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How To Remove The Background From a Drawing or Lineart

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For those of you of the artistic persuasion, you might be using Photoshop or GIMP to color your scanned drawings. Fortunately, putting the line art in a transparent layer is very easy with this slick technique.

This technique is a standard for any Photoshop user’s bag of tricks, and one that is useful lots of different situations. It can work on rough drawings, tight, inked line art, or even layers you’ve accidently drawn into or merged while working. Keep reading to see our simple technique.

Removing the Background In Photoshop (GIMP Friendly Instructions)

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While you can work with any number of layers, we’re going to assume you’re working with a single background layer for your scanned drawing.

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The image can be in either Grayscale or RGB. Check the channels by clicking on the Channels Panel tab, available by default in Photoshop’s “Essentials” workspace.

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Press Ctrl a to select the entire canvas. Then Ctrl c to copy the single background layer to the clipboard.

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Jump to your Channels Panel and create a new Alpha channel by clicking on the sshot-773 icon in the bottom of the panel. Paste it by pressing Ctrl v with the new channel selected, as shown.

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If you have loads of gray pencil marks or dirty smudges in the artwork, you can eliminate them here by pressing ctrl L to open the levels tool. Moving the rightmost slider sshot-774 towards the left side will white out all of the lightest grays and highlights.

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Optional: You can also turn this Alpha channel into pure line art (black and white with zero shades of gray) with a Threshhold filter. In Photoshop, you can find this by navigating to Image > Adjustments > Threshhold. GIMP has it under Tools > Color Tools > Threshold.

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With your Alpha channel looking perfect, you can Ctrl + Click on it to select all of the black areas in the image.

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If your line art isn’t the part that is selected, you may have to employ a quick Ctrl shift i to invert the selection. Ignore this step if your image is selected correctly.

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Jump back to the layers panel and create a new layer by pressing ctrl shift N or clicking on the sshot-779 located at the bottom of the panel. Make sure the new layer is selected as shown above.

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Fill your new layer by selecting Edit > Fill. Set your Contents to Use: Black as shown above. Hit OK when you’re finished!

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Your line art is now in a separate layer. Turn off the background layer to better see your results.

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You’re now free to do whatever you please with your drawing, whitespace now removed.

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You can return to your channels panel to remove the temporary alpha channel at anytime by selecting the now unnecessary channel and clicking the sshot-773 at the bottom of the panel.

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And that’s all there is to it—you’re now free to do most anything you can imagine to your line art layer.


Enjoyed our technique? Or do you have one of your own, honed from working on a million of your own drawings? Tell us about your experience in the comments, or email us your questions at ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com, where they may be featured on How-To Geek in an upcoming graphics article.

Image Credit: Doctor Slump Illustration by Akira Toriyama, used without permission, assumed fair use.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 05/7/12

Comments (13)

  1. LouieGeetoo

    Thank you for this! I’m thinking about getting back into cartooning, so this article arrives with perfect timing.

  2. john3347

    I see numerous articles about “removing” backgrounds, but none that REMOVES the background. Every article, including this one, only changes or modifies the background. These should be called background manipulation techniques. I create a lot of icons and need to actually REMOVE the background from a photo. Maybe take a photo of my pet dog and want to remove the background so what is left is a photograph of the dog in the shape of the dog. Not a rectangular shape. Not a square shape. An irregular shape the shape of the dog’s silhouette. Word 2010 will do this operation, but it is so complicated that I forget from one time to the next how to do it and I have a “Microsoft learning experience” every time.

  3. Eric Z Goodnight

    @John: Sounds like you’re expecting to have a file that is not rectangular, which isn’t possible by the nature of the way files are. You can make parts of the image transparent, but the filetypes are based on a two dimensional algebraic grid, so they have to have a 0,0 coordinate and have to be rectangular.

    I might not be understanding you clearly, though.

  4. Bill Woo

    @john3347

    This article is about removing black-and-white line-art, as a “whole,” from a background. What you are describing is the extraction of an irregular bounded image, probably multi-color, from a background: there are many Photoshop tools useful for doing this, and countless tutorials on the web.

    I suggest you get a good book on PhotoShop, like one of Deke McLelland’s, at http://www.deke.com.

    Or, get busy, and start google-searching for for “photoshop extract image.”

    https://www.google.com/search?sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=photoshop+extract+image

    Depending on the image you wish to extract, fine details, like wisps of hair, are notoriously hard to get right, particularly when they tend to blend in with background colors.

    At the high-end, for pros, are 3rd. party solutions like http://www.vertustech.com/ for masking/extracting.

    best, Bill

  5. llequang

    Hi,
    In photoshop, i used the rectangular marquee then select grow then delete. I have the choice of selecting only the area I want to delete. In some cases, I did a clean up afterwards by using Select modify ==>feather==>select inverse then delete. This works pretty well. Photoshop has also a feature call “background eraser” and “magic background eraser” that work good for big area sometimes.

  6. Papa Jeff

    Just curious…why would you want to do this?

  7. UltimatePSV

    @Papa Jeff:
    Say you want to make a comic or just want to draw a picture on paper. Now if you want to color that in, you could use markers or colored pencils or something, but it would be easier and better-looking to use a computer to color that in. This technique would help you to do that.

  8. llequang

    This is the fastest way and it is selective. I can just take away any background and leave others where they are. I use this technique to create animated gifs from pictures with background.

  9. UltimatePSV

    @john3347:
    Sounds like you want the sort of image that can be saved as a PNG or SVG file. Using MS Office makes me think you’ve been using EMF files, which are a little bit similar to SVG.

  10. nonosh

    Akira Toriyama kicks mangass! I was able to identify his unique style from the article’s preview image alone.

  11. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Nonosh: Awesome! Glad somebody noticed!

  12. JimD

    In photoshop simply use the pen tool to make a selection around the shape you want copy it to a new file and save as a .png. Any imaging software you use will create this file as a square or rectangle but the .png image will have only the image shape itself, there will be no background.

  13. E.W.

    A .PNG file has a transparent background, as does .GIF files. You can’t see it, it lets the ‘background’ of anything else show through you place the transparent graphic on.
    You place your cut out or layer on a ‘new’ transparent file/background, but the transparent background will still be square.
    When you are working with Layers it’s no big deal, but I could see the frustration when working with documents and want the words to conform to the edge of the item not the transparent background.
    I suppose in WORD there is a way to customize that aspect.

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