What are layers?
If you have spent any time in a desktop or mobile digital imaging application, you will be familiar with the concept of layers and how important they can be. Layers allow you to separate an image into different levels that can be organized, composited, and combined in different ways.
When creating artwork from scratch it can be difficult to gauge the best way to use layers, particularly when some of the iPhone and iPad apps limit you to only a couple of layers per image. So here are a few tips for better layer management.
Kyle Lambert is a digital artist based in the UK.
Separate your painting by depth
Regardless of what image you are creating, it is likely that you will be able to group objects together that are similar distances away from the viewer. A simple example of this is to separate a painting into two layers—one layer for the background and a second layer for a person. In a more complex composition you may have a sky on a background layer, buildings on a second layer, and a person in the foreground in a third layer.
In both of these situations, the purpose of distributing parts of the image onto layers is to allow for changes that wonʼt affect the entire image. So in this example, if you decide to erase part of the butterfly, the sky remains untouched as it is painted on a different layer beneath.
Create only the layers you really need
The benefits of layers are clear, but that doesnʼt mean that every single eyelash and freckle of a portrait needs to have its own layer. When you use too many layers it can be difficult to remember the content of each layer, especially since many iPad apps don't let you label layers. It can also be difficult to remember which layer you are actually working on and time consuming to constantly switch between them. My advice is to use as fewer layers as possible.
Think about your process
When creating certain types of artwork, you may consider using layers to assist your artistic process. A great example of this is in comic book artwork where you could use a layer for a pencil sketch, a second layer for inking outlines, and a third layer to color in the artwork.
If you are painting in an app such as ArtRage, where paint is likely to blend together, layers can be a good way to prevent certain areas of your work blending from into others.
Transforming and duplicating layers
Most apps allow you to move, rotate, and resize layers, which gives you the ability to explore the composition of elements in your image. So If you were creating a blue sky, you could choose to create a cloud on a separate layer. This would let you reposition, resize, and rotate it or duplicate multiple clouds and position them in the sky.
Experiment on a blank layer
Often, as you approach the end of a piece of artwork, you can become anxious about adding finishing touches or worry about going too far. If this happens, I recommend making final changes on a blank layer. This way, if you happen to make a mistake, the solution is to simply delete the layer or erase the parts that don't quite work.
To avoid complication, it often makes sense to merge layers together when parts of the image no longer need to be separate. For example, if you have created a character using a couple of layers for different parts, you could simplify the art by merging these layers together. This will help tidy up the painting and free up space for more layers.
In some of the iPad art apps such as SketchBook Pro, you have the ability to export the final artwork as a .PSD (Photoshop Document) containing the original layers created in the app. This is particularly useful if you want to continue working on the artwork using your desktop application.