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Gradient Masks in Adobe Photoshop

Creating editable, object-independent masks By Dave Nagel
Sometimes I just get so pleased with myself. Take now, for example. I've been pondering the question of gradient masks in Photoshop for quite some time. There have always been ways to create them, to be sure. But my concern is always with editability: How, in other words, would I create a gradient mask that would be fully editable and work for any layer I'd care to apply it to without any tweaking whatsoever? Shuck my bones if I haven't found an answer.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, "Jeez, Dave. Just apply the Gradient tool in Quick Mask mode." No, reader, no. That method kills the editability of the mask and also has to be applied over and over for every layer. I want to create something universal, something that can mask any layer, regardless of content, and be changed at any time without going back to an earlier state of the document. And I also want precision, which the Gradient tool just doesn't give me, at least not easily.

And so, dear reader, I say forget your Quick Mask. Here is a better solution. It's not perfect, but it's getting there.

For this tutorial, I'm going to create a linear gradient mask over a piece of text. I use text mainly to emphasize the editability of this technique because this allows you to keep your text live without having to chuck out a Layer Mask or Vector Mask anytime you want to make changes. As for the style of the mask, I'm using a linear gradient simply because it has a fairly popular use these days for creating tabletop reflections. But you can use this with any kind of gradient, as long as it's grayscale.

To begin, apply a new gradient fill layer, and adjust it to your liking. Make sure that the two color components in the gradient are black and transparent.

If you're creating a linear gradient, your canvas will look like this after applying it.

Right. Now place your graphic to be masked on a new layer directly above the gradient you've just created. This can be live text, an image or whatever. I'm making mine an obnoxious red just so that it stands out on the mushy background.

With your text layer selected, type Command-G (Macintosh) or Control-G (Windows) to group the text layer with your gradient. This will cause the text layer to be visible only where the underlying layer is visible.

Note how the text layer adopts the transparency of the gradient layer? This is called grouping, which, in Photoshop, is more like an intersection between a primary layer (the gradient) and any other layers that are grouped to it. In your Layers palette, grouped layers appear with a downward arrow pointing toward the primary (or parent) layer.

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