Rendering Skin with Gradient Maps



I've done my best to present this tutorial in video and written format! Please feel free to use whichever is easiest for you.

Hello and welcome back!
This tutorial will cover how to use gradient maps effectively to color a black and white painting. As well tips for making your artwork pop once you have the basic colors in place.
This is an intermediate level tutorial and I’m assuming you have a good handle on most of the features in Clip Studio Paint or other drawing programs.



In order to easily apply gradient maps, the first thing that needs done is separations. These are also called “Flats”.
I use the lasso fill tool to quickly block in large areas. You’ll find a link to download this tool in the description box below.
The actual colors used here do not matter. I pick colors that are different for each part of the painting so that making selections from them later is much easier.
When moving onto a new area, I create a new layer and move it below the existing flats. This helps with speed because I don’t have to keep every part of the selection super tidy. I merge these layers as sections are completed. Repeat this process until everything is colored.

I double check everything by raising and lowering the opacity so I can see the colors better, and make adjustments as necessary.

Make sure to mark the final flats layer as a “reference layer” by clicking the little light house icon.

Using Gradient Maps:

My setup is already done, but you might need to make sure your Auto Select tool “refers to the reference layer” in the tool settings.

I select the skin. Then I right click and hover over “New correction layer”. You’ll find the gradient map option here. If the “marching ants” bother you while you work, just hide the selection by clicking “show border of selected text” in the interface.

Let’s give him a skin color.

I choose the “Skin Gradient” set. I will link this now.

Correction layers use masks and you can edit them non destructively.

Once a correction layer is applied, you can also go back in and change the settings of it. Let’s play around with some different gradient maps.
There’s a small problem being created by the gradients. The darkest parts are lighter than they should be.
We can fix this with another correction layer. This time I use Brightness/Contrast. This is useful if you are having trouble getting the right range of values in your skin tone, or want a different shade.

You can see it removed the purple color from his nostrils easily.

Don’t forget you can always edit an existing gradient to get the colors and results you need. From here I finished making selections and creating gradient map layers for each part of the painting.

I end up with a lot of layers so I select these using “shift+click” and right click to put them all into a new folder. Then I change the layer mode to “through”.
I’m still kinda bad about naming layers to stay organized, but it helps!

Color Corrections:

I took a small break here and edited the gradient maps to match my character’s design.
It’s looking pretty good, but there’s still a lot we can do to make this more vivid.
Gradient maps give a good range of color, but they can fall kind of flat because it’s difficult to keep in mind environmental light and, of course, variations in skin color.

I make another folder, and name it “color correction”. I set it to “through” and create a new layer.
I set this layer to “overlay”.
I paint in cool tones, and redden the character’s cheeks and nose. Getting the exact colors to use for this will take some practice and experimenting. Regardless of your subject’s race, it’s pretty safe to add some redness to the face, ears, and joints. Just make sure the red you are using doesn’t lighten the skin. I should make it a bit darker, or even just bring up the saturation.

I use cooler tones for areas that are not in direct light.
I deepen the color range of the background by painting in dark blue around the edges.

Then I add highlights and rim lighting using a color that is close to my light source.

I like to double check that the changes I make are actually beneficial before moving on.

The next set of enhancements will use a “linear light” layer. This is actually something I learned how to do recently and I’ve found it to be very useful.
I bring my color to as close to 50% grey as I can by guessing. Then I paint a few strokes. It doesn’t appear to do anything at all. But now let’s adjust the brightness of that grey.

Pretty big difference, right?

If you stick to greys, you can paint highlights, and shadows, much like a dodge and burn tool does in photoshop, in a single layer. How dark or bright either of these are, depends on dark or light your grey color is.

Keeping that in mind, I paint in the deepest shadows in the places barely any light reaches. In the other available swatch, I pick a grey that is a little lighter to paint in the highlights. With a shadow and a light color picked, I can easily switch back and forth between them to quickly adjust the values.
I also paint in more details, and define the shapes of things more in general.

Everything from here on out is mostly clean up and post processing.

With this workflow, some parts of the painting can get a little over saturated. To fix this just make a new “saturation” layer and dull down those areas.

Another undesired effect this can have, is that it creates a colored outline around the character. Feel free to leave this in if you like the way it looks.
To clean up the edges, I make a new layer set to “normal” and just color pick and paint it away.

Post Processing:

Time to put on the final touches. I “merge visible to a new layer”. Next I apply an unsharp mask filter. I keep the radius low, but keep the strength near the middle. Now I apply a mask to the layer, and erase any parts that I don’t want as much focus on.

I repeat “merge visible”. This time I apply a gaussian blur filter to the layer, with a strength of about 10. I mask that, and then delete everything in the mask. Now I paint back in parts of the mask to blur areas out that I want to fall away in the distance and to help with the central focus of the painting.

For consistency these two new layers go into a folder called “post processing”.

As a final step, I make a new layer set to “add glow”. I paint a few small highlights with my soft airbrush. Since my guy is in the bright sky, I want parts to be even more lit and affected by the bright yellow sun light. This is like a gentle lens flare effect. Be careful not to over do this because it can blow the values of your painting.

Final Thoughts:

Before I forget here are the brushes I used for the entire process of this painting.

And here are some more "skin" gradient maps that I find useful!

And we’re done! This is my first time trying to do a video that actually teaches a technique so I hope understandable and that it was helpful to you.

Did you learn anything new? Leave a comment and let me know!

About the author

My name is Rachel Marks, but I'm better known as FalyneVarger. I have been drawing for most of my life. I started working commercially about 10 years ago and have created artwork for books, games, comics, and more non-commercial commissions than I can remember.


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