Using Gradient Maps in your Art

Gonna drop a quick art tip for ya that you may not know about. It’s nothing new, but it may be to you.

I recently made a 2-hour long tutorial video on transforming a greyscale illustration the other day. I was originally going to add this tidbit there as a bonus “but wait, there’s more!” alternate-but-way-more-limiting-method, but figured it’s better to be written down in words. Also, this is $free.99 unlike that very detailed tutorial that I spent hours on writing and edi— I digress.


A Gradient Map is a range of values from darkest to lightest. It will look at every value that you have in your image and map it to a designated spot in that range. Above is the typical kinda bar (what distinguished, educated artists call a Color Ramp) you’d see for controlling gradients. Oh yeah, you might wanna grab a copy of Photoshop or Affinity Photo to test this stuff out on your own, because no other software can do it as well as they can (as far as I know). Clip Studio Paint has gradient maps but I’m not 100% on how it works there, but you may be able to easily do it there as well. I’m using the ol’ Adobe ball-n-chain for this, though. You need to know your own way around a program for this; I’m not going into too much detail.

Grade Me, Daddy

Let’s use this sketch of Mai Shiranui I did earlier this year as an example to explain this concept, because Nintendo is too ashamed to put a Mai cameo in Smash so someone has to fill the gaping void here. I know it’s not comparable but it’s the least I can do.


I don’t think I ever uploaded this version, but this is how the sketch appeared in its natural, uncolored state. Now notice, the whitest part of my image is the background. The whitest part of the bar at the current moment is, well… white. Now let’s change this color to, say, Red, and see what happens:

Whoa. It’s like that  only  terrifying scene in that Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark movie with the ugly lady creature chasing that dude… though I wouldn’t mind being in that scenario with Mai closing in on me.

Whoa. It’s like that only terrifying scene in that Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark movie with the ugly lady creature chasing that dude… though I wouldn’t mind being in that scenario with Mai closing in on me.

Look at that! Our background is now totally Red as you would expect. However, so is the rest of the image. The thing about gradient maps is that there’s a gradual transition of 0 to 1. Originally, it was from White-to-Black. So it took into account the entire range as well (the white that is mixed in all the way through each grey value). So being that the map is now a Red-to-Black transition, that’s how it shows up on our image. But we can alter this. Let’s add in a new color in the middle. We’re going to make this Yellow. Let’s slide the yellow to the front and put the red in the middle:

Screen Shot 2019-11-06 at 11.47.06 PM.png

Look at that, now our image has a color palette of Yellow>Red>Black. And we’re getting those gradual transitions of orange between the reds and yellows. This is the beauty of gradient mapping— it allows you to quickly add in color based on the kind of values you have on your sketch and you can come up with some pretty dope results and style, and even use this as a base to add some additional color manually. So let’s alter this into something that we can use a bit more:


There, we got something softer with blues and purples for shadows and yellows and oranges for highlights for her skin, primarily. I can make another reddish gradient map layer and quickly mask out all the red areas of her, and set the layer opacity to about 50-ish percent and our girl has some simple color added to her:


Finished. This method took at maximum 10 minutes to do, so you can see how powerful it is to have in your tool belt. It can make your sketches look way less mundane with very minimal effort, and you can combine this technique with a more robust coloring method, like the Greyscale to Colors one explained in my aforementioned tutorial video:

It takes a lot to play around with fully grasping gradient maps, but it’s also a lot of fun to experiment with. 

Have fun sketching and mapping your work!