Digital Color Tutorial Part Two

March 27th, 2007 | Posted in Tutorials

Applying the Base Color

When coloring I start by applying a base color for each area of the illustration. The color is a mid value, which will allow me to work both darker and lighter to achieve a range of values. Since I am not working on a layer with lines to contain the colors, I cannot use the Fill tool, but have to apply the color ‘by hand’ using my tablet and pen. Actually I use a Cintiq tablet from Wacom, which is a combination pressure sensitive tablet and display, where you draw and paint right on the screen using the special stylus/pen. I reviewed the Cintiq here, and it’s a terrific tool, but a regular Wacom tablet will do fine.

The base color has no opacity variances, but is a solid color. This makes it easy to select with the Magic Wand tool, so I can mask off any area I am painting with just a click. Like I mentioned, I keep the values of these base colors at about the mid range of the value of the object or area it describes. That way I can paint in one direction or the other, value wise, to render the area and create some depth and interest.

My first step will be to create a layer for each different group of areas I am going to color. I used to just apply all the color on the background layer, but lately I’ve learned the value of working on different layers. It’s much easier to make corrections that way. I still keep it simple, because it’s too easy to get mixed up on which layer you are painting on and cause problems. Usually I think in terms of depth of field with respect to the objects in the illustration when determining my layers… one layer for foreground objects, one for mid-ground, etc. For this simple piece, in order of topmost to bottom-most, I will create a layer for the taboret, one for the figure, and one for the table and chair. I’ll use the background layer for the floor shadow and color elements I’ll put behind everything. The topmost layer is the linework “Inks”, but later we’ll add some highlight layers on top of that.

Since I plan on painting the figure first, let’s create that layer. With the “Background” layer active, we’ll start by clicking the small arrow in the upper right corner of the Layers palette, and selecting “New Layer”.


We’ll call it “Figure”. Blending mode normal. We now have a blank transparent layer in between “Background” and “Inks”.


It’s worth noting here that I usually paint my images at 50% zoom, not at 100%. At 300 DPI and at print size, a 100% zoom image is physically much larger on my screen that it will be when printed. This is especially true with the Cintiq. If I work at 100% zoom, I end up painting small details, and spending a lot of time doing it, that are simply too small in print to even see. At one point I realized I had spent an hour rendering a face in a MAD spread that was only 1/2 tall in print, but on my screen was 3 inches tall, and all the effort I had put into it was lost. That was a huge waste of time. At 50%, the physical size of the image on my screen is roughly 150% of the actual print size, which is perfect for painting as the detail added will be effective and yet no time wasted on detail that would be lost at print size. I will occasionally zoom in to 100% for some fine work now and then, but 50% is where most of the work occurs. Those settings are very much dependent on your screen resolution, so experiment to find a good zoom size for your display.

Time to start adding color. We start by selecting our brush and our color.

I use the basic palette of brushes that comes with Photoshop. They are pretty versatile and I have never felt the need to create custom brushes for this particular technique. I usually stick to the hard edge brushes, but will also use the gradated “airbrush” type as well as some of the scratchier brushes for certain effects. Using the pressure sensitivity of the tablet to control the opacity of our color will be a very important part of the technique later, but right now we don’t want to use it for that. So we need to adjust the brush settings before we get painting.

I select the Brush tool from the Photoshop Tool palette. I select an appropriate brush from the Brush Preset Palette. You can access this by clicking on the drop down Brush Preset box in the upper left corner under the menu bar, but the better way is to program your Wacom Pen’s “button”, the one on the side of the brush, for “right click”. When using a brush, right clicking with your mouse produces the Brush Preset palette, and makes for easy switching to a different brush. You do this outside Photoshop either through “System Preferences: Wacom” on the Mac or in “Control Panel: Wacom Tablet”. That way when you are using the brush, a simple click of that button will bring easy access to the Brush Preset selector.

brush-tool.jpg brush-presets.jpg

Next we want to make sure we ‘turn off’ the pressure control of the opacity. We just want to use it at this point to control the size of the brush for easy painting. Along the upper right of the Photoshop menu bar are inset tabs for various settings palettes. One is called “Brush”. Selecting that brings up a drop down for choosing various options for each brush. Uncheck “Other Dynamics”.



This will turn off the pressure sensitive control (if it was set) for opacity of the color. Now it doesn’t matter how hard we press with the pen, we will always get 100% solid color. We do want the brush size to be controlled by the pressure, so the harder we press, the bigger the brush gets. To make sure this is set, we go back to the Brush Preset window, and select Shape Dynamics. Under “Size Jitter” there is a drop down menu for “Control”. Make sure that is set to “Pen Pressure”.


Now we need to pick our color. Let’s start with the flesh tone. I have a base flesh tone preset as a swatch in my Swatches palette.


in CMYK formula, it is C: 0, M: 18, Y: 24, K: 0. I’ve found this to be a good base flesh color for CMKY printing, but others might prefer a lighter or more pinkish tone. Regardless, I begin to apply the color on the “Figure” layer to the areas with flesh tones. The lines hide the edges, so my accuracy need only be of the coloring book “stay inside the lines” variety. Once the flesh color is done, I can move on to the next area, like the shirt. I pick a warm red/orange color and continue applying the base tones.


Flesh tone done and red shirt in progress

I’ll keep going on this layer until I have all the areas filled with base color. I often leave hair until the background is in, as it is wispy in nature and I want to be able to see some background through it. I put in a little base color in the deep mass areas to get it started. Now on to the table and chair elements. First I make a new layer, under my figure layer called “Table, Chair and Lamp”:


Back to coloring. Choosing colors to use is important but changes can be easily made later, so it’s mainly important to just keep going. However when I choose colors I try to keep the entire effect in mind. The standard color swatch palette for Photoshop isn’t very subtle. Most of the colors are like primary colors… very strong and pure. Real life doesn’t have such colors very often. Cartoons are hardly real life, but injecting a more subtle feel to your palette will only improve the art. Since I am using solid color at this stage, it’s easy to play with the color by using things like the Paint Bucket Fill tool. Let’s say I have a red that I want to be a little less punchy and more drab. I can select a green color from the Swatches palette, change the opacity of the paint bucket tool to 10% or so in the upper left corner area of the PhotoShop menu bar, and click in the red area to add 10% green. The result could be what I am looking for, or I can command+Z (Alt+Z) and try a different color. Another way to do this is to use the Color Picker. This is a handy palette that lets you change the selected color in terms of value and saturation using a visual gradation chart. I use it a lot for the rendering phase.

Let’s say I want to make the chair here a dark blue, but I want it to be a grayish blue, or just not the saturated blue of the standard swatches. I select a swatch blue that is close to what I am looking for. Then I double click the foreground color box containing this color at the bottom of my Tools palette. The Color Picker box will pop up.


You’ll see a large box with a gradated fill in it. In the upper left corner is pure white, in the lower right is pure back. Your color is indicated in this area with a small circle. By moving that circle with your cursor, you can change that color… making it lighter, darker, more or less saturated. You’ll see the difference in the smaller box, where the new color is represented as the top half of the box and the original the bottom. This is very handy for selecting different values of the same basic color, or saturating/ desaturating that color. Here I picked a slightly darker, less saturated version of my blue for the chair.

After I finish with the table, chair and lamp, I make one more layer for the taboret, and following the same basic steps I place my color for that area on the new “Taboret” layer.

Once I’m done with the base color, I can make corrections and change colors easily by selecting the color with the Magic Wand tool and use the Paint Bucket Tool as described above, or “Image: Adjustments: Hue and Saturation or Color Balance”, etc. There are lots of ways to play with the colors.

Base colors established

Now I am ready to start the “rendering”, where I will really start painting and using the pressure sensitivity of the pen and tablet to create the watercolor/wash look I am going for.

Tomorrow: Part Three!! Rendering with Washes


  1. Justin says:

    Wow! These tutorials are great, Tom. Very handy. It would be great to see a downloadable palette that you use for coloring etc. Looking forward to the next one. Cheerz!!!

  2. vivek says:

    Tom, these tutorials are very helpful. It’s nice and inspiring to see how a professional MAD artist works. Looking forward for the rest of them.

  3. Trevour says:

    Tom – extremely helpful stuff so far! Thanks again for sharing these valuable tips. Can’t wait for the rest!

  4. Wow! Tom – these are great tutorials! Thanks for sharing.

  5. josh says:

    i love hearing how other people use photoshop. there are so many different ways and approaches for everything! great posts Tom!

    a quick keyboard shortcut that I use for changing the size of brushes are the bracket keys- “[” and “]”… and shift + bracket keys changes the hardness or the edges.

  6. Tom says:

    Thanks, folks. Josh- I use the bracket shortcut a lot and mentioned it in the next part, along with other ones that are very handy.

  7. Rick says:

    Thanks for posting Tom. This great. I have not gone through the whole step by step tutorial yet, but I WILL!!

  8. Matt. says:

    Good tutorial, but I am not too sure on what the jobs of the three layers you are created are. When you start coloring which later are you working on?

    Sorry for the late question.

  9. NateOwens says:


    Question – –
    Do you ever ink with the photoshop brushes, or do you always ink on (paper) and scan.
    I like to ink/sketch/draw with the brushes and tools in PhotoShop and Painter. For quite a while I have done it totally digital.


  10. Tom says:

    Matt- The “Inks” layer is just for line art. No color at all. The “Figure” layer is where I do all the color work in this example, but you can create multiple layers for color if you want. They just all need to be below the “Inks” layer. The background is just the background. It could serve as the color layer itself if you wanted.

    Nate- I prefer to ink the old fashioned way. i like the tactile experience too much to go all digital. I’ve heard people rave about Sketckbook Pro’s inking and drawing tools.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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