Simple Cel Shading with Adjustment Layers Photoshop Tutorial

  • SumoMe


Here is a little tutorial that I arranged for some of you who are interested on how to cel shade using the Levels Adjustment Layer in Photoshop. Now, what is cel shading and why do I spell it wrong?

First of all it is actually spelled right – “cel shading.” In fact I only learned this after Googling to make this intro. According to Wikipedia,

Cel shading (often misspelled as ‘cell shading’) or toon shading is a type of non-photorealistic rendering designed to make computer graphics appear to be hand-drawn. Cel-shading is often used to mimic the style of a comic book or cartoon.

Here in this tutorial I will teach you just that with a style that I use often in my drawings. Before anything else I have to apologize because this tutorial will not teach you how to draw anime (or anything for that matter) and it will neither teach you the basics of shading nor coloring. This tutorial will only teach you how to do cel shading with a technique using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop while having complete faith in your drawing, coloring, and shading skills. My tools used here: Photoshop CS3, WACOM Graphire 4, and my trusty and clunky laptop. (I’m very sure that in more recent versions of Photoshop, the process is not so different.)

Step 1: Draw your line art on a layer.

It can either be drawn on a layer with a white background (especially if it is scanned) or a transparent one. Here I drew (by accident actually) mine with a white background.

With a white background, set the blending mode of the layer to Multiply. You can do this by selecting the layer in the layer palette and selecting Multiply in the drop down menu at the top:

Step 2: Lay the base colors under your line art.

Underneath the layer of your line art, create layers where you can lay the colors. How I do this basically is I create one layer for each color (or “block” of the drawing) stacking on top of another. Here are some shots:

Added green to clothes

Added dark green to shirt and cape

Added flesh for the skin and some off-white for the eyes and teeth, and pink for the mouth

And here are all the base colors laid out in the drawing. (I also added a light blue background if you notice – but that’s not important.)

Below is a screenshot of the color layers. Some of them I connected with the part they appear in for guidance. I also call the base colors “flats,” hence I grouped all these with such a name (To group layers, simply click them while holding Ctrl. Once all the desired layers are selected, press Ctrl+G to group. You can rename it as you would any other layer.). Remember that on top of the flats group of layers is the line art layer.

And now comes the fun part…

Step 3: Shade with the Levels Adjustment Layer.

Before anything else, duplicate the “flats” group (the group of layers with the base colors). You can do this easily by dragging the group to the Create new layer icon below the layer palette, at the left side of the trash bin icon. (You can see this at the screenshot above.) Toggle the visiblity of the original group (the one underneath) to hide it.

Now why do we have to do this? We do this with the same purpose as backing up a file for good measure. We are just keeping a copy of the raw layers that make up the flat colors.

Now read closely:

Right-click the “flats copy” group and select Convert to Smart Object. The group is now be “merged” to a single layer. While this layer is selected, click the Create new fill or adjustment layer button in the layer palette. Select Levels… You can set this such that you darken the image as if a shadow is cast over it. Now this can vary from image to image depending on the color, mood, lighting, and other factors but for the sake of this tutorial, here is a screenshot of my Levels settings:

Click OK to confirm. Your layer palette should look somewhat like this:

(Bottom-top: flat colors group, Smart Object of the copied flat colors group, Levels Adjustment layer, the line art)

And your drawing now looks sort of like this:

Select the Levels Adjustment Layer you just made. Make sure that the flats layer is below it. Press Ctrl+Alt+G (I’m teaching you the shortcuts so it’s easier for you in the future.). This is what your drawing will look like:

Now what you just did in case you’re not familiar with it is you created a Clipping Mask. You can scroll back up to see the difference. As you can see, the Levels Adjustment Layer, or the SHADE is now clipped such that it only lays over the flat colors layer under it, not the background.

Comes another tricky part. Select the Levels Adjustment Layer (or the shade layer). Select your brush tool. Select black as color and try drawing over it. Below, I drew a line across my character’s eye. Can you guess what happens?

Well, this is a tutorial so you won’t have to guess. Look again at the “shade layer” at the Layers palette:

The clipping mask is the white square in the Adjustment Layer, which now isn’t completely white because I dashed a thick black line over it. Where the black line goes, the part of the drawing goes lighter. Just put it this way: imagine that the clipping mask only allows black, white, and shades of gray (there’s a joke here somewhere). The opacity of the Adjustment Layer varies with the shades painted over it. Black is 0% opacity. White is 100% opacity. Gray is mid opacity. Much like positive and negative. Yin and yang. I hope I’m making sense here 🙂

In my cel shading, I only used black and white in my clipping mask (no gradations or gray).  I started with a black clipping mask:

I used a white brush to “paint over the shades.” Here’s what it looks like after:

Finally, here is my artwork after successfully cel shading with the Levels Adjustment Layer:

Some of the parts of this tutorial was a bit hard to explain but I really hope that you enjoyed it and learned something from it.

As a bonus here is the final artwork with some improvements:

About maca

Hello, my name is Karlo Macariola. I once dreamed to be a painter or an animator but when I typed my first line of code I immediately fell in love with programming. Today my passions are with web development and web design though sometimes I still withdraw to my first love which is drawing. DeviantArt | Twitter | Facebook
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7 Responses to Simple Cel Shading with Adjustment Layers Photoshop Tutorial

  1. Farhana says:

    Thank you..the tutorial is great, and you’ve explained it very well.

  2. yolee says:

    nice tutorial 😀

  3. cheng says:

    this is such a nice tutorial, but i’m having a little bit of a problem getting past the point “Comes another tricky part. Select the Levels Adjustment Layer (or the shade layer). Select your brush tool. Select black as color and try drawing over it. Below, I drew a line across my character’s eye. Can you guess what happens?”

    i select the black color brush and draw a line across and nothing happens to the levels adjustment layer. i think that i’m following all the steps before that part and having been trying to figure out what i did wrong? i set my lineart layer with the multiply. laid the base color flats, then grouped the flats. made a duplicate of the group and grouped it into smart new object. went to the create new fill adjustment layer to select levels to have the image slightly darker than the original. then i selected the same darker layer and clicked on the brush tool and tried to draw over it but nothing happened 🙁
    it’s been puzzling me for an hour. hope you can help out a noob. lol.

    • maca says:

      Hi Cheng. The color of the brush should be the opposite of the color of your adjustment layer’s mask. If it’s black then you should paint white over the mask.

  4. Karnage says:

    I know this tutorial is a bit old so you are not expecting any feedback now, but seriously, this is perfect. It’s really well explained! Thank you so much for taking the time to actually write it for those of us with no clue.

  5. Jay albis says:

    Hi i just want to ask what did you do for the final image that makes it look much lighter. Thanks and awesome tutorial. More power

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