This is from an article I wrote for The Artist magazine outlining some of my working methods.

I use layer masks in Photoshop and this is a simplified technique to get some of the benefits without the process becoming too complicated.

Using the computer

I use the computer not only to store my images but to manipulate my sketches and photographs to create variations on the theme I am working on. Any photo-editing programme will give you the option to saturate or change the hue of an image, which can be a useful starting point. However, it is with layers in Photoshop that the fun begins. Layers can be very complicated  but I use Photoshop layers purely to do what I  find useful and no more.

I use the working method described here with all my subject matter, except when I am working directly from the subject, such as when I'm sketching, working from a model or an observed still life. One note of caution: use filters and special effects in any computer programme with great care and judgement. Let the computer do some of the work but remember that the creative process is essentially your own.

How I use layers in Photoshop to develop my sketches

There are different versions of Photoshop; Photoshop Elements is reasonably priced, whereas the full suite is a more expensive option.  Help can usually be obtained from Photoshop Help or Googling any problem you encounter.

To start

  • I open the image I want to use in Photoshop.
  • I create a new file – click File, New – and usually select 29x21cm (A4), 112 pixels/cm, RGB colour mode, white background. Name it New File.
  • I create a duplicate of my original image and move it to the new file. To do this, click on the Move tool (or press V on your keypad for the shortcut), then click on the original image and, keeping your finger on the mouse, drag it to the new file and drop it in.
  • If necessary I make the images bigger or smaller (to fill the file size) by using the Marquee tool (shortcut M) to enclose the image and then the transform command – Edit or Image, Transform, Scale (shortcut Command T on a Mac; Control T on a PC). I hold down shift while pushing or pulling the corner of the image to the required size, which maintains the aspect ratio (relative proportion). I then press return to complete the transformation. In some Photoshop Elements versions you will have to select Constrain Proportions and then drag or push a corner handle. Both images should be similar in size on the screen. However, you can fine-tune the scale later.
  • Now working with the original file I use the Marquee tool to make a rectangle to enclose the area I want to drag over to New File. Using the Move tool (V) I take the enclosed area over and drop it in position on New File. I then transform it to the size required, pushing or pulling the corners while holding down shift; press return to complete the transformation and move it to where you want it (V).

N.B. At this point I have to make sure the layer palette is showing on my screen – Window, Layer – where I can see that the selection I have taken over to my new file shows up as a different layer. The layer I am working on will be highlighted.


What follows is the very simplest way of dealing with your layers

  • Select Eraser (E) and the brush size, then erase the bits you don’t want. Make sure you are working on the layer you want to erase! If you make a mistake go to Window, History (Show History), click on the bin icon and delete the last operation (Command Z, Mac; Control Z, PC).
  • If you want to move your layer, use the move tool, making sure you are working on the appropriate layer. You can make it bigger, smaller, (Edit/Transform or Image/Resize/Scale) or change the colour, intensity (Image/Enhance/Adjust), all without affecting any other layer. You can continue to add bits to your composition – each move from one file to another will create a separate layer.
  • When you have something you think might work you can save it if you want to keep the layers separate but then you should flatten (merge) the layers – Layer, Flatten Image – so that the file becomes unified.
  • Once I have something I think may have potential I save it and name it option 1, 2, 3 and so on.


You can also manipulate your photographs by taking parts of one over to the other. Decide which image will be your background and duplicate that one in the first instance. By creating the new file you maintain the integrity of the original. Then follow the same steps.


I continued this process for a textilehanging, trying various options


Here a layer has been added


The finished painting
















The Finished Hanging

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