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Lesson 8 - Learning About Layers

Adobe Photoshop 6 Basics

The Layers Palette

In this lesson, we'll be looking at layers and how they affect the work we do. We will talk about the Layers palette, working with multiple layers, how to blend, and how to merge layers. This lesson will help you to balance and structure your images.

Some images are very simple, while others are composed of many elements, colors, and effects. In Photoshop, you use layers to create and manipulate various elements of an image in isolation. Layers are very useful tools because they allow you to modify a single element of your image while leaving the rest untouched.

Layers seem to be the aspect of Photoshop that most often baffles and frustrates novices. Rest assured, you will feel differently once you've tried your hand at composing and altering images with more than one layer. I am sure you'll realize exactly how useful it is to be able to separate and work on one particular part of your artwork until you're satisfied with it, then reintegrate it into the big picture. First let's talk about the Layers palette.

Like most other Photoshop features, layers have their own palette. When you open a new image, you should see a palette like the one in Figure 8-1. If you don't see the palette, go to Window in the Menu and pick Show Layers.

Figure 8-1: The Layers palette as it appears in a new file.

When you create a file, it has only one layer: the background. The thumbnail to the left shows its contents. Although there's nothing there right now, think back to the Lilies assignment for Lesson 7. Do you remember how we ended up with nine layers? Well, if you revisit that image file on the Adobe Photoshop 6.0 Classroom in a Book CD, you'll see the contents of each layer displayed in those thumbnails. This display is a really easy way for you to keep track of and manage your individual layers.

You'll also see a black frame around one of the layers on the Layer palette. That layer is called the Active layer because that's the layer you're currently working on and changing. You can check to make sure you're working in the right layer by keeping an eye on the palette.

Blending Modes

If you click on the pop-up menu in the Layers palette (Figure 8-2), you will see a long list of Blending modes. These modes allow you to control the way different layers blend with one another. If you did a little experimenting during the assignment for Lesson 7, you might have noticed the Paintbrush has the same Blending Mode options as layers. The only difference between the blending modes in the Paintbrush and the Layers palette is that using the modes while painting will affect the way the paint blends on the canvas, whereas using them in layers will affect the way the layers blend together. You can alter the light in the layers or change the color saturation. Most of the modes are self-explanatory, but for complete information about these Blending modes, please consult the Painting section of Photoshop 6 Online Help menu (choose Help > Help Topics).

Figure 8-2: The Layer Options palette with the Blend menu open.


Creating, Adding, and Deleting Layers

Creating individual layers for different parts of an image often allows you to get just the perfect blended image. Later, if the need arises, it is easy to change or delete just one layer and not have to completely redo the entire piece of art. Let's try an example.

Open a new file in Photoshop. Using a Paintbrush or Airbrush, paint your canvas to create a solid Background layer (Figure 8-3).

Figure 8-3: This painted canvas will serve as your Background layer.

Now click on the small page icon with the turned-up corner at the bottom of the Layers palette to create a new layer. The small paintbrush next to the thumbnail is an additional indication that this is the active layer.

I have created an image with a black background and text characters. Each word of the text is on its own layer, for a total of four layers (Figure 8-4).

Figure 8-4: Can you guess there are four layers here?

Figure 8-5 shows the Layers palette as it appears with the image in Figure 8-4. Do you see the eye icon to the left of each layer? This indicates that the layer is visible (Figure 8-5).

Figure 8-5: The Layers palette shows four visible layers.

Now click on one of the eyes and watch as the layer becomes invisible. This is an excellent way of isolating portions of your work for scrutiny and change. And if you click on the box to make the layer visible again, you can decide instantly if you like your changes.

If you decide you need to discard a layer, simply click on it and drag it into the small trash icon at the bottom of the Layers palette.

Linking, Merging, and Flattening Layers

As you gain experience with Photoshop, you will encounter many options you can use to combine layers: linking, merging, and flattening. Remember that the active layer should always be visible in the combination of layers.


Linking layers is an extremely useful option, which allows you to link one or more layers together. When you need to move elements in the Active layer around, the linked layers move with the Active layer (Figure 8-6 and Figure 8-7).

Figure 8-6: I added an arrow to my image and then linked the (Active layer) heart and the arrow.

Figure 8-7: Now when I move the heart, the arrow moves too!

Merging and Flattening

As I mentioned before, the more layers your image contains, the larger the file will be. In this age of multi-gigabyte hard drives, this doesn't usually present a storage problem. But if you're looking to send your work across the Web to Auntie Alice in Adelaide, or post it on your Web site, file size most definitely does matter. This means that you're either going to have to merge or flatten your layers and ultimately, your image. The benefit of merging layers means you can preserve all the layers in case you or someone else needs to work on them.

There are three main ways to merge, all of which are found in the Layers palette fly-out menu (to reach the menu, click the right-pointing arrow in the upper right corner of the Layers palette):

  • Merge Down: combines the active layer with the one just below it in the Layers palette, as long as both are visible.
  • Merge Visible: combines all visible layers and does not discard invisible ones.
  • Merge Linked: combines the active layer with any visible linked layers. All hidden layers will be lost.

Flattening, on the other hand, will compress all visible layers into a single layer. But beware: once you flatten your image, you won't be able to go back and rework any of the layers. Don't worry -- you'll be warned before this happens. Also, make sure any layers you want to include in your flattened image are visible. Any invisible layers will be lost in the squish!

Moving On

In the next lesson, we'll take a look at masks and see how they help protect your artwork as you work on it. We will also describe how to apply a mask to an image and how to layer masks.

Before you go on to the next lesson, take the quiz and assignment. Don't forget to check in with the message board.

Next Lesson: Adobe Photoshop 6 Basics Lesson 9: Tricks of the Trade

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