New PhotoShop Line Art Trick

June 6th, 2008 | Posted in General

For years I’ve been using an easy trick to create a layer in PhotoShop containing my scanned, inked line art that remains intact as I color “beneath it” sort of like an animation cell. It’s a simple thing to do:

  1. Scan line art as grayscale image
  2. Duplicate background layer containing inked art, rename “Inks”
  3. Set layer mode to “Multiply”
  4. On background layer, press “Command” + “A” to select and then “Delete” to delete line art on that layer
  5. Convert to RGB or CMYK

Finished. Because “Multiply” mode means that whatever is on that layer in “multiplied” with what is below it, all the black lines stay intact and all the subtle gray lines become transparent and overlay the color I place beneath it, while all the white becomes transparent. Neat, easy trick.

Except nothing is ever easy, is it?

There are two difficulties with that technique. First, the white areas on the multiply mode are not gone, they are merely inert when in Multiply mode. This means that once you take that final step and “flatten” the image for sending to the client, all the white areas combine with the lower color layers. Since it’s in Multiply mode when flattened that just means any color below it takes over and the white in effect is gone. That works great IF you have only one layer of lines in Multiply mode. But what if you need to have different layers of objects in a given illustration for some reason? Then it does not work, because if you merge a multiply layer with another layer, any areas on the other layer that have no color in them become opaque white, and no transparency is transferred. In other words, if you want to have a single figure, inked and colored, on it’s own layer on top of a background illustration you cannot do that with the “multiply trick, because once you merge the multiplied inked figure layer with it’s separate colored layer, the “white” comes back all around the figure:

??á©2008 Tom Richmond
The linework for the boat and the color beneath the boat are their own layers
in this image, with lines for background beneath and color for background beneath
that. It looks like this if flattened to all together at once.

??á©2008 Tom Richmond
This is what happens if I just merge the boat line layer with it’s colored
underlayer. The white on the inked layer comes back.

You can select the white areas with the magic wand tool and delete them to create the transparency, but that is problematic as the wand tool doesn’t do a very good job of making good edges and you end up with a kind of “halo” effect that necessitates a lot of clean up around your image. I’m working on a job right now that requires a multiple layered final file, and this is a real headache.

There is a larger problem with this technique, though, and it applies to the process of four color printing. I just learned about this from MAD after I noticed that the blacks in my “30 Rock” parody seemed dull and washed out compared to other MAD jobs.

“Multiply” mode doesn’t just drop the black linework “on top” of the color… it literally multiplies it with the color below. That means that your black areas aren’t just 100% black, but they are black plus the cyan, magenta and yellow inks of the color beneath it. All blacks in a CMYK printed image are more than just 100% black ink… they have the other inks in there as well (in fact, PhotoShop has a setting for “rich black” in CMYK mode that is a specific combination of the four inks in percentages), but the density of the inks easily becomes very heavy when using the Multiply trick.

The problem with this in printing terms is that ink density (the percentage of each of the four colors) has it’s limits for the printer, yet PhotoShop literally dictates the ink density based on absolute percentages. You have 4 different inks in CMYK printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each can be up to 100% coverage. Therefore the max ink density is 400%, meaning 100% of all four colors. Printing a 400% ink density is impossible… it will never dry. PhotoShop’s default color setting profile calls for a max of 300% ink density, but even that is a little strong and those settings do not apply in PhotoShop to an image you are working on, but only to those that have been converted to that color profile. So, you may be working in a profile like CMYK SWOP v2 (default North American printing setting) but you can easily exceed that 300% ink density when working, especially using the multiply line trick. Printer’s want lower ink densities. MAD‘s printer, by example, wants a max ink density of 280%. Working in RGB and then converting to CYMK will limit you to a 300% ink density (or whatever the profile calls for), but I don’t trust conversion like that to keep the colors right.

So, in an effort to figure out a better way, I discussed it with several knowledgeable PhotoShop gurus and found a different line art trick that works around these issues. It’s called the “Channel” line art trick, and it works just as well and almost as easily, but results in a layer of line art where the white is literally not there and yet the black and gray lines are merely transparent as opposed to being in multiply mode, which results in a lesser ink density.

Here’s the process:

  1. Scan line art as grayscale image
  2. Create a new blank layer, rename it “Inks”
  3. Go to the “Channels” palette, there is only one channel called “Gray”
  4. At the bottom of the channels palette, click the “dashed circle” icon entitled “Load Channel as Selection”
  5. In “Select” drop down menu, select “Inverse”
  6. Go to your “Inks” layer
  7. Press “D” on your keyboard to reset swathes so full black in active color
  8. Press “Option” + “”Delete” to fill selection with black
  9. On background layer, press “Command” + “A” to select and then “Delete” to delete line art on that layer
  10. Convert to RGB or CMYK

Using this technique, your line art layer will contain all your lines but the white will be gone, rather than just inert due to the multiply mode. So instead of this:

??á©2008 Tom Richmond

You get this:

??á©2008 Tom Richmond

The great thing is that the channels trick also preserves the subtle gray lines and any washes or values you had in the original inks, as the selection of the channel is smart enough to not just select the absolutes but also the transparencies of the image. You can use this trick to create as many layers of line and colored objects as you want and merge them at will to create layered images. best of all, the transparent black reacts differently to merging than the “multiplied” black, resulting in lower ink densities.

The one caveat here is that you should scan your lines in at a higher resolution for this technique to make sure you do not lose any linework. I do most of my inks at 200% of print size, so that is plenty large if I scan at 300 dpi. If I was inking at 150% or closer to print size, I’d bump up the resolution of my scan to twice print resolution, or say 600 dpi as opposed to 300 dpi.

I am sure this technique has been used by many people, is all over the internet and I am hardly the originator of it, but it was cool nonetheless to “figure it out”.

Isn’t shop talk fun?


  1. carlpeterson says:

    Cool tutorial Tom. It’s interesting to see how other people accomplish similar tasks. I find that it’s great to use your inverted grayscale as a layer mask. This gives you lots of flexibility, if you want to get rich blacks for printing, or if you want sepia colored lines, etc.

    Instead of step 7, give your empty “Inks” layer a layer mask by clicking the button with the white circle within a grey rectangle (it’s at the bottom of your layers palette). The layer mask now appears to the right of your layer thumbnail.

    (For those who don’t know [I’m sure you know, Tom], a layer mask is a grayscale image that defines what areas of a layer will be transparent and what areas will be opaque. Wherever the mask is white, your layer will be opaque and wherever your mask is black, the layer will be transparent [grays are semi-transparent]. Since the layer itself is transparent, the mask doesn’t make a lot of difference, but it will in a moment).

    Your “Inks” layer mask is currently selected, so click the layer thumbnail (on the left side, in the layers palette) so you can alter the layer and not the mask. Now fill your layer with whatever color you like. The mask forces the layer to remain transparent where your paper was bare and opaque where your inks were drawn. You can even use gradients, brush patterns, and so on and your mask will maintain the lines. It’s really useful … but maybe only for guys like me who get a little obsessive with such details.

    Anyway, thanks for your various tutorials Tom. They are truly useful.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks, Carl. I’ll try that out.

    Also, for those who are e-mailing me saying this doesn’t work for them: my instructions are for PhotoShop CS3 and keyboard shortcuts are for the Mac. Sorry, I don’t have earlier versions of PhotoShop anymore to see how to do it there.

  3. DShultz says:

    Awesome tip! I’ve already used it, and not to mention the improvement in the quality of linework, it saved me a huge amout of time spent manipulating and re-rendering in PhotoShop.

    BTW this is in PhotoShop 6.0 / Win.

  4. robinriley says:

    Another version of carlpeterson’s adapted from the link below:

    Open your image up in Photoshop. You will notice that in the layers palette there will be one layer named Background. To unlock the layer, double-click on the word Background. In the dialog box name the layer or keep the name Layer 0. The layer now has the ability of being transparent.

    Do a select all and copy the image. Add a layer mask by clicking on the icon at the bottom of the layers palette.

    Make the mask visible by option + click (on the PC, alt + click) on the mask thumbnail. You now see in your image area what is on the thumbnail, just solid white.

    Paste the image into the mask thumbnail by choosing Edit\Paste from the menu or using the keyboard shortcuts command + v (on the PC, control + v). Both thumbnails look identical.

    Choose Image\Adjust\Invert from the menu. The mask thumbnail is now the opposite or negative of the image.

    Click back on the original hand thumbnail in the layer palette to see how the mask of the hand knocks out the white background. You see a checkerboard pattern to indicate the transparent area.

    Create a new layer by choosing the new icon at the bottom of the layer palette or by choosing New Layer from the menu. Name the layer Painting. Change the stacking order by dragging the Painting layer underneath Layer 0. You can now paint on the Painting layer without the worry of covering any of the black pencil sketch of the hand.

    To merge the layer mask: >Menu>Layers>Remove layer mask>Apply

    Now create additional layers and add colors using the paintbucket tool

    Checkout this link:

  5. Hmm, learned a few new key commands today. I have to reset the swatches fairly often, so I’m happy there’s a key command for that. I’ve never messed around with the channels all that much, but I can see I’ll be doing that more often now.

  6. Nopolymon says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for the tip. It has saved me tons of time in my work.
    – Ira Coffin


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