A detailed, step by step tutorial demonstration of my process in the making of a creature illustration.
As a side note, this assignment was a Concept Art test that landed me my current job at Cryptic Studios.
Step 0: Comps / Thumbnails
The first step in creating any image is the ideation process. This is the part I really have fun with.
Since the assignment was a creature illustration I created a set of creature thumbnails. Sketching small and staying loose allows the ideas and shapes to flow. I sketched about 20 mini thumbnails in this process.
I use a combination of gray markers from 20% gray to 70% gray just to create shapes and show form and lighting. To line, I use brush pen and fine tipped felt pen.
The last group of creature sketches. I was originally favoring a reptilian creature for this scene until I finally settled on the minotaur creature on the bottom left.
Now that I have decided on our creature’s design, it’s time to design the scene. I sketch small, 2″ to 3″, thumbnails to establish the overall image. I try to stay very loose and sketch quickly and allow the ideas to flow. I did about 10 thumbnails for this image. The ones selected here were the strongest compositions. After some revision and feedback, I decided to develop the thumbnail on the lower left.
Step 1: Cleanup / Line Drawing
Now I have my creature and the scene sketched/planned out, I scan in the comp and begin to clean it up in Photoshop. I wanted the focus of the image to be the creature so I developed him first. *My focus here is to have a clean, solid line drawing that will create a strong foundation for the rest of the image.
*This point is so important, I will repeat it. The drawing is the foundation of the image. If the drawing is solid, everything will fall in to place and the rendering process will go very smoothly.
Step 2: Light and Shade
Now that I have a solid line drawing I begin to add light and shade. The steps are:
1. I paint a flat, 25% gray underneath the line art. The setting is at night, so the creature will be relatively dark.
2. I create a multiply layer over the flat layer. I paint the shadows using a 5o% grey and 25% grey (for core shadows).
3. I create a Overlay layer above the shadow layer. Using a 85% grey, I paint the lights and highlights. *At this stage my focus is on good separation of lights and darks and good edges to make the forms turn.
Step 3: Foreground Elements / Defining the vignette
To create depth, space and scale, I add foreground (FG) elements. This also gives the image a nice vignette, which is a fancy word for ‘framing’ the image.
1. First, I use the comp sketch as a guide to draw the foreground shapes.
2. I fill the drawing with my darkest darks (almost going to black). This pops these elements forward and creates a nice frame for the image. *This image shows the final FG layer. I took time drawing and rendering the FG characters and the hanging stop light.
Step 4: Going ‘Opaque’
Combining our character with the FG elements I’m ready to ‘render’ the character. I create an opaque (100% opacity) layer above the line art and begin to paint over the line art. My focus is to refine the edges, model the forms and draw the viewer’s eyes into our character. Of course, I follow the old illustrator’s rule and put most of the rendering and detail in: #1 the head and #2 the hands.
A close-up of the rendering of the head and claw hand.
Step 5: Background
Using the comp sketch as a guide for the perspective, I add the background (BG) elements. The assignment was to create a night scene in Manhattan, New York. My thought process was:
1. First, do extensive research and gather reference.
2. After choosing a photo that matches closely I begin to tweak the image in Photoshop.
*To get to this BG image required a lot of photo manipulation using transformations, filters and hand painting to make it my own and fit the art style. This step could be a tutorial in itself. I used this technique to save time and to keep the focus on the character.
Step 6: Integrating the Background
Here I add background elements to better integrate the background with the character in the middleground (MG). This is all hand-painting at this point. Because the BG image was well laid out, I only had to do a minimum of perspective drawing.
A close-up of the details added here. Mostly figures and cars to really show scale, action and story-telling.
Step 7: Final Tonal Render
I add some finishing touches to finalize the tonal render:
1. Some smoke and flame loosely painted to create movement and soften edges.
2. Using a multiply layer, I create a drop shadow to really set the character in the scene. I then flatten the image to begin the next step.
Step 8: Colorizing
Even though I used this method of “colorizing” (adding color in PS using layer effects), I wanted the image to have as much of a hand-painted look as possible.
The first thing I do is create a limited palette in a seperate window. The colors were picked from reference images of Manhattan at night and then adjusted to their closest tube color counterparts. Limiting my palette this way keeps the image clean, uniform and cohesive. Taking colors from life and from actual tube paints also keeps the final image from looking muddy or too “photoshop-ey”.
Step 9: Creature Coloring
Now, I create a Color layer above the flattened tonal layer. Since the focus of this piece is the creature, I color render him first. From here I can use his hues and saturation as a guide to color and render the rest of the scene.
Step 10-a: Coloring the Background
1. I duplicate the tonal layer.
2. I create a Color layer above and fill it with a blue-purple (night sky color).
3. I merge the two layers.
*I used this color because it is an approximation of the night sky. Generally in painting landscapes, the sky color heavily influences the hues (color) of the scene.
Step 10-b: Coloring the Background cont.
1. First, I create another color layer above the flattened blue-purple layer.
2. Using my limited palette I made for myself earlier I paint in the colors loosely with large brushes.
3. Then I refine the colors and the saturation.
*Even though the scene is Manhattan, filled with bright, colorful, saturated artificial lights, I don’t want to compete with the character too much. I keep the colors slightly grey and slightly cool since our creature has a very warm local color. Again, I want the focus to be on our main character.
Step 11: Dodge and Burn
This part of the process gets a bit technical. Some working knowledge of Photoshop helps here.
1. First, I take the colored creature layer and use an alpha mask to mask out the background.
2. I put the layer with our colored BG beneath our creature so the background shows through.
3. I then merge the two layers and make minor painting adjustments.
4. I create a Color Burn layer above the flattened layer and punch in the darks to create some really nice contrast.
5. I create a Color Dodge layer and use a very light yellow-orange to ‘punch in’ the highlights and turn-up the saturation. *Again, I mostly want to focus on the head and hands.
Here’s a before and after detailing the Dodge and Burn process. Even though I’m a traditionalist at heart, it’s so much fun to play with the Dodge and Burn layers. Plus it’s an extremely quick technique and saves a lot of time.
Step 12: Final Image
Now, I just add some finishing touches. Especially around the face of our creature and the FG elements. Sign and date and we’re good to go. Check the next image for a detail shot.
A close-up our character’s mug. I mostly punched up the contrast, modeled small forms in his face and added some drool just for fun.
Thank you for viewing. If this tutorial was helpful or if you have questions about my process, please leave a comment. You can also contact me directly with any comments or feedback by email.