Masking with Transparent Overlays

with 14 Comments

Masking with Transparent Overlays
by Jen White

Use the magic formula of 50% gray combined with a contrast blend mode to achieve a special masking technique.


The Problem:

I love to search for out-of-the-ordinary things to clip to masks. Recently I wanted to clip a transparent overlay to a fancy watercolor. I just wanted to utilize the shape and varied transparency of the watercolor, not the colors in it. So, I had to figure out how to make the watercolor disappear, yet still be able to clip to it.

The Solution:

The answer was found in the contrast blend modes.

The Contrast Blend Modes are Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, and Pin Light. All of the Contrast modes work by lightening the lightest pixels, darkening the darkest pixels, and dropping the gray mid-tones (50% gray).

That last part is the key. If you set a layer’s pixels to 50% gray and change the blend mode of that layer to Hard Light, for example, the layer appears to disappear… yet, it’s still there.

Let’s take a look at how that works in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.


Step One: Prepare Your Workspace

The download comes with a colorful watercolor overlay (which I’ll use as a mask), a word overlay, and a piece of paper. This tutorial, however, will work with any mask, any overlay, and any paper.

  • Open the paper (File > Open) from the download folder.
  • Open the watercolor from the download folder.
  • Get the Move tool.
  • Click and drag the watercolor onto the paper. Hold down the Shift key before you let go and the watercolor will land in the center of the paper.
  • In the Layers panel, rename the layer WATERCOLOR.

Note: As I mentioned above, this tutorial will work with any mask. I’m using the watercolor as a mask.


Step Two: Fill the Mask 

The WATERCOLOR layer should be the active layer.

  • In the Menu Bar, choose Edit > Fill.
  • In the dialog box, set the Contents to 50% Gray, the Blend Mode to Normal, and the Opacity 100%. Check Preserve Transparency. Click OK.

Even if your mask already looks gray, it’s important that it be exactly 50% gray.


Step Three: Change to a Contrast Blend Mode

The Contrast Blend Modes are Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, and Pin Light. When combined with a color of 50% gray, the pixels appear to disappear.

  • In the Layers panel, set the Blend Mode of WATERCOLOR layer to Hard Light.

Don’t panic! The watercolor should no longer be visible on the paper.


Step Four: Clip a Transparent Overlay to the Mask

The WATERCOLOR layer should still be the active layer and the Move tool should be the active tool.

  • Open the word-overlay from the download folder.
  • Click and drag the word-overlay onto the paper. Hold down the Shift key before you let go and the watercolor will land in the center of the paper.
  • In the Menu Bar, choose Layer > Create Clipping Mask.


Step Five: Try Other Contrast Blend Modes

Each of the six contrast blend modes will give a slightly different result, but they all do the job of making the 50% gray pixels in the mask invisible.

  • In the Layers panel, activate the WATERCOLOR layer.
  • Change the Blend Mode to one of the other five contrast modes to see the possible results.

Note: For best results, always have a paper or a colored layer below the mask you are using.

Here are a couple other combos I thought looked good:

This is a pattern-paint, overlay, and paper from Christmas Wishes by Kristin Cronin-Barrow.

I followed the same tutorial steps, but this time I set the blend mode of the mask to Overlay.


This is a mask, overlay, and paper by Susie Roberts.

I followed the same tutorial steps, but this time I set the blend mode of the mask to Soft Light.

Finally, here’s a scrapbook page I created using this technique.

Page: Outside by Jen White
Photos: Jen White
Kit: Per Diem by One Little Bird
Fonts: Mathlete, DJB ANNALISE 2011

After posting your results online,
return here and include the link in the comments.

Download PDF


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14 Responses

  1. Donna
    | Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Kathy
    | Reply

    Sometimes I make things so complicated to get the result I want. You just rock at simplifying and making things easy! Now if I can just remember to use this! Thanks!

  3. zita B
    | Reply


  4. Beverly Thiels
    | Reply

    I enjoyed practicing this technique. I also used the information on how to use the sponge too. The sponge tool (saturate) technique was applied on the pileated woodpeckers and it brought the color out. I used the same mask for the Masking with Transparency and the photo., just decreased the size of the photo layer. Neat stuff to learn!

    • Jen White
      | Reply

      Oh. I always enjoy seeing your woodpeckers, Beverly. Hooray for the Sponge tool bringing out their colors. I love how you used this tutorial on your page. Great fun! 😀

  5. Sharron Lamb
    | Reply

    Here’s another one from me. I really like this subtle, sophisticated technique. Made my own mask this time:

  6. Pejali
    | Reply

    This was exactly what I wanting to learn without knowing what it was I wanted.
    (Does that make any sense). Thanks so much

  7. C.J.
    | Reply

    Thanks for yet another inspiring tutorial, Jen!

  8. Terri
    | Reply

    Jen: thanks for the pointers. What a great idea!! I am glad that you mentioned trying the different blend modes. I tried the blend mode “difference” and you get a grey watercolor with the black letters turned transparent. Great fun!

  9. Debra R.
    | Reply

    So cool I always wondered how this was done..Thank You!

  10. GaGran
    | Reply

    great tutorial!!! miss y’all

  11. Sharron Lamb
    | Reply

    I just love learning “basic” Photoshop tricks I’ve never done before. The 50% gray is a new one to me, and I really enjoyed it. Thanks Jen!

  12. Barbara
    | Reply

    Such a fun idea thanks so much as it helps with a page I just didn’t have any ideas for.

  13. Lori
    | Reply

    What a great tutorial! Thank you!

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