If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t know half of what Photoshop can do, despite having used it for decades. I’ve been oil painting way longer than Photoshop has been around, and as a result, I tend to think of Photoshop with a ‘physical media’ state of mind. That is, I want a brush or palette that imitates the way I work traditionally. So when there is a tool or filter that doesn’t really correlate to a real world equivalent, I often ignore it to my own disservice.

One such tool that I went WAY too long without knowing how to use was the Gradient Map tool. This tool is unbelievably helpful for any artist that starts off working monochromatically. In fact, it’s such a popular way of colorizing digital art these days, that you’ll probably recognize its style even if you didn’t know what it was.

Simply put, with the click of a button, the Gradient Map tool can convert a greyscale image from something like this…

into something like this…

Now, it by no means finishes your art for you. But if you’re trying to add a little bit color to spice up a black and white sketch, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

I had known that a lot of artists used this method, and was curious to try it for a long time, but I didn’t really understand how. I always seemed to get something wrong, and usually would fall back to my tried and true methods, or just abandon it completely. But eventually, I took a little time and researched it so that I could better use it.

For those that want to just jump right in, here is a ‘quick start guide’ of sorts…

In a nutshell, the Gradient Map takes any specified grey in your piece, and replaces everything of that value with the color/value of your choice.

Thanks to half the world self-quarentining, there have have a TON of instructional videos going around, and a few good ones on Gradient Mapping popped up lately. I figured this would be a great time to introduce some of you other stubborn traditional artists to the concept!

This first video, by Marc Brunet, is a popular one and the first one I found on Gradient Mapping. It was probably the most helpful in explaining the actual process to me. It’s a great overview and very comprehensive.

These next two videos are quite new, and really struck a cord with me! I had always used the Gradient Map tool for just that, gradients. But these two videos by comic artist Matt Hollingsworth, helped me realize how versatile they could be, and actually help produce a strong, graphic quality! Plus, you can tell Matt is a professional artist, and so the video really accentuates the facility and ease of workflow that the tool provides.

Lastly, this video, also by Marc Brunet, helps showcase WHY you might want to use Gradient Mapping, as opposed to other means of coloring, through the demonstration of a helpful side-by-side comparison! Marc paints the same character twice, using two different methods, and takes time to show the specific differences in the results.

So if you’re unfamiliar with Gradient Maps, take a look at the videos above. You’ll be glad you did! Though, ultimately, making good art with them comes down to practice just like anything else. I am by no means an expert, but in my own trials, I have come across a few helpful tips that you may want to keep in mind…

Tips for Using Gradient Maps

  • Do your Gradient Map as an ‘Adjustment Layer’, not an edit. This will let you fine tune it repeatedly.
  • Use Warms and Cools! Don’t just shift your gradient’s value. Really try to focus on creating a temperature and saturation shift as well.
  • It takes finesse! The difference between a really garish palette, and a truly stunning one, is EXTREMELY subtle. Take your time to really get it right.
  • Restrain! I try to reduce my blacks and whites just a small bit, as to allow the color to really shine through in those areas.
  • Be careful of Value when selecting colors. Try to pick colors whose native value corresponds well to the grey you’re replacing.
  • Research! I spent quite a bit of time using the eye dropper tool on other artist’s work, trying to figure out how they did it. Seeing their process helped me better replicate it, and appreciate the subtlety involved.
  • Collect! Any cool Gradient Map you make can easily be saved for use again. Eventually, you’ll create a whole library of interesting palettes, that you can quickly cycle through and use in the future.

That’s it! Go arm yourselves with new artistic ammunition, and explore!