The Ultimate Guide to Using Layers in Procreate

One of my favorite things about Procreate is the ability to use layers to create artwork.

The ability to change things on different layers is an important part of my creative process and I believe it has helped me to be much more successful in creating art over the last year than I have ever been before.

Ultimate guide to using layers in Procreate. Shows an iPad Pro with a rainbow picture in Procreate.

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But when I started using the Procreate app as a new digital artist I had no idea what a layer was.

What is a Layer?  

Using layers in Procreate is sort of like creating parts of your artwork on multiple transparent pieces of paper that together create a final piece of art.

I think an easy way to understand layers is to think of how you might use tracing paper. You have an original layer that you place a new layer on top of to trace. You can see the original layer through your tracing paper layer.

In Procreate when using layers it’s sort of like that except all of the layers you use are like tracing paper.

While creating art, you build layers on top of each other, keeping them separate until you’re ready to combine them. 

You can see all of your layers simultaneously, whether you are working on the topmost layer or one in the middle.

How Do You Use Layers?

When you’re in a new document your layers menu is one of the menus on the top of the screen. The layers icon looks like two squares stacked on top of each other. It’s between the color tool and the eraser tool. 

Layers panel in Procreate

When you first open your layers panel, you’ll see Layer 1 and Background color. 

Background color is separate from other layers. You can’t do anything with this one other than change the color of the background. This is actually pretty great because you would not want to accidentally draw on your background layer because it would make it very difficult to change in the future. 

While in the layer panel, when you want to add a new layer you’ll select the plus icon. You’ll see a new column on your layers panel. This is a new layer. 

Your active layer will always be blue. The active layer is the layer you are currently able to write or draw on.

You will always have at least one layer and the background color. You can’t have less than this. But you can add new layers up to the limit of your machine and canvas. 

In this video, I’ll show you how to use many of the functions of layers in a simple project:

You can draw and color on different layers and there are also several other layer options you can use when creating artwork.

What Are the Benefits of Using Layers? 

Layers give you a lot of flexibility when creating your art. If I were to summarize the benefits of using layers, I’d list them as:

  • Organize Your Artwork – layers allow you to organize different pieces of your artwork. Layers can be named, moved, copy and pasted, duplicated, and so much more
  • Refine Your Artwork – Using layers helps you to shape your artwork over time. For example, you can start with a sketch layer and then trace over that on a new layer to improve the drawing.
  • Test New Things – You can use new layers to test out different colors or different ways of drawing your art.
  • Create Different Versions – By using layers, you can create different versions of an art piece. For example, by using layers it’s easy to create the same art with different color palettes and then choose your favorite.

Some other things I enjoy about using layers:

You can choose to stack your layers in different ways, which would change the layout of your artwork by changing what is in front and what is behind.

For example, if you’re coloring a project, you could choose to have your lines on top and the color on the bottom. You would just arrange the layers so that the lines are on top. 

If you want to work on just one layer, you can turn off other layers. In other words, once you are done tracing your sketch on your tracing paper, you can remove your sketch by turning it off. You can also easily delete a layer you no longer need. 

Just like working with multiple sheets of tracing paper, you’ll find that what you do on one layer does not affect another layer. This is huge!

This means you can try out different things without having to worry about messing up your original layer. 

You can also draw different parts of a drawing on different layers, allowing you to erase areas on one layer without worrying about also erasing the lines that are already there.  This is one of my favorite things. I can refine a drawing on a different layer and then erase the one that I don’t like. 

Organizing Your Artwork

When Should You Create a New Layer?

Is there a rule for when you should create a new layer? 

Not really. 

It’s up to you. 

Some people do their whole project on one layer like they are using one piece of paper. This is like creating traditional art. That’s fine to do!

I personally create additional layers whenever I think I might want to change something about the layer in the future. If you’re trying something new or drawing a new part of an object, creating a new layer gives you the option to play around with it without affecting the work you’ve already done. 

I try to create new layers all the time. Since my iPad has a lot of RAM, I can typically create a lot of layers. 

If you don’t have a lot of RAM, you may need to be more conservative when creating new layers since you don’t have as many. 

How Many Layers Can You Have? 

Your canvas size will impact the amount of layers you can have. The larger your canvas and the higher the resolution, the less layers you can have. 

The next thing to consider is which iPad you have. iPads with higher RAM are able to have more layers. 

If you’re in a canvas, you can check the amount of layers you can use by selecting the wrench icon toward the top left of your screen, then select canvas, and then canvas information.

On this screen, select layers. There you can see your maximum layers along with other information about your layers such as how many you’ve already used. 

The maximum layers is the layer limit of the canvas you are using. 

How to Name Your Layers

Naming your layers will help you stay organized. Although you can see the layer contents on your layer panel, it’s quite small so not always easy to tell what is on each individual layer. And of course the higher your layer count, the more you’ll want to make sure you organize them!

To name a layer, open your layer panel and tap on the current name of the layer. Usually this will be something like “Layer 1.” 

A menu will pop out. Select “Rename” and then type in what you want to name your layer. 

How to Move Layers on a Canvas

Once you create a new layer, you may find that you wish that layer was actually underneath the layer you were just working on.

For instance, if you want your lines on top of your colors, you’d want your color layer to be underneath your lines.

Within your project you can move layers easily. The way to do this is to open your layers panel, tap and hold the layer you wish to move and then drag it with your finger. 

This will move the entire layer including all the contents on that layer. 

How To Move Layers Between Canvases

I mentioned above that you can move items on a layer together. You can also move layers to new projects!

Select your layer (or multiple layers) then, hold down the layer and drag it off the layer panel. Keep your finger on it, go back to your gallery, and then open your new canvas or the canvas that you want to move the layers to. Drop the layers onto this new canvas! 

How to Turn Off or Hide a Layer

Sometimes you want to stop seeing a layer temporarily. You can hide it.

To turn off a layer, all you have to do is go into your layer panel and uncheck the box on that layer.

If you want to turn off all of your layers except for one, you can select the checkbox on the layer you want turned on and hold it there until all of the other layers turn off. To turn them back on, just do the same thing. 

I tend to turn on and off layers by checking the individual boxes. 

How to Delete a Layer in Procreate

If you no longer want a layer, you can delete it. 

Open your layers panel and swipe the layer to the left. 

Select the red delete button.

How to Duplicate a Layer in Procreate

Similarly, you can duplicate a layer when swiping left. 

This will make an exact replica of your current layer. This saves time when you have to draw several of the same object in a project. 

Instead of drawing two flowers, you can duplicate the first one and then simply change the size or direction the flower is facing. 

One thing I like to use the duplicate function for is to keep a copy of a layer when I’m making changes to it in case I want to change it back.

To do this, you create a duplicate layer and then turn off one of your layers and possibly even lock it so that you can’t mess it up.

How To Copy and Paste a Layer

You can copy a layer by choosing the layer and then selecting copy in the layer menu. You can then open the layer you want to move things to and do a 3 finger swipe down and select paste. 

Even more useful though is that you can copy and paste a part of a layer onto a new layer. 

This is really useful if you forget to make a new layer and then create something. 

Or if you’re doing a composition and just want to move one section of your piece. 

For this, you’re going to go on the layer where that item is and then select the little ribbon looking menu (looks like an S). This is your selection menu. 

On the bottom of your screen you’ll select freehand. 

Draw around the item you want to move to a new layer, making sure you include the whole item without including anything surrounding the item. 

Then do a three finger swipe down and select copy and paste.

This puts that item on its own layer. You can now move and change that item separately from everything else. 

How to Lock a Layer

When you’re working with layers sometimes you’ll find that you end up drawing on the wrong layer. 

That’s the worst! 

For instance, in my post on coloring on a coloring page in Procreate, I taught you how to use layers to make sure that you color under the lines instead of on top of the lines. There have been many times when I have created my layers and then proceeded to color on the coloring page anyway. 

The only way to fix that is to double tap to undo and start over. 

But there’s a way to make sure that you don’t write on the wrong layer, and that is by locking the layer. 

Open your layers panel and swipe the layer you want to lock and swipe that layer to the left. Select lock. Now you can’t write on the layer. If you try, you’ll get a popup.

You can later unlock the layer by swiping the layer to the left and selecting unlock.

How to Combine Layers

Sometimes you create a bunch of layers and then no longer need the layers to be separate. You can easily merge the layers. There are several ways to do this. 

If the layers you want to merge are on top of each other, you can simply pinch them together. 

You can also select the top layer, click on the title with your Apple Pencil, and then select merge down, which will merge the layer into the layer beneath it, creating a single layer. 

How to Move Layers at the Same Time

But what if you create different layers and then want to move the object? 

No worries, you can easily select all of the layers and move them together. 

Select the first layer. The selected layer will turn blue. 

Then, for each other layer you want to move at the same time, swipe to the right. It will also turn blue, but a little different color. 

Once all of the layers you selected are blue, you can select the arrow icon at the top of your screen and then move the whole item around. 

How to Group Your Layers in Procreate

You can also group your layers so that they stay separate but together. That way you can select the group with one click instead of selecting each thing individually. This is also a great way to organize your layers so they don’t get too out of control.

You will select the layers similar to how I described this in how to move your layers, but instead of. moving them, you’ll select group. 

They will collapse under the heading group. You can then rename the layer similar to how you can rename layers. 

You can also move a group around by selecting the group and then selecting the little arrow icon at the top of your screen to move them.

If you just want to combine the layer you are on with the one underneath it (and want to keep them separate), you can select the layer and select “Combine Down” on the layer menu. This will create a group of that layer and the one beneath it. 

Refining Your Artwork With Layers

How to Create a Sketch Layer

When first creating a drawing, you may wish to create a sketch that you refine over time. 

With Procreate you can create that sketch on a layer and then lower the layer opacity to make the lines very light so that you can ink the layer on top of the sketch without being distracted by your sketch. 

If you prefer to do your initial sketch on paper, you can do that as well by taking a picture or scan of you sketch, saving it to your computer as an image file, then adding the photo to a layer on Procreate. 

You can add a photo within your artwork by selecting the wrench tool, then selecting add, and add a photo if it is on your camera roll or select a file if it is in your iCloud drive. 

Once your sketch layer is in Procreate, you can increase the layer’s transparency and create a new layer on top of it to ink on. 

How To Lower The Opacity of a Layer So You Can Trace

When you lower the opacity of a layer, you’re making it more see through or light. You are making it more transparent.

This is helpful when you’re refining a drawing using an initial sketch. You can make the sketch layer super light and then draw on top of it. That way you know which of your lines are part of the inking layer and which of your lines are part of the sketch later. 

There are two ways you can change layer opacity. The first way is to select the layer, then click on the little “N” on the layer. You’ll see that there is a slider at the top of the new menu that pops up. You can slide that slider to the left to lower the opacity. 

Another way is to open your layers menu, and then do a two-finger tap on the layer. You will then see a slider show up at the top of your screen. You can drag your pencil to the left or right on your screen then to change the opacity of the layer. 

How to Erase Everything on a Layer

Sometimes I find that when refining my artwork I make several different versions over time.

I then only need to keep the version I like best so I erase the other layers I created.

To erase a layer, you can open your layer panel, tap on the layer name and then select clear. This is similar to deleting a layer but sometimes this is just easier. 

How to Easily Change The Color of Everything on a Layer

I recommend when coloring that you make a new layer for every color so that you can easily change the colors of your layer.

To change the color of everything on your layer, select your layer and turn on alpha lock. 

There are a couple of ways you can turn on alpha lock. First, you can tap on the layer title to bring up the layer options and then select alpha lock. You will know it’s on alpha lock if you see a checkerboard on your layer display.

A pro tip for saving time when turning on alpha lock is to swipe to the right on your layer using two fingers. This will put the layer into alpha lock as well.

So, what is alpha lock?

Alpha lock makes it so that you can only make changes to the pixels that are created on that layer, not outside of the area. So if you wrote a letter, you’d only be able to change the color of the letter, not add things outside of that letter.

If you want to quickly change the color of everything on your layer, select the color in your color palette and then on the alpha locked layer, tap the title and select “fill layer.”

You can do something similar by choosing “select” in the layer menu. This will select the pixels on your layer and then if you select color fill it will change all of pixels on tha layer to the new color. 

When a layer is alpha locked, you can also use your Apple Pencil to color your layer by just drawing on it. This allows you to change to multiple colors or textures. I love using this with lettering. I alpha lock my lettering and then color each letter a different color.

What is a Clipping Mask?

Another item on your layer menu that helps you to change colors is “clipping mask.” 

This is similar to alpha lock; however, there are a few big differences. 

When you use alpha lock and color over a layer, you are changing the layer. You are actually putting your colors on that layer. 

When you use clipping mask you’re keeping the colors on a separate layer. You’re changing the colors in a non-destructive way.  

To use a clipping mask, you create a new layer and put the colors (or a pattern) on the layer above the layer you want to change. Then on color layer you select clipping mask and you’ll see that your colors affect the pixels from the layer below it. You can’t color outside of those pixels (just like alpha lock). 

You can turn clipping masks on and off and you can also create multiple clipping masks to create several versions of an artwork or to decide on what you like the best. 

The huge advantage to using clipping mask instead of alpha lock is that it’s non-destructive.

Let’s say you colored some letters and you like the way it looks but you want to try something different. With clipping mask you can just uncheck the box on your layer and create a new clipping mask layer to try something new.

The disadvantage to alpha lock is that once you change things the layer is changed and you can only go back by undoing or by first duplicating the layer (and turning one off). Changing the color on the alpha locked layer actually changed that layer. 

With clipping mask you did not change the original layer at all. 

Another great thing about using a clipping mask is that you can move the clipped layer to adjust the way it looks on your design. 

While you can use own colors and designs for a clipping mask, you can instead clip a pattern or picture to a layer. This is how people create lettering with a metallic look or drawings made out of animal prints. 

What is a Mask?

To make things somewhat confusing, there are masks in addition to clipping masks. They are used in different ways. 

A layer mask is used when you want to remove part of a picture without losing what you’re removing. It’s like erasing something without actually erasing it. 

People say the way to remember how this works is “black conceals and white reveals.” Since it sounds the same to me even if I mix up the words, think of it like this: if you put something in shadows, it hides, if you bring it into the light, you can see it. 

So let’s say you are making a bouquet of flowers and you drew two flowers. You want one flower to look like it’s in front of the other flower. You’ll have to erase part of the back flower so that you can’t see it. 

If you erase, you are changing it for good.

If you use a mask, you are making part of the flower invisible, but can bring it back at any time. 

Select the layer and then tap on the title to bring up the layer menu. Select mask. 

You’ll see another layer popped up. 

On the new layer, you can only select black white and grey. Selecting grey will lower the opacity of something, making it more see through. 

In this example though, you’ll want to select black. Then color over the area you want to “erase” using black. As you can see, the item disappears. 

If you erase too much, you can bring it back by selecting white and then coloring over the area you want to bring back. 

This is so much more precise than using erase and undo. 

It also leaves an opportunity for you to change your mind and bring the whole flower back. 

What is Reference Layer? 

Another item on the layer menu is reference. When you select “reference” on a layer, that means that other layers will reference that layer. 

A great example of this is when you have your line drawing and you want to color your line drawing using color drop but you want your colors to be on their own layers. I taught this technique in my post on coloring on an adult coloring page. 

For this you would select your line drawing and then select reference in the layer menu. Then, go to your new layer where you want to drop your colors. 

When you drop the colors, your new layer will act as if lines are on that layer because it is using your lines layer as a reference. 

What is Invert?

You also have an item in your layers menu called Invert. Invert simply takes the colors on the layer and changes them to their opposite complementary color. To change this back, just select invert again. 

Animate With Layers

Do you remember those little booklets that would have a little drawing on the corner that you could flip through real fast to see an animation? 

Procreate layers can also act like this. They are used for creating animation. 

Although I will not go into animation in this post, I’ll just point out that basically you put each of the little corner drawings on it’s own layer. Then when you use animation assist it will scroll through those and show your animation. 

Drawing Assist

Another powerful tool that uses layers is drawing assist. 

With drawing assist the Procreate app does exactly that. It assists you in making a drawing. To get to this, you’ll want to be in a canvas and then you will select the wrench icon. Then select drawing guide and edit drawing guide. 

There are several options to choose from. There is 2D Grid, Isometric, Perspective and Symmetry. Each of these guides place a grid of sorts on your canvas. You can use the guide as is, or you can turn on drawing assist on a layer, which makes your drawing behave in a certain way.

For instance, with the 2D drawing guide you will only be able to draw a straight line that’s horizontal or vertical. 

With symmetry you will create a mirror effect where what you draw on one side will be drawn on the other as well. 

If you have drawing guide on and want to turn off assisted drawing, just click on your layer title to bring up the layer options and then turn off drawing assist. 

You can also add drawing assist to a new layer by creating a new layer and then opening up the layer options and selecting drawing assist. If it has a checkmark and then says assisted near your title, then you know you have drawing guide on. 

Color Blend Modes

Another cool thing you can do on a layer that will change the colors of your items is to use a color blend mode. 

To get to the blending modes, you want to go into your layer panel and select the color layer. Tap on the little N. You’ll see there are a bunch of items that come up  in a menu. These are color blending modes. 

I love to scroll through these to see how the colors of my layer changes with each blending mode,  especially if I’m using texture on a layer. 

Other Things You Can Do With Layers

As you can tell from this giant post, you can do a lot of things with layers.

Some other things that come to mind that you can use layers for are:

  • You can export layers individually or as a whole 
  • You will use layers to export things with a transparent background (digital stickers!). 
  • Use layers to create shadows and highlights.

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