Fanart Tutorial: How to Add Color Depth to Images

How to work in color (when you don’t know what you’re doing).

Beginner's Guide to Creating Fan Art

Digital fanart example | © Jae Bailey

Beginner’s Guide to Creating Fanart is a column by contributor Jae Bailey. In this column, Jae offers digital fanart tutorials and advice for aspiring artists.

Welcome back for another fanart tutorial for beginners! If you haven’t read Part 1 and Part 2 yet, go back and do that before you dive in to Part 3. In both of those articles, you can find advice on how to use adjustment layers to touch up your images. You may wish to review these now, since adjustment layers are a great way to get to grips with balancing the colors in a piece of fanart.

And this brings us directly to today’s topic: how to work in color (when you don’t yet know what you’re doing)! This is a beginner’s guide, so don’t expect to learn color theory in this one short article. Instead, I’ll essentially be presenting “cheat” techniques, which will allow you to add color depth to your images without much effort.

Almost every tutorial for beginners starts by warning budding artists away from the dodge and burn tools. These tools lighten and darken areas of an image with a click of mouse or graphics tablet. Beginners often reach for these tools because they finish an image, take a step back, really look at it, and decide that it looks “flat.” The highlights don’t stand out and the shadows just aren’t dark enough.

However, lightening patches and darkening others with the dodge and burn tools can lead to the dark patches looking dirty. The image still looks “off.”

So are there other quick fix tools a beginner can use that actually work? The answer is, yes! Obviously there is no substitute to learning color theory, but there’s no need to torture yourself with flat or burnt images while you digest tomes of art theory text books. By using adjustment layers, the color of light and shadows can be altered—this will banish the “flat” look without much effort.

Let’s work through an example. For that, I will re-color some Planet Hulk fanart of mine in a simple 2-step process. Below is the black and white image. As an aside, I like to paint in black and white because light and shadow are hard and color is hard! Painting in black and white allows me to focus on one difficult process at a time.

Color balance adjustment layer (top layer) and color layer (middle)

Color balance adjustment layer (top layer) and color layer (middle)

The black and white image is my background layer. Step 1 is coloring the image. On the left of that image you can see the color that I’ve applied on top of a separate layer, which I’ve selected to be a “color” layer. As you can tell, in this example I’ve stuck to one color for the entire area of skin! We often think of objects having a certain color, but in reality a red ball, for example, might not look red if we take it outside where cool, blue-tinged light from Earth’s blue sky will reflect off the ball. This will also cause us to interpret the shadowed side of the ball to look like it’s a warmer color. Some tutorials that explain this in more depth are linked to here in part 1 of the fanart series.

Black and white fan art (left), color layer (right)

Black and white fanart (left), color layer (right) | © Jae Bailey

To mimic this effect quickly in our digital painting program we can use adjustment layers. Below is the colored fanart painting with and without the adjustment layer. As you can tell, the adjustment layer allowed me to change the color of the shadows and the highlights in such a way that they now look darker and lighter, respectively. But I didn’t change the lightness or darkness at all! If I took that image and turned it into a greyscale image again, it would be 100% identical to the greyscale image I started with! It’s all an optical illusion. Making use of these sorts of tricks can really make the colors in your art pop within seconds.

Without color adjustment layer (left), with color adjustment layer (right).

Without color adjustment layer (left), with color adjustment layer (right) | © Jae Bailey

Below is a screenshot of the settings for the highlights of the adjustment layer I used. The settings for the shadows should be the exact opposite of these settings, because “cold” light makes shadows look “warm” to us, and vice versa.

Play around with these sliders until the image looks right. Keep in mind that inside light is generally warmer (with cool shadows), so for inside scenes you might want to add more red (i.e. reducing cyan content) to the highlights. For outside scenes, meanwhile, you might want to add more blue and cyan.

Adjustment layer settings for the highlights.

Adjustment layer settings for the highlights.

I hope this tutorial has been informative and that I’ve convinced you to try adjustment layers instead of reaching straight for Photoshop’s dodge and burn tools!

About Jae Bailey (17 Articles)
Jae Bailey's life-goal is to invent a job that combines science, fandom, and really hot curries. Jae holds a PhD in Physics in one hand and a graphics tablet pen in the other.

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