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1. To quickly fill a new layer with color, you can:
Set the color you want, then, holding the Alt or Option key, press the Delete/Backspace key.
Create a new shape in the size of the layer.
Use the Color Fill option in the Layer Styles.
2. Do you need to create a new Smart Layer if you are only changing the Layer Styles?
Only if you are using a pattern overlay.
3. If I only want a distortion effect to change the edges of my layer, I should:
Duplicate the layer, add the effect and then Mask out the centre.
Use the Layer Style effects only.
Create a Mask from that layer and apply the effect to the Mask, rather than the layer.
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