Photoshop Coloring Tutorial

Photoshop Coloring Tutorial

Quite often, I’m asked by other artists picking up Photoshop if there are any tips or tricks I can give them. While this tutorial won’t give you any specific guidance on how to draw in a comic or cel-shaded style of art, I will provide some tips on how to make this process much easier for you within the program that will ultimately give you a better end-result product.

If you were to take any one of my digital illustrations and view it at 100% within Photoshop, you would see that my line work and coloring is extremely loose in most images. There are a number of ways to give the illusion of your work being much more precise, which are thankfully all very easy to achieve. The only limitation, really, is your computer hardware, which may limit the file size you can create your work in.

It should hopefully go without saying that if you want to do digital illustrations, you already own a pen tablet or are considering purchasing one. Wacom is the most popular brand on the market and creates a range of tablets at varying price points that are affordable no matter what budget you have. I currently use a Wacom Bamboo Create, which has an active drawing area of roughly 8.5″ x 6″ or so. If you are limited by space (which I have an issue with) or money, rest assured that you do not need to purchase the biggest, baddest tablet out there to make great art on your computer. I would not recommend going with an active drawing size smaller than the Wacom Bamboo Create however, as otherwise your hand will quickly cramp up when trying to draw on a smaller surface area.

Below is the illustration I’ll be referencing throughout the rest of this article, zoomed out to see the full work, as well as a view at 100% size (click thumbnails to expand):

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Document Resolution & Size

Make your document dimensions much larger than you intend the final output of your work to be. The number of dots (pixels) per inch (DPI) that displays on most monitors is 72 (higher for retina displays), but if you ever intend to print your work it’s a good rule of thumb to increase the DPI of your new document to 300, 350, or 600 (some printers will accept as low as 150) to prevent your printed work from coming out pixelated.

In addition to increasing the DPI, you should also make the overall dimensions of the work bigger than necessary. This will allow you to zoom into your work much farther, allowing you to add fine details easily. With so much extra pixel data, you have a much broader range to choose from size-wise should you choose to ever print your work.

If I only set up my document to be the size I want on completion (right) and not add extra resolution to play with, this small thumbnail would be all the room I would have to draw Dende's face in at 100% zoom. By increasing the resolution and overall document size (left), I can still print Dende's face at any smaller size desired, but I have much more document area to create the illustration in. For this particular drawing the document was 20" x 20", 300 DPI.
If I only set up my document to be the size I want on completion (right) and not add extra resolution to play with, this small thumbnail would be all the room I would have to draw Dende’s face in at 100% zoom.
By increasing the resolution and overall document size (left), I can still print Dende’s face at any smaller size desired, but I have much more document area to create the illustration in. For this particular drawing the document was 20″ x 20″, 300 DPI.

Pen Tool

Every designer and illustrator I’ve known has either completely loved or totally hated the pen tool found in Photoshop, Illustrator, Corel Painter, and other graphics programs. Even if you can only tolerate this tool in small doses, if you take the time to learn to use the pen tool it can ultimately save you tons of time in the line art of your drawings or even filling in large sections of color. Consider that the pen tool can not only be used to fill in large shapes with color, but can also be used to not fill, but draw perfect (and complicated) straight or curved lines. This can be extremely useful if you are like me, and often have shaky hands when drawing.

Magic Wand Tool

You should have your line art on a separate layer from your colors. I block off sections of color for each character by using the Magic Wand tool in Photoshop with tolerance set to 35 and anti-alias and contiguous checked. Once I’ve selected an area within the line art layer, I then do “Select > Modify > Expand” by either 2 or 3 pixels. This expands the selection beyond the black edges of the line art. After doing this, you can then fill in the color on a separate layer below the line art. Doing this prevents ugly, unclean color fills that many make the mistake of doing when they first start coloring with Photoshop.

WHY DOES MY ART LOOK LIKE CRAP? AKA "What Happens if You Straight Up Paint Bucket Fill Your Line Art and Don’t Do that Neat Trick You Just Read About"
WHY DOES MY ART LOOK LIKE CRAP? AKA “What Happens if You Straight Up Paint Bucket Fill Your Line Art and Don’t Do that Neat Trick You Just Read About”

More Layer Magic

You can further work on adding color detail to specific layers without worry of going outside the nice boundaries you already established in the previous step in several ways (Photoshop):

  • Ctrl + Left-click the layer whose boundaries you don’t want to go beyond, which will select (and allow you to work within) that content only. You can hide the flashing selection line with Ctrl + H and draw to your heart’s content without worry. You can quickly deselect with Ctrl + D.
  • The second method is again, Ctrl + Left-click the layer whose boundaries you don’t want to go beyond, and then in bottom the Layer panel, click the “Add Layer Mask” icon. In short, anything within the white area of your layer mask will display, and anything within the black area of your layer mask will be hidden. Rather than erasing huge sections of errors, you can quickly hide and reveal content with masks and not have to worry about losing any of your work.

Lines with the Brush Tool

You can also easily make straight lines with the Brush tool in Photoshop by left-clicking (or tapping with your tablet pen) once where you want your line to begin, then while holding down the shift key, left-click (or tap) again where you want your line to end.

In Conclusion

By using these basic concepts – particularly document resolution and size settings – you can be much more loose in your digital illustrations, yet still give the illusion of exceptionally clean work at the end. By not worrying so much about exactness thanks to working at such a large document size, you may find that ultimately, you may be able to create illustrations much faster than you once did.

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