Sunday Mailbag

February 20th, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Like yourself I prefer to ink and scan. I do use a digital pen for all the colouring, washes and so forth but for the fine detail of the lining I prefer the real thing. So, I notice not all of your artwork is black outlined, some of your work you colour the lining to match the area it is next to, so perhaps a brown for the lining around the skin, blue for jeans, gray for hair and so on. So my question is, do you alter the colour of the lines in Photoshop or do you use inks or paints on paper first and then scan it in?

A: A few years ago I began experimenting with a colored line style of illustration that was essentially my MAD line and color style but with… wait for it… colored lines. It didn’t change my approach at all but made the final results more painterly looking and softer, which many art directors like better than the more cartoon looking black line.

Here’s an example:

Click for a closer look…

I ink the illustration as usual with black ink, then color the lines in PhotoShop. It’s easy to do. First follow these instructions to create the linework on it’s own otherwise transparent layer:

  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

With the line layer as the active layer, go to the layer’s palette. Above the list of layers, there is the word “Lock:” followed by several icons. Click the first icon, the box with the checkered pattern. This locks the transparent areas of the layer. After that, color will only “stick” to the lines, allowing you to paint them any color with the brush tool and maintain the line integrity.

Thanks to Scott Evans for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!


  1. josh says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial, Tom! I’ve been using a similar system to color my line art and also do some basic (yet inefficient) color holds. The one thing I was missing was locking the transparent areas of the layer. This is definitely one of those million dollar photoshop tips that opens up a world of possibilites. It kind of reminds me of how I felt when someone first showed me about setting the line art to a multiply layer.

    Thank you!

  2. Stan says:

    Have you ever experimented using the actions palate in Photoshop. I believe you can make that an action and in one click, have all that done for you.

  3. Jason says:

    Thanks so much! I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this with a grayscale image for quite a while. I’ve even had people tell me it couldn’t be done – though I knew that wasn’t the case.

  4. Beth Cravens says:

    Cool, I’ll give that a try. Thanks!

  5. nunz says:

    What a great Q & A!!! This site is such a gift!

  6. Scott Evans says:

    What a fast reply, fantastic. This is pretty much the technique I use, and I agree that it really makes a picture look that extra bit special, though the time it takes to colour all the lines ( especially if it is a very detailed active picture) can be almost as long as it takes to colour the fills.

    Big fan

  7. julio cesar naranjo says:

    Hi Tom great tip ill go to Photoshop and see what happens. Take care.


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