Sunday Mailbag

October 23rd, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I wanted to ask you a question about your Photoshop coloring technique: how do you avoid getting ‘spotting’ in Photoshop when you’re using washes? I’m referring to the crossover area between one wash and another: where they intersect there’s an area of brush-shaped darker color caused by laying down a wash with less-than-100% opacity and crossing over it with another wash of less-than-100% opacity. How do you avoid that? Your finished pieces never have that artifacting, which probably has a better term than “spotting.” The video tutorial, while fantastic on its own, does not have the resolution to show something that detailed. So I thought I’d take a shot in the dark and ask! I’ve found all the Mad artists I’ve contacted have been more than receptive to my questions (I had a 6 month or so running conversation about crowd scenes with Tom Bunk a few years ago). It seems like you like to answer fans’ questions too, especially something like this where other people may find it helpful too.

A: I don’t avoid it, I embrace it.

If I understand what you are asking about, that transparency effect is part of the overall effect of making the digitally colored artwork look little real media. Actual watercolor washes do the same thing IF the layer you are washing over is dry.

This study is done is done in real watercolor:

Noe here’s a close-up of a section of the image. You can see that each wash has that darkening of values and mixing of color as one is placed over the other:

Granted, this is not the best example because this is a loose study and not a finished piece, but you get the idea. It’s not something to avoid, it’s a part of the technique and something you have to make work for you.

Here’s a digital colored piece to demonstrate the Photoshop version of the effect:

Here’s a closeup so you can see the wash effects:

It’s smoother than the rough watercolor study, but you can see the same dynamic with the washes overlapping each other creating variations in value and color. The line work holds it together as well.

The basic technique digitally is the same as it is with real watercolor…you build form by building values through washes. All your washes have “holes” in them where you want the lightest values to be. That’s the white of the paper coming through. The next layer of washes has “holes” in different places, creating different values of highlights. When you work digitally, you have the added advantage of being able to completely erase or paint 100% opaque white back over the washes to create lighter values later, whereas with real media painting with white or lighter colors over your washes takes away some of the tranluscent qualities of the color and creates¬¨‚Ć “chalky” feel to it.

One more point, the process of printing really has an impact on the harshness of some of the edges of these values. What looks stark and blotchy on the screen melts together somewhat in print, giving you a softer and more blended look.

Thanks to Anthony DeLellis 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 and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Hey Tom,

    As a fellow cartoonist for hire, you are a great inspiration to me. I can only look at your work with great admiration (and envy, hehe) I’ve been a fan of your work for a long, long time. If you have any advice for me in terms of the biz, I’d love to know.

    Best wishes,

    Jamie Sale

  2. Anthony DeLellis says:

    Hey there, Tom –
    Thanks for posting an answer to my question! I feel honored to be part of the mailbag! 🙂

    Also, it was a little difficult describing what I was talking about so I’m glad you understood, though there was one other issue I was asking about – the overlapping circles that seem to show up sometimes. Turns out that’s just a brush setting that can be changed.

    And as is frequently the case in getting tips like this, the tip that spoke most to me out of your answer was something simple that I just hadn’t ever really thought of because of being so used to working on paper – using white to clean up!

    Thanks again for the tip. Keep ’em comin’- you’re a wonderful resource and I’m always happy to encounter successful artists who remember where they came from and aren’t afraid to engage us lowly students of the craft:)


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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