Digital Color Tutorial Part One

March 26th, 2007 | Posted in Tutorials

We begin with a piece of inked line art that we intend to color. I’m using this self caricature done for promotional purposes. It’s a simple, uncomplicated image and there is literally no background, so it will be ideal for this demonstration of the digital line art color technique I use for MAD and other clients. If you are wondering about the inking process, check out my inking tutorial from a few months ago about how to arrive at a clean, inked piece of line art.

BTW, I am using Photoshop CS2 on a Mac Pro running OS X. This all works just fine in Photoshop on the PC, and I’ve indicated PC shortcuts in parentheses. I approached this tutorial with the assumption that some readers will be unfamiliar with even the basic Photoshop elements, so I include the simplest of concepts and steps quite often. My apologies to the Photoshop pros who have to gloss over these parts.

Getting the Line Art Into Photoshop

The first step is to scan the inked art into Photoshop for coloring. Since the settings related to this depend on the type of scanner and scanning software used, it’s pointless to do screen captures for this part. I use a Microtek Scanmaker 9800 XL and their Scanmaker Pro software, so any settings I specify are for that particular combination of hardware and software. You’ll have to experiment with whatever equipment and software you have for best effect.

I scan the line art in as grayscale, not as line art. The reason for this is it gives me a softer, more subtle feel to the lines and picks up the sharpest tapers and lighter touches. It also allows me to play with the density of the inks… I might use a 50% diluted ink for some background elements, for example. I set my scan software’s Dynamic Range: Density Histogram to 1.40D and .05D for consistent density of black, and scan at 300 DPI. I don’t need to scan any higher resolution because my artwork is always drawn and inked at 150 to 200%.

Once scanned in I might play a bit with the levels (Menu bar: Image: Adjustments: Levels), adjusting the right slider slightly darker (to the right) and the contrast higher (to the left) to reduce any remaining ghosts of pencil lines my eraser didn’t quite get. I will then use the eraser tool to “clean up” the image and fix any mistakes I may have used white-out for if I hadn’t been so lazy. Once my image is cleaned up and ready, it’s time to separate the line art to it’s own layer.

Scanned, cleaned and ready for prepping

The technique I use is largely reliant on the lines being “on top” of the color, so they are not messed up in any way and remain strong. In order to do this, I apply most of my color on layers beneath the lines, sort of like coloring an animation cell. Placing the lines on their own layer is easy using I trick I read in a Photoshop tips book that I sadly cannot remember the name of. Here are the steps:

Start by duplicating the line art onto another layer by ctrl+clicking (right-click for PC) the “Background” layer in the Layers Palette and select “Duplicate Layer”.


Name this layer “Inks” (or “Fred”, if you want…)


You’ll have the linework on a new layer above the background, which also contains the same linework.


Next you need to remove the ‘white’ of the paper on the “Inks” layer, leaving just the lines. The easy way to do this is to change the layer mode from “Normal” to “Multiply”. To do this, highlight the ‘Inks” layer in the Layers palette and click on the drop box directly beneath the palette’s tab. These are the different choices for the layer’s mode. Select “Multiply”.


You will instantly see the lines darken and become thicker. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that. The “Multiply” mode has the effect of taking all the values and colors on the layer and making them like they are printed on a piece of acetate or clear plastic. Whatever is on layers beneath them becomes ‘multiplied’ with whatever is on the Multiply layer. The exceptions to this are pure back, which is opaque, and pure white, which becomes totally transparent. The grays of the grayscale line image become translucent and multiply with the lower layer images they overlay… in this case the original line drawing. That’s why the lines seem thicker and darker.

Suddenly WAAAY too dark…

That’s easy to fix. Select “Background” in the Layers palette. Press Command+A (Alt+A for PC) to select the entire layer. Press “Delete” to erase the image on the Background layer. Press Command+D to deselect the layer. The lines in the image are back to the right line density.

That’s better!

The final steps before we begin coloring is to switch to a color mode. and to size the image to print size. On the menu bar, select “Image”, then “Mode”, then the color mode you want. If it’s for print, I always just go right to CMYK. If it’s for the web or a computer screen, use RGB. You’ll get a message asking if you want to flatten the image. Select “Do Not Flatten”. The art is still at the size of the scanned original, and since I always do my inks at 150% to 200% of the final printed size it needs shrinking. I select “Image” again on the menu bar, then “Image Size”. Sticking with 300 DPI, I change the physical dimensions either by a percentage or by altering one of the side dimensions in the “Document Size” area. Make sure you have the “Constrain Proportions” and “Resample Image” checkboxes checked. In this case I just reduce it from 8 to 5 Inches wide. The height is adjusted automatically.


We now have our image ready to begin coloring. The lines are on their own layer, the image in color mode and sized to print size.

Ready to start coloring!

Tomorrow: Part Two!! Base Color Application


  1. This whole tutorial series is absolutely excellent! Thanks for taking the time to share Tom. Great to see how one of the “MAD masters” does it.

  2. cecil says:

    First off, thanks a million for the tutorials. If a moron like me can figure out 50% of the content then the rest of the users should make fantastic progress. My only significant stumbling block comes in Part One of the digital color tutorial. After I duplicated and multiplied my line art I tried to de-select the layer to achieve the right line density and all I got was a blank black screen. What did I do wrong? By the way, I’m operating on a PC if that makes any difference at all. Thanks again, sorry for the trouble!

  3. vedala says:

    I just discovered yesterday!! tutorials straight from the master’s mouth. wow!
    btw, Tom, if you are not too busy, would you be kind enough to look at my cartoons and a feedback perhaps:

    Due to lack of knowledge, I use to just scan into a pdf form (office HP printer/scanner) and use ArtWeaver to color here and there. I struggle with lines, pencil scan is not smooth at all. I use to wonder how MAD does such coloring and now I have the answer.


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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