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How to Use Procreate’s Clipping Masks and Layer Masks

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Procreate’s masks open up a world of possibilities for artists that want to make changes to their work that are easy to undo and change. As the queen of mistakes, sign me up for that! 

Procreate’s clipping masks and layer masks allow artists to make changes to their work on a separate layer. This allows them to be easily changed or deleted without impacting the work permanently. Clipping masks are used to add to a design, whereas layer masks are used to hide areas of a design.

Once you get the hang of Procreate’s masks, you’ll end up using them all the time. They’re one of the features that we all wish we could have with our traditional art supplies. 

Simply create a new layer where we can draw, create, erase, and destroy. Then, if we don’t like it, simply tap a few buttons and have it all disappear. 

But, that would be called magic. In the digital art world, the magic is Procreate.

In this article, we’ll be diving into everything you need to know about Procreate’s clipping masks and layer masks. 

We’ll also touch on the Alpha Lock feature and the eraser so that you get a solid idea of everything you need to know about choosing the right tool for you at the right time in your art process.

What are Clipping Masks in Procreate?

A clipping mask is a layer that sits on top of the layer you want to change. Anything you draw on the clipping mask will look like it’s on the layer below it, while actually living on the clipping mask. This gives you freedom to experiment without permanently changing your original layer.

Clipping masks give you a great opportunity to work on a layer without making permanent changes to it. All of your drawings and changes will be separated from your original layer.

To understand how clipping masks work, the best thing to do is to experiment with them. So, let’s get a clipping mask set up. 

How to Use Procreate’s Clipping Masks?

Here are the steps you need to take to set up your clipping masks:

1. Open your Layers panel and select the layer you want to apply a clipping mask to.

When I say “the layer you apply your clipping to,” this means that you should select the layer you want to change. Whichever layer you want to add elements to, draw on, color – select that layer.

procreate select layer

2. Click the + button to add a new layer above your selected layer.

To use your clipping mask, you’ll need to create a new layer above the layer you want to draw on. This is really important. 

If I want to draw on the glasses, and apply a clipping mask in order to do so, I need to make sure that my brand new layer is right above it.

procreate add layer

3. Tap on your brand new layer to open the settings and choose “Clipping Mask”

When you tap on your new layer, you’ll see a long list of settings open up to the side of it. Tap the “Clipping Mask” button.

procreate clipping mask button

Here’s where you’ll see why it’s so important to create a new layer to apply your clipping mask to. If I want to draw on the glasses with the help of a clipping mask, here’s what I should see. 

The new layer becomes indented and has an arrow pointing down to the layer with the glasses on it. This means that it’s now a clipping mask that’s related to the layer it’s pointing to right below it. In this case, the glasses layer.

Here’s what you DON’T want to do. Even though you want to use the clipping mask to the glasses layer, your clipping mask needs to be a separate layer. DON’T apply it to the glasses layer itself.

This will turn the glasses layer into a clipping mask for the layer below it, which you don’t want.

procreate clipping mask on wrong layer
Here’s what it would look like if you applied the clipping mask to the glasses layer.

4. Draw on your new clipping mask layer as you need to.

Now you’re ready to use your clipping mask!

Anything you draw on your clipping mask will ONLY be applied to pigment that is already laid down on the layer below it. For example, I can only draw on the glasses because the glasses are the only thing on the layer below my clipping mask.

This is really useful for drawing and coloring within the lines of your element without things spilling over into the rest of your work.

I can make pink stripes on the glasses without having to worry about starting and stopping my lines at precisely the right moment. I can swing my Apple Pencil all over my screen and the lines will still only appear on my glasses. Pretty neat, right?

procreate drawing with clipping mask on

The other perk is that these changes I made to my glasses aren’t living on the glasses layer itself. They’re on a completely separate layer. If I change my mind about the pink stripes, I can quickly clear them or erase them.

This would not be as easy if I had drawn the pink stripes directly on the glasses layer.

procreate drawing with clipping mask from layer view
Here’s what those pink stripes look like within the layers panel.

While Procreate has a great undo feature, unless I had just recently created the pink stripes, I wouldn’t be able to undo them very easily.

This is why clipping masks are digital art magic! Can you imagine being able to do this with traditional materials? Simply experimenting with changes that are separated from your work and can disappear in a single tap? 

I love traditional materials, but it’s features like clipping masks that make me LOVE digital art, especially with Procreate.

A natural question that comes up when talking about clipping masks is why you would choose a clipping mask over the alpha lock function. The final result may look the same, but the mechanics behind it are very different.

Let’s dive into that.

Clipping Masks vs Alpha Lock

Clipping masks allow you to draw on individual elements, while keeping your drawings and changes on a separate layer. With the alpha lock function, any drawings and changes are applied to the layer itself and are not on a separate layer.

Before we dive into the differences between clipping masks and alpha lock, let’s review how to turn alpha lock on in the first place. 

One method of turning on alpha lock is to tap on your desired layer to open the layer settings. Tap the “Alpha Lock” button.

procreate alpha lock from layer settings

The shortcut for turning on alpha lock is to use two fingers to swipe right on your layer. 

procreate two finger swipe on layer for alpha lock

You’ll know that Alpha Lock is on when you see a grid appear in the thumbnail image of your layer.

procreate layer thumbnail with alpha lock on

Clipping masks and alpha lock both let you color and draw within the lines of specific elements. Creating the pink stripes in my glasses, for example.

The final result will look the same. Pink lines applied to my glasses. That said, the mechanics behind those pink stripes are very different when using clipping masks vs. alpha lock. 

When I use a clipping mask, these pink stripes are isolated on a separate layer that I can easily change, clear, or delete as needed. 

procreate drawing with clipping mask from layer view
This is what a clipping mask layer looks like with the pink lines separated from the glasses on a different layer.

With alpha lock, the pink stripes are applied to the glasses layer itself. The stripes have become a part of that layer and are harder to deal with separately from the glasses, as a result.

procreate drawing with alpha lock on
Here’s what an alpha locked layer looks like with the pink stripes added directly on it.

So, why would you even choose to use alpha lock? There are some important reasons.

One of those important reasons has to do with blending. When you use alpha lock, all of the changes and drawings you’re making are sitting on the same layer. For example, my pink stripes exist on the same layer as my glasses. 

This means that I can blend the pink of the stripes with the blue of the glasses, if I wanted to.

procreate smudging pink into blue
Here’s what the smudging looks like with alpha lock on and drawing the pink lines directly onto the glasses layer.

When you use a clipping mask, anything you draw on the clipping mask will be applied to the layer below it, but it’s still separated from it.

If you use your smudge tool, it will only smudge the pink stripes because that’s the only thing on your layer. If I wanted to blend the pink into the blue of the glasses for some reason, I wouldn’t be able to.

procreate smudge with a clipping mask
Here’s the same smudging, but with the pink lines on a clipping mask. Notice this differences in blending between drawing directly on a layer in alpha lock vs. on a clipping mask.

If you do need to blend these layers together, the way around this is to use a clipping mask to experiment with changes and decide what you want to do. 

Once you’re 100% sure that you like the changes you’ve made, merge the clipping mask down into the layer below it, which will turn them into one layer. You would then be able to blend the colors together. This is the method I normally use.

Alright, so now that we’ve covered clipping masks and why you may or may not use them in favor of alpha lock, let’s talk about layer masks.

What are Layer Masks in Procreate?

A layer mask functions like an eraser, but with all of your eraser marks separated from your art on a separate layer. Drawing with black on your layer mask serves to erase or hide your work, while drawing with white makes it reappear again.

Erasing can be destructive. If you erase directly on a layer and don’t quickly undo it, those eraser marks become permanent. 

Layer masks allow you to erase your work, while keeping your eraser marks on a separate layer. This makes your erasing less destructive and permanent.

How to Use Procreate’s Layer Masks?

Here are the steps you need to take to set up your layer masks:

1. Open your Layers panel and select the layer you want to apply a layer mask to.

When I say “the layer you apply a layer mask to,” this means that you should select the layer you want to erase. 

procreate select layer

2. Tap on your brand new layer to open the settings and choose “Mask”

When you tap on your layer, you’ll see a long list of settings open up to the side of it. Tap the “Mask” button.

procreate layer mask in layer settings

You do NOT need to create a new layer before creating a layer mask. You can go ahead and choose the “mask” option directly from the settings of your desired layer.

Unlike with our clipping mask, when you choose the layer mask option, it will actually create a new layer for you, so you don’t need to worry about creating a new layer first. 

Once you’ve done that, you’ll see a new, white layer appear above your selected layer.

procreate layer mask
Here’s what it should look like when you’ve created your layer mask correctly. The mask should be on top of whichever layer you want to work with.

3. Use black, white, or shades of gray to erase and uncover your work.

When you’re working with your layer mask, you’ll only be able to use black, white, and shades of gray.

Don’t freak out – this is how it’s supposed to work. Your color wheel isn’t permanently stuck in grayscale.

When you use black, your Procreate brush essentially serves as an eraser. Any marks you make will live on your layer mask and will hide elements on the layer below it.

procreate layer mask drawing in black
Drawing in black on a clipping mask.

When you use white, your Procreate brush will “undo” the “erasing” you just did with your black strokes. We’re using quotation marks because we’re not actually erasing and undoing in the traditional sense.

procreate clipping mask drawing in white
Re-drawing over the black eraser marks with white to make them reappear again.

The final result makes it look like you’re erasing and undoing your work, but all of that is actually living on your layer mask, which gives you a lot of freedom to change it or clear it at any time. 

This is freedom you don’t get with typical erasing.

When you use a shade of gray, you’ll get a semi-transparent eraser mark. The amount of transparency depends on the shade of gray you use. 

procreate layer mask drawing in gray

In the context of layer masks, using gray essentially serves the purpose as lowering the opacity of your eraser.

Similar to clipping masks, any marks you make on a layer mask will only be applied to the layer below it that it’s attached to. Your marks won’t be applied to your entire work of art.

If you have multiple layers you need to apply your eraser marks to, you’ll need to create multiple layer masks.

A natural question that comes up when talking about layer masks is why you would choose a layer mask over the eraser. With layer masks being easily changed, why would you ever want to use the permanent eraser? 

Let’s dive into that.

Layer Masks vs the Eraser

Layer masks are useful for impermanently erasing elements on a single layer. The erase is useful for making permanent changes to a layer. These permanent eraser marks will be on the layer itself, which makes blending and shading easier.

I do a lot of “traditional” drawing with Procreate. While I gladly use all of the magical digital art features to my benefit, I also like to pretend like I’m using traditional materials as much as possible. 

Lion drawing with procreate

Much of this has to do with blending pencil lines and eraser marks together. 

Remember in the clipping mask section where we talked about the difficulties that come with blending colors that exist on a clipping mask layer with the colors on the layer below it. This isn’t possible because the colors aren’t on the same layer.

The same principle applies for layer masks. When you create “eraser marks” on a clipping mask, you can smudge the eraser marks and get some degree of fading as a result, but you can’t smudge the eraser into the colors and actual design of the layer below it.

procreate smudge with layer mask
Here’s what it looks like to smudge the lines on a layer mask.

So, when I’m making my Procreate pencil drawings, I don’t use layer masks a lot. It’s important for me to be able to smudge my eraser marks into my pencil lines. 

Even though the eraser marks are more permanent than they would be if I was using a layer mask, using the eraser directly on my layer gives me the effects I’m looking for.

procreate smudge eraser on layer
Here’s what it looks like to smudge eraser marks when they’re directly applied to the layer.

Similar to clipping masks vs. alpha lock, your choice between the eraser and a layer mask really depends on the type of art you’re creating and the types of effects you’re trying to create.

If this is new to you, it’s ok to be confused about which layers you want to use and when you want to use them. It takes time and practice to know what your art needs. This is true for all of Procreate’s features, not just masks.

Make sure to experiment with masks so that you can understand everything they have to offer for your own unique art style. And, at the end of the day, don’t forget to have fun with it!

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