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Working With Mask Layers in PSP

A guide to creating and using mask layers in Paint Shop Pro. Written for PSP 8, but should be fully translatable to later versions.


A mask layer is a special kind of layer that sits on top of an image to hide part of it. It's basically the same idea as using masking tape when you paint a room. You mask off the bits that you don't want to get colour on.

In fact, let's use that as our example. Say I have this graphic of a room:


And I 'paint' it using a bright pink fill layer set to Hard Light:

Room with pink fill layer

I can then create a mask like this cover the bits I don't want pink:

Mask graphic for room

And this is the result:

Room with masked fill layer

That's a pretty trivial example, but when you're dealing with more complicated shapes, mask layers can be extremely useful.


There are times when you want to copy and paste a section of an image that's far too complex to select with any of PSP's built-in selection tools. For example, cutting a person out from a background so you can paste them into a new image:

Original image -> Cutout figure

Removing the background from around a detailed outline is a difficult and time-consuming job. The problem with just using the eraser tool is that the bits of background you remove are permanently deleted. If you make a mistake and don't notice immediately, or you change your mind about how much of the image you want to keep, your only option is to scrap all of your hard work and start again.

But if you use a layer mask, the background isn't actually erased, it's only hidden. If you change your mind and decide you want to get it back again, all you have to do is edit the mask layer.

So here's how to use a mask to cut out an image.

1. First, make a rough selection around the object you want to cut out.

Selected region

2. Copy and paste the selection as a new layer on top of your background image.

Pasted in as a new layer

3. Make sure that the layer with your cutout is selected, and then click this little mask-shaped icon in the layer palette:

Mask icon

(Alternatively, you can select New Mask Layer -> Show All from either the right-click menu or the main Layers menu.)

This creates a new layer mask set to 'show all' (i.e. with nothing actually masked yet). You'll see that in the layer palette, your cutout layer is now grouped together with a mask:

Layer group with mask

Any changes you make to the mask will affect the visibility of the Cutout layer that's grouped in with it.

4. You can edit your mask using any of the paint or fill tools. It's exactly the same as working on a normal layer, except that you can only work in shades of grey.

If you paint on the mask layer with black, the parts of the image beneath the black will be hidden:

Original + Mask with smiley face = Image with smiley mask applied

If you paint back over it with white, the image will reappear:

Original + Smiley face partially wiped out = Image restored

If you paint on the mask with shades of grey, the image will become partially transparent:

Original + Gradient mask = Image with gradient transparency

So, to delete the background from around your cutout, simply paint it out on the mask layer with a soft-edged black brush.

Original + Cutout mask = Image cutout

If you screw up, remember, you can easily restore the image by painting over it again in white. You can make the mask visible to help you see what you're doing by clicking this little icon at the far right end of the mask layer:

Toggle mask visibility

When this icon is toggled, the mask will show up as a red overlay on top of the layer, so you can see which parts you've already painted out at a glance:

Image with mask overlay

And that's really all there is to it!


There are other things you can do with layer masks as well as make cutouts. For instance, every type of adjustment layer has a built-in layer mask. If you paint directly onto the adjustment layer in black or grey, that will mask part of the image beneath from its effect.

So, for example, you could use a Hue/Saturation/Lightness adjustment layer to desaturate your image...

Original -> Desaturated

...And then mask part of it out with black to restore the colour in a specific area:

Tiger with saturation mask

Or you could use a curves layer to brighten up your icon...

Original -> With brightening curve layer

...And then mask out the parts where the brightness is too strong:

With masked curves layer

Basically, any time that you want a layer to cover part of the layer below but not all of it, the mask layer is your friend.


* Blend modes work a bit differently for grouped layers. If you want to apply a blend mode to a layer that has a mask, you have to make sure you set it on the overall group layer, not the original layer that's now nested inside of it:

Applying blend modes to grouped layers

* You can apply a mask to multiple layers at once. Create a mask in the normal way for one of them, and then just drag the other layers to sit inside the same layer group, like this:

Multiple layers under the same mask

* If you're sure you're completely done editing your mask and would like to flatten the layer group back into a single layer, you can use the Merge -> Merge Group command to combine it all into one layer. (But beware, because that deletes anything that was hidden under the mask.)


Still confused? Got more questions? Trying to get this to work in a different version of PSP? Ask and I will do my best to help out.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 24th, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
Oh, that was a great explanation of how to work with masks! That's going to be really helpful to me in the future. :D *mems* Thanks so much for that! ♥!
Oct. 24th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC)
wow nice tutorial. i knew how to mask in ps not in psp, so thanks :-)
Oct. 24th, 2009 11:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Oct. 25th, 2009 12:12 am (UTC)
Memming this. Thank you do much! Looks great!
Oct. 25th, 2009 12:35 am (UTC)
But you cobbled together something awesome! Seriously, this was wonderful and very easy to understand and I'm now going to try it out.

Thanks for this and I'm memming it. :)
Oct. 26th, 2009 12:46 am (UTC)
I use PSP9 and had to figure this out for myself. I can verify that your information is correct for PSP9 too.
This tutorial will act as a shortcut for many.
Many thanks for sharing.
Jan. 7th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much
*adding to memories
Your tutorial was so easy to understand! ^^
Thank you!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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