How to digitally colour comics with Photoshop – Beginner tutorial
Hey there! Readers have been asking me to write a digital colouring tutorial for years so I’m FINALLY getting around to it. You can read my previous posts about idea creation and process here. Now, what follows is MY personal way to colour. There are MANY different ways to colour comics. My method is pretty simple and should be a good starting point for a beginner. I’m by no means an expert colourist – if you’re looking to colour superhero comics that have been painstakingly rendered or are interested in digital painting, then this is probably not for you. But if you’ve got some fairly simple black and white comics that you’d like to add some colour to then you’re in the right place. I’ve figured my method out over the years from reading articles, swiping techniques from various tutorials and lots of trial and error. Find the way which works best for YOU. As Bruce Lee said: “Absorb what is useful. Reject what is useless. Add what is essentially your own.”
For this tutorial, I’ll be using a simple drawing of Rising Phoenix. I do all of my linework the traditional way using Pigma Micron Pens and a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen.
SCANNING AND EQUIPMENT
I scan my artwork using a Brother MFC-6490CW, which I’ve had for years now. I’ve expressed how much I love this machine in a previous post. I scan the drawing as TEXT mode at 600ppi (avoid scanning in the BLACK/WHITE and COLOUR options). I think different scanners have different names for the TEXT mode, it could be LINEART. But when you open it in Photoshop it should be a BITMAP file. When you scan the file as a BITMAP, it recognises every pixel as either black or white, no greys. This means your linework will look nice and crisp.
I’m using a 2009 iMac running Adobe Photoshop CS6 with a Wacom Bamboo Fun CTE-650. These are all old, outdated tools. I don’t even think Wacom make the Bamboo model anymore. You can use a PC or Mac, it doesn’t matter. I think a lot of cartoonists use Manga Studio instead of Photoshop these days … I’ve never used it, always been a Photoshop guy. I’ll be honest, I switched over to a Wacom Cintiq Companion about 3 years ago to do all my colouring, but for this tutorial I want to show you that you don’t need the fanciest or newest tools. Probably my first 100 Zen Pencils comics were all coloured using this old setup. It’s easy to see all your favourite artists on Instagram using massive Wacom Cintiqs with dual monitors and think you need to spend thousands of dollars yourself. But you don’t. If you’re a beginner, just get the basics first before you sell your first-born trying to afford the latest and greatest gadgets. I do however, recommend you get a basic Wacom tablet (not necessarily a tablet that you draw directly onto the screen, but their most affordable model as a replacement for your mouse) because it’s just way easier and more intuitive than trying to colour with a mouse, and will help avoid wrist problems in the future. You can get a basic Intuos model for less than $100. I’ve been eyeing the new Windows Surface Studio (I mean, damn, that thing is sexy!), but that would be a luxury, not a necessity.
Sometimes your scan is a bit crooked. Here’s a quick way to make your image straight instead of manually trying to rotate it or guessing what angle you should rotate it. Select the Ruler tool (It’s one of the non-default tools under the Eyedropper tool) and drag it along a line that you want to be straight, say a panel border. Next, go to (Image>Image Rotation>Arbitrary). The precise angle will already be inputed and you just need to it OK, and voila, your image is straight!
Once the drawing is scanned I change the file to CMYK mode (Image>Mode>Greyscale first>then CMYK) then change the resolution to 300ppi (Image>Image Size>Resolution). 300ppi (ppi=pixels per inch) CMYK (Cyan, magenta, yellow, black) are the standard specs for print work. You want to work at high resolution even if you’re doing webcomics (web files only need to be 72ppi) because you can always scale down after you’re finished, but you can never scale up. So if one day your super-awesome, world-famous webcomic gets collected into a book for print, but you’ve only ever been working at 72ppi, you’re royally screwed!
LAYER SETUP and CLEAN UP
Basically, I colour using two layers which I name ‘Layer 1’ and ‘paint’. ‘Layer 1’ is on top and has just the black linework on it and ‘paint’ is underneath with all the colour. So first I want to isolate the black line and get rid of all the white. Click on the Channels tab next to the Layers tab, then hit (COMMAND + Click) on the CMYK channel. This will select all the white in the image. (Note: If you’re using a PC, then substitute CTRL for COMMAND keys) Now go back to the Layers palette, make a new layer (Layer>New>Layer), inverse the selection (Select>Inverse) and finally fill the selection with black (Alt+Delete). You should have just the linework isolated. Now delete the Background layer. Make a new bottom layer, name it ‘paint’ and fill it with white. You should have 2 layers now, the top named ‘Layer 1’ with the black line work and a bottom layer ‘paint’ filled with white.
(I know some colourists just set the top layer to a ‘multiply’ blending mode, which makes the white invisible but I prefer doing it this way).
Next I use the Eraser tool (E) and delete all the specks of crap that was picked up in the scan and clean up any lines that I’m not happy with.
CAN WE START THE COLOURING YET?
Yes, we can begin adding colour! The way I colour is determined by my drawing style, which is mostly made up of closed shapes, meaning my lines join up to each other and there are not too many ‘open’ areas. This makes it easy for me to select areas to colour with the Magic Wand tool (W – usually set to a tolerance of 60). If you do draw in a loose, open style, you would have to manually colour the areas you want with the Brush tool or use the Pen tool to precisely make the shapes you need (I’ll show you what I mean later).
To make the colouring process easier I assign Action shortcuts to commands I use frequently. ACTIONS are a cool Photoshop tool that remembers complex commands, which you can assign to keyboard shortcuts. Creating an Action is easy. For instance, the first action I want is to select ‘Layer 1’ without having to manually click on the layer each time. To do this, make sure you have the ‘paint’ layer selected. Now go to the Actions palette (Window>Actions) and create a new action. A dialog box will pop up. Make the function key F1 and press Record. Now select ‘Layer 1’ and press the little square icon on the Actions palette, which stops the recording. That’s it! Do the same thing but reversed this time, selecting the ‘paint’ layer from ‘Layer 1’, and make the function key F2.
You should now be able to switch between ‘Layer 1’ and ‘paint’ by hitting the F1 and F2 keys. The last action I use is a shortcut to EXPAND a selection. Normally when you select an area of space to fill using the Magic Wand tool and then fill it with colour, there’s a tendency for a little bit of white to still be seen between the black line and colour. To prevent this from happening I expand the selection by 2 pixels and then fill it with colour on the ‘paint’ layer below. To do this, select an area you want to colour, then (Select>Modify>Expand>2). I also make this sequence into an Action and assign it to the F3 key. You can assign the Actions to whatever function key you like, but this works for me. Ok, now we’re all set to go!
Next I go through the strip and fill each area with a flat colour. After awhile this becomes really quick to do by hitting F1 to make sure you’re on ‘Layer 1’, selecting a colour, then quickly hitting F3, which expands the selection, then F2, making sure you’re on the ‘paint’ layer, then hitting fill (Alt + Delete). You’ll also want to start getting in the habit of using other keyboard shortcuts, like ‘W’ to select the Wand tool, ‘B’ for brush tool and so on with your left hand. It will take some time to get used to but soon both your hands will be in sync with each other like a pro-gaming god.
So like I was saying, sometimes using the Magic Wand won’t work. For Rising Phoenix’s eyes, I had to use the Brush (B) tool to paint in the white of the eyes. You can also make a custom selection by using the Pen (P) tool. With it, you can draw any precise shape you need and then turn it into a selection by hitting (Command + Enter). It’s worth practicing using the Pen tool – you’ll probably end up using it a lot.
A quick way to experiment with different colours is to fill lots of areas with the same colour, and then selecting a specific area and using the HUE/SATURATION option (Command + U). You can play with the sliders to get any colour in the spectrum. This is much easier than clicking on a colour swatch, filling the selection, deciding you don’t like the colour, selecting another swatch, filling the selection again, deciding you don’t like it and so on.
Ok, so I’ve gone in and filled all the basic colours.
Other handy Keyboard shortcuts for this part: To hide the ‘marching ants’ when something is selected (Command + H). To select multiple areas with the Wand tool (hold SHIFT).
I usually like to add one level of shadow to my figures so they’re not completely flat. I recently figured out a sneaky simple way to do this. Create a new layer above the ‘paint’ layer and fill the entire layer with a darkish grey (I’m using 60,60,60,0). Change the blending mode of the Layer from ‘Normal’ to ‘Color Burn’ (This is done in the little drop down menu in the Layers Palette). The pic looks like this now:
Next, add a Layer Mask to that layer by hitting the button with a square with a circle in it at the bottom of the Layers palette. Layer Masks are a great way to play around without actually affecting the layer. However, for this step, I’m using it a bit differently.
Now on the layer, click on the mask and fill it with black. The Color Burn layer will be completely masked and hidden from view. Now you can use the brush tool and paint on the Layer Mask with white. Whatever is white will reveal the Layer and it will feel like you’re painting with shadow. Pretty cool huh?
Next, I add a simple white back light effect to Phoenix. I did this on a new layer above the ‘shadows’ layer and named it ‘rim lighting’. I used the brush tool to paint in some white around the body. This adds another level of depth and looks cool.
Finally I put a simple radial gradient effect in the background by selecting all the purple on the paint layer. Handy tip: to select all the same colour in an image, turn ‘contiguous’ off when you have the Magic Wand tool selected. Once selected, pick the Gradient tool (G) choose a lighter purple to dark purple, select the ‘Radial’ option and then drag the cursor from the middle of the image to the outer edge. This sounds more complicated than it is when typing it out – just play around, you’ll figure it out.
COLOURING THE LINEART
Ok, so perhaps you don’t like the harsh black line and want it to be coloured. For this example, I’m just going to colour the line of the flame symbol on Phoenix’s costume. Create a new layer above ‘Layer 1’ and name it ‘colourline’, then hold down the ALT key and place the cursor between ‘Layer 1’ and ‘colourline’ until the cursor turns into a little arrow and square, then click. Your layer should look like this:
Now whatever you colour on the ‘colourline’ layer will only be colouring the lineart. This is a cool trick I only recently discovered. For years, I would cut out the line with the Pen tool, copy it on a seperate layer, then select it and fill it with a new colour … like a damn fool! This way is soooooo much easier.
TEXTURES AND FINAL TOUCHES
Well, the image is pretty much done, but I like to add a few little effects at the end which make the comic look extra fancy wancy ooh la la. One trick is to add a textured effect on top of the image. You can find heaps of free, royalty-free textures online, or create your own. For instance, I just Googled ‘hi res texture background royalty-free’ and found this:
I open that up in Photoshop, convert it to Greyscale then bumped up the brightness and contrast:
Next, I dragged it onto my image and made it the top Layer, changed the blending mode from ‘Normal’ to ‘Color Burn’ and reduced the opacity to 15%:
Play with different textures, blending modes and opacity. Have fun, but don’t go overboard. I find that some cartoonists whack heaps of different textures on which can be distracting. I may be guilty of this from time to time.
Finally, what I like to do is just tweak the Brightness/Contrast of the whole image. To do this, have the top layer selected, then hit the little circle icon at the bottom of the Layer palette which looks like a black and white cookie, and select ‘brightness/contrast’. I usually decrease the brightness and bump up the contrast a bit. In this case, Brightness is -3 and Contrast is +46. It just makes the image pop a little bit more:
That’s it, all done! You can save a web optimised version (oh yeah I forgot to mention, make sure you’ve been saving your work as a PSD file throughout the process!) by going to (File>Save for Web). Save your final comic as a JPG at a pixel size that maintains quality but keeps the file size small. For instance, all my comics are uploaded to this site at 980px wide.
Well, I hope you found this post useful, it only took me like five years to write the freakin thing. If you have any questions or ideas for future tutorials, let me know in the comments. If you didn’t know, I do have a Patreon page where you can pledge monthly micro-donations and in return I’ll post more behind-the-scenes stuff like this.
Last but not least, I hope you all have a safe and happy holidays. Thanks again for another great year of support, encouragement and feedback. Love you all!