Design Tutorial: Transform Hand-Drawn Artwork into Digital Illustrations

Digitizing hand-drawn illustrations is a must-have skill for graphic designers. The ability to digitize artwork is a common bullet point In graphic design job postings and employers expect graphic designers to perform this skill. If your digitizing skills are rusty or if you are a novice to this art, the below game design course lesson will provide you with the necessary knowledge to start digitizing your artwork.

This excerpt from the course Photoshop for Game Design walks game design neophytes through the process of transforming their line art drawings into digital drawings. While this course is focused on game design, the lesson can be applied to a variety of graphic design tasks. Learn how to digitize art today and add this requisite skill to your resume.

A Guide to Digital Illustrations

by Instructor Todd Gantzler

Once the drawing is complete you should use a scanner to make a digital copy. You will want to paint in an image with very high pixel dimensions, so set your scanner accordingly. Once you have your drawing scanned and safely stored on your hard drive, you may want to add some shading to the original drawing. You can use gray markers for this purpose. You can also get white gel pens that can be very useful for adding highlights.

In my own work, I have been experimenting with tracing paper, working on several sheets at once in an attempt to emulate layers in Photoshop. This way I can keep the figure separate from background elements, for example, and adjust them separately.

We’re going to explore the basics of working with line art with this manga-style drawing:

The simplest kind of drawing consists of creating outlines for shapes and filling them with a solid color. This type of simple representation won’t be suitable for most 3D game purposes, although cell-shaded games are quite popular. What we’re about to do is create a comic-style illustration, using a small range of colors, with one color for the shadows, and one for highlights.

I think broad areas of solid color work well with the line art style of this image, so the shading will be quite minimal. As a result, I can pretty much choose each color that will be in the image. I want fairly warm skin tones, brown hair, and a cool blue/cyan top:

The color used for shading will be darker versions of these three colors. The darker blue will be used for the background:

There will be some white in the image as well. I may find that I want to use just a bit more color variation for shading. Otherwise, this is my color palette and nearly every color that I’ll use in this image. With the approach I’m using I can quite easily adjust these colors later.

Simple as this style of art may seem, this section will give you a good routine for working with any type of line art.

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Using Paths

Paths in Photoshop can be a good way to create strong, smooth lines and solid shapes. Drawing good paths is not nearly as quick as drawing with pencil or pen, but it has distinct advantages. If you don’t have a tablet, paths can be used to get the shapes and lines that you need, using a mouse.

The Pen tool—mightier than the sword, they say.

The Pen tool, shown selected above, lets you work with a vector image approach. Any shape made with the Pen tool will print well at any resolution. Using the Pen tool is like working in Illustrator, or using splines, or curves, in 3D software.

The function and use of the Add Anchor Point tool and Pen tool may be self-explanatory for some, but should become clear to others as we explore uses for changes we make with the Pen tool. We’ll use the Convert Point tool to make various changes to our paths.

Selecting Areas

Rather than work on white, I added a layer filled with a solid color—a dark blue. I set it to Multiply mode from the menu in the Layers panel to allow the scanned drawing to be seen through.

Set the Pen tool to Shape in the options bar. Now click and release to place a point, then repeat around the arm as shown below. Click on the first point again to close the shape.

Choose a good flesh tone to fill the shape from the options bar at the top of the screen. Currently, the shape is made up of straight line segments. At the ends of each straight segment are points. To see them, click on one with the Convert Point tool. The points of your shape should become visible. Click on a point and drag away from the point. Handles should appear and stretch away from the point as you drag the mouse away, and the lines on either side of the point will curve. Keep dragging around with the mouse to see how this affects the shape.

After you release the mouse button, you can click and drag on the small diamonds at the end of the handles to move the handles. Hold Ctrl (Command on a Mac) to move both at once, maintaining a smooth curve through the point, or without Ctrl/Command to move one handle, making a sharp angle at the point. Hold Ctrl/Command and click and drag on the point itself to move the point.

It will take a little while to get the hang of adjusting the shape using the Convert Point tool. Use this first shape to experiment and get the hang of it. Try out the Add Anchor Point tool and experiment with that as well.

Finish with the arm shape as shown below.

You can set the layer containing your shape to around 75% transparency, which can make it easier to see the lines in the drawing beneath. As you create other shapes, you can allow some overlap—as long as the right layer is on top. Observe the right arm in the example shown below.

As you continue to lay down shapes, use transparency to see the lines, but remember to check your colors with the layer set to Normal. Of course, you can easily change the colors of a shape at any time.

Details have been added to the face, and some shading as well. These are all done in a dark brown, and set to varying degrees of transparency, to allow the color of the skin to come through (the skin color is washed out below because it is still set to around 75% opacity).

The mouth can look quite large when it is rendered solid white. Some shading can reduce that exaggeration a bit.

Our image is perfectly acceptable in a minimalist state right now, although a little cleanup of the lines should be required.

Shading and Highlights

A little more shading adds depth to the image. To add shading, you can save some time by duplicating the arm, for example, and by changing the color, then deleting points and reshaping it. This saves you some time in making the left edges match.

Adding strokes to shapes is as easy as selecting the shape in the Layers panel, choosing the Pen tool, and setting a stroke color and width in the options bar. But if you want a little more power and control, we can use the Paths panel to add lines by converting them into selections. Select the arm, and go to the Paths panel. Choose Make Selection from the flyout menu.

With the Lasso tool selected, right-click (Control-click on a Mac) and choose Stroke. Set the Width to 2 px; and Location to Center. Click OK.

If you allowed shapes to overlap, you won’t want to stroke the shape without adjusting it. This is actually quite easy to do. The blue shirt, for example, is overlapped by the arms and purse strap.

With the selection shown above, select the layer containing the purse strap. Go to the Paths panel flyout menu and choose Make Selection. Set the Operation to Subtract from Selection.

The purse strap is removed from the selection, as shown below. Do the same with both arms before you stroke the top.

OK, if you’ve followed along so far, you’ve gained some experience in the challenge of importing line art, making precise selections for different areas in a drawing, choosing a color scheme, and representing shadows, highlights, and details.

Become a skilled game designer when you enroll in the online course, Photoshop for Game Design.

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