Simple cel shading in SAI
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Free Cel Shading Video Tutorials For Artists

ResourcesDigital Painting Written by McKella Sawyer Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. That means if you buy something we get a small commission at no extra cost to you(learn more)

Cel shading is a shading technique used in cartoons and comic books. The idea is that you shade and highlight with chunky, simplified colors rather than the subtle gradients that you would see in real life.

This flattens out the shape while making it pop at the same time, which is what you want in cartoons. You’re creating something that’s larger than life and cel shading fits the mold perfectly.

Quick history lesson: Cel shading, commonly misspelled as “cell shading,” is named for celluloids, which are clear sheets of painted acetate used in classic 2D animation.

You can do this in lots of different art programs so it’s about technique as well as tools.

To get started here’s our favorite free tutorials for cel shading in different programs.

Shading and Light Tips

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Watch this before you try cel shading to avoid common mistakes, or watch it when you’ve gotten the hang of it to further your skillset.

Here you’ll learn how to NOT make your drawings look flat, ignore your light source, or wreck your forms. Basically a great intro to the fundamentals before diving right into cel shading.

It’s also full of time-saving techniques and a quick refresher on how light actually works.

You’ll also learn about different tools for shading, which ones to use and which not to use (and why) and generally how not to look like a newb with your first cel shading pieces.


Cel Shading in Photoshop (Feat. Krillin)

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This tutorial shows you basic coloring and shading techniques for a comic in Photoshop.

The coloring process is pretty straightforward. You’ll start by using the paint bucket tool to block in colors which is a very beginner approach.

To shade you’ll use layer masks and carefully selected colors to create the basic, blocky shading you’re used to seeing in cartoons.

You’ll also learn about rim lighting which indicates a light source behind the subject and really makes your drawings leap off the page.

It’s great practice for rendering different light sources and shading in general.


How to Improve your Cell Shading

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Once you have the basics of cel shading down you can step it up with these tricks.

This artist starts with a finished illustration and then takes you through the layers and how she shaded the image, from flat colors and details to the dramatic highlights and shadows.

She’ll show you exactly where she performed each step in the process (the order matters) and a few tricks for moving things along quicker and keeping the colors where you want them.

She’ll also get into tricks like opacity and transparency to let colors shine through which can give flat images a surprising amount of depth and temperature.

This is fantastic if you’re working with multiple light sources, or any colored or unusual light sources.


Six of Wands

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This artist also uses Photoshop as a teaching tool which is standard for most digital painting tuts. They also use hue and saturation to play with the color and temperature of the main illustration.

Color and lighting have a huge impact on the mood of your piece.

It’s useful to add cel shading onto things like hair and clouds, and how the color of the highlights affects our perception of the time of day.

With this tutorial you’ll get into overlays, bounce lighting, and tips for adding subtle highlights. She’ll show you how to use masks and select colors to create dramatic lighting in your drawing too.


Basic Cel Shading Tut

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Most tuts in this list are for Photoshop but this artist uses TV Paint, a fine alternative for anyone interested in animation.

This video shows you a basic technique for selecting colors and shading simple drawings.

There are different ways to shade different textures and this artist is going for a glossier appearance. You’ll learn a few easy shortcuts in the software too.

This is great if you use TV paint or if you’re having a hard time choosing the right colors for your pieces.

Or if you just want to get a quick overview of how cel shading works for animation, this video is definitely worth a watch.


Setting up a Cel Shade

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In this tutorial you get to see the process of digitally tracing a drawing and switching up the color of the lines, which can really change the whole look of the finished drawing.

With this technique all of your lines aren’t black and they’re closer to the color of that section of the drawing.

Luckily there’s a quick way to do this and adjust the colors without wrecking the whole drawing.

This artist also offers some tips on color selection for the type of light you’re trying to emulate. You can then use these colors to quickly add shading and highlights to your cartoons.

This is a more advanced tutorial so it’s worth practicing a few digital paintings on your own before attempting these techniques.


Anime Cel Shading

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Drawing anime characters can be so much fun! And with dozens of anime drawing tutorials it’s super easy to get started with pretty much any character you want.

In this video tutorial you’ll learn all about cel shading specifically for anime, but these techniques can apply to anything.

The artist does a great job of showing you how to use layers for each color to make adjustments simple and non-destructive.

You’ll learn to pick out colors for rendering colored light sources, tips for selecting colors, and strategies for adding in subtle details to make your shading feel natural to the scene.

He also throws in a few pointers about how light affects flat colors and how colors will appear different depending on the other colors next to them.

This will take you straight back to that color theory unit in art class; in a good way.


Cel Shade Hair

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Hair is notoriously one of the most difficult subjects to draw.

This video guide is specifically about shading hair on cartoon characters with the goal of cel shading, so give it a watch if hair often gives you the heebie jeebies.

The trick is to draw technically good hair first so you have line art to follow along.

Once you work through some of the practice linework in this video the artist will share some basic shading tips, plus drawing tips specifically for hair.

You also get to see artist Yuuike use a soft airbrush tool to create gradients. She shows you which settings to use and how to use a digital brush to shade in a manner that actually resembles hair.


Cel Shading a Face

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If there’s anything trickier to render than hair, it’s rendering faces & portraits.

This video is Face Shading 101 so it’s absolutely worth a watch if you’re still learning how to paint digitally.

It’s a good lesson on shading faces in any medium, but you’ll also learn some really handy techniques specifically for digital art.

The artist actually shades several identical faces each with a different light source. It’s a really cool exercise that’ll teach a lot so give this a try in your spare time!


Krita Lineart + Cell Shade

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Here’s a nice basic tutorial for beginners just wrapping their brains around cel shading.

The artist starts by toning a drawing so the shading techniques are a little different from some of these other videos.

Toning affects your color selections so if you aren’t planning on using a white background make sure to watch this.

P.S. The video is specifically for Krita but you can apply a lot of the principles to just about any program.


Clip Studio Paint Cel Shading

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To switch things up a bit you might enjoy this tutorial for Clip Studio Paint(a very popular program for anime & comics art).

Here the artist shows you her entire color palette upfront, which is helpful so you kind of know where she’s going and you can predict how colors will work together.

Though most cel shading just involves blocks of color, this artist actually does use some subtle gradients too.

Sometimes soft gradients work well for details or on faces, especially when you want to emphasize them. This tutorial also has some great tips for drawing eyes on manga characters.

It’s a basic (but useful) tutorial and it’s extra helpful if you typically draw manga-style art.


Paint Tool Sai Cel Shading

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Let’s change software one more time and check out Paint Tool SAI.

This video shows you how to cel shade with minimal tools all inside the SAI program(another popular choice for anime/manga artists).

YouTube artist ManouAzumi shades a few different manga characters so you’ll see the process a few times over.

She also shows you her palette in the beginning so you can see her color selections ahead of time, and just how light or dark her final shading will be.

It’s helpful to see color selections all at once because this gives you a good idea for setting up your own palettes later.

She’ll also use some gradients to soften her shadows just a tad, even though they’re still pretty chunky. She combines the blur tool and opacity to adjust colors and it really changes the texture in the final piece.

Whether you’re into manga or not, this tutorial is great practice in shading different skin tones and hair colors.


Speedpaint Cel Shade

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This is a speedpainting video so there’s no actual instruction here.

That being said, it’s always useful to see an artist at work. You can watch the tools they use and how they use them, their color choices, and even their mistakes and adjustments.

Take a peek at this video to get an overall view of how cel shading works(you’ll see sketching and color blocking too). Or after you’d had some practice you might try following along on your own to sharpen your skills.

For example the shading is very soft and detailed here, so this is good to watch if your own colors are getting a bit too chunky and you want to shake things up a bit.


Sailor Mercury: Cel Shading in Photoshop

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Sailor Moon fans rejoice! This artist colors and shades a fairly detailed drawing of one beloved anime character.

She actually starts with highlights on a fairly detailed drawing. Which is interesting because many people start with shadows.

But she’s great at creating dramatic lighting that’s not necessarily realistic but is almost larger than life (and isn’t that what cartoons are all about?)

This video is fun to just watch. She plays close attention to the light source and adds some soft color to the face, so it’s a great lesson in coloring and shading a face and body as well as shading in general. She’s also great at using layers and you can really see where the colors come into play here.

Author: McKella Sawyer

McKella is an artist and freelance writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. When she isn't painting or writing for clients she loves to write fiction, travel, and explore the mountains near her home either on foot, horseback, or a mountain bike. You can view her art on Etsy and her writing services at