The Freeform Pen tool is a fabulous alternative for artists who are not fond of inking their sketches. Some reasons you might not want to ink the sketch are:

  • not wanting to ruin the sketch if a mistake is made;
  • the pic is on lined or otherwise unsuitable paper for the finished product;
  • you don’t own a light table;
  • you are going to CG the picture instead of coloring it with traditional media.

Using the Freeform Pen tool to outline (digitally ink) the sketch allows you to create lineart that is perfect for CGing on the first try. The lineart will already be on its own layer and it will be 100% clean—no smudges or other souveniers from the sketch will remain to hamper coloring efforts!

The Freeform Pen tool can be a bit intimidating and frustrating if you’ve never used it before, so this tutorial is designed to help you become familiar with it. It does take a bit of practice and patience to get the hang of it, so don’t give up if you don’t get it right away!

This tutorial was created using Photoshop CS2 for PC. Newer versions may need slightly different steps. It also assumes that you are somewhat familiar with the software. :)

Although following the tutorial exactly will help you replicate the same effect that I created, the best way to learn is to experiment and create your own results! There are also many effects you can incorporate to the lineart while you are creating it, such as setting pressure sensitivity if you have a tablet or using different brush types for different styles of lines. For this tutorial I won’t be showing those advanced techniques. Experiment on your own after you’ve learned the basics. :)

Let’s begin!

Getting Started: Scan Your Sketch

Of course, before you can digitally ink your sketch, you have to get it from the page into your computer! Each scanner has unique software, but the basic steps are:

  1. Put your sketch on the scanner bed and activate the scanner. It will probably do a “preliminary” scan to give you a preview of the image.
  2. Check the scanner settings. Even though your pic is just a sketch, be sure the scanner is set to full color image and not monochrome or black and white. Doing this means you don’t have to convert the image later.
  3. Depending on the size of your sketch on the page, you may want to draw a selection around the sketch so you don’t have a ton of extra white space. There’s no point scanning empty areas. :)
  4. Finally, check the image dimensions. Set the scan resolution to 300dpi and ensure the image will be fairly large after scanning. When I’ve used most of the page for my sketch, the pic is often in the neighborhood of 2200 x 3500 pixels. This is great for printing or making other items, like mousepads, t-shirt transfers, etc. Scanning large also makes incorporating fine details easier when coloring.

Scan your sketch! If your software lets you export automatically into Photoshop, great!

Setting Up In Photoshop

After scanning, bring your image into Photoshop if your scanner didn’t automatically export it there for you.

I prefer not to leave the sketch as the Background layer; I erase the sketch as I complete the outline, leaving me with an empty layer when I’m done. This helps ensure I haven’t missed anything and also shows me my progress. Whether or not you do the same doesn’t really matter.

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If you want to have a separate layer for your sketch, click the Background layer and duplicate it using CTRL+J. Name the new layer “Sketch” by double-clicking on the default name.

Check your image. Make adjustments now, including canvas size and positioning. Now lock the layer so you don’t accidentally draw on it, move the sketch, etc!

Then select the Background layer and fill it with a solid color of your choosing so you don’t have two copies of your sketch in the document.

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Create a new layer above your Sketch layer and call it “Outline”. (Hold down ALT as you click the New Layer button so you can easily name the layer.)

Now we are ready to start the lineart!

Preparing the Pen Tool

Before we can start using the Pen we need to set the Brush tool to the width we want to use. Whatever settings the Brush has will be used when we create the lines.

Press B to select the Brush tool. Be sure it is set to Brush and not Pencil!

Choose a brush and size you like. I prefer a Hard Round brush around 2 or 3 pixels for most lines (1 or 2 pixels for finer details).

Be sure you select Hard Round and not Soft Round so that the lines are crisp! Set Opacity to 100% and Flow to 100%. Do not enable Airbrush.

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Press P. If you’ve never used the tool before it may default to Pen tool rather than Freeform Pen tool. You may have to hold down Shift and press P again.

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You have the right tool when the icon matches the one at right, with a little squiggle coming out the top.

Be sure your Freeform Pen matches these settings:

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Tracing Your Sketch

Pick a starting point on your sketch and zoom in on it. Practice will show you how much zoom you like. Be sure you are on the Outline layer!

Click on the starting point and draw a small, short line. It doesn’t matter if this line matches the sketch, just draw a little bit. This is called a path.

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Hold down CTRL. Your mouse pointer should turn into an arrow. Click anywhere on the path to activate it. It should now have two boxes on it, one at either end. Handles could also be poking out of the boxes, and there may be one or more boxes along the path, depending on how big you drew it.

Let go of CTRL. If there are boxes along the length of the path, delete them by hovering your mouse over each box until the pointer changes to a pen nib with a tiny minus sign beside it. When you see the minus sign, click, and the box will disappear.

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Hold down CTRL again. Click on a box at one end of the path and drag it so it aligns with the “end” of the nearest line on your sketch.

Now click on the box on the other end of the path and drag it so it aligns with the other “end” of that same line (ie, where it stops or meets another line). The path will automatically stretch.

Each box on the path should have a handle coming out of it. If it doesn’t, try holding down CTRL and clicking on the box to make the handle appear.

If you accidentally click on the canvas while holding CTRL, the path will deactivate. Just CTRL+click the path itself again to reactivate it.

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While holding CTRL, grab on to the end of one of the handles. This can take some practice, and if you’re using a tablet, the mouse is actually better for this for accuracy.

Drag the handle around. See how it manipulates the path? By dragging the handles at each end of the path you can now make the path match the line of your sketch.

This is where the “practice practice practice” and “experimentation” part comes in with using the Pen. You will have to play with it to gain the familiarity that will allow you to continue.

If there is something about the sketch line that you aren’t completely happy with (say, a curve that isn’t perfect), put the path where you would have liked the line to be by dragging the handles accordingly.

Sometimes the handles can get in the way of seeing how well the path matches the sketch. With CTRL held down, click somewhere else on the image to make them disappear. If you need to make more adjustments, reactivate the path by CTRL+clicking it.

When you are happy with the placement of your path, let go of CTRL.

Stroke the Path

Right click on the canvas to bring up a menu. Select “Stroke Path…” Be sure the new dialogue box matches this one:

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(If you are using a tablet and have pressure sensitivity turned on, this is where you would activate the option to have your line reflect pressure. Experiment to see how it works.)

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Click OK. Photoshop will draw a line on the Outline layer that follows the path you created, using the Brush tool settings we set earlier.

If you’re happy with the results, press Enter to clear the path. Otherwise, press CTRL+Z to undo the Stroke so you can make any necessary adjustments. When your adjustments are done, Stroke the path again.

Always press Enter to delete the entire path after Stroking to avoid restroking again!

Continue this method for the entire image.

Advanced Path Manipulation

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Sometimes you need to have points on the path in order to get the path to match the curve. Remember that points are the little boxes you delete when you first draw the path.

To add a point, hover your mouse cursor anywhere along the active path until the pointer changes to a nib with a plus sign. Click once. A new point with handles poking out of either side will appear.

You can click and drag these points wherever you need them to be just like the points at either end of the path.

Be sure to use each point’s handles to make the path curve smoothly. (This takes practice!) If a point only has a handle coming out of one side but you need to adjust the part of the path on the other side, CTRL+click that part of the path and the missing handle should appear.

When you first start out or have a lot of details, it can take a long time to finish the lineart, but as you gain experience you will become faster at it. The end result is well worth the effort! :)