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Use neutral fills to create independent filter layers

Added on Thursday 8th of September 2011 05:05 am EST

Use neutral fills to create independent filter layers
by Stephen Dow
Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5
Operating Systems:
Microsoft Windows, Macintosh

Need an elegant way to control filter effects? Look no further—neutral fills give you a finer level of control over your layer compositions and allow you to apply filters without having to render them into your image.

To fill layers with neutral colors and allow maximum control over your layer effects, we’ll:

  • Tell you how to automatically apply a neutral fill and why you might not have noticed this feature before.
  • Go into more detail on how neutral fill colors affect blending modes and give you a rundown on the corresponding neutral colors.
  • Work through an example using neutral fills to apply three different filters.


You’ve probably noticed that some of Photoshop’s filters only work on a layer that contains pixels. To apply the filter, you have to fill the layer with a color, apply your filter, and then change the blending mode to suit your needs. This process is somewhat backward, as the fill color you choose ultimately determines the range of visual effects you can achieve using the blending modes. Instead of wasting time by guessing the fill color, you can generate the correct neutral fill color anytime you create a new layer in Photoshop. And, once you have the right neutral fill, there are many creative ways to use blending modes for advanced layer effects.

Adding a neutral fill
You may be surprised to find out that you can have Photoshop automatically fill a new layer with a neutral color anytime you want. To do so, you must create the new layer by choosing New Layer from the Layers panel’s pop-up menu. As shown in Figure A, the New Layer dialog box allows you to select this option, provided you also choose an option from the Mode pop-up menu (blending mode) that has a neutral color. In this example, the neutral fill for the Darken blending mode is white, but the neutral color changes depending on which blending mode you want to use.


So why do so many Photoshop users lose track of this useful feature? We can only guess, but we think it has to do with the other options for creating new layers. Why use a menu command when you can click the Create A New Layer button in the Layers panel? Of course, pressing [command][shift]N ([Ctrl][Shift]N in Windows) to create a new layer produces the same New Layer dialog box, but the default Normal blending mode doesn’t have a neutral fill, so the option is unavailable and easy to miss. So, unless you’re actively planning to change the blending mode, there’s a good chance this feature just snuck right by you.

A neutral for (almost) every blend
As we mentioned earlier, you can’t apply some Photoshop filters to empty transparent layers. Filling the layer with the correct neutral color just gives Photoshop something to work with, but if you apply a neutral fill to a layer and don’t apply a filter, the fill is invisible. But why?
It all makes sense if you think about how blending modes work. Basically, the blending mode determines how the pixels in a layer blend with the pixels in underlying areas. For example, the Darken blending mode replaces any pixels that are lighter than any underlying pixels. Since you don’t get much lighter than white, you can understand why it’s the neutral color for the Darken blending mode. The neutral fills for each available blending mode are listed in Table A.

Table A:
Blending modes and their neutral fills


Neutral color

Color Burn
Linear Burn


Soft Light
Vivid Light
Linear Light
Pin Light

50% gray




However, not all blending modes have a neutral color. The modes dependent on color, such as Hue, Saturation, Color, and Luminosity, and those that don’t interact with ...