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How to Fix Color Errors in Digital Painting With Adobe Photoshop

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Are you scared of painting with color? Many beginners avoid working with color out of fear that they might ruin their ideas with the wrong combinations. Why you might feel this way is actually not your fault. This kind of thought process stems from traditional art because you're often locked into the color scheme you choose. And if you want to change the colors, you're usually out of luck.

But painting in Photoshop truly makes you a wizard. The moment you realize this, you'll open your train of thought to a medium that allows for huge changes in a matter of seconds.

If you're having trouble with color, here are a few tips to guide you. Get to know these tools and settings and you'll be on your way to conquering your fear!

Working With Real Painting Ideas

When a really good idea hits you, what do you do?

Knowing your next move is often the hardest step. And I think the best way to show you these tips is with a real-world situation. So let's tackle a painting together. I'll show you my complete thought process as I navigate each step to understand how to come up with great colors that you can change at any time.

The Idea

My idea for this painting is to have a female subject surrounded by the solar system. She would represent the sun as the planets orbit around her. Now that I have the idea in mind, these are the first questions I should consider before moving on to the sketch:

  • What colors do I imagine for this painting?
  • What are the main elements/subjects? Where are they positioned?
  • Where is the light source? Is there one or many?
  • How does each element affect one another?

1. How Photos Can Help You With Color

Asking yourself lots of questions is one great way to prep for battle. You don't necessarily have to know all these answers, but they will help you when researching photo references. And picking the right photos for inspiration will help to do most of the work for you.

Photo References for Galaxy Digital Painting

For this painting I'll be using the following references from PhotoDune:

If I base some of my decisions for color, lighting, and composition on these references alone, then I'm already on my way to knowing how to create this painting.

But here are some more questions that pop up after picking the main references:

  • Will I use the colors from my references? All or some?
  • What colors would look better for my painting?
  • What will my base colors need to be?

You can also use photography to inspire the general color scheme. Before I had a complete idea, I knew I wanted to paint a woman with bright galaxy hair.

Inspired, I used this galaxy reference for what I would like the colors in her hair to be, knowing that I didn't want to use the original blue from the photo.

Color Swatches From Photos in Adobe Photoshop
I love the beautiful colors in this galaxy photo. So I'll use it as inspiration for what I'd like to incorporate into my own painting.

2. Study the Sketch and Tones

The Sketch

Now that the sketch is finished, let's break it down so that we understand the color relationships.

Sketching and Color Planning in Adobe Photoshop

Regardless of the colors we choose, we do know that:

  1. The background will be the darkest.
  2. The main subject will be the brightest.
  3. Light will reflect and bounce on her hair and skin from the planets.

You can also reinforce your awareness of how the lighting ultimately affects your composition by starting with a grayscale painting. Establish the different tones for light and shadow right out of the gate so that you don't have any questions later.

Grayscale Digital Painting in Adobe Photoshop
Establish tones to understand light and shadow before painting color.

And don't worry, we'll be able to transition from grayscale to color quickly and easily!

3. From Grayscale to Color With Blend Modes

Starting in grayscale teaches you how easy it is to change any of the colors in a digital painting. So how do you go from a dull grayscale composition to one with vibrant colors?

Here I will deliberately start with the wrong colors just to show you how easy it is! Use a Hard Round Brush (B) to paint a solid color over each detail. I like to pick a random color like red because I know I'll be changing it later.

Each detail should have its own layer. For instance, the colors for each planet should all be on separate layers. When you're finished, change the Blend Mode to Multiply.

Set Blend Mode to Multiply to Color Digital Paintings
You don't always have to set layers to Multiply to apply color, but I like it best. Feel free to cycle through the blend modes to see which one works best. 

I definitely don't want a bunch of red in this painting, so let's change all the colors one layer at a time.

4. Create Color Schemes With Hue & Saturation

Step 1

To change each color, I'll be using Hue & Saturation.

Let's start with the hair. Select the hair layer and go to Image > Adjustments > Hue & Saturation.

Hue and Saturation in Adobe Photoshop for Digital Painting
Here's a shot of what Hue and Saturation looks like before changing the color.

Move the slider over for Hue, Saturation, and Lightness until you find the color you like best. In this case I'm going for a more magenta-like color.

Use Hue and Saturation to Change Colors in Adobe Photoshop
Move the slider over for Hue, Saturation, or Lightness to get the color you desire.

Step 2

Continue this step with every layer until you have the base colors you prefer.

How to Change Colors Easily in Adobe Photoshop for Digital Paintings
Change each individual color with Hue & Saturation. You'll have more control this way.

5. Use Blending Options for Color Effects

Another way you can change the colors of your painting and add interesting effects is to use Blending Options.

Simply select the layer you desire and Right-click to go to Blending Options. Here I'll set a Gradient Overlay to give the hair a cool gradient.

Add a Gradient Overlay to a Digital Painting in Adobe Photoshop
Now the base colors for the hair reflect the original galaxy photo I used for inspiration!

Treat digital paintings like any project you take on in Photoshop. By incorporating other settings, you can adapt the colors to the ones from your imagination.

6. Adjustment Layers for Harmony and Intensity

With the base colors all set, continue painting. Try to attack the painting in stages. If you still don't feel comfortable with your color choices, it's a good idea to concentrate each detail on its own layer. That way you have more control and can always use Adjustment Layers to adjust the colors individually.

Another great thing about Adjustment Layers is that they can add great color harmony and intensity to your overall painting. After a couple of hours, you might realize that the colors are a little more dull than you would like. If you were working traditionally, you would have to start completely over in order to make these types of changes.

Use Levels to Adjust Color for Digital Paintings
Instantly the colors look much better with a quick Adjustment Layer for Levels.

Never worry again with Photoshop! To change this, simply add a New Adjustment Layer for Levels to intensify the contrast and make the hues more blue.

Some Helpful Reminders

No matter how stuck you feel, I guarantee there is a workaround available that can get you to a result you'll be proud of. Just keep practicing and experimenting with all the tools and settings that are available to you.

Here are some helpful reminders for your next painting:

  1. Plan out the color scheme.
  2. Adapt color inspiration from photography.
  3. Understand the relationship between each detail in your painting and how they affect one another.
  4. Establish the light and shadow before adding color.
  5. Apply colors in stages and on separate layers for easier control.
  6. Use Adjustment Layers to create better harmony.

Here is my final painting. Even though I started with nothing but red colors and veered off a little from the references, I was able to create something that tells its own unique story.

Galaxy Solar System Digital Painting Art by Melody Nieves

Good Luck!

I hope these tips have helped you understand the incredible potential of painting in Photoshop. Do your best to unlearn some of the bad habits from traditional art and you'll dramatically improve your workflow.

If you'd like to see more tips on digital painting, feel free to check out my other articles here on Envato Tuts+.

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