Technique: Complicated Masks

Digital collage (c) 2013 Liz RuestAs I layer digital images, I’m trying to emulate physical effects. I love how paint or encaustic wax looks when it’s partially adhered, scraped off, covered again… But, even with images of great texture, how can I do that just with pixels? Here, I’ve started a collage of some of the usual suspects: some texture details, a family picture, and a softened background to set off the tree as focal point. Now it’s ready for a finishing layer.

Normally, I would add a new textured image and alter how much of it shows — maybe make it more transparent, or use a built-in blending pattern to darken or lighten the image selectively. I can also use a masking feature, to decide which parts of the layer show through. Simple masks are a plain black and white image, often adjusted with some hand painting. For example, here’s an overlaid texture, softened to 50% transparency, and using a simple mask of the trees so that only the background shows through. masking-simple

While I’ve used this type of mask to good effect in previous work, I find myself wanting more complexity, to emulate more of an aging effect, more detail and control.  What if I simulated a physical, but selective layer, as if I’d brayered some ink right onto the image? The aha moment: a more textured, complicated mask —from my own texture pieces— desaturating to get the shades of gray that a layer mask requires!

masking-overlay masking-choice masking-b&w

My top layer, left, is a scan of some printmaking experiments. On its own, it’s fairly intense and saturated. To soften it down, I chose a soft coral texture built from 9 layers, of flower images, rust, and various fabric textures. When it’s converted to black and white, it retains its complexity.


Now, what happens when I mask the forceful ochre of the printing with the soft textures of that soft coral? The darker the mask, the less of the ochre that will show through.

You can see that the blue background and details show through most where the layer mask is darkest. But there are enough light areas that allow the ochre texture to float over top of the images. Perhaps it’s not all that different than the simple mask, above, but the trees are now covered with a bit of color, warming up the composition.

Finally! A subtle, interesting overlay that talks to me of aging, mist, time passing. I’m happy with the effect, and had a bunch of fun getting the result. But: all that work to get an ochre glaze… I do seem to complicate my world unnecessarily at time. Does all this digital layering sound like more work than picking up a paintbrush?

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Laurie Thompson says:

    More complicated than a paintbrush? Definitely. I didn’t even understand half of what you just there. But a paintbrush doesn’t have an undo button. ;)

  2. Big Brother says:

    Did you listen to the John Hodgeson interview on WTF? I think you are talking about the notion of unique moment of creating the art. There’s a better phrase for that but I liked that one and I’m not huge John Hodgeson fan.

  3. Liz Ruest says:

    Yes, I do love the undo button, Laurie! And the permanence of hands-on art has gotten scarier the more I lean on that button.

    Just started that WTF segment — I’ll keep an ear out. Thanks!

  4. Gandalfe says:

    Dunno, but I often and achingly think of the many happy hours I had with charcoal and oils in college. Will the paint brush go the way of books made from paper?

  5. Liz Ruest says:

    I’d hate to have hands-on painting or drawing or the like go away — it’s too much fun.

    Sometimes, the computer IS just easier: typesetting, anyone?

    How about: if it optimizes creative flow, it’s valid.

  6. Pingback: Hemmed | Liz Ruest

Chime in!