How to Color Inked Line Art in Photoshop


Click the image below to see it in full size.

Step 1: Scanning Your Inks

In this tutorial, I’m going to use my own illustration. Feel free to use your own illustration or use the source file provided at the end of the tutorial to follow along.

Make sure you are scanning in black and white. This ensures that you have solid black lines with no soft edges. This is important as we will be isolating the line art onto its own layer — it’s much easier to do this when the line art is clean and solid.

Step 2: Isolating the Line Art

Now that we have our image scanned, open it in Adobe Photoshop. We want to separate the inks onto their own layers for more control. To do this, we want to select the white background and delete it.

Press Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Option + 2 (for Photoshop CS4 and up) or Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Option + ~ (for Photoshop CS3 and below). This command places a selection around all the light-colored areas of the layer.

Tip: I encourage you to know and use Photoshop shortcut keys; it saves a lot of time.

Then press Delete to remove the selected white areas, leaving us with just the line art on this layer.

Create a new layer (Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + N). Use Edit > Fill (Shift + F5) to fill the entire layer with white. Move this layer below the line art layer. Lock this layer. We won’t need to do anything to it anymore.

Step 3: Clean Up Inks

It’s always a good practice to erase as much of your pencil lines before you scan in your inks. It lessens the work later in the digital stage. But still, we’ll often still need to clean up our inks digitally. Let’s do some tidying up!

With the inks on their own layer, run through them with the Eraser Tool (E) to get rid of any unwanted marks.

Step 4: Flats

Flatting (or flats) is blocking in color that serves as placeholders. Flats are not your final colors; instead, they help you gain control to make coloring and rendering efficient. The term comes from the coloring specialist, Flatter, in the comic industry.

Let’s start by creating a new layer underneath our line art layer.

Next, grab the Lasso Tool (L) and make sure that the Anti-alias option in the Options Bar is not checked.

Start tracing the line-work with the Lasso Tool and filling (Shift + F5) the Lasso selections with whatever color you want.

The completed flat for the face should look something like this:

You will continue this process until you have all the areas covered. In short, any area you want to color is going to have a different color flat. It doesn’t matter which colors you use in this stage, so long as the same colors don’t touch. Your final flats should look something like this:

This can be a long and tedious process, but the hour and a half you spend flatting could easily translate into saving three hours in the final coloring stages.

Step 5: Coloring

Now that the flats are finished, we need to lock the layer. This is where you start making choices and experimenting, because it’s time to color!

You should have your flats layer locked. Now, grab your Magic Wand Tool (W), make sure to have the Tolerance option set to 0, Anti-alias option unchecked and Contiguous option unchecked (this can all be done in the Options bar). 

Use the Magic Wand Tool to select the different colors on your flats layer and filling (Shift + F5) your colors on the new layer above it.

I’m going for a purple-ish overall tone with a yellow/green background, but I may decide to change it to a red, a green, or even a yellow tone down the road. Since I can go back to my flats layer and grab anything I want, everything can be changed or fixed. This is one major advantages of flatting.

For now, I’m going to stick with the colors shown below.

Step 6: Rendering

Here’s another stage where the choices are yours. You could just leave these colors flat, or you could make a custom brush and start painting.

For this piece, I will go with a basic cel-shading style — blue shadow on everything. I’m doing this, because I know I’m going to be playing around with a lot of watercolor textures later, and I don’t want an overly rendered look.

So with the Magic Wand Tool (W), let’s grab all the areas of the Hunter and his Horse. Pick a nice blue shade color, and start coloring where you want your shadows.

I did this on a single layer to minimize the number of layers I end up with as well as using as little machine power to prevent crash or lag.

Here is the result:

Now we are going to create a new layer on top of the shadows layer to add some gradients to the background and the shield.

Use the Magic Wand Tool (W) to select the background. Once selected, use the Gradient Tool (G), setting it to Linear Gradient and choosing the Foreground to Transparent preset in the Options bar.

Step 7: Textures

I scanned in various watercolor textures that I made. (If you are following along with the provided source file at the bottom of this tutorial, they are included in the layers.)

If you are scanning in your own textures in Photoshop, switch to the Move Tool (V), Shift-click on the scanned-in texture and then drag it over into our main document. (A possible option is to use the Watercolor Textures: Photoshop Brush Pack instead.)

It’ll look something like this:

Now we just want this texture to affect the Hunter. In other words, we want to delete the texture off the Horse and the background. This is also where flatting becomes quite helpful.

Let’s go back to the flats layer, use the Magic Wand Tool (W) to select the background and the horse, and then press Delete. Now our texture is only affecting our Hunter and a bit of his saddle.

To add more depth, let’s tweak the layer’s Blend Mode and Opacity. There are many cool effects in the different layer modes, but for this tutorial, we will use the Overlay mode. This is one of my favorites when working with textures. Select the texture layer, set it to Overlay. Next, lower the texture layer’s Opacity to lessen the intensity — drop the dial back to about 63%. Feel free to experiment.

This is the most basic way to deal with textures. Using this method, I dragged over a few more textures into the piece and isolated them to certain areas using our flats. I ended up with this:

Using the method above, complete your textures.

Step 8: Adjustment Layers – The Finishing Touch

The illustration is nearly complete, but it needs a little refinement. This is when I usually start playing around with adjustment layers. These are great because you can get many different effects without changing the pixels of your image. I want to add a little color in the line art. The stark black of the line art stands out from the muted palette. Let’s tone it down.

Click on the inks layer to make it the active layer, and then click on the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon (it looks like a black and white pie) at the bottom of your Layers panel, then choose Solid Color.

Since it has a lot of purple, I want the inks to fit in instead of standing out. I’m going to select a purple color. The entire layer should be filled with the color you have selected. In this case, purple.

Essentially the adjustment layer is affecting everything beneath it, but we only want to affect the layer directly beneath it (the inks layer).

So right-click on the Solid Color adjustment layer and then choose Create Clipping Mask from the menu.

The result should look like the following:

However, the outcome seems too bright still. Lower the Opacity of the adjustment layer to about 33%.

Step 9: Flatten the Image

This all looks good to me at this point, and I’m going to call it done! To finish up, let’s flatten the image. Right-click on any layer and choose Flatten Image from the menu that appears. You can also do this from the Photoshop menu by going to Layer > Flatten Image.

Convert the image from RGB to CMYK for print by choosing Image > Mode > CMYK Color.

Tutorial Summary

That’s it! I hope you picked up something interesting in this coloring tutorial. I talked about several techniques such as cleaning up inks, creating flats, adding textures and using adjustment layers.

For inspiration, check out the portfolio sites of these digital colorists:

Download Source Files

  • Cool tutorial! There are some great techniques here for working with illustrations in Photoshop, and the tutorial clearly explains some effective ways to do just that. Really nice work!

  • Great tutorial, with some interesting tips to use! Also, nice illustration!

  • awsome one!! Plzz try to put some more on typography too.

  • Cool tutorial! Thx for that one! 😉

  • This is great! Thanks for the quick and informative tutorial.

  • Marcelo

    Not the best way to separate the inks from the background. It’s to much precise to create an alpha channel 😉

  • thanks guys, glad you liked it.

  • Pedro Guedes

    the source file link is broken! very good tut! i enjoy it!

  • @Marcelo

    I’ve seen the alpha channel way, too. I haven’t experimented much with it, so I don’t know the differences in benefits. But I’ll definitely give it a try. Thanks, dude!

  • Marcelo

    The basic difference between both methods is that using an Alpha channel you eliminate absolutely all white pixels, with the other method not at all. I’m sure if you put your lineart over a black canvas there are still some white pixels. Alpha channels are perfect! 😉

  • That’s true if your lineart has been scanned in color. But if you do a black and white scan you should only have white and black pixels. Or if you scan in color, adjust levels and then use the threshhold mask, you’re at black and white only again. Then, when you use the step I did, it actually does grab all the white pixels.

    However, I know that doing the step i mentioned does use the channels, but it’s been such a long time that I only remember the hotkey shortcut and not how to do it by going in channels. We might actually be doing something very similar.

  • Nice informatic tutorial of photoshop.Thank you.

  • Oops. Apologies for that. The source file link should now be working.

  • Great tutorial except for one thing. It’s much easier after opening your line art in photoshop and going to layers apply “Multiply”. That way your line are can be as dirty or clean as you like without having to worry about deleting the white.

  • That’s definitely a valid method when coloring pencils or paintings you’ve scanned in. The benefits of isolating your lineart, however, especially inked line art, is that it gives you more control and options later on down the road.

    You’ll often see illustrators and comic colorists coloring over the inked art, which is optional, but a great way to show atmostpheric perspective or experiment with the range of options you have with photoshop.

    The “multiply” option is easy, but I prefer to have as much control as possible over my stuff these days.

  • Dina Fiala

    This was great. Thanks so much, Matt Fox. You’re awesome!

  • Wow I love the effect.

  • Great tutorial. I love flats method and use it myself when I’m working with more than a few colors.

    I have also played with the various techniques of isolating the black and use one not yet mentioned here.

    I use a non-photo blue pencil, but any color works.
    Scan, and then bump the levels and saturation a little to make the blue a little more saturated.
    Under “Select” go to “Color Range” and select the line art.
    On another layer use the paint bucket with “Contiguous” selected and hit it a couple times until the lines are fully black. Trash the original layer.
    Sometimes a slight blur to make the lines a bit more smooth.

    The thing I like is that the blue line goes away completely without erasing anything!

  • Garnet Lynne

    Really cool, it’s involved but worth it. At times I use PS for work, but I also work in a program specific to Manga and comic art. This is helpful when I need to use PS for more dramatic coloring. way cool and thank you.

  • Great tutorial, I picked up a few helpful hints. I never thought of using adjustment layers to tint the lines, I might try that some time 🙂
    I agree with Marcelo though, I do use an alpha channel to clean my lines as I actually prefer to use pencil and do some partial shading and texturing of the drawing before I scan it. While your technique is perfectly valid for your ink drawings, I like to use the alpha channel method because it preserves all the grey tones as well, over colour they appear semitransparent. I used to use the multiply method but it caused a lot of annoying problems…

  • dharmendra soni

    matt fox tanks for gret work

  • The problem with your method is, that you end up with pixely edges. After you cleaned up your line-work (with curves or levels that should be easy), try the following:

    – select everything [ctrl][a]
    – copy [ctrl][c]
    – quick mask [q]
    – paste [ctrl][v]
    – quick mask (back) [q]
    – new layer
    – default foreground/background [d]
    – fill [shift][backspace] => use foreground color

    Sounds like a lot, but with shortcuts thats done in a matter of seconds. I can do it without thinking by now 😉 You might have to invert the selection before filling, depending on your quick mask setting.

  • Brian

    Great tutorial–especially the flatting; that’s a massive time-saver and allows for quick experimentation of ideas.

    For isolating the line art, I usually take the scan and make it a Multiply layer. This effectively eliminates the white pixels without severely aliasing the edges. If you duplicate this layer a few times (Ctrl+J) the stray marks and faint pencil lines will be easy to spot; they can be erased on the original layer and then the duplicates deleted, or you can combine all the layers (Ctrl+E) for a very strong line art layer (with some aliasing).

  • Brian

    Go to your line art layer (the original scan)…

    1. Ctrl+A to grab all the pixels
    2. Ctrl+C to copy
    3. Add a mask to the layer
    4. Hold the Alt key and click on the mask
    5. Ctrl+V to paste
    6. Ctrl+I to invert the image if necessary

    Now you can paint all over the original scan layer but the mask will control what shows up. This also eliminates the aliasing problem and allows you to keep rough or “sketchy” lines if desired.

  • Anon

    I used to Photoshop like this then I took an arrow to the knee.

  • Tim Hurt

    refreshing, since I haven’t seen Custom Suite 5, at work.

  • Vijay Giri

    Thank you for sharing….it is great help for beginners like me…..

  • WOW!!! that is insanely awesome!

  • Thanks for this tutorial– I usually use the Multiply method for isolating my line art, but I’m going to try this. The lines look a lot cleaner this way.

    Great comics, too!

  • shana banana

    THIS. Thank you!

  • dedi

    keren abeeeez (Indonesian language means: awesome..)

  • Mina

    Thanks a lot for this AWESOME tutorial! It helps me a lot!

    But I have a problem, during Step 5 – when I selecet the parts with the Magic Wand Tool and create a new layer above it – then I want to fill the parts in with 100% and the same colour, all the parts look … weirdly coloured and not smooth like yours. Its not the same colourtype in the outcome, all parts look different because the before-colours are so different. What am I doing wrong? =/

    Thanks, Mina

  • Matt Fox

    I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean, Mina. You’re selecting your flats, creating a new layer and filling it with a new color and that new color isn’t solid? Do you mean the edges are faded? Is the new color a muddy mix of the flats and your new color?

    If it’s the first, then you need to select your flats with the magic want tool having 0 tolerance and the anti-alias box unchecked. That will keep your colors restricted to the pixels of the flats you select.

    If that’s not the case, and the color you’re picking isn’t the color that’s filling in, it may be that your new layer’s opacity or fill isn’t 100%.

    Let me know if either of these are the case, or if it’s something else.

  • Aly

    Thanks for your tutorial!
    Beautiful work~!

  • Aly

    Also, I couldn’t find the “Create Clipping Mask” which is fine because I liked the lines, but ugh..

  • gilbert

    i have to ask: for this type of work, what would be an ideal scanning ‘resolution’ and ‘size’ to be entered upon hitting the scan button?

  • Remco

    Great tutorial Matt and thank you for the generosity of creating this freely.
    One suggestion, instead of simply saying use this short cut, explain what you are doing and refer to the step in detail. It took me a while to discover what your short cut was actually doing ie. select colour range by shade.

  • Matt

    you just need to right-click on the layer and there will be an option available to “create clipping mask.”

  • Matt

    Scanning at 300dpi is all you need. I drew this on a sheet of 11×17.

  • Michelle

    Thank you so much! I’ve learned a lot here, that will now save me so much time and work. You are both skilled and generous. My gratitude and respect x

  • This is great man! Great stuff!

  • Lindsay

    This is what I was looking for. Thank you.

  • Kwesu

    Very helpful.

    Am definitely using the solid colour fill option.


  • Tuaha badar

    thanks for this great tutorial, i can now illustrate my book cover for school project easily 🙂

  • Alie

    Thank you so much for this tutorial, it is really helpful!!! You are very clear and easy to understand!

  • Better still,….

    -Inverse selection after coming out of quick mask.
    -Press ‘add layer mask’ button.

    Now your line art is not just separate from the whites, you can also manipulate the colour of your line art freely. As the line art is being held as a mask.

  • MihaelKeehl

    Thanks for the tutorial, dude! I’ve just started inking traditionally instead of digitally. Reading the comments, I too have always used multiply, I’ll have to try out deleting the white instead! I really liked the way you added the purple tint to the lines.

    Your inking itself looks really good, I’m curious as to what tools you used. Brushes, pens? 🙂

  • Ella

    I’m not so sure I know how do step five, because it’s not working.

  • kyra weatherall

    Ihave not tried it yet, because im still inking my work but the coloring in inking is different.
    I have a question “when inking a drawing does all the ink of every page, image, item have to be black ink?
    I want my people brown, apple red, bananas yellow, ect, and that is just with the tracing of the images. Then I want to use photoshop coloring.
    An idea in progress

  • This tutorial is frikkin awesome!!
    Answered so many of my questions..
    Thanks sooo much!!
    Can’t wait to try this out on my drawings.
    Great work!

  • stacy

    Is step 2 for mac computers? 🙁
    how can i do step 2 on a pc?
    nice tutorial by the way, it looks really helpful and id love to try it out!

  • Excellent tutorial.
    That’s a great and natural colorization.

  • Very nice tutorial. I recently started making webcomics and this technique will definitely help!

  • Bardzo dobry tutorial

  • According to Google Translate, Michal’s comment is in Polish and translates to:

    Very good tutorial

  • Paulo

    Thanks a lot man!

  • Thank you so much for this!

  • Hailey

    Do you make a new layer for every new flat you make?

  • I’m an illustrator, but I’m very disorganized in PS. This is pretty inspirational to me. Thanks for the tutorial!

  • evie

    where did you learn do draw like that!?

  • We always used to just put the line art on top of everything and give it a blending mode of Multiply. This gives you the absolute best line fidelity and line/color blending when you want black lines.

    If you need to isolate your lines and modify the color, the second best would be to simply scan, desaturate, inverse and create an alpha layer. That gives you the most freedom and the best quality (it just takes a few seconds longer).

    I recommend applying the alpha layer to either a regular layer so you can paint the lines any color you want or a solid-color adjustment layer so it’s very easy to adjust the overall colors quickly.

  • Hilary

    This is fantastic. I’ve just started learning and practicing illustration, and although I am very familiar with Photoshop, I have never used it for digitally drawing or painting, and I was nervous about how to begin. This tutorial is very helpful in giving me tips for how to approach the process. Thank you!

  • Simon Kweku

    Great! I like your version of separating line art from its background.
    It’s not only simple, it’s perfect!

    Thanks for this detailed tutorial.

  • Anushree

    You have no idea how great a teacher you are! Thank you so much for this tutorial! Made my day!

  • Somedude

    Wow, thanks for the tips. Your process is quite slow, I’d use something else for coloring. For example in TVPaint you have filled shapes, it’s a very fast way of creating blocks of color. I guess you can do similar stuff in Illustrator or other vector drawing programs. When you mentioned 3 hours for selecting all those areas I nearly fainted haha.. I’m also drawing directly in TVP so I fill shapes with the bucket tool and then only fix the details here and there. Creating careful area selections is a clean way to be sure.. but it sounds incredibly boring and it’s way too slow.

  • Storm Machinine

    This tutorial was great but I’ve encountered a problem while saving a file as a photoshop file and trying to colour it afterwards. Even with both the anti-alias and contiguous option unchecked following these steps it still will fill in the lines.

  • fab

    how to pass in false color to purple shades ???????????????????????????????

  • Uhegbu Abraham

    I was kinda following but got lost when I got to step 5. That was because I could not find the tolence and anti-alias option after selecting the “magic wand”… I use adobe Photoshop cs3.

  • Richie A

    Um, THANK YOU! Can’t wait to get some free time and try this method.

  • Bella Morgan

    Really good tutorial…thanks for posting this!

  • Tshele Letuka

    im struggling to use the eraser. please help. been struggling for the past month. I’m new to Photoshop

  • Justine

    Thank you – this is awesome and I picked up some cool tips.

  • Lana

    This is the best tutorial ever. Super clear, it coveres every important stage. I cannot thank you enough. 🙂

  • Jef Winter

    Thank you Matt

  • aicha

    hi am new to photoshop
    am trying to do a comic book its for uni
    i’ve scan the first page.. when am painting the hair (brown) everywhere is becoming brown.. and when am painting the line it becomes pale
    am having problem on the layer idk which one must be below and above
    can someone help please???
    Thnk you in advance 🙂

  • Elif Tuna

    Thanks a lot for this tutorial! It really helped me a lot.