How to Color in a Traditionally Inked Comic in Adobe Illustrator

Learn how to turn a traditionally inked comic page into a warmly lit night scene in vector. With live paint, global process colors, gradients and different layer transparency settings in Adobe Illustrator, we will turn our black and white artwork into a comic page brimming with color.

1. Prepare the Line Art

Step 1

I have a previously made comic page which is inked traditionally. To start I make a new document in Adobe Illustrator and import the artwork by going to File > Place…

Import comic line art

Step 2

Since the file I imported is a png, I need to turn the line art into paths in Illustrator. First I will need to trace the artwork by pressing the Image Trace button in the top menu, which appears when I have the image selected.

Image Trace button

Next I press the Expand button in the same top menu. The image has now turned into editable paths.

Expand button

When tracing an image, the results depend a lot on the resolution. In the below example, the top image is a result of tracing with an image resolution of 72 dpi, while the one below has a resolution of 300 dpi. The more detailed you want it, the higher the resolution.

Trace comparison

Step 3

I name the layer “LineArt” and select everything on it by pressing the round button to the right of it in the Layers panel.

Layer Selection button

Instead of the pure black, I choose a softer brown color for the line art, and then set the mode to Multiply in the Transparency panel.

Line art color change and multiply blend mode

2. Set the Flat Colors

Step 1

From here I pick out a bunch of eye-catching colors. This makes it easier to notice when I’ve missed a spot.

I turn each hue into a swatch and make sure to check the Global box before pressing OK. This is so that when I later adjust the colors, every object with the same color swatch will also change.

Global color swatches

Step 2

I make sure I have the line art paths selected, and then choose the Live Paint Bucket from the side menu (shortcut is K on the keyboard).

Live Paint Bucket menu

Now I simply click to fill in all empty fields with different colors.

Live Paint coloring

Step 3

In some instances, as with the detailed cobblestone, it might be easier to use the Pen Tool instead.

3. Pick the Correct Colors

Step 1

To help me pick suitable colors, I start setting the atmosphere with a gradient background. The comic will take place at night with the center character approaching the warm light from the tavern. I illustrate this by choosing a dark purple color, which becomes more orange the closer it gets to the tavern.

I name this layer Background and select Multiply from the Transparency panel.

Gradient background blend mode multiply

Step 2

I adjust the colors by double-clicking each global process color and experiment a bit with the HSB sliders in the Color Mode.

Corrected colors

Step 3

Lastly, I drag the Background layer on top of the others. Since the transparency is set to Multiply, the gradient will influence the colors a bit.

Multiply background placed above colors

4. Add the Shadows

Step 1

To create the shadows, I start by making a new layer which I name Shadows. I set the transparency of the layer to Multiply, just like with the gradient background.

Using the same color swatch as the object I want to shade, I start hand drawing the shapes of the shadows with the Pencil Tool (N). Since this layer is set to Multiply, the color becomes a matching darker version.

Environmental shadows using Pen tool

Step 2

When I am done with the shadows of a particular color swatch, I go to the top menu and press the Select All button with Fill Color selected.

Select Fill Color
Select all shadows

Step 3

Having all objects now selected, I turn the color of the objects into a radial gradient, going from 100% color to 0%. This makes the shadows softer.

Repeat this for each shadow color and adjust the gradients as you see fit.

Soften shadows with round gradients

5. Let There Be Light

Step 1

To make the lights in the scene, I make a new layer with transparency set to Soft Light.

For the lanterns I make a radial gradient with a warm yellow light. I repeat this light on the ground too, but a bit more faded.

Step 2

You can pull out some texture for objects with some highlighted details with the Pen Tool.

Hair texture via highlights

Step 3

With the Blob Brush I add some highlights to the roof.

Highlights in straw using Blob brush

I also add some rim light to the characters closest to the light source.

Rim light on characters

Step 4

In the middle panel, the character is approaching the light source, so I add some wider fields of highlights to her cloak and hair using the Pen Tool.

Light on characters cloak

6. That Little Extra Kick

Now that the whole page is starting to come along, I take some extra time to look for little things that can be improved.

Step 1

Going back to the Shadows layer, I make a darker shadow on her face by adding a blue radial gradient, contrasting with the yellow light.

Extra shadow on characters face

Step 2

With the same gradient color I go to the Highlights layer, where I add highlights coming from a second light source, like moonlight.

Adding bounce light

I add the same kind of light in some other places, but keep the majority on the main character in the cloak.

Adding bounce light

Step 3

I want to add some extra shininess to the golden sign. Making a new layer with the Transparency set to Color Dodge, I select a light yellow color and use the Blob Brush to go over where I want some more shine.

On the same layer I add some of that shine to the irises of the character’s eyes as well.

Add glow to characters eyes

Awesome Work, You’re Now Done!

In this tutorial we’ve shown how to turn a traditionally inked comic page into colored vector. With Live Paint we can quickly add the flat colors, and using global process colors makes it easy to adjust the colors you want.

Then by using gradients, the Pen Tool, the Blob Brush and different Transparency modes, we can create an appropriate atmosphere and a more 3D feeling for our comic.

Coloring is a process it is easy to get lost in, either by not feeling sure on how to go about it, or being so into it that you lose track of the time. Having a basic strategy makes it easier to get started, and then you can hopefully get lost in the good kind of way!

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