How to use Photoshop to create your own graphic line illustrations

Or, avoid copyright headaches; use Photoshop to create a line drawing image yourself.

Waterpistol photoshop drawing final image

A useful method to create your very own images free from complicated copyright issues, perfect for bloggers… not difficult, why not have a go?

Problematic copyright issues in blogging can be swept away if you use material you have created yourself. Use Photoshop to create a line drawing for use in your personal blog, or just for the sheer fun of it.  In this post, I’ll share with you some tips I have discovered.  There are many ways of using Photoshop, if you have never been brave enough to try to fiddle about with it, please have a go!  There are always several ways to solve a problem in Photoshop, and it’s interesting to share methods and approaches with others, I’d love to hear from you, feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions about what I’m showing you here.


You might be here on this page because you’ve read:

and you’re keen to read the promised follow up.

Remember, let the limitations around you set you free…

Have a go, creating is a never-fail to making your day worthwhile.


To avoid any copyright issues using this method of illustration, when publishing to a blog, I use either my own artwork or my own photograph of an object as the original image to work from.  ‘Grabbing’ images from the internet and using them to practice this technique is ok, (and you can learn much about how to photograph an object well) but I don’t use professional images as the basis for illustrations I intend to publish in a blog out of respect for the stylists and professional photographers, who used their experience and know-how to create that gorgeous image.  That experience and know-how was what they were paid for and forms a huge part of what makes that photograph that caught your eye unique, and in my opinion, subject to copyright.  So, I would avoid using another individual’s or corporation’s image as the original in this method of illustration and then pass it off as my own.  I’m no lawyer, I’m just working on a ‘what feels fair and right’ basis.

If I wanted to create a drawing of a nail polish using this method, to publish in a post about said nail polish , I would feel on safer ground purchasing/borrowing the nail polish , photographing it myself and working from there.  That said, there is no shame in being inspired by a set up in a found photograph and trying to replicate that at home yourself.  There is so much that you can learn when you try something for yourself.


So, now I feel comfortable that I have warned you about being careful to consider copyright issues; decide on an image you wish to work from, and open it in Photoshop.  Size the image appropriately, I work from 240 ppi (just because I’m used to it), and the image in this example is approx. 2400 x 1600 pixels. This works for me at the moment (these images will go straight to my blog) and has become a habit, but I’m always open to new ideas in Photoshop, and this description is in no way absolutely prescriptive.


Drop a blue line over the image and rotate the image until it is level (or skew if you need), adjust the image so it ‘reads’ well.  Use the rectangular marquee tool to copy the subject into a new document. This means you will have a white background to work on, and not the original image.  Save with the title of your illustration.

photo of waterpistol

The original photograph.

Close the original file and now focus on your new illustration.


Look at the image and begin to think in layers.  For brevity, I shall assume you are familiar with the concept of layers* in Photoshop.  I mentally divided up the image into blocks of intended colour (a bit like approaching a watercolour) and then made and named separate layers for:


Yellow body work

Orange muzzle

Cyan trigger and stopper

Neon magenta water chamber

Flash highlights

Red dot


Shadow work

Original layer (switch on and off as you’re working to see how your drawing is looking).

1 setting up layers ready to draw

A screen capture showing the layers palette to the right, each section of the waterpistol has been assigned a layer. It’s worth taking the time at this point to ‘think out’ your drawing. An easy way to decide whether you need a separate layer when you’re a beginner is to base the layer decisions on colour; different colour, different layer.



If you understand layers, you can skip this* bit…

*Think of layers like working on clear sheets of acetate, each sheet is clear and has an element of the image drawn on it and once all the sheets are laid together the entire image is revealed. 


The advantage of layers is that you can alter line and colour in specific sections without disturbing the rest of the image. 


Think colour-ways in textiles. Imagine a floral print with white daisies with yellow centres on a blue background.  That’s the first colour-way.  The second could be white daisies with yellow centres on a pink background.  All the artist did was alter the background layer from blue to pink.  The third colour-way could be yellow daisies on a green background with orange centres and so on. Layers allows you to do this easily.


I use a WACOM tablet and pen and I’m so accustomed to it; I can’t imagine drawing with a mouse, but some people are quite adept at using the mouse to create good line work, it’s all personal preference in the long run.  I use a 3 pixel wide line, brush, soft line, 100% opacity in black. Changing the width of the line will alter the look of the image substantially.  Always have a quick outline doodle and print out a section to see if you have happy with the ‘weight’ (the pixel width) and type of line you have selected.


Regular use of the zoom means you can work on tricky bits up close and then zoom back out to see how you’re going. Another tip is to rotate the entire canvas as you’re working so you can work long lines well, just rotate back to original orientation when you need. (image, rotate canvas, choose orientation).  For some reason, I draw straight lines well vertically, and horizontally is a challenge… perhaps that’s just me…

2 showing yellow areas outlined

Here you can see what the black line looks like traced as an outline over the original. The layer is yellow bodywork, but in the captured screen, as I had just completed the lines for the yellow bodywork, I had changed layers ready to start on the waterchamber. The ‘original’ layer is switched on in this screen capture.

I began by outlining the yellow body work. Just remember to check that you’re working on the correct layer, it makes it so much easier later on to be able to switch specific sections on and off… this is worthy being extra disciplined about.  Each time you begin to outline a different section, check you’re drawing on that section’s layer and save yourself future frustration.

Notice in the image below, that the line in the yellow bodywork layer form closed spaces, take a close look at the muzzle end (on the RHS).  Even though the orange muzzle layer has a vertical line that joins to two pieces together in reality, I repeat the vertical line to close each space.  The lines in the muzzle on the yellow bodywork layer form an enclosed space, as will the muzzle.  This is easy to get used to if you switch off each layer as you complete it.  I will switch off the yellow bodywork layer when I change to the orange muzzle layer and trace the outline of the orange muzzle.  Be as accurate as you can drawing these ‘joining’ lines.

3 showing just black outline for yellow space

Here is a screen capture with the ‘original’ layer switched off, an easy way to check if all the spaces in the lines you have drawn are enclosed, “shut the gate, shut the gate”. This will help in the colour fill step later on.

4 showing adding lines for orange muzzle

The lines for the orange muzzle have been added.


5 showing adding trigger and stopper in blue

Quiz. Can you identify the additional elements in this version of the line drawing?

Take the time to really look at your subject and make some decisions about how much detail you will include.  Here are some examples of questions I asked myself about this waterpistol.


Include all shadows as line work, or include shadows in the illustration but without a line, or no shadows at all?


Represent the subject completely flat (no perspective)?


Include flash highlights in the image?


Decide to what reductionist degree you are comfortable with (how much detail will you include)?  Too much detail can make the image difficult to ‘read’ and sometimes going too far on the reductionist stream of thought can leave the subject a little bare and lacking in instant semiotic recognition.  It’s a fine balance and each subject presents us with different problems.  That’s the never-ending challenge and one of the things that makes illustration so absorbing a past time.


Be strict and apply your decisions across the board in the image and once completed, see if you like the result.  You can always ‘save as’ and begin another document and delete steps you’re not keen on to see if you like that permutation.  There is so much scope for absorbing ‘in-the-zone’ fun!


I have my eraser set to 1 pixel wide and then I can tidy up any joins as I go, but again, that’s personal preference.


Work your way through to complete the outline.  Once you have finished the line work, switch off the “original” layer and have a look at the overall effect.

Line drawing only

The completed line drawing.

Then switch on each layer individually to check that all lines form completed “spaces” (there are no open ended spaces).  This is very important, if this is your first drawing, this will save frustration in the long run in colour fill, as each section you fill will be a contained space.




You will be using the colour picker tool, the magic wand tool and the fill command (‘Shift’ + ‘F5’).

A note about using the magic wand tool for fill. If you leave open areas, Photoshop will fill that entire space as the magic wand tool will grab any area that is adjacent to another area shaded the same colour (in this case white).  Further down the track, you can avoid having to “shut the gate” on each drawing space by using the lasso tool, but the magic wand is great for beginning as it’s fast and gives you an instant result. (I shall be explaining how I use the lasso tool in later posts).  If you’re on the correct layer and the magic wand is highlighting more than the space you wanted, check that the black lines of that section all meet (shut the gate to that paddock by joining the lines on that particular line layer).


Before you start colour fill, add to your layers. I keep my layers ordered by adding the colouring layers adjacent to the drawn layer of that section (ie “Colour: yellow bodywork” layer near “yellow bodywork” layer). You lift and move layers into order and I’ve found that it’s a good habit to keep your layers ordered.  If, for some reason, you need to return to this image some months after completion it’s always lovely to return to a document that easy to navigate.  The digital equivalent of a made bed I think…


In this case, I haven’t added a new layer for shadow work as I chose not to outline this in black, I’ll add the shadows in with a larger brush and if I like it, I’ll keep it, if not, I’ll turn it off before I flatten the image for upload.  The beauty of layers is, that if you keep the unflattened image on file, you can keep several versions (or colour-ways also) just for kicks to use later on, I’ve left it there undeleted, as I might feel like coming back and tinkering by adding a shadow later on.

showing layers grouped

Take a moment and add a ‘colour’ layer for each drawn component. Your colour fill for each section will sit on this ‘colour’ named layer, and keep the line drawing separate from the fill, great fun in the long run for tinkering about.


6 showing magic wand tool

Here’s the image with partial colour fill, you can see the magic wand tool choice in the top LH corner.


And now for the actual ‘colouring in’

If you want to recreate the look of the item and not deviate from the true colours, use the colour picker on the original layer to choose your colour. Look carefully at the screen captures to understand which layers I’m referring to.  Repeat this method for each colour.  If you have been diligent about “shutting the gate” to create closed spaces for all your line work in each layer, this will work.  You can always switch everything else off, and work out by process of elimination which layer is causing problems and fix the problem.

1. Switch on the original image in layers.

2. Use the colour picker to find the colour for the blue trigger.  That particular shade picked will become the default foreground colour (until you change it).

3. Switch off the original image in layers.

4. Change to the magic wand tool.

5. Click on the line layer of the trigger.

6. Click on the space within the lines of the trigger.

7. Change to the trigger ‘colour’ layer.

8. Use the fill command, and from the drop down, choose ‘Use/foreground colour’.  If you want to choose a different colour, this is a good time to do it, choose ‘Use/colour’ and scroll up and down to make a different colour choice.  Choose fill.

This method will separate the colour from the lines, allowing you to modify colourways easily if you wish to in a ‘saved as’ document, you will have the option of switching off the black lines on the completed drawing, or including them.  it allows for more tinkering fun in the long run, but you could just as easily fill on the line layer if you wished, the colour would be attached to the line…

Once you are happy with your illustration, click ‘save as’ and save the file as “(TITLE) final”, for using in a blog, remember to change to jpeg format to make it super easy to upload to your blog/Faceboook etc.  (Saving as a jpeg will automatically ‘flatten’ all the layers).  It’s always good to keep the original unflattened (that is, all the layers are still available to you) Photoshop file on hand.  I have been surprised over the years how many times I have returned to illustrations for one reason or another.

Really, just jump in and have a go!

This all sounds complicated, but it’s not really.  Don’t be frightened, you can always go into history and un-do… If you’ve never played around in this way in Photoshop, and you’re a teensy bit curious, do try it out.

You can use any image from anywhere on the web (to practice with but consider copyright with images you intend to publish on your blog),

you don’t have to be an excellent drawer,

you just have the ability to see and trace a line.


Hope this inspires you to try out this method of illustration.

Happy days creating!


PS, I’m using Photoshop CS3 released about 100 years ago (or so it seems), but the principles will be similar.  I’m also using a Wacom tablet that’s about 6 years old, they have come down in price markedly, do yourself a favour and go and have a look at one in store, they are so much fun to use.

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