The Power of Layers: An Introduction to Layers

When I was around seven years old, I first started using Photoshop. It was only on version 4 back then and I barely understood the program at all.
I played around with it in much the same way I had done in MS Paint before then; I certainly didn’t know about the existence of layers.

Being so very young, I quickly got bored with how limited it all felt to me. Then my older brother told me about something called ‘online tutorials’ – and a whole new world opened up to me.

It didn’t take long at all for a tutorial to first mention layers. My Photoshop experience would never be the same again after that.

These days most major art software features layers, so this article certainly doesn’t apply only to Photoshop!

So, what is a layer?

Well- it’s exactly as the name implies, really.

When you create a new document, Photoshop and most other art programs with layers give you a blank canvas. The document has a single layer at this point – depending on the settings you gave while creating the document, it’s either transparent, white, black, or a colour of your choice.

If you were to start drawing now, you’d be working directly on this layer. Unless your layer started off transparent, you’d now be working destructively: the lines you’re making are removing all of the colour that was there before.

However, if you first make a new layer, and then start drawing, everything that was already there will still be there. You can turn off the layer with the drawing, and see the same blank canvas again.

So instead of putting everything onto the same canvas, you’re putting new transparent sheets over that canvas and working on those. This allows you to always remove something you don’t like after all without having to get all fiddly with the eraser; it allows you to change the order of things without having to re-draw pieces, etc. The possibilities are quite endless, really. The below image shows an example of a file with layers. There are three layers in total: the background layer, which is simply white; the layer with the red scribbles on it, and the layer with the blue scribbles on it. Each layer can be turned off or rearranged as the artist wishes. Below that image is the same file with the three layers, but as you would see it in your art program. The blue scribbles are at the top, below that are the red scribbles – you can see the blue lines going over the red lines – and below that, the white background layer.

Example of layer usage
A file with a white background layer, a layer with red scribbles, and a layer with blue scribbles
Flattened layer image
The above example image, as seen normally.

Why NOT to use layers

I’m quite fond of layers, and use them quite extensively – some of my files have over 50 or more separate layers. However, I do recognise that there are cases where you’d want to work with as few layers as possible.

Artists who have come to the digital platform from traditional methods often prefer working in as few layers as possible. It’s simply how their creative process works best. They give up the advantage of layers in favour of the process they’ve worked with for years already – and that’s a perfectly valid reason to not use them. After all, why change a winning formula?

To artists used to working with layers already, it can be a very good challenge to work in only a single layer for a change. It forces you to think about what you do a bit more carefully. I do it myself every once in a while and I always find myself learning something and wanting to try out traditional methods again.

It can also be good if you want to go from digital to traditional methods. If you’ve always worked digitally, you’ve likely also always had an undo button available to you. If you’re planning to work traditionally for a while, you won’t have that button. You have to learn how to not make mistakes, or how to make mistakes and roll with them. Working without layers for a while can be a good transition.

About Rhynn

Rhynn picked up the pencil as soon as she was physically able to, and never put it down again. She currently focuses on pixel art, but is trying to brush up on her digital painting skills and general art skills at the same time. In her daily life, she's a canal boat skipper in Amsterdam.
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