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Two Techniques for Applying Color to Your Digital Paintings

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There are so many ways you can approach one painting. If the same sketch was given to five separate artists, the final paintings would vary greatly in technique and color. In this article, we'll show you two different techniques for coloring the same sketch in Photoshop.

One Sketch, Two Different Paintings

Today's sketch is adapted from free stock via sxc.hu. Some elements (like the butterfly, etc) were moved around or omitted to create a refreshingly new composition. From this sketch we'll create paintings with two different color schemes through two separate techniques.

Color Theory Prep

Color theory goes hand in hand with digital art. Finding balance allows an artist to create colorful worlds full of intriguing stories and visual impact. But since color theory encompasses a wide range of topics, let's ask some quick questions to discover where to focus.

Which colors first come to mind?

Close your eyes to visualize the sketch. As you see them coming together, which colors do you immediately detect? Are they warm or cool? Are the values dark, middle tone, or light? Perhaps there's even a progression of tonal value to create depth and dimension. Take a mental note of these answers and refer back to them later.

What mood do I want to create?

When someone looks at your work, what feelings do they encounter? Perhaps a hint of realism makes the viewer look twice. Or maybe even an exciting story unfolds through elements of fantasy and adventure.

Which colors do I want to avoid?

Sometimes we mistakenly think we should utilize a full spectrum of color. But if you want to keep in line with the mood and direction of your piece, realize that certain colors or even certain values of those colors just don't make sense for your painting.

Painting With Color Swatches

The first technique we'll dabble in today deals with color swatches. Color swatches are colors assigned to the details of your sketch. Let's look at a color scheme close to the original reference.
Here are the color swatches I chose for this painting. These initial colors are a little off from the reference, but that's okay because these colors are only a base for more layers of color.

Why not just use the eyedropper to pick colors from a photo?

Photographs aren't really a great source for picking colors for a painting. They're made up of so many pixels that two pixels side by side can look totally different from each other. For instance, a picture of an orange could have some green pixels thrown in there. So in reality, excessive use of the Eyedropper Tool can lead to bad habits. Try to pick your own swatches instead then paint according to what works best for them.

Painting is a training process. As a beginner, you have to train your eyes and brain to detect the good and bad elements of your piece. Learn how to make them better by accepting new challenges. That's what we'll do here. Below are some progress shots.

For a painting like this, the process consists of mostly two steps, painting and adjustment layers. Adjustment layers like Color Balance, Curves, and Hue and Saturation allow this painting to take on a look similar to the original reference. Here is the final result:

Original Swatches vs. Final Painting vs. Final Swatches

Remember our first swatches? Despite the initial colors being off, the adjustment settings created a color scheme and mood identical to the original photograph. If you wanted to avoid less adjusting then your initial swatches should look similar to the final swatches from this painting.

Painting From Grayscale to Color

The next technique we'll cover is going from grayscale to color. The reason why so many artists start in grayscale is because it allows them to understand tonal value without the distraction of color. And for paintings without a reference, starting with color can lead to poor choices, especially in correlation to light and shadow. For instance, a common mistake beginners make is selecting a color close to black (or black itself) in order to illustrate areas with shadow.

After you've finished your grayscale mockup, add new layers of color and play around with different color modes. Layer modes with low color intensity allow the grayscale painting to show through more, therefore requiring more layers of paint to disguise this technique. Layer modes with high color intensity require more adjustmentment layers to reduce the initial intensity.

This painting features a slightly monochromatic color scheme where warmer hues take over the entire palette. In this case we'll use the original photo as a reference for details but not color. Continue the same process as before with more paint and adjustment layers until you get to the desired result. Below is the final painting.


There are so many ways to approach color in Photoshop that it really varies from artist to artist. Utilize as many settings as you possibly can because this medium is full of limitless potential. And no matter how you start, you can always finish with a quality piece. Good Luck!

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