Friday, June 22, 2012

Coloring Illustrations Using Photoshop

These three images show the steps I take to color a drawing.  These are taken from a current project, a children’s picture book entitle: Bean’s Dragons, an exciting story about my daughter’s imaginary pet dragons.

For the longest time I struggled with how to render illustrations professionally.  I loved to draw but I didn’t know how to take images from pencil to print.  I went through a lot of mediums before I finally found the one I like the best and gives the best quality.  Before I used to draw with pencil onto watercolor paper, then water color the picture, then finish with pen.  The results always left me wanting more.  If I made mistakes I was stuck with them.  You really can’t erase in watercolor.  You can see some of these older illustrations here on my blog.  Now don’t think I’m saying this is the only way to color illustrations.  This is just how I have found to do it better for me. 

I was at a writer’s conference and had the opportunity to sit in on an illustration panel with James Artemis Owens, writer and illustrator of Here There Be Dragons and legendary dragon drawing master. (Check out )  I proudly stuck myself in the very front row seat so I could be inches away from him—literally.  I probed him for every answer I could get to help me improve my illustrations and he happily gave every answer—because he’s just cool that way.  He shared with me that he first draws in pencil, then traces it out on smooth Bristol paper with a micron pen.  Then he scans it into Photoshop to color.  Well, I thought, I can do that.  So I went out and bought some Bristol paper and pens and 30 bucks poorer I went to work.  At first it went horribly wrong with Photoshop until I found out how to do it and refined my technique with a tutorial I’ll share at the end of this post.  My way may not be Master Owens’ way, but give it a shot.  Okay here are my steps for coloring drawings in Photoshop.

1.      Load in your BLACK and WHITE photo.  I strongly urge you to use B&W because it’s a disaster using just pencil drawings.  The shadings just don’t work right.  I normally sketch in pencil on normal paper then trace with a ‘micron pen’ on white smooth Bristol paper.  I feel this gives the skeleton of the project a good clean surface.
2.      Change your image to greyscale
3.      Then change Mode to CMYK mode.  This mode is a printer mode and will make sure that the colors you are using will be the best quality possible.
4.      Turn off the anti-alias in the lasso tool options.  This will come in to play as you color things.  It helps you select one specific color and not a whole group of things.
5.      Open your channels dialogue box open.  Click on black channel and duplicate it.  Leave it as (Black Copy). Double click on the channel.  Make sure color indicates is “Selected area”.  Make sure color is true black and opacity is 100%.  Click okay.
6.      Next click the channel box, click CMYK, and then select all.  Go to Edit, Fill, and fill with white. 
7.      In the channel box select just the (black copy) and then go to image, adjustments, and adjust the black to be 25%-100%.  This will make the black darker and not so grey.  The higher number you put in the darker it will turn the black.  Sometimes I like the black to be really dark, especially with illustrations as I feel it makes the colors pop more.
8.      Next select CMYK and select all, edit, fill, white, normal.  This will fill in all the color channels except copy black with white.
9.      This is a good time to put in a back ground.  You can have a back ground already done or you can put a picture in.  I like to just use the gradient tool to shade, but use what fits your style.
10.  Next, create a new layer.  This will be the only other layer you’ll use.  This will be for applying color on.
11.  Start coloring.  If you need use the swatches on the side or create your own colors but you might want to refer to your colors later.
12.  After you’ve colored in everything, shaded, and added gradients make sure to clean up with the erasing tool. 
13.  Now it’s time to close out the picture.
14.  Merge the black line art with the others.  Select the (black copy) channel.  You only want to select the black.  So go to select, load selection, stay on your black channel and click okay.  This should select all the black in the picture.
15.  Go back and select the CMYK channels.  (This tip I go from the tutorial on YouTube) Fill with a specific foreground color: C-60, m-40, y-40, K-0.  It will make these grey but it makes the black much darker in the end.  Now, go to fill, fill with foreground color at normal and 100% opacity and click okay.  Deselect the selection.
16.  Go back to black channel.  Load selection.  Click the CMYK mode then, edit, fill, fill with black use mode multiply.  This will add true black through every channel in the picture.
17.  Deselect. And delete the (black copy).
18.  Save your image and show it off.

There are a lot of free tutorials on YouTube that give step-by-step instructions on how to color a drawing.  This is my favorite. . Although they are specifically coloring a comic book hero the ideas and execution are similar to what I do.  Also do a Google search on coloring with Photoshop you’ll find lots of great tips by willing people ready to share.  Hope this was helpful!  And if you ever want to hear about the dream I had where I was at a writers conference on a panel with James Owens let me know.  One day I hope that dream become reality!  

And that's my keys on coloring illustrations.


  1. Nice! I've just done really simple stuff from purchases clipart.

    1. Thank you Donna! If you need anything particular please let me know. :)

  2. Thank you! Thank you! What a great post. I love your illustrations and appreciate you sharing this "tutorial." I use Photoshop for everything but have never used it like this. Can't wait to try it!

    1. Stacy, I wish you success in your work! You are very welcome. I love to share. If you have any question please ask. And if you found this helpful, please share. :)


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