Skip to Content

How to Use Procreate Reference Layers

What if you could add color to your line work while keeping the color on a separate layer? Well, with Procreate’s reference layers, you can do that! This gives you a lot more flexibility to experiment with colors without compromising your linework layer.

To use Procreate’s reference layers, open your layer’s panel and choose the “Reference” setting for your linework layer. Create a new layer above your reference layer. On this new layer, drag and drop colors into your linework. This will activate ColorDrop but, because you’re using a reference layer, the color will be confined to your linework.

Before we can talk about reference layers, we need to understand ColorDrop. These two features go together like peanut butter and jelly, so if I start talking about reference layers without explaining ColorDrop first, we’ll end up with a sad sandwich.

What is Procreate’s ColorDrop?

In Procreate, ColorDrop is the feature that lets you drag and drop colors into any closed shapes on your active layers. This automatically fills a shape with color instead of having to color it in manually with your Apple Pencil.

Active layer? Drag and drop? Closed shapes? Let’s go over that.

Your active layer is the one you have selected in your layer’s panel that you’re currently drawing on. It will be highlighted in blue. Whichever layer is selected in your layer’s panel is the one that the ColorDrop feature will respond to.

procreate showing active layer flower drawing

To activate ColorDrop, you’re going to drag and drop the active color.

Essentially, look at the top right corner of your iPad screen and identify the little circle of color that’s sitting there. This is your active color. If you were to start drawing, this is the color that would show up. Tap on that circle of color to change your active color to the one you want to use.

procreate active color yellow flower drawing

Once you have the color you want, drag and drop it into one of your closed shapes on your Procreate canvas. 

Now, let’s talk about closed shapes. When you drag and drop your color into your Procreate canvas, you’ll see that it either floods your entire canvas, or becomes confined to a shape. If it floods your entire canvas, this either means that you didn’t drag the color into a specific shape, or that your shape isn’t open.

For ColorDrop to work, you need to make sure that your shape is closed. This means that the ends of your lines are touching. 

procreate gaps in lines

You can also run into issues with ColorDrop if you are drawing lightly using a wispy brush, like the watercolor brush.

Once you initiate ColorDrop, you’ll see a threshold slider at the top of your screen. Without lifting your Apple Pencil from the canvas, drag it to the left or right to change the amount of space that your Color Drop takes up.

procreate colordrop threshold yellow flower drawing

This can take some experimentation, so don’t worry about giving it a try and undoing it if you need to.

From there, if you want to keep coloring your piece with the same color, tap on the “Continue filling” button. Then, tap on your shapes to fill them with color.

procreate continue filling colordrop yellow flower drawing

Alright, let’s move onto reference layers and how ColorDrop works with them.

How to Use Procreate’s Reference Layers

In Procreate, reference layers allow you to ColorDrop into your shapes using a different layer. This gives you the option to add color to your work without impacting your linework layer. 

Personally, I had to start using reference layers for them to make sense. So, let’s walk through the steps of adding and using a reference layer and talk about how they work as we go.

1. Open your layer’s panel and activate the settings for your linework layer

To begin with, go ahead and open your layer’s panel. 

Find your linework layer and tap on it to open its settings. 

When I talk about your “linework layer,” I’m talking about the layer you want to add color to. Since we’ll be using ColorDrop, this layer needs to have closed shapes on it that will be compatible with the ColorDrop feature.

So, that’s why I call it a linework layer.

procreate layer settings flower drawing

2. Tap on the Reference option

Once you have your linework layer settings open, choose the Reference option. This will turn your linework layer into a “reference” layer for the ColorDrop features we’re going to do later on.

You’ll know that your reference layer is activated when you see the little “Reference” label within your layer.

procreate reference layer setting flower drawing

3. Add a new layer above your reference layer

In your layer’s panel, tap on the plus button to add a new layer. Make sure this layer is above your reference layer.

procreate add layer above reference layer flower drawing

4. Use the ColorDrop feature in your new layer

Now we’re ready to get started using our reference layer! Here’s the deal, we aren’t actually going to be adding the color to our reference layer directly; we’re going to use the new layer we created above it. So, make sure your new layer is highlighted and selected.

With your desired color selected in your color palette, drag and drop your color into your linework.

Even though you’re dragging and dropping your color into the layer above your linework, it will stay confined to the bounds of your linework. This is the magic of reference layers!

procreate reference layer yellow added flower drawing

Once you’ve dragged and dropped your first color, you can use the “Continue filling” option to continue adding color to your shape.

procreate reference layer continue filling yellow flower drawing

Make sure to take some time to play around with this because it can take some getting used to.

Reference Layer Tips

When I’m using reference layers for my own art, there are a few things I keep in mind. 

1. You can use reference layers whether your linework is blank, or it already has color in it. 

This means that using reference layers can be a great way to test out with new colors without changing your original colors. I talk about this in my post about changing the color of a layer, so I suggest you check out that post to learn more.

procreate change shape color reference layer mouse drawing

2. Reference layers can only be used for ColorDrop.

This means that you can’t start drawing on your layer and expect it to stay confined to the shapes in your linework. You can ONLY use ColorDrop with reference layers to fill your shapes with solid colors.

I have a post about drawing within the lines of your shapes that I suggest checking out if you want to learn more about that.

3. Don’t forget about reference layers.

I adore reference layers but, to be honest, I forget to use them! I’ll be in the flow of my art and start dropping colors right into my linework. 

This means that I have to undo things so that I can go back and create a reference layer. It’s not a big deal, but I thought I would mention it! At the least, it’s the sign of a focused art session!

Reference layers are a SUPER neat feature that Procreate offers. Spend some time practicing with them so that you can take advantage of them in your own art!

Sharing is caring!