Improve Your Illustrator Workflow with Layer Masking

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You may or may or may not know/use this Illustrator feature, but Layer Masking is a very under-used feature of the Adobe Illustrator series of software. I'm not talking about making a clipping mask. This is entirely different altogether. By making a “layer mask,” you can save precious time by not having to release and reapply clipping masks, and even better – there's a toggle button in the Layers Palette! Tutorial below.

Save time in Illustrator with Layer Masking
Like I said before, this is a very under-used feature, so it's been around for a while. I know for a fact that Layer masking is available in CS1+ but anything earlier, I'm not sure. (hopefully, you all can help us out with that in the comments)


Workflow: refers to the steps and processes that take place from start to end of the project in Illustrator.

By creating a path on the very top-most sublayer of each Layer, you can use that path as a mask by toggling the Mask Button in the Layers Pallete. If you hit the masking button without having your desired path on the top, Illustrator will automatically use whatever path is in the top-most sub-layer (or shape layer). So it's very important to make sure the shape you wish to use as a mask is on top of everything else in that layer. Using Layer Masks will save you time by avoiding tedious un-grouping, grouping, releasing, and applying clipping masks with the ease of a simple toggle button. Attention the hierarchy of your layers and sub/shape layers is essential in order to get the most out of this feature, but once you get the hang of it, it should definitely speed up your workflow! You can create a unique layer mask for each and every layer in your Illustrator document. You may practice applying layer masks to the different types of drawings so that you can understand the importance of this under-rated feature. Many people are unaware of this feature and it can ease work for the beginners who find difficulty in going through long steps. Alternative tools are available for all the difficult and time-consuming process in Adobe Photoshop.

Toggle: switch from one layer to another layer, switch from one feature to the other.

Let's dive right in:

First, open Illustrator, make a new file, then create a bunch of random shapes on the artboard. It takes only three short and handy steps to apply a layer mask. You may fill the specified geometrical shape with some sort of texture to apply it to particular dimensions.

Bunch of random shapes

Create a shape to use as your mask

I often find that a layer mask that matches my artboard can come in really handy. So I'll be using that as an example. My artboard, in this case, is 468 X 350 pixels. To create a mask you can use a variety of tools (any tool that creates a path). In my case, I'll be using the Rectangle tool. You may create the shape of any sort and size to fill the layer palette. In order to easily make a rectangle at the exact size of your artboard, simply click once on the artboard without dragging. You will then be able to type in the exact dimensions. Click OK and you will have your rectangle path. (fill and stroke don't matter)

Creating rectangle

Align your mask to the artboard

Now that you have your rectangle, you probably want to align it perfectly to the artboard. You can do this easily with the Align palette. (Window > Align) With your shape selected, align it horizontally and vertically to the artboard by clicking on these two buttons in the Align palette: (make sure that “Align to Artboard” is enabled).

Aligning the shape

Your shape should now look something like this:

Current state of the shape

Apply Your Mask

If you haven't already, make sure your path is the top-most path in your layer. [edit: Select the LAYER, not the path,] then click on the Mask toggle button in your Layers palette.

Applying a mask


With a single click in the Layers palette, you can now toggle the visibility of everything in that layer! You just have to make sure that your desired masking path REMAINS ON TOP or “FRONT” of that layer.

End result


Now that you've mastered the art of layer masking, use it to your advantage. You can freely move and modify all of your shapes in the layer without releasing the layer mask! This not only saves a lot of time but gives you a better visualization of what a finished and/or “cropped” file will look like but with much more workflow freedom than applying individual clipping masks to groups of shapes. You can always toggle the layer mask off with a single click if you need to see everything. Adobe Illustrator is the refined version of all the editing software and it has been equipped with most advanced tools and techniques to make the things happen in real time. It is a really interesting feature and you should try it in your projects. It is an amazing technique to get the best out of the illustrator layers and prioritize one layer over the other. This technique has been designed keeping in view the real-world painting process. Many people struggle with the layers and they do not know how to deal with the layers in a project. There are new techniques devised by the software developers to simplify and automate all the processes in the illustrator software. Layer masking is a useful technique when you are looking to add images to another image and then blend it properly. It is a quick and simple process that does not require you to use a lot of different tools. Practice makes the man perfect so you should try out this technique in different scenarios and practice this craft to a great extent. Layer masks can be used in the post-production work to refine different colors all across the picture. This technique is a solution for those who are struggling to apply the layer and adjust the two layers one over the other.

Quick Tip: I like to “lock” my layer mask in the layers palette so I can't ever select or move it's position.

Locked layer mask

The layer mask can be used to modify the overall appearance of geometric shapes over the defined area. It is a lot easier and convenient to do than the conventional way of clipping and modifying the portion of different geometric shapes separately. Applying a layer mask means that you are creating a layer of defined shape, color, and dimensions. Then you are spreading that layer over the defined area in the art box. That gives you the freedom to do things differently and collectively. The layer masking helps you to ensure that all the colors and other features get spread over a particular area uniformly and precisely. The technique of layer masking can be used to draw landscapes and other calligraphic pictures in a suitable way. You can mask or overlap multiple layers to achieve your desired results. You should practice this technique with different poster images and brochures so that you may get amazed by the results. The application of modern software in the world of designing has simplified a lot of complicated tasks.