UncategorizedVisual Art

So you want to scan some artwork…

Hi all, I thought it might be useful for people if I wrote up a tutorial on how to scan pencil drawings in Photoshop. This is something that I was never explicitly taught, despite a BFA degree and an inclination towards digital art, but instead it’s information that I’ve slowly figured out over the years through trial and error. I specifically want to talk about pencil drawings though because while most scanners are great at high contrast B&W ink images, delicate graphite lines are another story and getting a decent digital representation of your lovely drawing can be a pain.

For everyone’s reference I’m using a PC (sorry Mac people) and CS6, but the bulk of this information should apply to older versions.

The scanning program in Photoshop hasn’t changed much in years. If you have your own scanner, it might have come with additional software—personally I’ve never bothered with that because the native PS module works just fine for my purposes.

To scan something, go to File–>Import–>WIA support, and you should see a familiar scanner name to choose from. Select it (you may also be asked to specify where you want to save your files), and a window should pop up that looks like this:


I generally leave the image adjustment sliders alone, as I prefer to do my editing in the main PS software. The exception is if I’m scanning something that is VERY light, such as a watercolor painting, and then I might knock the brightness down a bit. What I’m mostly concerned with is making sure I’m scanning at a high enough resolution for my purposes—300 dpi (or ppi) is standard for print, and is what I would generally recommend scanning your image. Don’t go below 150 dpi, even if you know for certain that your image is only intended for web viewing; it won’t look as good and you can always compress the image later. 400 dpi or higher is for when you need your final image printed significantly larger than the original drawing, or your art has an unusual amount of light detail (like watercolor. Watercolors are the WORST to scan).

So you’ve scanned your drawing, and it probably looks dim and sad. If it looks very bright and half of your lines are gone, go back and fiddle with the scan options to get it darker, as the Photoshop can’t get that information back. It’s better to scan too dark than too bright.

Now then, time to clean up the image. You may have been taught to make layer adjustments by using the drop-down menus at the top. I prefer to make separate adjustment layers as they’re editable after they’ve been set, and have many of the features of regular layers so you have a lot more flexibility.



The first thing I like to do is apply a levels adjustment layer. Levels set the parameters for the darkest darks and the lightest lights. The closer the two little arrows are to each other, the narrower the range of values will be. In practice this works as a way to increase the brightness/contrast of your image with a bit more fineness than the actual brightness/contrast tool. The goal here is to get the scan to look as much like the original drawing as possible, so the paper should be bright and the lines legible, without totally loosing the subtlety that graphite work has.

Note: you can get back to edit the properties of each adjustment layer at any time by clicking on the layer thumbnail.
Curves is another really useful adjustment layer. It’s another way to adjust the contrast and amount of color in the image (this is not a good technical explanation of what curves are AT ALL, but in practice that’s what it looks like is happening), and I recommend using it in combination with levels because it adds another way to increase the control you have over the image, and depending on the image one tool might work better than the other at getting the result you want.

Note: you can add multiple points to the curve line by clicking on it, and also edit individual color curves as well as the main RGB or CMYK curve. This is a very powerful tool and the best way to learn what it does is probably just to try messing around with it.


There are many, many ways to correct any color issues you have—my scanner likes to make everything look yellow, for example—to the point that would be another tutorial. For now, the easiest is probably Hue/Saturation, and take the saturation bar down to zero.


Say you’ve done all that, but there’s a section of your image that has something weird going on, and the global adjustments aren’t enough to fix it without killing the rest of the image. A common problem I have is that since the edge of my scanner’s bed isn’t flush with the body of the scanner, any time I scan something that overlaps the scan bed I get a shadow along the edge. This is when layer masks are your friend.

Using the lasso tool, select the problem area. Go to top menu and pick Select–>Modify–>Feather, and set the feather to 50 pix. Make a new Curves layer, and mess with it enough that the change shows up on the image. Only the area that you selected should be affected, and there should be a thumbnail of a white shape on a black field linked to the main layer thumbnail.

(This was the best before/after example of tiling that I had on hand, please ignore that it’s a painting)

Feathering the selection helps it blend into the rest of the image so that you don’t have sharp line, but if that’s not enough you can directly edit the mask using the brush tool. When you click on the mask thumbail in the layers menu, notice that your foreground/background colors change to black and white. If you want to make more area unaffected by the adjustment layer, paint with black, and for the reverse paint with white.

There’s one more basic thing to know about scanning artwork, and it is the worst thing: tiling. Unless you are fortunate enough to have access to a large format scanner and/or only draw very small things you will have to do this at some point and it is terrible. The newer versions of PS have a tool called “photomerge” that can be found under File–>Automate, but I’ve never really felt like it’s given me better results than I can get manually so I don’t really bother with it.

So what you’ve got to do is make sure you’ve got enough scans to cover your entire image, with a fair amount of overlap if you can manage. Then, move all the scans into a new file that’s the size of the total outer dimensions. Working one layer at a time, reduce the opacity of the top layer and using the transform tool rotate the layer until the images line up. Repeat with other tiles. I recommend locking each layer as you go (click on the lock icon at the top of the layer menu) so you don’t accidently move a layer after its been set.

Yes, I know. If you can only get part of a side to line up because the paper got warped or something, don’t stress too much. Once you’ve got everything as lined up as it’s going to be, you’ve probably still got some edges that are too dark/don’t match the other scan. Again, layer masks are your friend!


Ctrl+click on the layer thumbnail to select its contents (Mac users, I think this’ll be a command+click, but I could be wrong). Now click on the quick mask button next to the layer adjustment menu (see screenshot). You’ve now created a mask that you can use to get rid of the bits of each layer that don’t mesh. Yes, you could also just erase them, but that reduces your ability to change your mind later.


I think that should cover the basics. If anyone has any questions about this topic, or about Photoshop in general feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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  1. OMG! I’ve been trying to figure this out recently & have *cough* not had the greatest success. Looking forward to trying this method! Thanks for the post!

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