Doing Comics the hpkomic Way – Coloring, Shading, and Lighting

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This is the second part of a slightly-revised and corrected version of a previous tutorial I wrote for a post on Medium. It follows the process of creating a page of a comic. For the most part, I still utilize many of the same techniques, so I am presenting the post as it is with minimal correction. Any changes revolve around the writing as opposed to the content. You can check out the first part of the tutorial right here.

Please enjoy.

Let’s dive right in, shall we? My first step is to green-screen anything that I feel will be composed of composites later. So skies, windows, and screens usually, as I have some pre-made stuff for that.

It’s garish but it works.

Then I will grab any reference materials I need. Luckily I already have some color guides available for Ben and Erin:

And Karma too! But he will show up on a different page.

With the guide, I start coloring the characters, but during the process, I realized that Ben’s shoes weren’t hi-tops on the page I just drew, so to fix that I just did a quick edit on the flat colors layer.


This will not mess up the line art coloring process later that much, I just need to keep in mind that I modified his shoes. Anyway, keep at it until you have a page full of flat colors.

Like this.

With the flat colors in place, it’s now down to the part that really makes my comics stand out. I am going to have to color the line art, but with our locked transparent pixels this is super easy. What I will do if find an object that I want to change the outline color of. So to start I am going to deal with the bushes in panel 2. I always keep the character line art that dark blue color but I color other lines, such as background stuff, with different colors to allow the characters to pop. So what I do is select my “lines” layer, and just use the pencil tool and a color of choice to separate the elements I need to. For this section of bush, for example, I just drew some green lines to block it off for easy paint bucket fills:

Step One
Step Two

With lock transparent pixels you can scribble all over the “lines” layer without adding any new lines, anything you add just overlaps the existing lines you’ve done. That makes coloring the line art super easy. So now the task is to color all the background objects as you see fit. In my case, I’ll be at this for a bit, but it’s not a super taxing process either. Later when we apply some extra colors to the characters lock transparent pixels will be hugely important.

Oh yeah, and remember that we duplicated the frame and merged it with the line art earlier? Well, the black frame surrounds all the blue line art so if you block out a section of lines and use the paint-bucket it won’t color every line in the panel since the blue and the black are different colors. It’s a small thing but I find it very helpful. Basically I continue this until all the background elements have colored line art.

Notice the characters pop off from the background?

Once that is done, I begin to apply colors to the characters, usually small things that create a little more depth. I keep that same blue outline, but I find elements that can use some differentiating colors. Teeth, eyes, ear lines, clothing folds, are all game for their own color. Once again, this is all done on the line layer.

Things like these.

I continue this until I have my whole page ready for the shading process.

Flat colors and full-colored outlines.

By now my layers look like this:

Layers at this point.

I simply merge the lines and flats layers into a “Base” layer, and then duplicate it, naming it “Flats.” The base layer becomes locked because, once again, it’s a back up in case something goes horribly wrong. Notice the “bush shape” layer is still there. It will definitely come in handy soon, as now we’re going to be shading the page. Step one is to duplicate the flats layer and the title is “Shade.”

Shade Layer

Time to Shade

Then, using that same blue color I use for the outlines, I begin drawing my shadows on the characters as they tend to be the focus on every panel. Remember to remember your lighting source. In this case, the light comes from behind the characters.

Outline the fill areas

From there, I fill in the area that is in the shadows, as seen here. I know it looks odd, but trust me on this. I’ve not led you the wrong way yet, have I?

Fill in those lines

Simply repeat this step for all the characters.

Full Character Shading

Now take that layer of character shading, reduce it to 25% opacity, and merge with your flats layer. That gives you something similar to this.

Now reduce the opacity!

Now duplicate this composite “flats” layer and name it “shade.” Now we start shading the background. Typically my choices for line art colors reflect the shading colors I go with, as seen here:

Shading background/foreground elements.

Just repeat this for the rest of the page. Remember your lighting sources and be consistent. We’ve got some more environmental effects to get down later, but for now, basic shading is just what we need.

Shading of the environment.

Now simply reduce this shading layer to 25% opacity and merge down, creating a layer called, yet again, “flats.” There is a lot of this duplication and compositing process.

Shaded environment.

Now we’re moving into the really fun stuff, the skybox and some other special effects, including textures and dynamic shadows. For example, I want a little more variation in the colors on things like the sidewalk, trees, and bushes. So what I would do here is select the area I was to apply a gradient to on the “base” layer as it is the cleanest copy of the colored art and then create a new layer above the “flats” layer where I can apply the gradients I wish. I may have a couple of gradient layers depending on the effects I am after, as seen here.

You’ll notice the trees, grass, sidewalk, and wooden fence all have gradients applied.

For areas of special interest, such as the stark difference between the foreground and background of panel two, I simply go to the “frame” layer, select the inside, and create a new overlaying layer with a darker gradient to establish the darkness inside of the bushes. From there I take that green “bush shape” layer from earlier, select it, and cut that shape from that darker gradient layer.

Notice the stark difference in lighting in the second panel. Anything in the foreground has a green hue.

From there I just modify the opacity of the individual layers to a point where I am happy with them and then merge them to the “flats” layer.

After a while having too many layers would bog down my computer. Your mileage may vary.

From there were are moving toward the final touches. My characters should be projecting shadows, so I go ahead and do that. I take a color similar to that of the line art for the characters, create a new layer, and draw in the rough shadows, even going as far as drawing over the characters if need be. I also need to take into account the direction of the light I decided on. Naturally, if the light is hitting out characters from behind, then the shadows should project in front of them. From there I simply blur the shadow layer by about 15 to 20 pixels and then create my selections to target any shadows that are covering over the character art so I can delete those. When all is done, it leaves some nice shadows below the characters. I usually merge these shadows with, you guessed it, the “flats” layer.

Really try to consider how the shadows would be shaped, don’t just go for rounded discs below the characters.

All that remains in the skybox from earlier. I had an existing blue sky background I had made, so I set it underneath the “flats” layer. I then deleted all the awful lime green coloring on the flats layer allowing the blue sky layer to shine through. I simply manipulate the skybox to a point where I am happy with it and merge it into the “flats” layer. Furthermore, I also make sure I do the same thing for those windows on the house in the background. I have premade window textures I created for such a purpose. Additionally, if you want a color that overlays the whole comic, simply select the panels from the “frames” layer, create a new layer filled with the color, and the play with your layer and blending styles, along with your opacity.

The finished artwork.

This is the exact process I use for every page of my webcomic Cosmic Dash, and it has served me well so far. I won’t cover dialogue balloons and the sort in this post as it is a separate beast entirely, but you can feel free to look at a complete page and see how you think it would work.

Yet another comic series I have to find time to work on.

As always, thank you for reading, and if you have feedback, comments, or topic suggestions please let me know by commenting here, or by dropping me a line on twitter.