Gray Tones

by Dawnson Chen

Hello, this is a tutorial on gray toning a comic page These methods  can easily be applied to colouring. It might not work for everyone but I find this method has a lot of advantages. In this tutorial I am using Photoshop CS4 on a Windows machine.

1. Page Preparation

"Mind Spiders of Madagascar" - Holmes #2 - Story by Robert Pincombe, Art by Dawnson Chen

The first thing I always do before I start painting is prepare the page. I start by cropping out whatever I don’t need, then I drag and drop the image into a template file that has the correct dimension and resolution (in this case the file is 4125×6263 at 600dpi).

Next I want to get rid of my blue lines. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation (or hit Ctrl+U), then where it says Master select Cyan, turn  Saturation down to -100 and  Lightness up to 100. Now all the blue line on the image should disappear.

Since I am painting this page in gray tones I now set the file to Grayscale, go to Image > Mode > Grayscale. If you are planning to use colours instead of gray skip this step.

Now I want to finish preparation by cleaning up all the gray spots and make all the line art as black as possible.  Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels (or hit Ctrl+L) In this window I have a graph of the range of grays I have in my image. At the bottom of the graph there are three triangles, black, white and gray, I move the black and white triangles towards the middle until all the gray speckles are gone and the blacks are nice and dark. While I’m adjusting,  I zoom in on a detailed area and watch to make sure I don’t lose any of the line work I want.  I hit OK when I’m happy.

At this point I made some corrections to my line art. I made Edgar’s hair white instead of black so I can paint it in later with a dark gray instead.  After a few more minor changes I’m almost ready to paint.

The last step is to set this layer to Multiply.This will make the line art opaque and  the white transparent. In the Layers window, change the layer type from Normal to Multiply.


2. Backgrounds

Before I start painting the main characters I like to paint a simple background colour, just so that I’m not painting  on a white background. A white background can mislead the eye. If you put tones on your characters comparing it to a white background it can look drastically different once you do the background later. Even a flat tone is better than painting on white.

3. Creating Masks

When I paint I like to separate my grays into Masked Layers. I like to have a small range of gray that I stick to. In this page I used a gray that has brightness at 20%,40%,60% and 80%. I also have a 100% brightness, which is just white, and I don’t need a 0% because the ink on the page is all the blacks I want.

Next I want to create a Masked Layer for each of these values. First I select the value of gray I want a for the mask and fill the entire image with it (Shift+F5). Then click the “add layer mask” found at the bottom of the layer window. Finally, fill the entire mask layer in black (Shift+F5). Now that the masks are set up, whenever I click on the mask layer I can erase out the mask and reveal  the gray of that layer.

4. Start Painting

Now that everything is prepared and  my masks are made, I finally start painting. This part is fairly simple compared to all that set up. I just pick a value for a section and erase out the mask. For example I want Edgar’s hair to be 60% gray, so I click on the 60% gray mask and carefully erase  out Edgar’s hair. If I want a variation in grays within the 60% gray hair, I go back to regular layer (non-mask layer) and paint in the variation and textures.

Occasionally, I had two sections next to each other that had similar tones. For instance in the big second panel, I started with a 40% gray for Edgar’s pants, which was very similar to the value of the background building. I made a selection of that area  and darkened just the pants, separating it from the background.


This is my way of gray toning/colouring.  I find that it works well for me. All the preparation and setup may be a bit of a turn-off but after a bit of practice it can be done very quickly. The use of masks completely changed the way I paint.  It makes it so easy to go back and change colours and tones. I  recommend that  artists who do a lot of painting try it.

If you have feedback with tips or questions, you can contact me at

(And get ready to be blown away by Dawnson’s “Mind Spiders of Madagascar”, coming soon in the second pulse-pounding issue of Holmes Incorporated!!!!! – Assist. Ed)


Posted on June 17, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. awesome tutorial and artwork! very helpful

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