Quick Mask Tutorial: Fate’s Arrow

Every artist I’ve seen has a different method, but more than that their process is constantly changing. Because of this, and other reasons, I debated the merits of creating a tutorial of my process. However if in any small way I can help other artists the way other generous tutorials have helped me, then how can I say no? Especially since the main trick I use I don’t see many others talking about. Quick Masks.

Quick mask teaser example
Read on to see how I use quick masks to create the figure in this piece. Fates Arrow.



I see a lot about of artists talking about clipping masks, and I once got asked what the red/pink stuff was that I was painting. So I’ll start off with a brief tutorial on how to do a quick mask, then show the process for fates arrow and how clipping masks proved to be oh so useful there.

Quick Masks 101

Open up a brand new document in Photoshop, (500 x 500 px). I’m using CS4, but any version should be fine.

A few things to keep in mind as we begin

quick mask 101
Starting screen with handy red arrows pointing to the key points
  • Brushes: You can use any brush you want really, however I suggest starting off with clean lines. (we can always adjust these later). I like to use a hard round brush. because I want to select a solid selection. If you wanted to select a patchy area you can use a more patchy brush that fits your needs.
  • Color: Revert the color options back to black and white. (it should do this later when you click the quick mask button, but I like to do this anyway). When you are setting the quick mask black will appear as red, and white will appear clear. Areas that are clear will become the active section, and the red you will be able to paint over without  it showing up. Once you set up the mask you’ll never have to worry about coloring outside the lines again!
  • Opacity: Check your opacity and flow settings and be sure they are set to 100%. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to adjust a quick mask and thought something was broken when nothing visibly changed when really I’d just forgotten to adjust the opacity and flow settings after some airbrushing touch ups. Save a headache, double check.
  • Folders: I apply my quick masks to folders rather than layers. This way I can create as many layers as I want for shading, texture and detail, all without worrying about it pouring over into areas I don’t want it to go. It’s a beautiful thing. Be sure to set up a folder now, you’ll need it soon.

Selecting your shape

For this exercise we will be creating whatever shape we want. That’s right, it’s a choose your own adventure tutorial. Go to town and have fun with it. Do something with your own style because that’s what will make it awesome. This tutorial is just about technical skills.

First things first, how to activate the quick mask mode. It’s the little icon right below the paint colors.

quick mask icon
This is the button you are looking for.

Once it’s active it has an indented look. (and if you try and paint solid black it looks translucent red, that’s always a good give away). Next step is to start painting. You’ll want the color choice to be black to start with.

quick mask tutorial

Handy short cut, push (X) to switch between the two colors. (keyboard shortcuts will save you seconds which can quickly turn into hours throughout the week. Learn as many as you can). using black take the paint bucket tool (G) and paint the entire canvas in the translucent red. If you don’t see a paint bucket, you may have the gradient tool selected. They share a slot and a keyboard shortcut. Give it a long click and it will reveal the hidden secrets (and paint bucket) to you. I use the paint bucket instead of a brush for this because it’s possible to miss a spot with the brush. Not fun to find that later.

quick mask step 1
Congratulations, you now have pink

Now switch colors (X) so you’re using white, and pick up the brush tool (B). Here’s the fun part, paint whatever you want. Just keep it simple for now, you can go crazy later.

quick mask in action
I drew a pretty sun, or maybe it’s a creature, or abstract mold… hard to say for sure.


Now that you have your quick mask just so, it’s time to give in a home. The next three steps will come in quick succession and attach this selected area to a folder. (you have a folder right?) good. Here we go then.

quick mask

  1. Click the quick mask button again and it’ll go into stealth mode. (as seen in the image above).
  2. Be sure in your layers you have the desired folder selected. (for now that’s the only folder).
  3. On the bottom of the layers panel you’ll see an icon that looks just like the quick mask icon we were using before (says ‘add layer mask’ if you hover over it). Click that and it’ll apply the quick mask the the selected folder (you can apply it to layers too, but it’s less fun).
  4. Now create a layer under the quick mask folder and paint in the color of your choice. Make it pretty.
quick mask complete
Oooh, pretty colors. And if you decide to change the color, it’s an easy switch.


‘ Well that’s all fine and dandy’ you many say, ‘but I just realized I made a huge mistake or want to tweak something other than the color. Do I have to start all over again?’

Never fear, Rachel is here! Edits are easy, even if you want to change the shape of your selection. I’ll show you how it goes.

editing quick mask tutorial

Simply click on the small image next to the folder. Do not click on the folder icon. Remember all the settings I had you check earlier? they all apply here, only difference is no more red/pink stuff. White will add, while black subtracts Simply paint on your image to add or subtract as desired.

edited quick mask
I decided to add a little and flesh it out… still not sure what it is though.

Now you should know everything you need to do really cool things with quick masks. You can add in layers of texture under the folder, shading, detail, anything. And the lines will stay crisp.

Fates Arrow

In the piece Fates Arrow I used 12 quick mask folders (with some sub folders as well). Below is a brief step by step of my process. I didn’t talk much about the background as I was focusing on the quick mask application. Please forgive me.

quick mask example walkthrough


Now you go create epic art. If you remember, come back and tell me all about it. It’s lonely here alone on the internetz.

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