Monday, December 07, 2015



Welcome to my article series about my experiences in the licensing market and my process. I will publish new articles on 1-2 weekly basis. This weeks post is a short insight into my process when coloring.
Coloring is a very complex and intuitive process for me. It took me many, many years to find my “direction” or coloring style, and I think it will keep on changing as I improve as an artist. I love animated films and am influenced a lot by these movies when coloring my comics and illustrations. 

I barely ever color outside of the computer. I recently picked up watercolors, and I like to use Copics & Aquarell-pencils from time to time (those watercolor-like pencils that can be smudged with water), but Photoshop offers me the flexibility I need and like. My favorite part about Photoshop is the option to work in layers, which is very important to keep control. If you translated this system into traditional media, you’d put the line-art on transparent paper, put more transparent paper with colors beneath, and the background on another underneath all the others. Traditional animation used to be made like this. 

In Photoshop, I do the same; I have my cleaned up line art with all white pixels removed on one layer. I create another layer for solid colors on top. And many more: A layer with shadows (I would literally draw my shadows in black, multiply it on top of the art and reduce opacity so the colors underneath would appear as darker versions of themselves), layers for highlights, layers for texture effects, light effects, etc. – this can get crazy, and make file-sizes super big, but also grant you the opportunity to keep full control over the art. 

With this technique, I was able to imitate the coloring style of animated movies (I loved coloring my outlines as well). For shirts, however, I had to completely re-think the coloring process.

Coloring for shirts

Many shirts are produced via screen-printing (which is changing too at the moment, more and more companies have switched to digital printing). “Screen printing is a printing technique whereby a mesh is used to transfer ink onto a substrate, except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil” (from Wikipedia). This means that when you create a design for shirts, you need to separate the colors, or design in a way that color separation will be easy.

1.      Base colors
 Here is my approach: I create the clean line-art, and my lines are all closed. The line art is a separate layer in my Photoshop file, and all white is removed from it (everything but the lines is transparent). Underneath, I create a layer for all solid colors (I call it “base-colors”) – I use the magic wand tool, set the tolerance really high, and color in the base colors for my design. These colors can stay on one layer for now, because it will be easy to separate them later (with the select color tool). 
Things to pay attention to:
-        Make sure that the line art or any color layer is only one color by double-clicking on the layer -> set a layer style -> color overlay -> choose the color you want for this layer. This will make sure that every single pixel in this layer will be the color you want it to be. 
-        When using the magic wand to color in surfaces, it sometimes leaves a tiny border that isn’t selected (this can cause the effect that there is a tiny, uncolored area between outline and colored surface). For this, I have created an action that extends the selection by one pixel. 
-        Color/ink the file in a large format – I always choose at least 300 dpi as my resolution with a size of around 4000 x 4000 pixel. You can always down-size, but never the opposite.
-        Keep more than one version of your file – whenever I am insecure if my next step could fuck up the whole file, I save it as a new version.

2.      Gradient colors

So, the next part might sound a bit confusing – it would be far easier to show you what I’m talking about (maybe I’ll be able to create a video one day) but I’ll do my best in the written format. For the next step, you can create the illusion of more depth/color with gradient layers. You can see the difference between solid/gradient in the image below.

The problem with gradients is, that they don’t work for screen-printing, which is why you turn them into “halftoned layers” before submitting them for printing – but more about this in another chapter. In the image below you can see how gradients have improved the depth of my design, as well as creating the illusion of more color. In reality, this design has around six colors, but with gradients it appears to have more. 
I accomplish this by creating a new layer for each color I want a gradient of. For example, if I want to create the illusion of depth, I decide on a color to darken all colors underneath. If I want to create skin-color, I use white as a base for the faces of characters, and use a gradient/textured layer of red on top to create skin color. I can even use two colors to mix a completely new one: Use blue as a base color and sprinkle textured/gradient yellow on top, and you’ll get a kind of green. This form of “mixing” can be a bit risky in the printing process and might not get you the exact result you are hoping for – but when you’re stuck because you need more colors for your design, consider mixing them just like you’d mix colors when painting (you only need blue, yellow and red to mix almost ALL other colors).

Creating the gradients

Now, the process of creating the gradients is a bit different for me each time. The most important step, as mentioned before, is creating a new layer on top of your solid base-colors for each gradient color (and never merge different colored gradients -- NEVER!!!). Let’s take the example of creating a dark-colored gradient layer to create the illusion of shadow on top of the character. I usually paint in the shadow as a solid color. Then I use a textured brush with 20 – 50 % opacity to erase to make the base colors pop out underneath (I am creating a darker version of the base colors everywhere).  Textured brushes are a very important tool for me. I have bought mine from this website:     and ) My favorite brush to use to create the “texture effect” is Pencil Real 6B by Frenden).

It can become quite challenging to keep track of the layers – but all of this comes with experience and time. I change my process all the time, but in essence it stays the same.

Working without gradients

I know some designers who do a perfect job with only using solid colors for their designs. The positive thing about only using solids is that there are fewer surprises when the design is printed (fewer things can go wrong and the result is more direct). It also forces the designer to transport their idea with fewer colors. For example, I can see sometimes that my technique makes my designs too busy. Check out walmazan  (bottom image) and spiritgreen’s work (top image) for example: They use very few gradients/halftones in their designs and accomplish a very clean look. So consider that. 

Things to pay attention to:
-        Keep the gradients layers for each color separated
-        Save more than one version of the file (and maybe use – if you accidently save & close a version of the file with all layers merged, or downsized, dropbox saves “old versions” of your file. I have more than once saved my ass this way).
-        Get familiar with textured brushes. There are lot of tutorials out there on how they work. One of my favorite tutorial is in the book/e-book “Digital Painting Techniques”

To use gradients in screen-printing, it is necessary to turn them into “halftones”. That will be explained in the next chapter. See you there! :D


Dani said...

Hi! Great articles! Looking forward to read the halftones one! ;)

queenmob said...

Thanks! Man, I really need to publish the next article, thanks for reminding me :D