a songbird tutorial

so every so often i get a request to show how i go about coloring my illustrations. i don’t usually comply with the requests, however, because honestly my approach differs from drawing to drawing- and often depends on the drawing itself too. but with this latest sketch, i thought i’d give it a shot and see how well i could explain myself. a friend of mine commissioned me to draw a red songbird for a tattoo she’ll be getting and here’s what i came up with:


a bit more detailed then i originally intended, and to my fault as well since i discovered it’s going on her foot! so this won’t be the actual tattoo. i’ll draw that one another day. but to see how i developed this one, just click below:

every illustration i do starts with a penciled sketch. i use a .05 pentel blue lead in a KOH-i-NOOR Rapidomatic pencil for most of my sketching:


since i wasn’t entirely sure what a songbird looked like, i used google images to find some images of songbirds to use as reference and picked and chose the parts i liked best. if you know what a real songbird looks like, you’ll notice i took some liberties on things to give my bird a bit more personality. its wings are flapping in a direction that’s normally impossible, the beak is a bit more sloped, the tail feathers are longer than they should as well as a few other changes. exaggeration is important! it’s what’ll separate your drawing from just being a boring depiction of yet another something. i’m all for changing and warping things if they enhance the drawing and this is a good example.

now like i said earlier, the drawing kinda depends on what approach i’m going to go for. here are all of the tools i currently reach for when i’m ready to take a sketch to something more final (minus a pentel brush pen which i completely forgot to include in this photo):


in this case, because of the fine details of the feathers and flowers (and because i was thinking how this would look as a tattoo) i decided to go with just the micron pen to ink this one. no brush. i use a 02 SAKURA micron pen for all my pen inking. it’s the same instrument i use for my cow & buffalos and i’ve been using them for years. if there’s one thing i’ve learned, you can try all the great tools that all your favorite artists use, but if you don’t know how to use them then they won’t do squat. the micron pen may not be the pest instrument for inking, but i’ve gotten it to work how i want it to better then quill pens and things like that over the years. anyhoo, these are the only tools i ended up using for this piece:


next i (usually) scan the linework into photoshop at 300 dpi, color. in this case i scanned it at 600 dpi to see if it really makes that much of a difference (it didn’t). if you don’t mind working with higher (and slower) files, by all means work at 600 or more. but for web purposes, 300 should be fine. print is a different story…


this next step may seem like a lot, but i’ve created a photoshop action (yay for actions!) to make this a quick two click process.

START ACTION: go to hue/saturation. take your blue and cyan up to +100. walaa. no more blue lines. change image to grayscale. END ACTION

change levels to get rid of any dark grays on the paper or darken the linework a bit. i don’t create an action for this because it really depends on what kind of paper i’ve used and how i’ve inked it.

NEW ACTION: bring contrast to +25, curves to 50/65, threshold, create layer from background, change layer properties to multiply, add two new layers, change layer names to linework, color, and bg in that order with linework at the top. END ACTION.

all that just to get to this…


…but it only takes a couple of seconds thanks to actions. :)

since my line work is now a pure black and white thanks to threshold, mutiply allows me to color underneath it without disturbing any black. and i’ll rarely color on a pure white canvas so my first step is to fill my bg layer with a “paper” color. in this case i used a yellowish cream since i thought that might look nice to pick out my reds from.


and that’s exactly what i do. eyedropping the bg color and using the color palette to select my colors. i’m not that concerned with choosing exact colors at this point since i can always select and change them using hue/saturation later. in this case though i stayed pretty close to my originals.

i should also mention that i lock my linework and bg layers before adding colors so i don’t accidentally color on them. i also lock the position of my color layer so i don’t accidentally move it (since i work on both a pc and mac on a daily basis, this actually happens a lot).

i typically use the brush tool rather then the pencil tool when blocking in my colors because i like the soft edge. it does make things a bit more difficult when it comes to this next part so i don’t recommend it.


after i get all of my colors blocked in, i select each color and save it as a selection. this allows me to go back and change parts as a whole once i start going in with more detail. i like choosing selections rather then layers because it saves space and i don’t have to constantly click around layers.

unfortunately, this is the part of the tutorial that i can’t really explain. using a variety of photoshop brushes i’ve changed over time (mostly opacities and flows and things of that nature) i go in and “paint” on each selection. hiding the selection edges so they aren’t distracting. all i can say about this process is that it helps to have a wacom tablet and to just use the same approach you would at traditional painting. drawing from your colors and mixing in the color pallet to create your shades.


i’m a kind of an oddity when it comes to this because i embrace the airbrush and gradient tools. both of which have gotten such an acceptable stigma attached to them because of how poorly they have been used in the past. as well as a certain indication that, “yes, you are using photoshop to color your artwork.” but if you use these tools effectively, subtly and in conjunction with other brushes, they can become just another great feature that photoshop offers. and i have no qualms about people knowing i use photoshop to color either.

and now i’m just about done. first to go in and give my flowers a bit more of a red tone to better relate to my bird (using the select and hue/saturation i mentioned earlier) and give some subtle “texture specs” to things…


…and then to give the drawing a bit more “pop”. i unlock my bg layer and use the dodge tool to lighten things up behind the bird and use the burn tool to give some fancy shading around the edge.


and there you are. maybe not a finished piece of work, but at a point where i’m satisfied enough with it to call it done. now this is just one method i go about doing things. more often then not lately, i’ve been skipping the inking stage altogether and going straight to coloring right underneath my pencil sketch. it’s effectively the same approach, but the coloring becomes more involved and textures are starting to play a larger part as well. someday i’ll go though that process if there’s a request for it. but not for a while. these actually take quite a bit of time to write out!


  1. Aintshakespeare’s avatar

    That was excellent and very informative. Thank you for sharing.

  2. studmuffin’s avatar

    awesome! i have always wondered the specific steps are used to create such excellent art. i’ve dabbled with the multiply layer, but mostly for rendering products i’ve sketched for clients… no actions. yet.

  3. bruna’s avatar

    YAY for tutorials!!! thanks for sharing Mike! and for the patience to do the step by step tips! b.

  4. Keath’s avatar

    This is mad useful, dude! You’ve got some tricks in here I’ve got to try!

  5. Bryan B.’s avatar

    Hey, very nice. Cool to see how you work. No wonder your paintings look so much better than mine! Man, I want to design a tattoo sometime.

  6. mike’s avatar

    thanks, everyone. i’m glad this was interesting/ helpful! would’ve hurt to write all this out for nothing. ;)

  7. Andrew’s avatar

    Excellent presentation Mike! THANKS!

  8. Oscar’s avatar

    Mike, where would you suggest I pick up a KOH-i-NOOR and the blue pencil leads? I was looking on dickblick.com, but wasn’t sure which was the right/similar one.

    Excellent post by the way.

  9. mike’s avatar

    hmmm.. yeah. dick blick doesn’t seem to have the pencils. you can usually find them at places like michaels and jo-anns though. they look like this:

    the lead they have though:

  10. Morgan’s avatar

    whahahaha .. mine are much much better than buffalog’s .. this is no fan mail …. whahhaha

  11. tiffany’s avatar

    i got this tattooed on my chest a few months back
    and i was wondering if i could request a second bird of this nature in some similarity to have tattooed on the other side.. i love your work and it would be a shame to have someone else try and draw something up to go along with what i already have.. just wondering

  12. mike’s avatar

    morgan- you have a site?

    tiffany- oh yeah? send a pic! I’d love to see! and shoot me an email about the second tat (mike (at) cowshell (dot) com)

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