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Create Zombie Dragon Concept Art: Painting in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Last time we were designing and sketching a zombie dragon. Today we're going to make it more real by creating a digital painting in Adobe Photoshop. I'll show you a clean, non-destructive way of painting digitally—we'll be using Layer Masks and maps known from 3D modeling. I'll explain to you how ambient occlusion works and how to add color and lighting to it with proper Blending Modes. We're going to create a complete piece of concept art with three very simple brushes you'll make yourself. Follow me!

1. Prepare the Workspace

Step 1

We need to prepare the sketch we created before. If your line art has been drawn traditionally, scan it or take a good photo of it.

zombie dragon sketch line art

Step 2

Create a New File (Control-N) and choose dimensions that will let you work comfortably. The bigger, the better, but don't go overboard! If you're not sure about how big you can go, try 5000 px x 5000 px, choose a complicated brush, and paint a big stroke quickly. If it doesn't lag, you're free to go.

Paste your line art to the file and, if necessary, scale it with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T).

file settings

Step 3

Name the layer with the sketch lineart. Change its Blending Mode to Multiply so that only its lines are visible.

multiply blending mode lineart

2. Create the Resources

Now we need to prepare the tools we'll be working with.

Step 1

It's good to prepare the color scheme before the actual painting. This way we'll avoid unpleasant surprises. Our zombie dragon will be made of bones, muscles, ligaments and skin, and we know what colors these things have. We only need to extract dominant shades out of them and put them in our color scheme.

First, let's find images that depict the topic in the ideal way. You can use Google Image Search for it. What do we need to find?

  • Muscles—you'll find the best results under muscles autopsy, but it's not recommended for sensitive people. Instead, you can try something more indirect, like raw steak, or some other kind of meat you can safely look at, or even a frame from some low-budget horror movie that's more funny than scary. If you're lucky, you should get some bluish tint of veins.
  • Bones—type animal bones to clarify.
  • Skin—depending on what effect you need, you may type various keywords. In my vision bat skin will work the best.
paitning photo references google
Be careful—here there be monsters!

Step 2

Choose the best images and paste them to a new file. Create a mix of them without leaving any white spaces. When you're done, Save for Web (Control-Shift-Alt-S).

paitning photo references google 2

Step 3

Use Color Thief or any similar site to extract the color scheme out of the image. In my case, one scheme is all I need, but you can create separate schemes for muscles/bones/skin. Paste the screenshot to the main file and name the layer color scheme. Lock image pixels to avoid mistakes—this way you'll be able to move the color scheme around without a risk of modifying it. You can also create a Swatches preset out of it, if you like this method more.

photoshop painting color scheme
photoshop lock image pixels

Step 4

Every artist needs a brush! Let's create three very basic ones.

The first one we need is a classic round brush with Opacity Transfer. You probably have one in your palette—if you don't, find the most similar one and adjust the settings as shown below.

round transfer brush how to create

Step 5

You can save the brush in the normal way (the "white card" icon under the settings), or create a tool preset. The other way is especially convenient when you've got a lot of brushes in the palette and want to use just a few of them for this particular painting, or when you want to use brushes from separate palettes quickly.

Open the Tool Presets window and click the card icon. Name it Transfer Brush and save without color.

photoshop tool preset brush

Step 6

The next brush will be hard, used for painting flat colors and clean shapes. Its settings should be similar to these, so you can take any round brush and modify it. Afterwards, save it as a new Brush or a new Brush Preset. In the other case, name it Hard Brush.

round hard brush how to create

Step 7

Take the Transfer Brush and modify it to make it soft. Name it Soft Brush.

soft brush how to create

Step 8

We've got all we need to start painting!

painting in photoshop workspace

3. Create a Clipping Mask

First we need to define the general shape, cutting the object out of the environment. In Photoshop it can be done easily with a Clipping Mask.

Step 1

Lower the Opacity of the lineart layer to make it more subtle. Create a New Layer above it and name it Mask. Select Hard Brush and draw the outline of the dragon, paying special attention to inside shapes too. Take your time, and do it carefully—this is an important step!

clipping mask photoshop painting

Step 2

Use the Magic Wand Tool (W) in Add to Selection mode to select all the areas outside the dragon. Invert the selection with Control-Shift-I.

clipping mask photoshop painting 2

Step 3

Create a new layer and fill the selection using the Paint Bucket Tool (G). Then merge it with Mask by selecting them both and clicking Control-E.

clipping mask photoshop painting 3

Step 4

To attach any layer to our Clipping Mask you just need to place it right above the Mask layer (or any clipped layer) and hit Control-Alt-G. Nothing on that layer will cross the border of Mask.

clipping mask photoshop painting 4

4. Ambient Occlusion

For this illustration we're going to use Layer Maps. This method has been very popular recently, but I'd like to mention one important thing. It's not an ultimate, best‑of-the-best technique. It works very well when you've got clean line art and a good plan for every aspect of the picture. It's not recommended for illustrations created "on the fly", when you're not sure what you're painting and what colors you want to use.

We're going to define the areas that can't be reached easily by light. Keep in mind that what we'll paint doesn't exist separately in reality. It's a map—a concept from 3D modeling, where the influence of light is divided into separate layers. In painting, an AO (ambient occlusion) map makes 3D line art—something that defines the edges clearly, but at the same time doesn't need to be removed at any point.

The technique I'm going to show you is lazy, fast, and perfect for detailed works, but I'm sure once you understand what the goal is, you'll be able to develop your own technique for painting ambient occlusion.

Step 1

Let's clip the lineart layer and add another layer between it and the Mask. Name this layer bg and fill it with white.

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop

Step 2

Add a new layer above lineart. Name it AO1. Fill it with black, then lower the Opacity to 85%.

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 2

Step 3

Add a Layer Mask to AO1.

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 3

Step 4

Select the Layer Mask and use the Soft Brush to fill the spaces between the lines of line art with white (painting with black—black reveals what's under the layer, white covers it). Don't cross the lines, and don't blend the separate areas!

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 4
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 5
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 6

Step 5

Select AO1 and Duplicate (Control-J) it. Hide AO1 and name the copy AO2. Select its Layer Mask and paint the contours with the Transfer Brush, this time using dark gray. If the areas are overlapping, paint only the contours of the one that's closer to you.

(If you're getting lost with all these layers, download the attached file and use it as a reference.)

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 7
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 8
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 9

Step 6

Duplicate the layer once again, hide it, and name the new one AO3. Now we're going to use a trick that depends on your version of Photoshop.

CS5 or Higher

Select the Mixer Brush Tool from the Brush menu and simply blend it all, leaving the contours alone. Gosh, I love this tool!

CS4 or Lower

You can try to use the Blur Tool here, but most likely it won't get you proper results. To retain control over it, use the Soft Brush and blend the areas manually, picking colors with the Eyedropper Tool (I). The goal is to hide the strokes.

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 8
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 9
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 10

Step 7

Create a New Layer above AO3, fill it with white, and name it AO4. Lower the Opacity to 50%. Add the Layer Mask and reveal the contours subtly with the Transfer Brush.

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 11
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 12
how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 13

Step 8

We're done! You can play with AO4's Opacity to get the result you want, but remember—this isn't really shading! We don't need dark shadows here. Turn off the lineart layer to see our AO map in all its glory.

how to paint in ambient occlusion photoshop 13

5. Flat Colors

Time to start painting for real. If creating the AO map bored you, here's some good news—now you'll be able to paint freely without any risk of losing details. Now we're going to simply put another map on top of it.

Step 1

Create a New Layer, and name it Flat Colors. Set its Blending Mode to Multiply—this way the layers below will be darkened by the colors, but not covered with them. Use the Hard Brush and colors from our color scheme to define the main color areas.

painting in photoshop flat colors
painting in photoshop flat colors 2
painting in photoshop flat colors 3

Step 2

Duplicate (Control-J) the Flat Colors layer and hide the original. This time grab the Transfer Brush and paint color admixtures from our color scheme. It's very rare for organic materials to be colored with only a single shade. For example, white human skin looks best when it's mixed with green and blue. Use this as a chance to add a slight texture.

painting in photoshop flat colors 5
painting in photoshop flat colors 6

6. Light and Shadow

We'll create separate maps for lighting, too.

Step 1

Create a New Layer and name it shadow. Fill it with the dark version of the ambient light; in our case, it will be blue: #050323. Lower the Opacity to 80%.

photoshop lighting shading painting

Step 2

Add a Layer Mask to shadow and use the Transfer Brush to paint the illuminated areas. Use gray for subtle light and black for strong light. If you want to fix something, simply use white—no eraser necessary! Stick to the rules we've used for AO painting—pronounce the edges and don't bring light into crevices.

It's good to remember that interesting lighting is actually redundant, even undesired, when it comes to concept art. Your lighting should present the creature in the most natural way, without concealing the crucial parts. No need to bring drama!

photoshop lighting shading painting 2
photoshop lighting shading painting 3
The closer you get to the edges without crossing and blurring them, the harder the edges will look
photoshop lighting shading painting 4
photoshop lighting shading painting 5

Step 3

Colors change properties depending on their background. Let's add a New Layer right on the bottom and name it background. Use the Soft Brush and the Transfer Brush to sketch the colors and lighting of the background. It doesn't need to be detailed at all—we only need the color scheme to use for lighting.

photoshop lighting shading painting 6

Step 4

Create a New Layer, and name it light. Fill it with the color of the main light source (here, #c7ffb5). Set the Blending Mode to Overlay—it accents bright areas—and add a Layer Mask. Fill it with black to hide it all, and then use a white Transfer Brush to draw (reveal) the brightest parts. Use small strokes to create a texture.

photoshop lighting shading painting 7
photoshop lighting shading painting 8
Strong lighting should be added subtly, with small strokes. Avoid covering the whole illuminated area!
photoshop lighting shading painting 9

Step 5

Now we can add specular light. Muscles are normally covered with a shiny membrane, so let's use it to make the dragon slightly glossy. It's a fresh zombie, after all!

Create a New Layer, and name it specular light 1. Use the Hard Brush to paint tiny spots of light in the most prominent points. You can use the non-invasive method with a white layer and black layer mask, or just draw them the usual way. Be careful—the more you use them, the weaker visually they get!

photoshop lighting shading painting specular light
photoshop lighting shading painting specular light 2
photoshop lighting shading painting specular light 3

Step 6

To soften the effect, we can add another layer (let's name it specular light 2) and add a bit of blur with a white Transfer Brush.

photoshop lighting shading painting specular light 4
photoshop lighting shading painting specular light 5
photoshop lighting shading painting specular light 6

7. Final Polish

Our dragon is finished in a technical sense, but we don't need to stop here!

Step 1

Let's darken the lower part of the beast to blend it better with the ground and bring the focus to the upper part. To do this, create a New Layer and name it fog. Fill it with a random color and then double click to get to Blending Options.

First, change the Fill Opacity to 0%.

painting atmosphere photoshop

Second, add Gradient Overlay and build a gradient of white (for the upper part) and dark cyan (#010b0e, for the lower part). Set the Blend Mode to Multiply and change the Angle to fit the lighting.

painting atmosphere photoshop 2
painting atmosphere photoshop 3
painting atmosphere photoshop 4

Step 2

Our zombie looks pretty friendly, so let's add some gore! Use dark red (#4c0000) and the Transfer Brush to add blood here and there.

painting blood photoshop
painting blood photoshop 2
painting blood photoshop 3

Step 3

Simple white spots will add a bit of appealing shine to the blood.

painting blood photoshop 4
painting blood photoshop 5
painting blood photoshop 6

Step 4

We can use veins as another nice accent. Make them dark blue and slightly shiny.

painting veins photoshop
painting veins photoshop 2

Step 5

Let's work on the ground now. It's not really important for the illustration, but it will be a nice accent. I used a texture from, changed its Blending Mode to Overlay, and adjusted its perspective with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T, hold Control when clicking points to move them individually).

painting photoshop texture ground

By adding a Layer Mask to the texture layer you can easily blend it into the background.

painting photoshop texture ground 2

Step 6

I added a few bones to create a sense of scale. Sometimes it's good to add a human silhouette for this.

painting photoshop texture ground 3

Step 7

Add an Adjustment Layer Levels. By checking the histogram we'll be able to check if the contrast is appropriate. Drag the markers to fit the graph between them.

painting photoshop contrast check levels test

Another way of checking the values is to put a black layer in Saturation mode on the top. Also, turn the background off for a while to see how the creature looks on its own.

painting photoshop contrast check value test

Step 8

We're now coming to the end. If you don't like something about your picture, the main advantage of working with maps is that you can now edit them separately, without destroying the picture as a whole.

You can add a more complicated background, but it's not really necessary. When our goal is to show the creature, adding a background would not only be a waste of time—it would break the clarity of our message. You can even remove the background and add a simple gray wall—nobody will complain!

painting photoshop why layers

My final advice for this final stage is: take break, get yourself some coffee, read a few pages of a book. Get some distance, then come back and check what strikes you the most about the picture. For me it was the lack of back light, so I've added it with the Soft Brush, but since everything's got its own layer, you're free to change anything!


Today we've learned how to plan our illustration and prepare the right tools for it, then how to build an illustration step by step, map by map. Now you know how to create ambient occlusion, lighting, and specular reflection, and how to keep an eye on every aspect of the painting to make it editable in the end.

Do you think it's slow and too planned? What if you don't have any particular plan in your mind and want to design something as you go? What if you need to be fast? There's another method for that, and I'll show it to you in my next tutorial. Stay tuned!

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