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Digital Inking with the Photoshop Pen Tool

If you want inhumanly super clean lines, you might want to use the pen tool like I do for Stupid and Insane Defenders Against Chaos. This super-simple style is excellent for teaching the basics of the pen tool:


A: Setting Up Your Workspace:

Step 1: Scan in your sketch or create a new file (CTRL-N or CMD-N on the Mac). If you will be printing this file on an 8×10, select 8×10 and 300DPI.

If you are resizing your scanned sketch you can adjust the size of your canvas by going to Image > Canvas Size.

Step 2: Click the Create a New Layer button on the layers palette in the lower right corner of the screen.


This will create a layer above the background layer. You can ink on this without messing up your sketch, and if you don’t like it you can start over by just deleting this layer. (Delete by dragging it into the trash can icon next to the New Layer icon.)

Step 3: Name this layer, “Ink 1” by double-clicking on the “Layer 1” text.

Step 4: Double-click on the lock icon on the Background layer. A menu will pop up. Click OK. This unlocks the background layer so that you can lower the opacity and see what you are doing. Name the layers whatever you like to keep them organized. Remember, double clicking on the layer name will let you rename it.

Step 5: In the upper-right of the layers palette, you see a menu for ‘Opacity’. Click it and drop the opacity down to about 70%. Now the pencil lines are dimmer so you can tell your ink and the sketch apart.


Step 6: You may want to click this box to lock your sketch layer now. The biggest mistake everyone makes is inking on the wrong layer. If you lock it then it will not take any ink. You can unlock it by simply clicking on the box again.


Step 7: If you would like a white background rather than the checkered transparency, click on the New Layer icon as we did above for the ink layer, select white as your foreground color, then hit Alt-backspace to fill the layer with white. Be sure that you have the correct layer selected and that you drag the layer to the bottom when you are done so that it does not block the layers we are working with.


Step 8: You should now have a blank ink layer on top, a light sketch in the middle, and a white background underneath that. Now it is time to use the Pen Tool on the top Ink layer.


B: WAIT! Configuring the Pen Tool for the first time in Photoshop

The first time you use Photoshop, the pen tool will be set to ‘Shape Layers’ which means it will try to fill a shape, not create a path. This is bad. We want the pen tool to instead create a path so that we can apply clean pen strokes, not try to fill itself and complete a shape. To set your pen tool up simply click the following icon, the ‘Paths’ icon in the upper left corner. The good news is that Photoshop remembers this preference, and you only have to do this once. Now you are set to start using the pen tool.

C: OK! Let’s Use the Pen Tool!

NOTE: I am using a hard brush at 8px at all times here.

Step 1: Be sure you have the Ink layer selected, and click once on the canvas and release the mouse. Now click where you want the first stroke to end, but this time drag it to the upper-left so that it creates an arc. It looks like this:


Step 2: Now click on the indicated point and drag to the lower left as shown. This will move the handle.


Step 3: Create an awesome curve by clicking where indicated (do not hold ALT) and dragging to the upper left:


Step 4: Now you can Right-Click > Stroke Path > Click OK. Make sure that “Brush” is selected like this:


Step 5: Then Right-Click > Delete Path. You will leave behind super-clean lines like this:


Step 6: You now have a smooth pen stroke that you can add more to, erase parts of, or add to to make your lines the way you want them to be. Now all that is left is for you to trace over the rest of your sketch in this way. Do not be afraid to use more layers. If you mess up, just delete the layer and there’s no harm done. If you like it, go to Layer > Merge Down to merge it with the line art underneath it.

Here is my digitally inked drawing. It is ready to be colored:



I’ll admit that the pen tool is really difficult to understand via a written tutorial. The pen tool is used to make vector paths that are later stroked to turn into the appearance of black ink. Once you get the hang of the pen tool it really makes things easier, so I will try my best to explain it in text.

If you click somewhere a dot will appear. If you keep clicking around you will keep making more dots, and these dots will be connected by straight lines. This is not always what you want. Clicking on a second spot and then dragging it will make a curve that connects these dots. If you hold ALT, then click and drag on the second point, it will move the anchor (this is the bar that pops up around the point). You want the anchor moved towards the direction you are going to make the next point of the curve. Then you can click and drag and it will make a nice line. It is best to practice for a few minutes with the Pen Tool to get it straight. This can be used for super-simple artwork like you see in this tutorial, or applied to very complicated designs. (I’ll show you that later.)


How to Set Up Photoshop for Pressure Sensitive Tablet Artwork

This tutorial will show you how to set up your machine to recognize pressure sensitivity. You can use this for digital inking, painting, and shading in Photoshop. I use this technique in my comics, mostly for dynamic expressions and (with a large brush on a very low opacity) the multicolored shading. If you own a tablet, you absolutely have to do this setup.


You can use a version as old as Photoshop 7 and still be able to use this tutorial.

Step 1: Set your your graphics tablet up as described in it’s user manual. I personally use a Wacom Intuous.

Step 2: Go to your tablet’s manufacturer’s website and download the newest driver. Most likely any driver that was packaged on CD with the tablet is totally out of date.

Step 3: Go to Start > Settings > Control Panel on the PC or System Prefs on the Mac. Here will be a tablet menu where you can adjust what the buttons on your tablet and pen do. You can also adjust the pen’s pressure sensitivity.

How you set these are based on your personal preference. I usually totally deactivate the buttons on the side of the pen because they get in my way. I also make the pressure sensitivity just a little bit softer than the default setting.

NOTE: Cheaper tablets like the Graphire/Bamboo will offer a very limited array of settings. The Intuous level and higher will offer a full array of settings that you can adjust as well as double the points of sensitivity.

Step 4: Launch Photoshop

Step 5: Open your Brush Preferences (WIndow > Brushes). Make sure that Shape Dynamics is turned on and that it is set to Pen Pressure. This allows the tablet’s pressure sensitivity to respond to how hard or soft you press on the tablet with the pen.


You can now ink by hand with your pen if your pen tool is set up properly. I recommend a hard edge brush, not the soft, fuzzy brush.


Scanning a Sketch

Step 1: Launch Photoshop.

Step 2: Go to File > Import, then select your scanner. It should be listed there. Mine is the ScanGear CS 7.2.5.x, so I click that. The Photoshop scanning menu should pop up.


Step 3: I click on “Preview” (1) so that I can see how much of the page I want to scan (2). Then I adjust the bounding box (That funny looking dotted box) around my sketch so that I am not scanning lots of blank paper.


Step 4: Please note that I have it set to Color, and 300 DPI (3). The image needs to be at least 300 DPI if you want it to look good when you print it out later.

Step 5: If your sketch is too light you can go to Image > Adjust > Auto Levels or Image > Adjust > Levels and play with the sliders to get it looking the best. I rarely do this because I am usually just going to digitally ink over it and delete the sketch layer, but if you want just a nice sketch you will probably want to adjust the levels.


Next I will show you how I digitally ink over my sketches.


Brain Tricks: Organizing Your Week with Sliding Days


The key to not overloading yourself when you have a tough schedule is as simple as tricking your brain. I work an office job during the day and then come home and professionally work on my art and comics. Clearly coffee is required!

If you get behind, your brain will shut down, you will get depressed, and start procrastinating. I avoid this by planning flexibility into my week and not putting too much pressure on myself to do specific things on any one particular day.

– First, I decide what I realistically want to get done this week.

– Then I designate after work days for work and fun.

I cannot stress to you how important it is for you to plan fun into your day and week. Moving from an office job into more work in the same day is tough. You will not be able to do it every day for very long without chewing your arm off like a squirrel.

Daily Fun:

Examples of daily fun for me can be sketching during your dayjob’s break or going to get a fancy Starbucks drink.

At this point you are probably groaning at how un-fun that sounds, but I can assure you that you have to be able to dedicate a good part of your life to your business if you want it to work. Some days, Starbucks and a sketch is all you get, but because you are so great at planning and time management, your output keeps going and you can do awesome things later. For example, like affording that trip to Disney World or those $300 boots.

I speak from experience. Nothing is handed to you, but the rewards can be great.

Sliding Days:

I work full time and I have a 2.5 hour round trip commute. All of my art stuff is done at home after work.

I have a loose guideline of work/nonwork days that I follow to get the acceptable minimum amount of work done, but I often exceed it because I am not always in a state of panic with this method.

– Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: At least 2 days from this group are work days. One is a fun shopping/errand day. If I feel too tired on Monday, I will just work on Tuesday and Wednesday, or work extra long on one of those days if I can’t work on 2 days.

– Thursday and Friday: Thursday is almost always a work day. Friday almost always is not because I am too tired and I have a vocal lesson after work that day. (I sing too! Yay!)

– Saturday: I have learned that I rarely will work much on Saturday, so that is always a fun day unless there is a convention coming up. Even then, I tend to take my fun days seriously, so I probably won’t be working on Saturday even then. I need my one day to go out and have an adventure or I will go nuts. This is the day I can go to NYC, the zoo, an amusement park, or something else. Often I just take a 4 hour nap because I’m so drained.


– Sunday: Sunday varies. Sometimes I work, sometimes I go to the supermarket and buy the 5 frozen lunches (Oh joy…) that I will be eating that week plus snacks. Sometimes there is a nap involved.

In this way I can shift around the days that I work and still get everything done without feeling like I have to do X on a particular day. Artists know that if your mind doesn’t want you to do X today, you’d better be able to switch to Y because no amount of coffee will get X to come out. This is why I always have my Index Cards of Doom on hand to redirect me to the next highest priority if I experience a brain freeze.

The second I stopped planning hard tasks on each day was the second I was able to do more work that was better. I hope this can help you as well.


How to Stay Organized and Motivated: Index Cards of Doom


They don’t teach business or workflow in art school, so unfortunately a lot of creative people find themselves wanting to hide in their studio. I’m here to give you the power back to take control of your creative business and your motivation.
The human mind reacts very well to writing. I learned Japanese by writing, so after having yet another useless try and using technology to organize my life, I figured why not swallow my pride and go back to basics? What I found was that not only was it a better method for me, but it helped me stay motivated. I use index cards. A quick glance at an index card told me exactly what to do and prevented any time wasting. Now I will share my method with you.
The Method:
All of my To Dos are kept on a deck of index cards fastened together by a binder clip.

Card 1:
The top index card has 3 columns: Now, Waiting, and Goals.
Now has things that I need to do the next time I sit in front of my desktop computer. This could be a new piece of art for a promo campaign, the next Stupid and Insane Defenders Against Chaos comic, writing a tutorial, or something as simple as answering an email.

Things that can be done in a few seconds or minutes get done first and immediately. Deadline items (like the next comic) get done before freeform art because the comic must happen above all.
Waiting is for things I can’t work on now because I need something from someone else. I check this column daily and and ping the people I am collaborating with periodically. Often this is handled in weekly review sessions or by just asking the person how things are going.
Goals are big things. This could be attending a convention, a website or book launch, or something like “increase website traffic by 10,000”.
Card 2:
The second card is my shopping list. We are talking about things like milk, Count Chocula cereal,  or a new pair of shoes. I also keep errands like going to the tailor or returning something.
Card 3:
The third card has notes about the Stupid and Insane universe. I forget things I’ve written…like the fact that William eats brain trees and that I need to bring back the evil unnamed girl from the “Descent into the Deathside” story arc.
My sketchbook contains My Annoying Life ideas, since those come to me randomly. Sometimes I sketch them on post-its and stick them inside the book.
All other cards are used for spontaneous notes. As I check tasks off of the first 3 cards, the tasks are rewritten on new cards. Similarly, the spontaneous notes are integrated in this way. When I rewrite stuff out my mind is re-engaging with the priorities, so I almost never forget about a task. My index cards are my life. I feel I control my life in this way, so motivation comes naturally. The second I started doing this, I forgot about any depressive feelings and was able to focus on goals and the steps that make up those goals.
If you find yourself lost, unfocused, and depressed this might be a good thing to try. I think you will find that when difficult things are broken down into smaller steps that you can physically see – everything starts falling into place. The best part is that by utilizing your goals column, you can actually see your progress. Seeing your progress is so very important because you will be able to see what you have done when you are having a bad day. This is your motivation to keep going!

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