Get the Most Out of Your Line Drawing

Before I went to college, the only digital art I produced were little scribbles I made with my mouse in Microsoft Paint. Then, in my second semester, I took a little class called “Introduction to Computer Imaging” where I was first introduced to Photoshop. One of the first things I learned in that class was how to scan and color a drawing. I was absolutely fascinated with the idea of being able to put my drawing on its own layer and be able to color it without worrying about ruining it.

My drawings are still an integral part of my digital paintings. Whether it is a clean ink line or a rough sketch, it can be an important tool and a deciding factor in the overall look of your painting. Here’s some tips on how to prepare and use your drawing when painting in Photoshop.

Different Types of Line

Whenever I start a new painting, one of the first decisions I make has to do with the drawing. My style doesn’t vary much from painting to painting, but subtle differences here and there can be largely attributed to the type of media I used for the drawing. For example, many of my smaller spot illustration work is done with ink. The line is bold and simpler and usually easier to color. Pencil is also great to work with; a clean pencil drawing can be just as fun and bold as ink, but adds extra depth and texture. For my more painterly work, I often start out with just a rough sketch or thumbnail. I usually work directly on top of it; I like the effect it creates when the drawing shows underneath the painting.

Here’s examples of two black and white images I made that use different types of line. For the first, I scanned in a pen and ink drawing. The second is pencil.

A finished image that utilizes an ink drawing.

In these paintings, I started out with a very rough sketch. You can still see some of the drawing underneath the painting.

Preparing the Line

For whatever type of line I use, I usually scan it in grayscale mode at 300 ppi. The resolution may need to be higher depending on your purposes, but for the way I paint I don’t really need it any higher. And I keep it at grayscale instead of black and white mode because I just adjust it in Photoshop after the scan is done.

I also don’t scan in color because it takes longer and is unnecessary. One exception to this , however, is when I use a red or blue pencil in my drawing. Sometimes I will make a very rough under-drawing with a colored pencil, then draw a cleaner version on top with a regular pencil. I then scan it in full color. When I have the drawing open in Photoshop, I make a hue/saturation adjustment. With the drop down menu set to “Master”, I drop the saturation all the way down. For a blue pencil, I then go to “Cyan” and “Blue” and adjust their brightnesses all the way up (and for a red pencil, it would be “Magenta” and “Red”). This will get rid of the entire under-drawing and leave just the clean, gray version.

Here’s an example of a drawing I did with a red under-drawing. I drew directly on top of it with ink.

The Hue/Saturation settings:

The result:

Once I have my drawing, whether a direct scan or an adjusted red/blue pencil drawing, I use the Levels adjustment in Image–>Adjustment–>Levels to clean it up. Just move the sliders until the drawing looks the way you like. Another way to adjust the drawing is to use the Threshold command in Image–>Adjustment–>Threshold. This will convert your drawing to complete black and white. There is only one slider here; all pixels left of the slider will be black, and those to the right will be white.

Using Levels:

Using Threshold:

And there you have it! The drawing is now ready for coloring…

More Tricks for Your Line

At the very least, you can keep this drawing on a separate layer, set it to “Multiply”, and paint away on a layer underneath it. This is usually what I do, and the drawing layer just sits on top of everything I paint and doesn’t move or change.

An example of my layer organization. The line sits on top on its own layer, set to “Multiply”.

But the beauty of Photoshop is the ability to experiment, so here are some other tips to get the most out of your drawing:

  • Fix the Drawing
    I usually don’t get it right the first time. Luckily, I don’t have to redraw the whole thing. Use the tools at your disposal to fix stray marks, move that other eye over, make that hand bigger, add a few lines here, and erase a few lines there. Another trick I like to do is to take the drawing and go to Image–>Rotate Canvas–>Flip Canvas Horizontal. You can spot a lot of mistakes this way. After you fix them, just flip it back.

  • Color Your Line
    The easiest way to do this is to adjust it using Hue/Saturation. Just click on your line layer, and go to Image–>Adjustments–>Hue/Saturation. In the Hue/Saturation window, it is often best to click the checkbox next to “Colorize” before playing with the sliders.

    But here’s another way… Go to your drawing layer and go to Select–>Select All. Copy the drawing, then go to your Channels palette. If it is not open, go to Window–>Channels. Create a new channel, then paste. Now go back to your Layers palette and click on your drawing layer. Go to Select–>Load Selection. When the dialogue opens, choose the channel you just created under the “Channel” drop down menu (usually “Alpha 1”), then click OK. All of the white space on your drawing layer should be selected. Press “Delete” and Deselect. Lock the transparency of your drawing layer by clicking the checkered box next to “Lock” in the Layers palette. You can now select any color and fill the layer to change the color of your drawing. You can even use the brush tool to paint different colors in different areas of the drawing. This method is very cool because it will not only work for clean ink drawings, but also for very rough pencil sketches; your line will be a different opacity depending on the shade of gray in your line.

    Creating a new Channel

    Load Selection “Alpha 1”

    A line drawing during this process

    Lock the opacity on your line layer

    Paint directly onto your line to make different colors

  • Adding Effects
    If you use the Channels trick I mentioned before, you can apply a whole bunch of tricks to your drawing. Bevel/Emboss it, add Noise, put a Drop Shadow down, or just about any of the other few hundred crazy things that Photoshop can do. Have fun, go to town.

That’s about all I have to say about line for the moment. Have any other suggestions or tricks about line drawings? Be sure to leave a comment.