Digitally Inking and Coloring a Pencil Sketch Using Only Vector Tools

Our assignment was to find a pencil drawing done by an artist that we like and ask them for permission to ink and color their work digitally on Adobe Illustrator.  After hours upon hours of messing up, and picking back up, getting an extension, I landed on a finished composition that I am proud of. Here are some lessons I have learned along the way, as well as my process in approaching inking and colouring Max Dunbar’s Red Sonja.

Finished Work!


Just the Inks!


Original Pencil Sketch

original sketch

Capturing the Line Quality

One invaluable insight gained from my time dabbling in the Arts Fundamental Program at Seneca College is the fact that the line quality (how the line goes thick to thin and the way it moves) is instrumental in the quality of an artwork. That is why I chose Max Dunbar’s piece, because the line quality of his Red Sony\ja was amazing and had great feel and depth. My job was to highlight his lines by inking over them digitally and try and make decisions to keep the weight of his lines and he emotion of the character.


Starting with the Face

The pen tool slowly became my best friend, and the anchor tool my weapon of choice. However before this came to be, there was a massive and unyielding struggle between the both of us as demonstrated in my attempts to do the face below.  The technique I used was the one learned in Jo Bodick’s class where we would essentially create a shape with the pen tool for each line.  I chose this technique because it allows the most freedom in capturing the line thicknesses.  Notice the intricacy involved, the first attempt was not satisfactory because the edges near the chin line and the side of her face was choppy. The second face I was satisfied with as I started understanding how to manipulate the bezier handles to get the lines I wanted (notice her cheek as the line goes from thick to thin).

Super Tip #1 For Inking: Know the light source!

Inking is not tracing. When we take a pencil sketch and choose which line to ink, we also decide how thick it is and the flow of the line. For me, I needed to mark down on my page, where the artist’s light source is. In my case, it was from the top left given how the lines go from deep to thin. I found this absolutely vital as shown in my example next,

My epiphany of having a light source!
My epiphany of having a light source!

With this epiphany of where the light source was, I am able to more accurately choose which line to ink, and how thick they would be. For example, here was a challenging section of the right shoulder armour:


Notice the roughness and quantity of sketch lines on the armour. By knowing where the light was hitting, I was able to make more consistent judgements of where a line would begin and which line to ink in.


Notice that the lines are thicker away from the light and thinner where light hits it.   The light source ended up providing consistent lines throughout the entire composition that was fluid and maintained the depth and character that Max Dunbar intended.

Super Tip #2 Know when to use your drawing tablet

The hair and the fabric of Red Sonja’s shirt was done using a Wacom tablet. I found that setting the tip feel of the pen sensitivity setting to more firm allowed me to more easily create variation of lines. My work flow consisted of having my settings open, as well as a gorgeous Black Widow portrait done by ArtGerm as a dream reference photo for what I wanted my inking of Red Sonja’s hair to look like.

Wacom time for the cross hatches on the fabric


Super Tip #3 Throw on Some Color Before Committing to a Palette

Before I started colouring anything and committing colors on a gradient mask, I quickly did some rough painting on Photoshop to decide on what color scheme looked best. This ended up saving loads of time as I would be constantly referencing to this picture to draw the main colors from.

Color Schemes

First color scheme was not picked because the blue armour made the armour looked painted and took away from the Barbarian quality of Red Sonja.
Second color scheme was cool, but made her look like royalty and therefore did not work.
Finally the last color scheme I decided on because the plain metals, leathers and tattered color of the fabric seemed to fit Sonja the best.

Gradient Mesh Fail: Gotta keep trying

The key challenge was to use the Gradient Mesh tool to color Red Sonja. The Gradient Mesh has some distinctive advantages as well as some harsh disadvantages to digital painting on something like Photoshop. An advantage is that it is so much easier to go in and change the colors in a gradient mesh, than it is in Photoshop and the results are a smooth perfectly scalable art piece. The disadvantage is that it is time-consuming and demands a strong understanding of how to build meshes to define shadows and highlights.

First Attempt: Bruised Face

Attempt one was doomed from the beginning. I roughly meshed out the face basically trying to extrude it from the page. But the failure came from trying to do the nose separately from the face. Without incorporating anchor points from the nose and lips, the face became a flat sheet where the nose and mouth would be stuck on like magnets on a refrigerator.
Secondly, the I tried to sample colors of the face with another reference I found of Black Widow done by ArtGerm. The result was poor.

Second Attempt: After some research…

So it was back to the drawing table, this time looking up a tutorial on gradient meshes and faces to help me build the face as well as recalling Professor Bodick’s tutorials on Gradient Meshes. From, I learned that I need to include the nose and mouth. What happened is that now each point takes into factor the extrusion of the mouth, eyes, and nose allowing the gradient to properly flow and take on the shapes. I also started to learn to treat the Gradient Mesh tool as a tool that averages the colors between each node, rather than thinking it is a tool to build a wire frame where light and shadow is simulated as if it was a 3D object.

Super Tip #4 Color Meshes Need a Good Mid Value Tone to Start

“It’s vitally important that you get a good mid value tone because when you start adding mesh points it’s going to be a lot harder to change the flesh tone and keep it from looking blotchy”
-Paul Bush (

Paul Bush’s words of wisdom unlocked the gateway to good gradient meshes for me. Every piece I would take start off with a mid-tone, and then adjust the values to create a palette which I would place alongside the piece I was colouring for easy sampling.

For the face I was super impressed with how contouring the shape of the eyes and nose made the face come alive as I started putting the colours into each node. As I was colouring I referenced ArtGerm’s portrait of Black Widow to see where the shadows and highlights were coming from, especially noticing where I imagined the peaks and valleys of the face would be.mesh2Neck
For the collar and neck I paid special attention to where the light was coming from and sampled the nodes accordingly.

Folds Galore!

I thought the worst was over when the face was done, but new challenges awaited as I soon had to learn how to mesh out folds in fabric as well as chain mail.


Coloring Metal

I think one of the most entertaining aspects of this project was trying to get the metal to look like metal. I realized that in order to achieve this, as I studied metal, was that metals are highly reflective, so they can go from a high value palate to a low value palette in relatively little space in between.
Notice that I added a shade of light blue to bring the greyscale metal to life.

Coloring the Hair

For the hair I ended up putting nodes right on the shape instead of going through the trouble of creating a rectangle and shaping the anchors to fit perfectly over the shape given the complexity of her hair. But the end result was nice.

Here is the finished piece with all the easter egg palettes I used. It looks complex but really I just took the tones from the Photoshop reference painting and built palettes out of them!


I had a blast, and I learned to be quite familiar with Illustrator with this project and the beauty of using the gradient mesh is that all of this vectorized and can be scaled to any size! Can’t wait to paint another one! Thank Max Dunbar for allowing me to use your sketch!


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