Today I was following a tutorial using PS CS6 on the internet and it asked that a layer be added and Layer Style > Gradient Overlay be used, which would later become a background.

I'm not a big user of the fx button in the layer panel, I admit. But, I didn't think it was so utterly confusing.

I simply created a new layer (transparent) and accessed the Gradient Overlay in Layer Styles and expected to see the new layer filled with the gradient I had configured and then I'd move on to the next step. There was no effect at all and no indication from Photoshop CS6 that I had just done something that would have no effect.

To my great surprise I discovered that even after making a (marquee) selection, there was no gradient overlay appearing.

Not until I used the shape tool (or text tool) would my gradient appear within it. Of course, I thought the so-called 'layer' style would apply on a layer level basis and not require that a particular object be used for filling.

Is my software not working correctly or does anyone else find this observed behavior counter-intuitive in the slightest?

Why does it only have effect on text or shape layers?

1 Answer 1


The word "Overlay" by definition means to cover.

If your layer is transparent, there are no pixels for the Overlay to cover.

Fill the layer with something, anything, and the Gradient Overlay will be visible. If you do not want the actual layer contents to be visible, then reduce the Fill Opacity to 0%.

In short, you must have something on the layer for any of the layer styles to actually work, overlay or otherwise.

  • Fair enough. I can't expect you to make sense of it for me I suppose. You're keying off on 'overlay' while I keyed off on 'layer' (style). Plenty of the other tools work on an empty transparent layer, after all. Most shocking was that I could find no support on this question via web searches - so I rushed over to my other PC with an earlier version of photoshop and found the same behavior. I know Layer Styles have been a feature for probably eight years by now, so its probably late for me to find some outrage over some usability issue.
    – markhern
    Jul 21, 2013 at 1:22
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    It's not a usability issue. It's an understanding of what Layer Styles are. Layer Styles style a layer contents if the layer has no contents, there is nothing to style.
    – Scott
    Jul 21, 2013 at 1:26
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    On this note: anything in the fx menu applies only to pixels that exist on the layer. None of the effects work on an empty layer. Often, I'll just drop the paint bucket tool on a new layer, then use the gradient overlay, because it provides easier control over the gradient than the actual gradient tool. If you for any reason want the effect of being able to apply the fx options to a blank layer, you can fill the layer, then drop the "fill" to 0%. Fill is essentially opacity, except it doesn't apply to layer fx, only the actual pixels for the layer.
    – Eric
    Jul 22, 2013 at 13:08

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