How to Master Digital Coloring With Photoshop


Adobe Photoshop is as versatile as programs come. The list of things you can do with Photoshop is extensive: you can edit photos, create digital art, graphic and web design, and even edit videos. If you’re looking for a way to master digital coloring, Photoshop also has you covered.

There are a lot of great reasons to consider coloring drawings in Photoshop as opposed to traditional methods: you can try a ton of different options without wasting supplies, undoing mistakes is a breeze, and you can create multiple versions of the same drawing with much less effort.

Get Your Line Drawing

There are three ways to get the drawing you’re going to use to practice your digital coloring:

1. Vectorize Your Drawing

If you’re more comfortable starting on paper, scan your image and and open it in Photoshop.

You’ll need to whiten the page and darken the lines. The best way to do this in Photoshop to do this is with the Levels tool. Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + L.

photoshop levels

Drag the dark marker on the left to the right to darken your lines, and the marker on the left to lighten the page. There are plenty of great tutorials on YouTube with tips and tricks for scanning and cleaning up your line art in Photoshop.

2. Creative Commons Images

If you want to just practice, you can use a Creative Commons image you find online. There are plenty of sites packed with free-to-use line drawings like Pixabay.

Searching for adult coloring pages online can also lead you to a treasure trove of images that you can practice coloring in Photoshop.

3. Create a Digital Drawing

If you have access to a graphics tablet like the Wacom tablet or even the iPad Pro, you can draw a digital image from start to finish.

If you’re just getting started, the learning platform Lynda is packed with courses on how to improve your digital art.

Stay Inside the Lines

Now that you have the image you want to color, we can get to the good stuff. This tip is probably the most important thing you’re going to want to learn when it comes to digital coloring: how Photoshop can stop you from coloring outside the lines.

First, with your image open in Photoshop, create a new layer by going to Layer > New Layer or using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + N.

If your image is a background layer, it will be locked. You can tell by going to Windows > Layers to open the Layers panel. If you see a padlock next to the layer with your image, it’s locked in place.

photoshop padlock

Click the padlock to unlock it, and drag Layer 1 beneath your image.

Select the layer with your image and set the blending mode in the Layers panel to Multiply. This will ensure that the color that you add to Layer 1 will show.

photoshop layers

Select the Magic Wand Tool (keyboard shortcut W) and make sure the layer with your image is still selected. In the image I used of a Sugar Skull from Pixabay, I clicked the magic wand tool in the white background around the skull.

magic wand tool

This selects the entire image with the exception of the skull itself. Go to Select > Inverse or use the keyboard shortcut Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + I. This will invert the selection so now your entire image should be selected.

At this stage, you could actually go ahead and select the Brush tool (keyboard shortcut B), select Layer 1, and begin to color, and you’ll find that your coloring is staying in the lines. But an added step will help ensure that you don’t have to keep making that selection over and over to stay in the lines.

Select both layers, and hit Ctrl/Cmd + G to group them. Make sure you have the entire group selected and create a mask by clicking Mask icon in the Layers panel or go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection.

add photoshop mask

This is how your Layers panel should look. The background will be black and the area containing your image will be white.

photoshop mask applied

Now select the Brush tool, select your color, and start laying down some color on Layer 1. You’ll see that you won’t be able to color anything beyond your original selection.

You can also get creative with your brush choices if you want to make your coloring look more realistic. The program comes packed with some pretty good options, but you can always install more Photoshop brushes.

How to Avoid Making Mistakes

If you’re going to use multiple colors in your image, zoom in to the image. Enlarging the various areas gives you more control over preventing colors from overlapping. You can also increase and decrease the size of your brush using the [ (decrease) and ] (increase) keyboard shortcuts.

More importantly, you should create a separate layer for each color you use. Create additional layers using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + N.

This way, if you make a mistake and want to remove brush strokes, you can use the History Brush Tool (keyboard shortcut Y) without worrying about inadvertently deleting too much. You can also delete an entire layer without affecting other colors.

photoshop history brush tool

If you want to completely avoid any overlap at all, you can use the a variety of selection tools. The Quick Selection Tool and the Magic Wand Tool (alternate between the two using Keyboard Shortcut W) are both useful for making quick selections if your image has strong lines and clear sections. Just make sure you have the layer with your image selected when you use these tools.

Otherwise, you’ll have to make your selection manually using the Polygonal Lasso (keyboard shortcut L).

Note: To make multiple selections in different parts of the image, hold down the Shift button on your keyboard and click the second area you want to select.

Add Shading

If you want to add dimension and shading to your image, it’s best to create additional layers for your shading as well so you can easily remove unwanted additions.

Select the layer with the color you want to add shading to, and create a new layer with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + N. This way the layer will be created directly above that layer.

Use the Eyedropper Tool (keyboard shortcut I) to select the color in your picture you want to add shading to, and open up the Color Picker. (You can also keep the Color panel open for faster access by going to Window > Color.)

photoshop eyedropper

You can then select a color that is slightly darker or lighter than the original color. Start to add shading thinking about where shadows may naturally fall in your image.

photoshop color picker

You can use multiple shades of the same color for even more dimension.

Add a Background Color

Once you’ve colored in your image, you can easily add a background color with one click. Collapse the group with your image, mask, and color layers, and click anywhere in the Layers panel to de-select group.

Create a new layer using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + N.

Select the color you want to add to your background, and select the Paint Bucket Tool (keyboard shortcut G) and click anywhere in the background to fill the background.

You could also consider creating a pattern in Photoshop to use as a background if that lends itself to your type of drawing.

Quickly Change Colors

Once you’re done with your image, you can quickly change colors using one of two methods. You can either change all colors at once or one by one.

To change the colors on the entire image in one go, click Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl/Cmd + U. Play around with the three sliders to change the look of your image. Hue will change the actual color, Saturation will change the intensity of your colors, while Lightness will either lighten or darken the colors.

photoshop saturation

If you want to change specific colors in your image, click Select > Color Range. This will open up a panel, and will activate the Eyedropper. Use the Eyedropper tool to select the color you want to change. You should see all parts of the image with that color highlighted in your panel.

Note: You can select multiple colors at once by clicking the Eyedropper Tool button with the plus sign next to it in the Color Range panel.

photoshop select color

Click OK and any parts of your image containing that color will now be selected and you can use the Brush or Paint Bucket Tool to change the color.

Alternatives to Photoshop

If you don’t want to pay the monthly subscription fee to use Photoshop, digital artists can consider alternatives, but won’t necessarily find the same robust tools and settings available in Photoshop.

If you want to create a drawing from start to finish on your computer, and aren’t looking for an advanced coloring process, you could use MS Paint to draw. GIMP also comes with some solid features for digital artists.

Alternatively, if coloring is more about de-stressing and less about digital art for you, then you don’t even need a computer. Consider these iPhone coloring apps or iPad coloring book apps to get the job done.

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