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Create a Colorful Fantasy Digital Painting in Photoshop

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Read Time: 14 min

In art, there are no wrong answers. That is especially true with digital art. There are a million techniques to produce the same piece of art. Some designers start out with a sketch, others create their artwork without a plan of any kind. In this tutorial, we will explain how to create a fantasy digital painting without a sketch. Let's get started!


This piece has been painted using a graphic tablet, a Wacom Intuos 4. The tutorial can be followed and accomplished without the use of a tablet as well, but painting with a mouse is not something I'd recommend. You have less precision (at least, with the common mice) and you have no opacity or flow jitter. With the mouse, it's going to take you longer, be harder and it's probably not going to look as precise and nice, which is why, if you want to get into digital painting (and you probably do, since you're reading this), I seriously recommend that you to get a graphic tablet. For starters a Wacom Bamboo Fun is one of the best around and the price should be generally around $50.

Step 1 - Before starting

I'd like to start this tutorial by stating that this is not only going to be about THE actual painting. There is no point in explaining you just what I did without telling you why and how. Otherwise, you'd end up with a bad painting without having learned anything new. You're reading this to learn something, so I'm going to teach you what you need to know in order to make a digital painting, based on my experience. I'll explain my points of view, my thoughts during the process of creation, and some of my techniques. I can't assure it will be the best way of doing it, because probably it's not. But it is my way, which has been developed during years of practicing and it's the one that currently works best for me.

I began this piece with no clue of what it will be like at the end. I almost never have a precise idea of what I want. I find it a boring way of making art. If you already know in your mind how it's going to look like at the end, then there is no fun. You won't be surprised of the result and you won't enjoy experimenting at all! Instead, I like to let the mind and the hand flow free, waiting to have the right idea. You'll understand better what I mean once you see the first steps of this painting.

Almost forgot: the only brush I used in this painting is the evergreen Hard Round Brush, which is the first brush you find in the Photoshop preset. There are people that when starts painting digitally, usually thinks that a lot revolves around the famous "custom brushes". They couldn't be more wrong. With this tutorial I'll show you that you can do anything with just the most common brush in Photoshop.

Step 2 - Let's start!

Ok - here's the first thing I do every time I start a new painting. I choose the background color. Why is this one pink? No real reason. It just inspired me in that particular moment.

We have a color. We've done a lot already. Really. I'm serious. If you decide a background color, then you automatically narrow the field of the kind of environments you can create. It's pink, so we know that it won't be a jungle, for example!

Ok, now we know a little bit more about the direction we're going to take. We can do more, now: let's add some colors.

You may wonder: "why these colors?" Orange is for fire, so I'm currently planning to have fire in the final image. It doesn't mean there will 100% sure, but just that in that specific moment I wanted fire in it. That desaturated blue instead is there because it gives contrast to the warm colors there are in it now, and because I'm planning to paint rocks next and usually blue/grey are the kind of cold colors you find in rocks.

Now I've been adding more: a sky, a river (or a sea, or a lake) and a few darker brush strokes. We can start seeing something more from it, some sort of structure. Painting is not that different from sculpting, in my opinion. You start from one block, then you create more shapes until you get something recognizable and then you add details until you reach the desired level of realism.

From now on, I will just keep working on the structure, trying to create recognizable shapes that I like.

In the following image I did something interesting that is worth mentioning. When good ideas aren't flowing, I always do this. In Photoshop, New Layer > Image > Apply Image, then with the newly created layer I experiment. What does it mean? I move it around, stretch it, flip it, set it on blending modes (usually darken and lighten are the ones that work better), use random filters, and so on. In this specific case, I flipped it horizontally and vertically and set it on lighten.

Then I added some clouds at the top and made it look like it was some sort of 'smoke' that's being blown out by the clouds. At first it looked like a good idea, then after a few seconds I started hating it. But, hey, wait a second! Idea! It also looks like a mountain lit by sunlight, if fixed!

Then I just kept painting details. I added a statue inside the cave and painted some mountains (image below) to add depth in the image by 'exploiting' the previous layered brush strokes. "Layered" means that, using the pressure of the tablet's pen, we have different layers of the same color that vary depending on the pressure made with the said pen. You can use the same "technique" when painting mist or clouds above something like mountains, in this case.

Step 3 - Colors, colors, colors

Now we might have something. So far we created an interesting environment with nice and warm colors and a small and vague story about a statue. But I knew I could do better, which is why now there'll be more experimenting!

Again, Image > Apply image and let's start move it around. In this case, since the painting was getting too 'dark', I decided I wanted something brighter in the middle of the rock structure. First, I tweak a bit the colors using the Selective Colors options, then I press Command/Ctrl+I and voilà, now the colors are inverted and so, if before were dark, now are very bright!

Same thing as before, this time using multiply and luminosity blending modes.

Now let's try to 'sculpt' out some shapes from this mass of colors.

Step 4 - More details, more story

As done already before, Image > Apply image. This time I just moved it more to the left as I wanted the rock structure more centered, since it was clear that it was going to be the main focus of the image.

Alright! Now I have finally decided the composition and the main character of the image (well, actually not, but we'll talk about it later). As you can see from the image below, I attempted to create some sort of 'rock monster' by just adding two eyes. It looked awful. It looked like one of those inflatable crocodile that luckier kids than me had.

Since it was looking so bad, I decided to take another try. It wasn't working again since there were no eyes, but whatever. When I don't get good ideas for something, instead of wasting time on that I just move to another area of the painting and work on that. I improved the general shape of the monster, added some sort of 'hands' and a few reptile characteristics, like those things on his back.

So I decided that I didn't want a 'statue' in it, but a person. It wasn't looking like a statue anyway, so good for me. I'm really bad at drawing people, I've never really practiced on anatomy and such, so my knowledge of human body isn't that great. No problem, though. When I don't know how to paint or draw something, and this happens more often than you might think, I Google. I wanted to draw a person sitting on a throne in a bored position and yet still communicating power. As if "Oh, I'm so powerful that I can allow myself to be bored". You get what I mean. I hope. Well, anyway, as I said, I googled. In this particular case, I looked for some photographs, or drawings, or paintings, of kings on their thrones. Googled "king on throne" and tons of references magically appeared. Now we can select a few images that can help us understand the right anatomy and check them out while learning how to draw that specific pose.

Let's zoom in

I've also re-painted the eyes, but now the monster looked like Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House, so that wasn't looking great either. :)

Step 5 - Forget

I liked the painting. I really did. I saw potential. But there was something that wasn't working. I didn't know what, so instead of wasting countless hours over-thinking it, I tried to stay away from it for a few days. I worked on other projects, went out, saw friends, and overall my goal was to forget about it and, after those couple of days of relax, once I was ready to sit at the computer again, I could give it a fresh look, almost as I was watching it for the first time.

Well, it worked. I immediately decided that the main problems were two: the canvas size wasn't right for the kind of image I wanted to paint and the story was too ambiguous. The piece needed some fixing in order to guide correctly the viewer into a more defined and well-made storyline.

Images > Canvas Size... and changed them from 4592x2500 pixels to 4592x6084 pixels.

Now, we do Images > Apply Image, Then with the Rectangual Marquee Tool we select a few pixels of the bottom of the current layer (so not the bottom of the canvas, but of the layer!) and, with the Move Tool, we drag the selection down. We do the same thing with the top part of the layer. The same procedure for the top part as well. We should get something like this:

For a better understanding:

Now, Again: Images > Apply Image, then I made a selection of the upper part of the image (the sky), SHIFT+Command/Ctrl+I, clicked 'backspace' on the keyboard to erase the part of images that are of no use to me, flip the layer vertical, go to Edit > Transform... and transform it with the Perspective and Distort tools until I get something like the image below:

In order to understand slightly better what I said, check the image below. Basically, you can see that I used parts of the sky in the ground.

Step 6 - Our hero!

Now, main character! This is the idea that I had once I sat back again at the computer and gave me the inspiration to finish the piece. As I said earlier, I am unable to paint and draw people. I never did it, so I have no idea how to do it. But this painting is also about learning, right? The human figure in this painting, even in the finished image, is not perfect. People more qualified than me in anatomy can spot at least half-dozen of mistakes, but I'm learning, so mistakes are still allowed!

In the following image I painted (on a separate layer, obviously) a poorly painted silhouette of a man with a big coat on his shoulders. Obviously it is always recommended to use references when painting or drawing, it's not cheating, just 'remembering how something is'. There is a very nice journal written by neofox with a lot of links to sites where you can find all sort of references. Recently I've also bought for 6$ one of those wooden human mannequin for drawings, which is incredibly helpful!

And then a poorly painted sword.

Note that, below the character layer, I painted a soft orange 'halo'. I did it because, without it, there is the risk to confuse the shapes of the character with the ground, so when I have to separate two things I often use this trick!

I've also painted some rocks to improve composition; good composition (in landscapes in particular) is one of the fundamental of a good painting. I always reccomend to read an incredibly useful, long and well-written article by Johannes Vloothuis: "Landscape Composition Rules". It's a must for everyone who wants to paint, in my opinion.

Step 7 - The Ground and The Fire

The ground wasn't looking great, too simple and a bit boring, maybe. So, as always: experimenting! I took a part of the painting (check the image below!), copy-pasted on the ground, used the perspective and distort controls and then set the layer on the blending mode "Color Dodge".

Same thing as before, but this time with a different part of the painting and a different blending mode: "Overlay".

Again, set on "Color Dodge".

One more time, on "Soft Light".

Now here's an image to show you how I painted the fire coming from the mouth of the monster. Number 4 is how it looked when the image was finished. You can also see from there how I made some of the details in the painting.

And, finally, some adjustments to the anatomy of the character. Still very bad, but that's ok. During the lapse of time between me actually painting this piece and me writing this tutorial I studied anatomy and worked on some characters and now I'd probably paint it 10 times better but, as I said, that's ok! There's nothing bad in imperfection.

Step 8 - The mountains

Google is full of images to get references from, we already established it earlier. This time, as well, I searched for more photographs to learn from. I couldn't find any image of a sky during sunset that completely satisfied me, so I just looked at different images and tried to learn something from those. These are the results:

In image #4 you can see a close-up and see the details. As you can notice, the brush strokes are not perfect at all. This is because of two main reasons: first, it takes much longer. Second, better brush strokes would have been useless. Once it get resized for the web, those big brush strokes you see in #4 will be just very small details.

I've also detailed a bit more the other mountains in the background.

Step 9 - More details on the monster

At this point of the piece it really is all about details. Words are of little use for you anymore, all you need to do is watch what I did. In this step I will be adding textures (and so details) on the monster, in order to make it pop out more in the picture.

In the image below I added a big and blue/cyan soft round brush set on blending mode Overlay.

Now, with the small hard round brush I painted all the small details. Below there are two images, the second one shows the details at around 90% of the original sizes.

Again, more soft brush strokes to make more 'shiny'.

And more details, again.

Step 10 - The sky

Until this point I wasn't satisfied at all of the sky and it was pretty much all was left to do in order to call this piece done. So let's get into it.

This is how, more or less, it was before this step.

I had the feeling that it wasn't working, so I removed the right part of the clouds and it immediately felt much better. More breathing space, more depth.

I had to make some kind of sky, though. But, instead of painting it, this time I used a shortcut and went straight to my own photo collection and looked for a nice and simple sky. This one:

In the tutorial assets you can find a small pack of 5 sky photos, including this one, made by me. Feel free to download and use them any way you want! :)

So as I was saying, I wanted to use a photo for the sky. So I took it, opened it into Photoshop, imported into the painting document, rotate it and then set it on Soft light.

Filled the 'holes' left by the photo..

Now, with a cloud brush (Dan LuVisi has some nice ones) I merged clouds and sky better.

Final Image

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