a color layer underneath it. I started by filling mine with a dark purple. Notice only the bunny is affected, even though I filled the whole layer.

I proceeded to paint my bunny, keeping all my layers within that layer set.

When you’re done, you’ll have a clean spot illustration to work with. I often like to experiment with different colors and textures in the background.

Here’s one more thing to try: delete your background completely, then go to Layer–>Merge Visible. Save it as a separate Photoshop or tiff file and keep it somewhere convenient. You can simply place these on newsletters, websites, or mailers, and not have to worry about any white space around the picture.

If you have any additional insight, questions, or tips, be sure to leave a comment.