Photoshop & Illustrator for Illustrators part 2


Part 2: Layers

This is a brief, concise look into Photoshop and Illustrator's layers feature.  Understanding what layers do and how they can be used is vital for an illustrator.  In this tutorial I will show you how to create and name layers and talk a little about how they work.  The purpose of this tutorial is not about using layers as an illustrating technique, it's about using layers as to make editing colors and line work easier as well as to speed up your work flow.

When I first started drawing for publications, I would pencil the work on a sheet of paper, take that paper to the light table, trace the pencil drawing in ink on another sheet of paper, painstakingly cut mechanical tint for color or try ink washes, all hoping I would get it exactly right in one try.  Needless to say, one take was a very rare occasion.  This method of drawing and coloring would take me hours and hours of cursing, hair pulling and a forest of wrinkled papers to produce a single, 3 panel comic strip.  I moved to producing artwork on the computer out of necessity for my sanity and the preservation of rain forests.  There had to be an easier way.

Photoshop and Illustrator's Layers feature combines sketches, light boxes, tracing paper, inking, and coloring all in nice little package.  With layers you can change colors instantly, move your drawings around to try different compositions, edit your line work all while saving the trees and your hair line.  Let's get started. 

Picking up from the last tutorial:  With the canvas open and set to the correct dimensions, it’s time to create and name layers.  Whether you’re working with scanned images or drawing directly on the canvas the basics of layers are the same. 

Think of layers as panes of glass, stacked one on top of the another.  The top layer in the layers palette is the top pane of glass.  You can see through each piece of glass except for where there is something on the glass.  This makes layering essential for illustrators because one layer may contain the line art, another layer underneath can be the colors, and the layer under the colors can be the background.  With art on each layer, it's far easier to manipulate certain aspects and characteristics of your illustration without having to change or redraw the entire piece.

Having just opened the canvas, there will be one layer in the layers palette.   Photoshop and Illustrator are both made by Adobe and are meant to complement one another. As such the icon for the layers palette is the same in both programs. 

The first order of business with either program is to create and name the layers.  Naming layers will help keep your art organized and easier to edit later.

If the Layers palette isn’t visible: navigate to the top menu structure and select WINDOW, in the fly out menu scroll down and select LAYERS (keyboard shortcut is F7).   

In Photoshop, when you create a canvas, the only layer in the palette is named Background, filled with white and is locked (as denoted by the little lock icon). 

To start working in Photoshop, you will need a new layer. The three main ways to accomplish creating a new layer are:

1. Press SHIFT + CTRL +N (win.) Shift + Command + N  (mac.)

2. From the top menu, click LAYER then in the fly out menu, scroll down and select NEW

3. In the Layers palette, click the “new layer” icon.

Creating a new layer by method 1 or 2 will produce Photoshop's New Layer dialog box where you can name the layer, as well as set some other options.

Name the layer “Line art” and click OK if you’re ready to draw.  If you’re starting with a blank canvas and intending to draw a sketch first, then “ink” that sketch, name the layer “Pencils” or “Sketch” and change the layer Opacity to 50%.  When you draw on this layer, changing the opacity will produce an effect similar to penciling on paper before inking.

You should now have two layers: Background and your newly created, named layer.  The new layer will be empty and therefore transparent. Photoshop denotes transparency by a checkered board.  In the following image, the Pencils layer is transparent and the Background layer is filled with white:

Because the Background layer is locked and can't be manipulated, I delete it and create my own background layer. While there are several ways to accomplish this, my preferred method is: select the Background layer in the Layers palette and press CTRL + J (win.) CMND + J (mac.)  Now the new layer is an unlocked, white, background layer.  You can delete the locked Background layer by selecting it in the Layers palette and pressing DELETE.

At this point, it's advisable to create a few more, transparent layers.  I set my layers so the top layer is the line art, the layer below is the shadows and highlights, the next layer is the base, flat colors, and the final layer is the background. Layers under layers will only show through where the upper layer is transparent.  

Of course, create other layers as needed. Leave the Background layer white to make it easier to see as you draw.  Then manipulate the Background layer as needed.


In Illustrator, creating a new canvas will produce one layer ready for use.  The layer will already be named Layer 1.

Double click the words Layer 1 in the Layers palette to rename the layer and dim the layer to 50% if you want the sketch layer. 

Create additional layers by clicking the New Layer Icon.

In Illustrator, layers work like they do in Photoshop.  The only difference is the way they are displayed in the Layers palette.  Each new layer in Illustrator is always transparent and therefore the layers don't use the checkerboard to display transparency.

With both Photoshop and Illustrator, the eyeball next to each layer indicates the layers visibility.  Click the eyeball to make the layer invisible on your canvas.

This is the tip of the iceberg for Layers.  There are many more ways to utilize layers, such as layer styles, grouping layers, masking layers, layer comps and so on.