Digital Color Tutorial Part Three

March 28th, 2007 | Posted in Tutorials

Rendering with Washes

Now begins the real painting. We’ll start out with the fleshtones. It’s a simple matter to mask off the flesh areas, as they are all defined by the base color we applied.

Before we proceed, I’ve uploaded my basic Photoshop color swatch palette for those interested to download. It’s not very well organized, as I add colors to it as I work on pieces that I might need to use a lot and then never erase them, so everything is all over the place, but here it is.

Click for the palette file in ZIP form

Mac users just click the palette image and choose where to download the ZIP file to. Windows users right click it and choose “save target as” and the location. Unzip, place it in your “presets” folder in the Photoshop application folder of your hard drive, and then you can load it as you wish in Photoshop.

First making sure I am on the “Figure” layer, I select the Magic Wand Tool and click within the flesh areas to select them. You can click each individual area while holding down the shift key , but it’s easier to go to the Photoshop menu bar (when the Magic Wand tool is active) and uncheck the “Contiguous” checkbox. Now one click of the base fleshtone will select all the base fleshtones in the image.

Flesh area selected

The “marching ants” line around the selection drives me crazy, so I make it go away with a command+H (Alt+H). It’s still there, it’s just invisible.

I also need to ‘turn on’ the pen pressure’s control of the opacity of the color I am painting with. Again I access the Brush Presets tabbed menu on the upper right of the Photoshop menu bar, and select “Other Dynamics”. Under “Opacity Jitter” I set the “Control” option for “Pen Pressure”. I make sure the “Other Dynamics” checkbox in now checked. Now how hard I press with the pen will make my brush bigger and the color I am using more opaque.


Now I can get busy with the color rendering. My basic approach is to select colors and add them on top of the base color to add both darker and lighter values to create shadows, highlights and introduce other colors like reds, greens and such to create a watercolor-like effect. The best way to demonstrate this is via a video, so here is a screen capture video of my rendering the face and arm of this image. The quality of YouTube videos is limited, and as a result this isn’t exactly ideal, but you’ll get the idea. The entire process here took about sixteen minutes, but it’s time-lapsed down to five.

I start out with a slightly darker value of the fleshtone, and begin to lightly wash in the beginnings of shadow. Because the opacity of the color is controlled by pen pressure, I can get some soft and subtle transitions from the base flesh to the shadows. Right now I keep the overall opacity setting of the brush on 100%, and use only the pen control for opacity changes. I have a wide range of fleshtone swatches that I use, most variations of maroon and burgundy for shadows mixed with the base flesh, getting darker and darker in value. Same with the lighter colors, although they are mostly just lighter values of the base flesh color. I keep working darker toward the deepest shadows, and then lighter in the highlight areas toward bright white. Eventually I introduce other colors. I add red to the nose, ears and cheek areas by selecting the bright red swatch, and then lowering the overall opacity of the brush to 20% (Photoshop menu bar, “Opacity:” slider box on left side of bar). This creates some luminous reds without turning me into Rudolph. I do the same thing when adding some blue/green to the beard area. This time the opacity is set to 10% after selecting a dark blue/green swatch. At some point I use white to paint in the teeth and eyes, then add color to them as well.

The whole process is a layering of wash after wash, to create a painterly look. The digital feel of the painting is removed by both the technique and the process of printing itself. There is a certain amount of “melting” that occurs when a piece is printed, and that adds to the general effect. So, even though we see a fair amount of hard, digital “edges” and the circles of the Brush tool, much of this will get lost in the print process. At the end we’ll add some other highlights as well as bring in colors from the environment around the face.

Now it’s a matter of applying the same process to each different area. Now I can mask off the shirt, for example, and start rendering that. In the case of an object that is one basic color, the Color Picker becomes a great way of finding good shadow and highlight colors. Double clicking the foreground color swatch at the bottom of the Tools palette always brings up the Color Picker. After using the Magic Wand tool to select the red T-shirt, I switch to the Brush tool.

At this point I should bring up Photoshop keyboard shortcuts. Constantly going back and forth from various palettes to select different tools is tedious and time consuming. Photoshop has many keyboard shortcuts to make your life a lot easier. I have my left hand on my keyboard on my left and the pen in my right hand, and use my left to access the keyboard shortcuts. For example, each tool has a corresponding letter to press to switch to it. the “B” key changes to the Brush tool. “M” switches to the Marquee or selector tool. “W” is the Magic Wand tool. Pressing and holding the “Spacebar” changes the cursor to the Hand tool, which you use to scroll the image. There are other shortcuts that work different depending on what tool you have selected. One I use a lot is the “[” and “]” bracket keys. When using the Brush tool, pressing the left bracket “[” decreases the brush size incrementally, while the other “]” bracket key increases the size. That’s extremely handy to quickly change the size when painting without having to access the Brush Preset menu. Another one is the “Option” key (ALT for the PC) when I’m using the Brush tool. Holding down this key changes the brush to the Eyedropper, and allows me to quickly switch my color to another in the illustration. This is very useful for blending two colors, or just for changing colors on the fly without needing to access the swatches. There are lots of others. I have several function buttons built into the sides of my Cintiq that are customizable, and have some of these shortcuts programed into them for very easy access.

Back to work! Using the handy “Option” shortcut I use the Eyedropper to change to the shirt’s red color. Now I double click it in the foreground color box and bring up the Color Picker. by moving the circle within the gradated box, I can change to a darker value of the red color, and start using it to add washes of shadow.



With the red area still selected, I can paint loosely without getting outside the area I want. I build up the values with several washes of gradually darker color, then go the other direction with lighter color for highlights.

You can see the darker/lighter values added in the shirt

Now I move on to the blue jeans. Again, a quick selection of the area with the Magic Wand tool. Then the eyedropper tool switches me to the blue base color. A quick double click for the Color Picker, and I move to a darker value.

Using the Color Picker to get some Blue Jean shadow colors

On to the painting… the same process as I did with the shirt. With the blue jean base color selected (I left the ‘ants’ in there this time so you can see) I start to paint in some darker value, building up shadows and defining the forms.

Working up shadows

Then I add more and more washes of progressively darker color value. Eventually I move on to the highlights. Here I switch to a scratchier brush to achieve a little of the texture of blue jeans.

Deeper shadows and highlights add form and depth

I move on to the tennis shoes, following the same idea… I use pure white and the opacity control of my pen to wash in lighter values and then add darker ones as well.

Now that I’m done with the figure, I can move on to a different layer. I switch to the “Taboret” layer, select that color with the Magic Wand tool and add some simple values to define the legs and light source of the little table. I create some gradations using washes. I usually prefer washes to the airbrush style of brush, as it lends the hand painted look to the art. I also add some values and highlights to the pens, mug and inkwell.


Now I’ll switch to the “Table, Chair and Lamp” layer, and start selecting individual object’s base color, choosing darker and lighter values to paint with and start rendering them.

Just starting with the edge of the table top…

For example, I’ll select the blue of the chair and start defining shadows and some highlights with washes.

Rendering the chair

Then I’ll work on the desk, lamp and paper. I do use an airbrush soft brush for the paper shadows.

Lamp and chair base get worked on…

The paper shadows and more table details are added.

Finally, I add the background color and the shadows of the table and chair on the floor on the bottom “Background” layer.

A simple blue wash and purplish cast
shadow in the background

I now have the basic rendering done. It’s time to start adding the final highlights. Unlike the highlights in the individual renderings of the elements, these will include colors taken from the background, and will help separate elements with reflected light along edges. First I create another layer, called “Highlights” right under the “Inks” layer.


Now I add some reflected light to my back, the face, my hair, the top of my arms and other areas. I use a light blue from the background by selecting it with the Eyedropper, incorporating some color from the surrounding area that helps tie the figure and other objects into the environment as a whole.


I’ll add some more bright, hot highlight spots of pure white here and there as well on this layer. Because this layer is still below the “Inks” layer, it does not mess with the lines.

Now, however, I want to add highlights that will cover some of the linework, so I create yet another highlight layer, this one called “Highlights 2”, ABOVE the ink layer. Here I will add some highlights in the hair that I want to work on top of the inked lines. Stuff like my gray hair, for example.


Final highlights added

Looks like I am done. A very quick and simple paint job. I could have spent a lot more time adding background color reflections in my hair and other areas, but for what I need this will do nicely.

It's Me!
The finished product. Click for a BIG version…

I hope everybody enjoyed the tutorial, thanks for visiting.


  1. Justin says:

    Great tutorials! Thanks for the access to your color palette, it’s great. Right, I’m off to create in Photoshop. Thanks again, Tom.

  2. Robb says:

    Hey Tom –
    I’ve been a long time reader of your blog, and finally had to speak up: Thanks so much for all that you share with the world! I think blogs can sometimes feel like they don’t give enough back to the effort you put into maintaining them, so I wanted to let you know how much I love yours. I’m a student at the Ringling School of Art and Design and your site is a common stop for myself and many of the other students around me.
    Also: awesome color tutorial and I love actual drawing.
    Thanks for all you share Tom!!
    -Robb Gibbs

  3. Kirk says:

    Thanks alot Tom!

    Very timely help since I have a number of childrens puzzles I need to color this and next month. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m pretty rusty not having done this in awhile.

  4. shawn says:

    Hi Tom,

    I’ve also been a long time reader without commenting. Your blog is the one site I visit daily.
    Your color tutorials were greatly appreciated! Most artists who have such knowledge might keep it under wraps. Thanks.

  5. Tom says:

    Thanks, everybody-

    I know it can be hard to find the time to post comments on people’s blogs… whenever I do I feel obligated to post comments on every blog I visit, and NOBODY has time for that. I don’t do this expecting a lot of feedback and do not feel unappreciated when I only get a few comments here and there. I actually considered turning comments off completely when I started the blog just so no one felt obligated to post them, but found some people really want to give feedback and that’s okay. Besides, most of the art blogs with 50 plus comments on every post containing a scribble on a napkin are more about some weird social/cyber dynamic and a desperate need for validation on the part of the blogger than any meaningful communication.

    That said, I really do appreciate the few comments I get, especially ones like these. You are most welcome and thanks for reading.

  6. vivek says:

    Tom once again great stuff! I went MAD learning it! You’ve mentioned about streaky brushes…which one do you use specifically?

  7. ernie says:

    I notice that you leave your screen’s desktop as blue when you colored this piece. I have always been distracted, when I’m coloring, by anything other than a plan, neutral, middle gray desktop. Have you ever found that a colored desktop effects your coloring decisions?

    Thanks for your commitment to sharing.

  8. Tom says:

    Good question. I haven’t ever noticed or thought about it. I guess if I was coloring something right up close to the edge of an image the blue desktop might change the color’s effect for me, but I seldom do that. Certainly it doesn’t distract me, but it might change my color perceptions.

  9. mengblom says:

    An outstanding tutorial, Tom! You’ve got a real gift for instruction…must be all those years of teaching kids how to caricature. I’ve put together various tutorials for work projects, and I know they’re not easy to manage, with all those screen grabs of all the steps, making sure your directions would be understood by novices, etc. Again, great organization and flow of thought.

    Oh…and I can’t believe I didn’t hit you up to test drive your Cintiq table when I visited a few weeks back. Aaarrghh! Oh, well…maybe next time.

  10. SteveH says:

    Wonderful Tom, as everyone has already said, a real joy to watch after all the time and energy you put in to make the tutorial for your blog, we do appreciate your sharing the very interesting way you color. Its a big help and inspiration to us all!

  11. jancolors says:

    Cheers, Tom, thanks so much! Seems that I still have things to learn from a MAD magazine artist after all these years!! LOL

  12. Tom, the color tutorial is wonderful. With that said do you pursue any of your inking digitally? What are your thoughts there? I’ve found that I cannot control my line as well via drawing tablet versus a red sable brush.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.

    Thanks again for sharing your process.

  13. giangia says:

    Amazing tutorial, TOM!! I got a question, the guy that colors my comics uses some method for getting the page into print size and I don’t know if it’s right.
    As for the line not getting grey edges when changing its size, he streamline the art and then uses place in Photoshop to give it new size, the fact is that streamline modifies the lines, sometimes fine lines just dissapears. As we work in cartoon style stuff he uses a lot a bucket, so he can’t use the image with greyish edges. I’ll love knowing your opinion.

  14. vwdude says:

    Tom you have no idea how helpful these tutorials are. I’m working on a comic book project and digital painting is completely new to me so this is awesome. Its always great when someone who knows what they’re doing graciously shares their techniques and in a thorough and straightforward manner no less. Thankyou kindly, sir!

  15. boheem says:

    Your tutorials are incredibly generous. It’s invaluable to find someone with your talent who is willing to share his insights. Thanks, Tom!

  16. Rob G. says:

    Tom, great tutorials! I admire your style of art and painting techniques. I am a newbie to all this and I was watching your YOU TUBE video in Digital Coloring Part III and with the some what quality YOU TUBE videos are and with the speed going 3 to 5 times faster than normal… I am having a hard time seeing actually what you are doing. Is it possible for you to do a short video on the same project maybe the flesh tone on the face and make the video at normal speed? That way I think I can understand the process better. Thank you in advanced.


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