Shaping Up: Five Useful Observations for Understanding Photoshop Shape Layers

My Secret dekeOderings, of late, I’ve been trying to unlock the minor mysteries of Photoshop shape layers. Mostly, because if I don’t pay strict attention, they don’t always work the way I sort of absent-mindedly expect them to. And any passive knowledge I might have once had about using shape layers got disrupted by some recent changes to how they work.

So, after watching some dekeVideos, reading through some of our One-on-One books, and perusing the internet for advice from trusted friends, I have arrived at the following helpful (to me) observations.

1) Those once-inscrutable options bar icons for using a shape tool have now been replaced by equally inscrutable words (which you could have found in the tooltips pre-CS6). Either way, there are three options for what happens when you use a shape tool.

Whether you’re used to the pre-CS6 era icons (square with smaller squares, square with pen, square) or the new drop-down menu offerings (Shape, Path, Pixels), the bottom line is that there are three options for whatever’s going to happen when you use a shape tool (or draw a shape with the pen tool).

A shape layer is created when you do the first option—that is, use a shape tool (rectangle, ellipse, polygon…) or the pen tool to create, well, a shape. Like, oh, a martini glass. You scoff. You wonder about my sobriety. But in truth, the classic universal martini shape is a great mixture of curves, perpendicular lines, angled lines, and of course, an olive drawn with the ellipse tool.

I’ve decided, arbitrarily, and without the benefit of real martinis (it’s too early) or Deke (off camping at Sasquatch with his man-friends) that for me, it’s easiest to think about a shape in Photoshopland as being a combination of a vector (a mathematical expression of a line or curve) and the pixels that decorate that line in the form of strokes and fills.

The other two options you can create with a shape tool are paths (which is just the vector with no decoration, thus they live only in the Paths panel) or pixels (which are just the decoration, plopped down one time, then abandoned by the line that gave the initial instruction).

Read on for more of my sober, if whimsical and ingenue-esque, observations. (If you’re not a member of dekeOnline, you can become one here for free then continue reading.)

2) The contents of a shape layer now take up the entire thumbnail in the Layers panel.

It used to be that the layer thumbnails showed their content contextually with regard to the entire document. So if you had a tiny little olive floating in your graphic, you’d only see a minuscule green circle floating in a vast transparency checkerboard in the Layers panel.

Now, as you can see below, in CS6+ the layer thumbnails represent their shapes as large as possible, ignoring any relationship to their relative size within the entire document.

3) Shape layers were once represented in the Layers panel by a color fill icon coupled with a vector mask. Now you see one composite icon, which allows for some interesting flexibility, but the underlying concept still holds.

Shape layers, as you’ve probably noticed, now have that big, representative thumbnail of the shape and a tiny little shape icon in the corner. So if I look at my olive layer, that square-thingy in the lower-right corner tells me it’s an editable vector-based shape by and not just an undynamic plop of green pixels.

And that editable “vector mask” can still be dragged to a different layer, it’s just not represented as a mask anymore. So if I were to jam a dark blue fill layer between my olive and glass shapes…

...and then command-drag (Ctrl-drag) from the glass layer onto the fill layer, the “shape path” (as Photoshop now calls it) would mask the blue fill and that fill layer would now be a shape layer filled with a dark blue martini. Yup, you can mix and match your shape paths at will. Meanwhile, the light blue layer’s true nature is revealed, it’s a fill layer after all: 

In fact, if you long for the days of vector masks representing shapes, Command-drag (Ctrl-drag) from a shape layer on to a rasterized layer (like a photo) and the shape path will become a vector mask applied to that layer replete with old-school vector mask icon.

One of the things this compact layer presentation allows is the application of a true stroke to your Shape Layer: meaning you can even surround an editable vector shape with a dashed stroke that will follow it wherever it goes. (More on that tomorrow, when I steal a technique from Deke to demonstrate. Hey, he’s off listening to music with his unwashed brethren.)

4) You can now combine shape layers without abandoning them as vectors.

Used to be, when you wanted to merge two shapes onto the same layer, you had to rasterize them in the process, thus losing all that delicious, refreshing editability.

In CS6+, you can select two shape layers, and—in the Layers panel flyout menu—choose the new Merge Shapes command, which also can be evoked with Command-E (Ctrl-E). It’s worth noting the combined shape layer takes its fill instructions from the one on top. Thus I now have an appletini. But fret not, my olive is still there, and selectable and editable all on its own, independent of the glass.

6) With both shapes on the same layer, you can make them interact with one another.

For instance, I could create a real universal cocktail symbol by subtracting the olive from the glass. I just have to select the olive (with either the black or the white arrow tool) and choose Subtract Front Shape from the Path Operations menu (shown below) and voila, a shape fit for any roadside sign meant to lead you to the next bar.

Amateur tip here: This menu is sticky for any given layer. So if you have a shape layer combination that’s not working the way you think, investigate here to make sure you’re getting the behavior (combine, subtract, intersect, exclude) that you desire.

Bonus) Once you get a shape you like, you can save it as a custom shape, which can then be accessed from the Custom Shape menu any time you need a drink.

Can you believe Photoshop comes with a built-in custom shape in the form of a snail but doesn’t have a cocktail symbol?

You can correct this and other unjust omissions in this menu by selecting your new shape and choosing Edit > Define Custom Shape. Give it a name and press OK. Then voila, your new shape is appended to the popup menu that you can access by choosing the blobby custom shape tool from the toolbox.

Now whenever I choose that amoeba-shaped Custom Shape tool from the toolbox (it lives under the other respectable standard shape icons), I can choose to set my shape as “martini.” Handy for making some festive patterns for Deke’s next birthday card.

If you’d like to learn more about shape layers and stuff you can do to them, come by tomorrow for a dekeInspired tutorial that leverages the new features of shape layers. Also, I highly recommend the following resources for more on shape layers:

Here’s a movie about the new ability to combine shapes from our new friend Howard Pinsky. I call him new because I just met him, but also because he’s substantially newer to the planet than Deke or I. His energy is infectious:

The divine Julieanne Kost has a great movie on Adobe TV that simply lays out the basics of shape layers, while never forgetting to contextualize how things have changed and how they work now:

This article from bjango takes a comprehensive look at all the new vector-related features in CS6 (like pixel snapping, aligning edges to the grid, etc.) Definitely worth a mind-clarifying read:

Vector shapes in Photoshop CS6

And I’ll be back tomorrow with a hands-on shape layer tutorial from Deke.

Next entry:Putting New Photoshop Shape Layer Tools into Use

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 225: Animating Bird Wings with Puppet Warp in Photoshop


  • learning to love vector

    Thanks for these. I needed extra help with vector application. Light bulbs gone on in head.

  • Kind comment.

    I too need extra help with vectors!

  • I don’t use shape layers that much

    ...But after watching the improvements they’ve made I need to reevaluate that. In the past I’ve usually done all my complex vector work in Illustrator and copied and pasted them into Photoshop as smart objects or paths. I just need to use the shape tool more and get used to it. Now that they added stroke effects it becomes really useful.

    While watching the video I was wondering why the dash line tool doesn’t have the “Align dashes to corners” option that Illustrator does.

  • Good call on Align Dashes to Corners

    For whatever reason, the programs are progressing at different rates. Photoshop lacks the align feature (plus such simplicities as Join) but is soon to offer the ability to adjust round the corners of a rectangle independently, a function that Illustrator curiously lacks.

    It’s part of Photoshop’s Live Shape feature, which I’m confident will confuse just about everyone. Case in point: In addition to rectangles, ellipses are regarded as Live Shapes, which means the mere act of drawing an ellipse invokes the Properties: Live Shape panel. But while the Live Shapes feature benefits rectangles in the round corner department, it benefits ellipses in no way whatsoever.

    I could go on. (I really could.) But this is not to dismiss shape layers. In fact, I quite like them. In an upcoming sequence of DTs, I explore shapes in more creative detail, using them to create painterly organics and shading, with precision control. Shape layers may defy intuition—-more so as they grow more capable—-but combined with Photoshop’s other capabilities, they’re quite handy.

    Will keep you posted as things become additionally interesting.

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