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Digital Painting 101: The Pros and Cons of Painting in Grayscale

This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
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For our Tuts+ Digital Painting 101 series, we are determined to break down digital painting to a language you can understand. Today's post is dedicated to painting in grayscale, a favored approach by many artists to carve out the essentials before moving on to color.

Why Paint in Grayscale?

Painting in grayscale, or painting in "black and white", means that you're using a limited range of gray values as opposed to a full spectrum of color. 

So basically instead of painting with all of these beauties...

Painting with a Full Range of Color in Photoshop

... you only paint with this.

Painting With Gray Values in Photoshop

Don't worry, though—the purpose of this technique is to make your life a little easier. With so many choices in front of you, color can be quite distracting, especially if you're new to digital art.

Grayscale vs. Color

You can start a painting in either color or grayscale—it's your own prerogative really, and there are definitely no rules. However, the route you choose does have an effect on your overall process. What I personally recommend is to experiment with both to see which one you enjoy better.

So is there really a difference between the two? Absolutely!

If you start in color, for example, your entire painting is developed from that color scheme. And beginners struggle with this because you have to be familiar with core principles like color theory in order to know how to transition from the early stages to the final painting.

So even though you can make adjustments down the line, you still have to be pretty sure of the direction you'd like to go. With grayscale, on the other hand, you can take all the time you need to develop the lighting scenario, the volume and weight of your subjects, and even expand on compositional details before ever worrying about color.

The Pros and Cons of Painting in Grayscale

But if you do decide to commit to this technique, just know that it comes with its own challenges.

Here are some pros and cons:

Pro: Establish Light & Shadow Faster

Shading is hard for everyone. The more complicated the shading, the bigger the headache. It doesn't help that Photoshop is a bit of a tease too. It gives you all these colors to choose from, but then you have to figure out which ones work well together for depth and shadow, and that's the hard part.

Start out in grayscale and eliminate the headache once and for all. Be strategic in how your painting should be laid out, from the background to the middle and foreground.

How will you light your subject? Which details are most important? What's the mood you're trying to set? Ask yourself these questions as you paint, and continue to make tweaks with a watchful eye.

Once you've set up the lighting scenario, then move on to color.

Create Grayscale Paintings in Photoshop to Establish Light and Shadow

Con: You Almost Always Paint Too Dark

In the beginning, your paintings will always be dark. It's almost like a rite of passage.

The reason this happens is because as a beginner you think of light as the color white, and shadow as the color black. So whenever you're trying to shade something accordingly, you use these opposite sides of the spectrum and come out with bleak, muddy results.

Try these solutions instead.

Solution #1: Limit Your Choices

Go to your Color Picker in Photoshop and click the B that allows you to adjust the Brightness for your selected color. As you paint, try to stay within the mid to upper range of the color slider in order to define the light and shadow of your painting. Avoid the dark-gray to black values, because they will make it more difficult to add color later on.

Limit the Range of Values You Paint With in Grayscale

Solution #2: Study Your References in Black and White

Gather all your references and create a New Adjustment Layer for Hue/Saturation. Bring the Saturation down to -100 to turn your references black and white. Click the Visibility of the Hue/Saturation layer on and off to study the values of your references. Take note of the relationship between the grayscale values and the actual colors they represent in the photograph.

Monika Zagrobelna teaches you more about this technique in The Secret to Realistic Painting: How to Master Value.

Study Your References in Black and White to Understand Value

Pro: Go From Grayscale to Color Easily

Once the grayscale part of your painting is done, it's time to move on to color. You can do this easily by applying an array of Adjustment Layers or Blend Modes to your painting.

Some artists stick to certain blend modes like Color and Multiply. I find that the best thing to do is just cycle through the complete drown-down menu to see which ones work best.

Con: This Transition Creates an Obvious Effect

Sometimes I can tell when a painting started in grayscale. It's usually obvious when there are gray values still peeking through or it looks as though there was only one flat color applied via blend modes.

Take a look at these two cherries, for instance. Even though they're both in color, the second cherry looks less realistic. See the difference?

Painting in Color versus Painting in Grayscale and Adding Color

Now this topic is purely subjective, but if you want to improve your work, it's important to eventually do the things you're scared of. Like painting with color.

So here are two solutions to help you with this problem.

Solution #1: Use Grayscale Only as a Base

If you want colorful paintings that are rich in realism, you have to paint with more than one color. Eventually you learn that there's no way around it. Try to see your grayscale painting as just a base that will give you plenty of room to add new layers on top. Yes, it took away the initial headache of establishing light and shadow, but you still have to work with color for the best results. 

Solution #2: Study Ambient Occlusion

Take a look at my Ramen Tutorial. The grayscale part of this painting has very light values and almost everything is closer to white. When you study Ambient Occlusion, you learn how to be less heavy-handed with your shading. This makes for an ideal base when transitioning to color. And because that base is so light, you can apply fewer rounds of color to easily achieve a vivid and beautiful painting.

Study Ambient Occlusion for Your Grayscale Paintings Ramen Tutorial by Melody Nieves

Pro: Use Grayscale Strictly to Practice Technique

Now if you're completely overwhelmed by your frustrations with digital art, please know that you aren't alone.

When all else fails, just paint in grayscale for the heck of it! You can still improve your overall painting technique by using it to focus on studies in nature, as well as to get more familiar with Photoshop's brushes and tools.

Once you feel more comfortable with grayscale, choose one color to move onto a monochromatic painting. This is a great alternative to slowly introduce yourself to color.

And there's never a con to practicing your skills! After all, practice makes perfect!

Practice Your Painting in Grayscale and Monochromatic Colors

Checklist Time!

Use grayscale if:

  • You struggle with color in general.
  • You're indecisive about definitive color schemes.
  • You'd like to practice/experiment with different lighting scenarios. 
  • You want to practice/master techniques for realism, shading, etc.


Today you've learned some of the reasons why artists truly love this technique. Even as a beginner, it allows you to feel like a master on your way to creating beautiful art. Are you already a fan of painting in grayscale? Let us know, and feel free to leave any questions in the comments. Good luck!

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