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Turn a Pencil Sketch Into a Colorful and Dynamic Character Illustration

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
This tutorial was originally published in February 2013 as a Tuts+ Premium tutorial. It is now available free to view. Although this tutorial does not use the latest version of Adobe Photoshop, its techniques and process are still relevant. 

Sketching out a character illustration can be a lot of fun. Giving that sketch life can be a challenging task, however. In this tutorial, I will explain how to use Photoshop's painting tools to turn a pencil sketch into a colorful and dynamic character illustration. 

In this process, I will show you how to manipulate your sketch, block in your colors, and finally how to add lighting and texture. This tutorial also includes a video to help guide you along the way. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial:

1. Prepare Your Sketch

Step 1

I have always enjoyed painting cartoon characters. Once I come up with the idea, I usually draw the character directly on paper and then scan the sketch.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 2

You surely know the feeling when you aren't satisfied with your pencil sketches. For example, the proportions of the character aren't right or it could be more dynamic. As we work digitally, we can solve these problems very easily and quickly. Therefore, the sketch needs a few preparations before we can start with the coloring process. Open the sketch in Photoshop and duplicate the layer.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 3

Use the Lasso Tool and select the head. After that right-click > select Inverse > Delete. Because we duplicated the layer before, we now have the head on a separate layer.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 4

Right click > Free Transform.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 5

Hold Command/Control and stretch the head a little bigger. Pay attention so that the head is at the same position on the neck as before.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 6

The same can be done with the legs. Duplicate the first layer (Sketch). Select the legs with the Lasso Tool > right click > select Inverse > Delete.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 7

Right click > Free Transform.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 8

Move the crosshairs to the beginning of the legs and rotate the selected area.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 9

Now that we can rotate the whole body, duplicate the first layer (Sketch) and select the last three elements with Command/Control.

Prepare Your Sketch

After that, right click > Convert to Smart Object.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 10

Now we can rotate the whole body: right click > Free Transform...

Prepare Your Sketch

And rotate the selected area.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 11

Now let’s touch up our sketch. To do this, we use the Clone Stamp Tool as shown.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 12

Next we change the contrast of the sketch, and for this I'm using the following settings.

Prepare Your Sketch

The sketch looks more accessible for coloring now. Save the document as a jpg and open it again in Photoshop. That's the easiest way to convert all the layers and adjustments.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 13

Additionally, I often use the Liquify Tool to perfect my sketches. In this case I use it to reinforce the smile of the character. Open the jpg file in Photoshop > click Filter > Liquify.

Prepare Your Sketch

Use the Forward Warp Tool to drag.

Prepare Your Sketch

Step 14

We've finished all the necessary preparations! Now we can start with the coloring process.

Prepare Your Sketch

2. Color Your Sketch

Step 1

I prefer working with high dimensions because that allows me to print my work in big sizes. Thus, make sure you have a 300 dpi Resolution. Click on Image > Image Size. For this painting I used the following settings.

Color Your Sketch

Step 2

I always duplicate the main layer (Sketch) to have an alternative if I make mistakes. Change from Normal mode to Multiply mode. This allows you to paint beneath the sketch. Fix this layer with a castle.

Color Your Sketch

Step 3

Now create a new layer and place it under the sketch (Multiply Layer) and fill it with a base color. This is our background layer.

After that, carefully mix a color palette with the main colors you want to use in your painting. Also use a separate layer for this. Afterwards, we can pick the colors with the Eyedropper Tool. Once you have finished, fix this layer with a castle as well.

Color Your Sketch

Step 4

Then create a new layer and start to paint with the Paintbrush Tool.

Color Your Sketch

Most of the time I use the brush set of Mike Nash. He is an amazing artist and offers a lot of fantastic brushes free on his website.

Color Your Sketch

Step 5

Because we have already chosen the colors, we just need to pick the desired color with the Eyedropper Tool. At this stage it's very important to choose the right colors because the painting is built upon this color palette.

Don't zoom in on the picture while painting the background so that you have a full view of it. Choose the basic colors that we have already devised with the Color Picker.

Color Your Sketch

Step 6

Try to imagine from what direction the light comes in. In this case, the light source comes from the left side, so paint the left corner a little bit brighter.

Color Your Sketch

Step 7

A great tip: Flip the image horizontally in different time distances so you can see your painting from a new point of view, and this will help you to find possible mistakes.

Color Your Sketch

Now create a new layer for the character.

Color Your Sketch

Step 8

Carefully fill the character with a base color using a basic brush.

Color Your Sketch

Step 9

After that, click the Lock Transparent Pixels button.

Color Your Sketch

Step 10

Now we can paint some values with a brighter color. The texture in the custom brush gives the painting a nice classic look.

Color Your Sketch

Step 11

It's always good to work with many layers because if you make a mistake, you can correct it quickly and easily.

Now create a new layer and target this to the character-color layer. This has the same effect as the Lock Transparent Pixels button.

Color Your Sketch

Step 12

The character slowly comes to life. Remember these are only the basic colors, so don't focus on the details yet. Try to work with only a few brush strokes.

Color Your Sketch

3. Add the Details

Step 1

After finishing the basic colors we can start with the detailed work.

Now we will paint over our sketch, so create a new layer and place it over the Sketch (Multiply Layer).

Again, try to work with many layers. If the document is too big, simply convert the layers.

Add the Details

I always start with the highlights, so I can imagine the light setting better.

Quick tip: I often paint small directional arrows on a separate layer. They show me where the light comes from and where the shadow has to be.

Add the Details

Step 2

It's time for a new flip, so you see your painting from a new point of view. Try to overprint the sketch. The head is the focus of the painting, so you should put most attention on this area.

Add the Details

Step 3

As you can see, most of the pencil strokes from the sketch disappear under the colors. Because of the brightness of the ground, we can paint some reflected light on the character's belly and arms.

Add the Details

Step 4

For the ground I used a texture from CGTextures.com.

Load the texture in your file.

Add the Details

Step 5

Change the layer to Soft Light and the Opacity to 73%.

Add the Details

Step 6

Choose the Lasso Tool > right click > Free Transform. Then stretch it into the right position.

Add the Details

Step 7

Erase the edges from the texture with the Eraser Tool.

Add the Details

Step 8

After that, create a new layer and place it over the texture. Now we can paint over the texture.

Add the Details

Step 9

The painting is nearly finished—the only missing thing is the hair.

Add the Details

Step 10

For the hair we need a sharp brush, so click in the Brush Settings on Shape Dynamics. I used the following settings.

Add the Details
Add the Details

Step 11

The background is a little bit empty, so I start by painting a few dust waves in the background.

Add the Details

Step 12

To give the work the final touch, create a new layer and fill it with a grey color. Then click on Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

Add the Details

Set the amount to 21.27% and click OK.

Add the Details

After that click on Filter > Blur > Box Blur and set the radius to 2 px.

Add the Details

Once you have done that, change the layer to Soft Light and set the Opacity to 54%.

Add the Details

Awesome Work, You're Now Done!

That's it! I hope this tutorial was useful and inspires you to develop your own characters and style. Oh, one last tip: Have fun!

Final image

Real-Time Video

This tutorial also includes a real-time video to demonstrate the process. The video has been edited for length but should be a great guide if you have any questions.


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