Karen Lee shares her Photoshop Technique

Karen Lee is a divine Illustrator. She holds the honor of being a consistent contributor to Highlights magazine as well as having a number of trade Children’s Books under her belt.

We are oh so lucky that she has agreed to share some of her technique and process on our blog. So get out your pencils and paper it’s time for a lesson folks! Enjoy!

Lately I’ve been exploring my darker side in my development pieces, but that doesn’t mean I’ve quit doing the lighter work. I’ve had several assignments for Highlights lately and have used my digital technique with a great deal more fluency. I’ll do a quick tutorial on one image from a series I did for the June issue.

 I had to revise part of the image before I had the go-ahead for final so I pieced it together in photoshop, nudged a few other elements until the composition worked and allowed room for the call-out type. I had scanned it at 600dpi (Epson Perfection V500 for the geeks out there). Once I opened it in Photoshop (again, Geeks – an elderly CS5 on a Mac Power PC OS5, Wacom tablet) I hit command-L (or Image–>Adjustment–>Levels). In the dialog box I select the white eyedropper, set white point as:



I touch it to the sketch in a grayish area and that will set that as my lightest point. I play around with it a lot, select the black eyedropper, set black point and touch that to a dark point on the sketch, move the gray slider on Input Levels until I like the balance. Hit okay. I like to convert it to grayscale at this point also.
After that I clean up the sketch using my favorite sandy textured brush. It is not essential that it is perfect – I continue to tweak that layer throughout. At this point I change the image size to 400DPI.
Now double click on the background layer:


When the New Layer dialog box comes up I rename it “Line” and change the mode to multiply:


With me so far? Now you have your line on an editable transparent layer.  Next I add two layers below the line layer. One I name Background and fill with white (or sometimes a color or texture or gradient, but to keep it simple we’ll go with white now). The other layer I change to multiply (I always name these Multi). Now I get out my good sandy brush and do some quick value block-in on the multiply layer. Like so:

Now I convert it back to RGB, when it asks me if I want to merge layers I say hells no. Now I hit command-U (Image–>Adjustment–>Hue/Saturation). Check the Colorize box:

I play around with the sliders until I get a color I like – sepia is typical for me. Ho-hum. The good news is that now I am ready to put some color on it. I make a new layer directly under the line layer and name it “Color” With the sandy brush again I start to block in my color:

I continue to add color on various layers, block in some color on that long neglected background layer:

I am extremely layer-happy – I typically use thirty or more layers on an image although I try to merge them when I can. I might put a texture or some details on a layer above another to keep from disturbing the layer beneath – I use the eraser tool set to the same sandy brush to clean up as I go.
Now I change the image to my final size – usually 300 dpi, change to CMYK if it is for print (sometimes this is a bit panicky when I realize I’ve been using colors out of gamut, good thing I left it in layers first!). Now I save as a layered file (for revising if needed), then Layer–> Flatten, resave as image name/flat.
A few other pieces I’ve done for Highlights in this method recently:


Highlights For Children, April 2012


Highlights For Children, May 2012
For more of Karen’s work visit her website or blog.



  1. Cathy

    Thank you so much for sharing your technique, Karen! I’ve learned a lot..

  2. thartofpuro

    Thanks,very interesting:)

  3. Annette

    Thanks you for the great techniques. Love your drawings

  4. Jennifer

    Very much appreciate you sharing your work style! I love learning how others work out their techniques.

  5. Carol Vaughton

    I enjoyed the expertise of Karen Lee’s photpshop lesson, but I need something much more basic.

  6. Mili

    Karen, thanks for the post!

    It is a bit confusing if you’ve never used Photoshop, but this is pretty basic when it comes to colouring.

    Carol may be confused about Multiply layer. If you look in the dialogue box of the layers panel (box where you see the layer named “background”–that you turn into a layer by double clicking it), you will see it set to Normal–open that drop down menu and choose multiply, this makes your layer appear as if it is created transparently on glass. You can only do this to layers, not the locked “background” layer. By making your layers multiplied you get kind of the watercolour feel you see in the images above.

  7. Val Myburgh

    Thanks Karen. You speak about your favourite sandy brush. Is this one you have made or is one that comes with cs5. I haven’t seen it.

  8. Ramey Channell

    Karen, Thanks for sharing this amazing process. Your results are beautiful.

  9. Karen Lee

    Thanks folks! You are really so kind!
    Carol – I guess I did jump ahead a little bit on the basics – if you have any specific questions i would be delighted to try to answer them. My husband is also an artist and “taught” me to use Photoshop (as much as i was willing to listen). Mostly I just played around with it until I found a method that made sense to me and became more intuitive and creative. For me that came mainly from using layers because I am a watercolorist at heart. But Val – also the brush helped. It is one my husband made and then I customized by playing around with texture and jitter – moving sliders again. I really don’t know how he made the original but if you are interested in creating your own I could try to find out.

  10. Kevin Goldner

    Karen in your article you stated how it can be tricky to get your desired colors going from RGB to CMYK format. One thing I do in Photoshop is turn proof colors on so it previews your color pallete in CMYK format. Go to View->Proof Colors and then you won’t get any big surprises when you convert it from RBG to CMYK.

  11. Paul Weiner

    I like the way you draw your children. They look so natural and convincing.


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