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Colorizing Artwork

Previously, I talked about different methods to colorize photographs. This is not something that people have to do frequently, but it is a fun way to make a cool effect. A more common task that folks require is the ability to add color to black and white artwork. It can be easy to find the almost perfect piece of clip art, perfect accept for the lack of color. This month we take a look at how to add color to otherwise lifeless line art.

The artwork that you start with can be from a variety of sources. You can find illustrations from a clip art CD, scan an image from a public domain book or simply draw your own image and then scan it. For my first example, I drew a paint can in Adobe Illustrator using a Wacom digitizing tablet and then copied the artwork into Adobe Photoshop CS. The Photoshop file should be in one of the color modes (usually RGB).

Fig. 1
Since I pasted the art into Photoshop, the artwork is automatically on a new layer. If you scanned the art (like I did for my second example), create a new layer for it by dragging the ‘Background’ layer to the New Layer icon in the Layers palette. This will make a new layer called ‘Background Copy’, rename it something descriptive like ‘Line Art’ (Fig. 1). Now click on the ‘Background’ layer in the Layers palette and fill it with white by selecting Fill from the Edit menu.

The method we will look at for coloring your art is what your grade school teacher always wanted: coloring inside the lines. In order to do this, you will need to set the ‘Line Art’ layer’s Blending Mode to ‘Multiply’ in the pop-up menu at the top of the Layer’s palette. When you use Multiply mode, the black artwork remains black, but the white areas will show the underlying layers. Shades of grey will darken the layers underneath.

Now create a new layer, title it ‘Color’ and position it between the ‘Background’ and ‘Line Art’ layers. I like to paint the color on a layer separate from the background, but you can also paint directly on the background layer if you wish. Pick your favorite painting tool and go to town (Fig. 2). Don’t worry if you make a mistake, simply use the Eraser tool to touch up any stray color areas. Having the color on a separate layer lets you use any of the adjustment tools (Curves, Hue/Saturation, Levels, Color Balance, etc.) to fine-tune your colors without affecting the art or the background. You can also use any of the filters and effects to enhance your picture.

Fig. 2

Occasionally, you may want to colorize the linework of your art instead of the areas inside. Photoshop gives you great tools to do this as well. Set up the image the same way as described above, but leave the ‘Line Art’ layer in Normal mode. Next we are going to use the Channels palette (usually found docked with the Layers palette or by choosing Channels from the Window menu) to separate the artwork from its white background. Select the composite RGB channel (they should all be the same in a black and white RGB image, but use the composite just in case) and click the Load Channel as Selection button at the bottom of the palette (Fig. 3). When you do this, all of the white areas will be selected and all of the black will not.

Fig. 3
Fig. 4
With the selection still active, click back on the RGB Channel and then switch to the Layers palette and select the ‘Line Art’ layer. Choose Inverse from the Select menu and fill the selection with black. Inverse the selection again and delete the selection by hitting the Delete key or choosing Edit > Clear. Click the Lock Transparent Pixels button to prevent painting outside the lines (Fig. 4) and now you can use any of the painting tools, including the Brush, Gradient, Paint Bucket and Pencil, to color your artwork. Using the Gradient tool can add an element of dynamism to an otherwise static image (Fig. 5).

When you are finished, save a copy of the image in a flattened format, like TIFF or JPEG, whichever format suits your needs best.

A little color can add a lot to ordinary illustrations and clip art. Using the tools in Adobe Photoshop or any of your other favorite paint programs you can customize your artwork to give it your own personalized touch.
Fig. 5

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. More color equals more impact. If you would like to see the Graphics Guy address a specific topic email Paul Vaughn at


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