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To Bitmap and Back Again, Preparing Your Inks for Color

November 28, 2016

Today over in the Hi-Fi Color Facebook page we had some questions about how to prepare your inked pages for color in Photoshop. This is sort of the crossroads between my two worlds. Graphic Design for print and comic books. The idea solution here will make the pages as clean as possible in the quickest amount of time so that you can turn around the highest level of quality in the shortest amount of time. If you’re spending time cleaning up a “dirty” page or trying to hide errors in the colors you won’t make your deadlines and your editors won’t be happy with your work. And if you’re like me, someone who has a painfully little amount of time available to work but a strong drive to produce quality work…you’ll take every advantage you can get.

First of all, Mark Morales graciously offered some art for me to use in our example. Mark doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall but he agreed to let me use a page for this tutorial without hesitation so three cheers for Mark. Please follow him on Twitter @mark_morales11 and his Instagram at mark_morales11. Thank you so much Mark!

Here we have Avengerbps vs XMen issues 6, page 33, pencils by Olivier Coipel, inks by Mark Morales.


This is actually lowered a bit in size for the web but the original image is a standard, full resolution size of about 10.7 inches wide by 16.8 inches tall at 300DPI. Its a beautiful page with loads of action, really high contrast and really good flow. Looking at the page from this distance it looks great, but lets zoom in on the bottom two panels.


I’m zoomed in above here at 60% and now I’m beginning to see the craftsmanship of the page. More-and-more these days, the creation of pages is moving toward the digital work space where the blacks are filled with the fill bucket, but here you see a classically inked page. I can see Mark’s brush strokes and the tooth of the paper. I can feel the love that went into the work. The pros and cons of traditional inking versus digital is a debate for another day, but from a colorists standpoint these brush strokes could pose a problem down the line. Lets zoom in some more.


Now we’re at 200% and you can really see the brush strokes. What we’re seeing here is the white of the paper showing through the inks. Ink isn’t completely opaque and a lot of times isn’t even truly black. Some traditional artists these days are using black tattoo ink to ink their pages because it is so much darker thank traditional inks to help with this but, again, that’s topic for another day.


In running the eye dropper across one small area of black I saw a K (black) result ranging from 100% down to as low as 83%. The issue here is that if a colorist drops color in behind those areas where the white paper is showing through the inks…instead of the paper we’re going to see the colors showing through. Since no one colors just exactly up to the lines and not one pixel further, this poses a huge problem. Another problem here is that you can actually see the grain, or tooth, of the paper. This appears as a very light gray color. There’s also a light smudge here and there. You could also possibly see a stray pencil mark that didn’t quite get erased. Maybe you pencil in non-repro blue line, ink over then scan without erasing those lines at all? Then you’re stuck having to make curve adjustments or fiddling with channels.  You’re taking out the blue, or whatever color is your preferred pencil of choice, but you’re also taking some of the depth out of your inks as well. What we want is our inks to be deep, dark black. As with almost every other function in Photoshop, there are 20 or more ways to do pretty much everything and prepping pages for color is no exception, but lets just take this page and try a few things. I’m going to zoom back out to 60% and run the HiFi Color Script 1 which does a bunch of great things to lineart to prepare it to be colored.


I’ve stared flatting the page so you can see the nice blue background, I’ve broken out Cyclops’ head and the full panel behind it.


Zoomed in more you can actually see the pink color showing through the black.


With another color next to it in the pink, you can REALLY see the way the colors show through. This is bad news because those colors are going to show through your blacks all the way through the process of rendering this page and will absolutely be visible when it goes to press. Black ink on a press isn’t actually true black. It’s a very very dark gray, so we already need to take some extra steps to get your inks as dark as possible, starting out with blacks that range from 83% to 100% is going to make your task that much more difficult. As a colorist you’re going to have to come up with a workaround to keep colors from showing through that all the way across not just this page…but every page in the book. Workarounds = extra time spent on a page and that’s never good. So what can we do to fix this? Something quick and guaranteed to solve our not-so-black inks? The answer is in a quick color mode switch to bitmap and back again.


Your scanned pages may be in some other color space than what my page is at currently, but if its not already you’ll want to first convert your page to Grayscale by selecting Image>Mode>Grayscale. This will clear out all the color on the page leaving just shades of gray. Next go back to your Image menu and select Image>Mode>Bitmap. By converting your artwork to bitmap you are telling Photoshop that you want every single pixel on the page to be either 100% black or 0% black (aka: white). So there is no question that you blacks are going to be solid black. There’s no messing with curves, levels or figuring out some wonky workaround.


As usual, Photoshop gives you plenty of choices but you have to be careful in this step because if you make the wrong choice you could blow up your page entirely! OK…there’s always Ctrl-Z, but for a moment you’re going to think “What the what!?” You DON’T want to choose is any of the Dither options or the Screen.

Dithering is the process of using two colors to simulate the shade of a third color by placing dots of the two colors close together. The application using the dithering process can use several strategies of placing the dots over the region showing the third color. It can place dots in particular patterns or at random. Photoshop has several such strategies available for its dithering and it also may avoid dithering altogether depending on the effect desired for the particular image.
What Is Dithering in Photoshop?”, by Bert Markgraf

So in an image with 2 or more colors the dither will try to approximate a gradient of those colors in black and white. With line art Photoshop sees the variation in the K levels (remember out 83% – 100% range?) as different colors and tries to approximate that variance in black  and white. Your result is speckled mess.


At 60% view you can see there are dots of white now in the black areas but also notice the panel frames? They look a bit fuzzy.


And if we zoom into our 200% view you can really see how bad this looks. If you were to color this…it would look incredibly blurry and your colors would still show through.


And even though you have huge amount of options with bitmapping using the halftone screen, its even worse.


The Option you want to use is 50% Threshold. This is telling Photostop to look at every pixel on the page and if it’s 50% or more black convert it to 100% black. If it’s 49% black or less convert it to white. So all those light smudges will be gone, all the light pencil marks will be gone, the paper grain is now solid white and your blacks will all be solid black.


So you see at the 60% level the lines look nice and dark. There may be the occasional speckle here and there but it’s really about 99% there. Depending on how dark your colored pencils are, if you’re using them to pencil and not erasing, you may still need to do some adjustments before bitmapping but you’ll still end up with a much cleaner page.


If I zoom WAY in you can see the individual pixels are all either black or white. You’re going to notice that at this view level you can see some imperfections in the line art but don’t worry about this. You’re viewing this at 500%. A reader of your comic book would have to have their eye about 2 inches from your comic to see these stray pixels.


Now I can convert the mode back to Grayscale (when prompted leave the size ratio at 1) and then RGB/CMYK to begin flatting and coloring. On our example I’ll go back and begin flatting the bitmapped line art. Everything is looking solid and awesome.


And if we drop out green down you can see that it’s completely hidden behind the inks.

There’s always exceptions to the rules and bitmapping your lineart is no exception. If you’re coloring a page with ink washes or that is penciled and not inked at all bitmapping is not the correct solution. In those cases you must figure out your workarounds for color showing through lines and solid areas.

If you have any questions about this process please feel free to ask! Thanks!


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