Deke’s Techniques 149: Hand-Coloring Line Art in Photoshop

This week’s technique is all about hand-coloring a piece of line art in Photoshop. Which sounds pretty easy, right? I mean, grade schoolers and simpletons know how to color inside the lines. It’s the mavericks who know how to color outside them!

But see, in Photoshop, the world’s playground is a different asylum. The moment you click on the blue Ps icon, coloring inside the lines becomes an exact science involving ancient tools that few but The Elders remember. For example, do you know how to precisely extract all black lines to an independent layer? Or fill regions defined by one layer into another using the Paint Bucket tool? Or color, say, a bird with, say, an ellipse? Or fill in squiggly lines? Have you even heard of the Behind blend mode? Get this: It fills junk behind stuff.

Okay, so this is a long video (14 min). But somehow it goes by in the blink of an eye. Here’s the official description from

In this week’s happy, idyllic Deke’s Techniques, Deke shows you a range of tips and tricks for coloring a line drawing in Photoshop. Although filling in black outlines on a white background seems like a fairly straightforward task at first glance, there are a lot of ways to inadvertently spill your colors outside their designated areas. Even in a simple drawing like this one, you can see how there might be a lot of nooks and crannies (namely, those squiggles!) to deal with.

A work of black-and-white line art in Photoshop

As you’ll see in the video, the key keeping everything in place is leveraging the myriad powers of Photoshop layers. In fact, using layers often means you can color way outside the lines and let a layer higher in the stack fix your “mistake.”

The first step is to separate out the black lines from the white background, so that you can paint on layers in between. The cleanest, most efficient way to do this is to “use the image to select itself” via the Channels panel. Command-clicking (or Ctrl-clicking in Windows) the RGB channel automatically selects all the white areas. And then inverting the selection gives you the clean black lines.

For more on using the Channels panel to make clean, efficient selections in Photoshop, members should check out Chapter 2 of Photoshop Masking & Compositing: Fundamentals.

Once you move the black lines onto their own layer, you can then delete them from the background leaving a clean white backdrop and room to paint new colors on some layers in between. The topmost of these layers is a Sky layer—filled with blue via the Paint Bucket—that ends up being a cover for some other roughly filled-in areas of the image.

To see what I mean, here are the small areas of the image colored in roughly (using a combination of the Marquee and Lasso tools, the Fill command, the Brush tool, and the Fill Behind feature) with the Sky layer turned off.

The roughly filled-in colors, on independent layers, in Photoshop

Once the Sky layer is restored, it covers up all the overfilled areas and leaves a cleanly hand-colored image in its wake:

The final hand-colored line art as achieved in Photoshop

For members of, Deke’s got another technique in the library this week, in which he shows you how to fill the sky in the following image with a wavy, askew, full-on perspective pattern. Which is no small feat.

The final artwork with a declining wavy line pattern

And Deke will be back with another twist on this high-tech coloring book project next week!

Next week, I’ll show you how to turn this thing into a wonderfully clever work of offset screen printing. Here’s the idea: Traditional screen printing requires multiple passes. At the very least, the colors print in one pass, black prints in another. The result: the old-school splendor of misregistration. Which is sweet enough in itself. But add Photoshop and you gain opportunity. Witness one such (below): The colors leak into the sky but the sky never leaks into the colors. One moment there is chaos; the next there is order. Civilization hangs in the balance.

The orderly chaos of digital screen printing in Photoshop

Oh anarchy my lover. Oh structure my friend. How to have you two and eat you, too?

As I say, next week.

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 151: Creating a Screen Print Effect in Photoshop

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 148: The Octagonal Rings of the Underworld


  • seperating the line drawing from the background

    Deke, this is my favorite technique I use it all the time