Character Illustration and Coloring in Photoshop (Tutorial)

Comic coloring has come a long way since the days of filling in Superman’s hair with blue. It’s an advanced profession of its own. In the few years I’ve worked as a professional colorist, this is the technique I’ve used to produce completed comic pages.

Here’s the end result of what we’ll be creating:

Getting Started

Start with clean black line-work. For this tutorial I am using my own artwork, but if you are working as a pro colorist it is likely you will receive the artwork from the inker. Before you start the line-work must be clean. Adjust levels so that the image is pure black and white.

Step 1

For this image we will begin in RGB mode (but CMYK will work). Select the entire image and cut (Ctrl/Cmd + X) it to the clipboard.

Open the Layers Palette and click on the “New Layer” icon.

Click Select > Edit in Quick Mask Mode (or simply hit the ‘Q’ on your keyboard). This will allow you to take the Line Art you just cut and convert it to a selection.

While in Quick Mask Mode, paste in (Ctrl/Cmd + V) your linework. It will appear as a light red outline.

This outline is a Quick Mask. When you exit Quick Mask mode everything that you see on the screen here will become a marquee selection. But before you do that, you need to invert the selection.

To invert the selection, select the menu item Image > Adjustments > Invert, or hit Ctrl/Cmd + I.

Exit Quick Mask Mode by pressing Q. This brings you back into RGB mode. You should see the linework as a marquee selection (a bunch of moving dashed lines).

Flood (Alt-Del) the selection with black. If you click on the eyeball icon on the Layers Pallette beside the Background layer, you should see a grey checker pattern behind your lines that indicates transparency.

Step 2

Fill the Background layer with a neutral color (I used brown). This will make your later color choices more natural. Name the top layer “Line Art”.

Create a new layer between the background and the Line Art layer and call it “Flats”.

Step 3

Here’s the fun part. Select the Pencil tool. Make sure it is on Normal mode and is at 100% opacity.

Trace the outline of each shape with a solid color.

Select the Paint Bucket tool with the tolerance set to 1 and the anti-aliasing turned off and start filling in the outlined areas.

Did I say flatting was the fun part? Not compared to shading, which is coming up next! At this stage, though, you should have something that looks a little like this:

Step 4

In the Layers Pallette duplicate the Flats layer by dragging it to the New Layer icon (the one that looks like a piece of paper at the bottom of the Layers Palette). Click on the “Lock Transparency” icon (see the image below – it’s highlighted).

Set your fill color to white and fill the Flats layer (Alt-Del). This should leave a white silhouette of your figure.

You can paint in your shade tones directly onto this silhouette without fear of “going outside the lines”. I used a light blue color for the shadows in this particular image.

If you set the blending mode of your Shadows layer to Multiply you will see how the shadows add definition to the flat colors you laid down in the previous step.

On the Shadow layer, apply a very light pink to the nose, eyes, and cheeks, and to the knuckles and elbows. These areas have blood that is close to the surface and adding a light dusting of a rosy hue will help make your character look more alive. I recommend using a very light shade of pink as it will become darker due to the Multiply mode of the layer.

Step 5

Now you need to create a “Highlights” layer. Place it above the Shadows but below the Line Art layer and fill the silhouette with black.

It may seem odd to fill your Highlights layer with black, but the black will become invisible once the layer’s blending mode is set to Screen. Change it over now.

Set your paintbrush to a soft edge and keep the opacity low as you paint in highlights. If you are coloring shiny plastic or metal you may use a brighter color and a harder edged brush.

Bonus Step: Coloring Line Art

Lock transparency on the Line Art layer, just as you did with the shadows and highlights.

Use the pencil tool to fill in the lines with the desired colors. I generally, though not always, use a darker shade of the fill color.

Bonus Step: Textured Background

For this piece I found a photograph of a rough textured surface and pasted it above the image. I then lowered the opacity to about 4% and set the layer’s blending mode to Multiply. This gives a more organic look to the image.


In the wide world of coloring, there are many other ways to achieve a similar effect. I’ve found this to be the most time-efficient and it yields great results. Let us know about your coloring tips, tricks and techniques in the comments.

Having trouble following any of the steps above? Download the Photoshop Comic Illustration Free on DesignCrowd so you can take a closer look at where you might’ve gone wrong.

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