1. Design & Illustration
  2. Adobe Photoshop

Create a Digital Painting of a Zombie From Scratch in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Our brief, should we choose to accept it, is: 

"Create a cartoon zombie and incorporate the letter Z."

Zombies are awesome, and it is almost Halloween, so of course! As an extra challenge I will be using just two brushes. 

To make a very funky-looking cartoon zombie I will be covering my process of taking a brief through to completion, with tips and tricks along the way including the wonder that is clipping masks. I'll also show the importance of thumbnailing, taking a rough sketch to a final creepy conclusion, line art tricks, and a smattering of colour theory.

I will be using stock images from Photodune and DeviantART as reference for creepy undead poses.

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. 

Stock photos by DMacstudios

Stock photos from Photodune

Other assets:

Zombie Reference Images

1. Document Setup

Step 1

For this illustration we will be setting up the artwork for print. We want to have an A3 size print so in the New Document Dialogue (File > New or Control-N) we set: 

  • Width to 3,508 px 
  • Height to 4,961 px 
  • Resolution to 300 dpi (the standard Dots Per Inch for print) 

The Color Mode is set to CMYK as we will be printing this document. However, if your artwork is not for print then set the Color Mode to RGB. 

Artwork Dimensions

Step 2

To prevent us creating the artwork too close to the edge where it may be cut off, create a 100 pixel (px) safety zone using Guides.

Bring up the New Guide dialogue box by going to View > New Guide where we will create four guides. For each guide you will have to reopen the New Guide dialogue box.

Guide Settings
  1. Vertical 100 px then click OK
  2. Horizontal 100 px then click OK
  3. Horizontal 4,861 px (height of document minus 100 px) then click OK
  4. Vertical 3,408 px (width of document minus 100 px) then click OK

Select the boundary with the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and hold down Shift to select all four sides. It can be helpful to have Snap enabled (View > Snap) and ensure Snap To > All is selected.

Select Guides Area
Next create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) and Fill (G) the selection with a mid grey.
Fill Guides Area

Control-D to Deselect the area, then go to View > Clear Guides to remove the blue guides. I like to create a grey boundary rather than use guides, because even with snapping turned off, the brush can find itself snapping to the guides, creating undesired straight lines.

Remove Guides

2. What is a Zombie? Defining our Artwork Brief

For this we have a very straightforward brief :

"Create a cartoon zombie and incorporate the letter Z."

According to Wikipedia a Zombie is "an animated corpse raised by magical means, such as witchcraft.The concept has been popularly associated with the Vodou religion, but it plays no part in that faith's formal practices." 

So what does this tell us? We need to create a walking corpse! If you refer to popular culture, we have a fairly stereotypical view of zombies. Groaning animated bodies with distorted joints, moaning eerily, often with open wounds and signs of decay. Films such as Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, and games like Silent Hill, Left4Dead and Plants vs. Zombies probably form our stereotypical view of zombies.

Collecting References Based on the Zombie Description

For our zombie I have found some fantastic reference images from DeviantArt and Photodune for poses and anatomy. The area of the zombie I would need most help with would be the skull, so I waited until my thumbnail was chosen to take some reference pictures of my model skull. If you are going to be creating portraits and characters it is a great idea to get well acquainted with anatomy by studying the human form; life drawing classes are excellent for this. I find it very helpful to have a model skull on my desk, especially if I need to work out a tricky angle for a head. There are plenty of stock image sites that have turnarounds of skulls if you can't bring yourself to be greeted by a skull on your desk every day!

3. Brushes 

Here are the two brushes we will be using for this tutorial. The first is the Hard Edge Custom Brush. Here are my settings.

Hard Edge Custom Brush Settings

Press F5 to bring up the Brush dialogue box.

Use a Standard Hard Round Brush Tip

  • Hardness to 100%
  • Spacing to 1%
Hard Brush - Tip Shape

Shape Dynamics

  • Size Jitter 0% with Control set to Pen Pressure
  • Minimum Diameter 70%
  • Angle Jitter 0%; Control Off
  • Roundness Jitter 0%; Control Off
Hard Brush - Shape Dynamics


  • Opacity Jitter 0%; Control Pen Pressure; Minimum 0%
  • Flow Jitter 0%; Control Pen Pressure; Minimum 0%
Hard Brush -Transfer

Then save your brush by pressing Create New Brush at the bottom right of the Brush dialogue.

Save Brush

The second is the Soft Edge Custom Brush. Here are my settings.

Soft Edge Custom Brush Settings

Press F5 to bring up the Brush dialogue box.

Use a Standard Hard Round Brush Tip

  • Hardness to 0%
  • Spacing to 1%
Soft Brush - Tip Shape

Shape Dynamics

  • Size Jitter 0% with Control set to Pen Pressure
  • Minimum Diameter 70%
  • Angle Jitter 0%; Control Off
  • Roundness Jitter 0%; Control Off
Soft Brush - Shape Dynamics


  • Opacity Jitter 0%; Control Pen Pressure; Minimum 0%
  • Flow Jitter 0%; Control Pen Pressure; Minimum 0%
Soft Brush - Transfer

Then save your brush by pressing Create New Brush at the bottom right of the Brush dialogue.

Soft Brush - Save

4. Thumbnailing for Composition

Thumbnailing is a great, fast way to work out a composition before you start work. Thumbnails are small squares or rectangles set up to the orientation of your document. In these you can quickly rough out poses and compositions to see which is the best use of space and which piece has the best silhouette.

Step 1

Below I have created nine portrait rectangles and roughed in a "Z" to each, as this is a central item to the piece. Then using rough, simple shapes I have made up some poses based on reference images and imagination. The three I feel are most undead have been circled in red. 

Zombie Pose Thumbnails

Step 2

Next I isolate my favourite three to see which is the strongest. The first reminds me of a bear, and the second is good but not as awkward as the last one. Normally awkward wouldn't be what we're after but seeing as we want a disjointed walking dead dude, this is perfect. 

3 Favourite Thumbnails

Step 3

Chosen Pose
I then copy the third rough with the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and press Control-C to Copy and Control-V to Paste into my print document. Then I scale the artwork to the document size by pressing Control-T. Note the rough sketch is of lesser quality than we would normally work at, but as this is just a rough, it will not be seen in the final document.

5. Bringing the Zombie to LIFE!

Taking my rough pose, I create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), then take a different colour and begin roughing out the human anatomy onto the zombie pose. I start with the skull, using my own reference of a skull and refining the pose using Photodune: scary bloody zombies waiting for a prey as reference.

Rough Out Anatomy
Pose Reference
Then using Photodune: Anatomical Overlays with Internal Organs as reference I make sure the anatomy is approximately right to make our character believable. It can be helpful to block out large shapes for the rib cage and pelvis, and then draw in the details on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N).
Taking my model skull, I arranged it at an angle with the mouth open, and then took a few photos with my phone. I chose the best shot and saved that as reference.
Skull Reference
Taking the skull reference and the face of a female "zombie" I begin work on roughing out my zombie's face. To ensure I am not getting lost in details I like to have a zoomed out window of my artwork open. Window > Arrange > New Window for FILENAME.PSD. This is an identical copy of the document which I keep zoomed out. The benefit of this is that you can work on either document and it will update immediately. Good if you notice a detail you wish to change when zoomed out.
New Window

6. Clean the Rough Sketch

Step 1

Lower the opacity of the rough sketch. I decided the lower jaw wasn't needed, and without it the zombie dude looks creepier.

Clean Line Art Over Rough - Skull

Step 2

Taking the hard brush on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), I begin to clean up the line art, adding little details as I go such as wrinkles, pock marks, spots, dirt, dimples, tears, and holes. Creating details at this stage means less work in the colouring stage and gives the illusion of more structure than there really is. Rather than going with a traditional black I have opted for a dark purple. I have done this as I want the zombie to have some green and red tones, so purple will be a pleasant contrast and make the greens and reds look more vibrant.
Line Art Details

Step 3

I continue all over our zombie until it is complete and I am satisfied with the level of detail.

Clean Zombie Line Art

7. Create a Flat Base

To make life easy we are going to create a solid silhouette for our zombie. We do this so we can Lock Transparency on the layer and colour quickly without going outside our lines. 

Step 1

To do this create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N)

Step 2

Rough in the silhouette in a mid grey using the Hard Brush.

Rough Base

Then take a hard edge eraser to tidy up the edges of the silhouette. You can paint in the silhouette carefully by hand, but I prefer this method.

Clean Base

Step 3

Once you have gone round the whole outline, name the layer Base by double clicking on the layer name in the Layers panel.

Clean Zombie Base Ready To Paint

Step 4

Create a New Document (File>New or Control-N).

Zombie Colour Roughs Document Settings

Step 5

Then go to Image > Image Rotation > 90° CW to make the document landscape. Select the Line Art and Base from our original artwork and drag them into the Landscape A3 Document. Create a guide line under the feet of the zombie by pressing Control-R to bring up the rulers, then using the Move Tool (V) drag a horizontal guide down from the top ruler. 

Step 6

Next I select the Line Art layer and Base by clicking on the Base layer, holding Shift then clicking on the Line Art layer. Then drag both layers down to the New Layer icon (shown below) at the bottom of the layers palette. 

New Layer

This will make a direct copy of both layers and keep them in the same place. Do this once more to create another copy. Next select the Move Tool (V) and select one set of Line Art and Base. Holding Shift press the Left or Right Arrow keys to move the zombie across the document to give three identical illustrations. 
3 Zombie Bases With Line Art For Colour Roughs
For each Base layer select Lock Transparent Pixels in the Layers Panel. Lock Transparent Pixels means that we cannot paint outside the grey pixel silhouette. Think of this as masking off the outside of the zombie with digital tape.
Lock Transparency

Now we are ready to rough in some colours!

8. Colour Roughs

To colour over the silhouettes we will be using Clipping Masks. I use these all the time as a non-destructive way of painting an element. On the layer above the silhouette, create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) then right-click on the New Layer and select Create Clipping Mask. Anything created on this layer will only show on whatever pixels are available on the layer below.

Swatches of Zombie Test Colours

To create Core Shadows on my illustration I will be taking the Local Colour and painting it on a Multiply Layer. For a more realistic approach you can tweak the Local Colour to have a warmer or cooler tone depending on your light source, but for this piece I wanted a cartoon style render. For Highlights and other details I will be colour picking from the MagicPicker Color Wheel and I will cover why I chose these colours.

Step 1

Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) above the first grey zombie and right-click to select Create Clipping Mask.

Step 2

Take your Hard Edge Brush and start applying colours from your first palette over the zombie. You don't have to be neat with this step, it's just to give you an idea of how the colours look together. This will also make it quicker when you go to paint your final design, as any colour guesswork is taken out. Feel free to add in some new colours if you don't feel they work, or if the overall feeling isn't quite working. I have done this in the first one, where I wanted to see what the darks would be like against such an intense skin tone.

Step 3

Repeat the process over the second and third zombie.

Step 4 

Look at the three designs side by side and see which works best. Feel free to do this as many times as you like if the colour scheme just isn't working for you. 

Colour Roughs

Here's what I think of the three schemes:

Colour Choice 1: Teals, greens and blues feature heavily, with accent colours of red and orange. Good creepy feel, but I think it's a bit bland.

Colour Choice 2: Friendlier colours, using purples and pinks with a teal base and an orange accent colour. I like this, but it's maybe a bit too cutesy.

Colour Choice 3: Autumnal colours, mainly reds and oranges to contrast strongly with the mossier green skin. I feel this scheme is the most dramatic and has a discordant, uncomfortable feel, so I will go with this one.

9. Rendering: Sketch Setup

Now it's rendering time! But first we need to create a new layer, and lock our line art layer.

Step 1

Create a layer below the clean line art.

Step 2

Select the line art layer and set the Blend Mode to Multiply. The reason we do this is to make the line art more visible over any artwork we create below. Then Lock the layer by clicking on the padlock icon on the Layers panel.

Cleaning Line Art

10. Creating Flats 

Making flats is one of my favourite things about digital painting. You can be as messy and loose as you like, but it doesn't matter as the edges are kept clean.

Step 1

Colour pick the burgundy of the zombie's shirt by pressing Alt while having the Brush (B) selected.

Step 2

Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) above the zombie silhouette, then right-click on the New Layer and select Create Clipping Mask. 

Step 3

Begin to paint in the shirt. The edges of the body will be clean, but as you can paint anywhere within the silhouette you will have to paint areas such as the collar in neatly. Don't worry, though, as after you've done this groundwork, the applying of "paint" becomes easy and carefree! 

Creating Flats Using Clipping Masks

Step 4

Repeat this process for all the elements such as his underwear, shoes, and socks, and don't forget the little details such as the brain, eyes, and teeth.

Step 5

Although each layer is "clipped" to the silhouette, we need to make sure we can't colour outside our boundaries. So for each element, select the layer and press the Lock Transparency button.

Lock Transparency

Step 6

Turn off the line art layer by clicking on the little eye next to the layer. We do this to see if there are any areas we have missed. Your zombie should look a little like this!

Zombie Flats

11. Local Colour

Local colour, according to Wikipedia, is "the natural color of an object unmodified by adding light and shadow or any other distortion. Local color is best seen on a matte surface, due to it not being reflected, and therefore distorted. In Fine Art Realism, this refers to the color the brain perceives an object to be. For example, an apple is red."

So what does this mean for our zombie? Using palette 3, we make things on him the colour they really are—well, the colour we want them to be, cause we all know that zombies aren't real... right?

  • Green for his undead, rotting skin
  • Red for his ripped shirt, sock accents and y-front banding
  • Orange for his oh-so-cool high-top shoe
  • Dark orange for his BRAAAAIIINNNNNNNNS! and knee bandage
  • Pale grey-green for his socks, underpants, eyes, teeth, and shoe details
Local Colour Flats With Line Art

Tip: It's a great idea to limit your palette and make sure that you repeat colours around your piece to give it a unified look.

12. Shadows and Core Shadows (Dark Areas)

Here are some definitions from Santa Monica College professor Cary Childress:

"Shadows: Shadows are the voidence of light. Shadows do not change color but only lower the value (slightly cooler in color is OK). Shadows should only lower the value 2-3 value steps. (More in higher contrasty light, less in Softer, flatter light.)

"Core Shadow: The Core or Core Shadow is the darkest part of the object. Usually the vertical side away from light source. Same side as shadow."

Step 1

Let's do a first pass on our shadows. Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply in the Layer Blend Modes, set to Clipping Mask above the Skin base, and with the same green as the skin. 

Taking the Hard Brush, start to paint in the areas of shadow. Pay attention to areas such as the eye socket, where there is a sharp change in light. Next, take the Eraser (E) and select the Soft Brush and cut into the dark shadows where there is a gentle change in light, for example in the curve of the skull. Define areas from soft (form shadows) to hard (cast shadows). This usually applies with a strong light source. Using contrasting hard and soft edges will help define the form.

Tip: If you don't feel very confident using this method, then reduce the opacity of the eraser and work into these areas slowly.


Tip 2: Place a model skull or a round object on your desk while you draw, with a similar light source set up, so that you get an idea of how the hard and soft shadows form.

Step 2

Core shadows are the really dark areas where light doesn't get to at all. So to achieve this we will be layering on another shadow layer using the Multiply Layer Blend Mode and the same green, plus a hard brush as before. Areas where little light would reach would be under the cheekbone, inside the nostrils, deep in the eye socket, etc.

Step 3

Carry on over the entire piece using the Clipping Mask and using the Local Colour on a Multiply layer to create shadows and core shadows.

Core Shadows

13. Highlights

Step 1

Continue the process of creating New Layers and Clipping Masks.

Here's a close-up on the highlights of the zombie's face. I have taken a paler green based on the skin tone, and gone in with a Hard Edge Brush (B), then softened some edges using a Soft Edge Brush Eraser (E).

Highlights - Face

Note here that the highlight on orange becomes a higher saturation yellow. It's only a slight change, but rather than adding black, grey or white to change colours, move up the spectrum slightly. For example, to make a red highlight, move slightly towards orange and increase the saturation. The reason we do this is to create more of a pop! 

Shoe Highlights

Step 2

It's also fun to play with the Layer Blend Modes to give different effects. Here I have used a saturated orange on a Soft Light layer to give a subtler highlight.

Soft Light layer

Here are some helpful notes on the difference between shade, tint and tone.

Shade: Any hue with black addedShade

Tint: Any hue with white added (also known as Saturation)Tint

Tone: Any hue with grey addedTone

Here's an example of what I mean. The central hue is the original purple, and to lighten it I have added a pink by sliding the hue slider and changing the Tint slightly. The darks have been created in a similar way by moving the hue towards the blue and changing the Shade slightly. This gives a more pleasing result.

Hue Shift

Photoshop's default Color Picker is similar to MagicPicker, but using MagicPicker you can keep this window open and change colours on the fly. Have a play around with the hue slider using either the Photoshop Color Picker or MagicPicker to create more interesting palettes than simply adding black, white or grey to the mix.


Practice colour choices over the entire piece. Remember to keep your colours unified!


Because zombies have a thing for grey matter (or orange in this case) I thought I would show you the steps for creating shiny brains!

Step 1

Remove your brain from your skull and place it on your desk. Add a light source to see how shiny it is. Try poking it...

Step 2

Once you've replaced your brain select the Brain flat layer.

Brain Local Colour

Step 3

Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply, and make sure it's clipped to the Brain layer.

Create a Mask by holding Control and clicking on the preview window of the flat brain in the Layers panel. Next, click on the icon of a rectangle with a circle in the middle, at the bottom of the Layers panel. This will create a mask of the whole brain shape. Then click on the transparent preview of that layer so that we don't paint on the mask.

Select the brain orange by holding Alt with the Brush selected, and paint in areas away from the light source using the Hard Brush.

Brain Shadows

Step 4

Now let's add core shadows. Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply, and make sure it's clipped to the Brain layer.

Holding Alt, drag the mask from the Shadows layer onto the Core Shadows layer, then click on the transparent layer preview.

Select a purple from the MagicPicker Color Wheel and paint in some Core Shadows for extra brainy pop!

Brain Purple Shadows

Step 5

To add highlights, select the lighter orange from our palette.

Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply, and make sure it's clipped to the Brain layer.

Holding Alt, drag the mask from the Core Shadows layer onto the Highlights layer, and then click on the transparent layer preview.

Paint in highlights that would be in the areas closest to the light source.

Brain Highlights

Step 6

For specular highlights, create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply, and make sure it's clipped to the Brain layer.

Holding Alt, drag the mask from the Highlights layer onto the Specular layer, and then click on the transparent layer preview.

Select a very pale yellow from the ColorPicker, and add in some intense specular highlights to give the brain a wet, glistening look.

Brain Specular Highlights


15. Creating the Z

Before starting the Z, hide all the zombie detail layers by pressing the "eye" icon next to the respective layers.

Step 1

We'll start with a base silhouette. On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), paint in the silhouette of the Z using the Hard Brush.

Z Flats

Step 2

On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), right-click and select Clipping Mask. In the Layer Blend Modes select Multiply and use the same colour as the base to paint in the shadows, being sure to use the same light source as for the rest of the zombie.

Z Shadows

Step 3

Next create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Clipping Mask, and then select a lighter, warmer purple and paint in subtle highlights.

Z Highlights

Step 4

For the ropes I have already created a silhouette in orange. Repeat the New Layer process as before with Clipping Masks by painting in highlights with a yellower orange.

Z Rope Details

Step 5

Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Clipping Mask. Then taking a pale purple, add in some highlights on the nubs of the bones and along the length to create a slight sheen. If you want the bones to be really shiny, add in a tiny, pure white highlight in these highlighted areas. Use pure white very sparingly!

Z Finishing Touches

As the bones are a background feature, we don't want to distract from the detail of the zombie, so keep it simple.

16. Finishing Touches

Before we start, turn all your layers back on by pressing Alt while clicking on a hidden layer.

Step 1

Fill a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) with a desaturated teal.

Blue Background

Step 2 

Now it's time to add some creepy darkness! Add a Gradient (Alt-G) of the burgundy red on a layer above, set to Hard Light in the Layer Blending Modes.

Red Gradient Set To Hard Light

Step 3

Select the Ellipse Tool (Alt-U), and while holding Shift to constrain scaling, draw out several circles for celestial objects filled with a near, but not quite, white.

Add Circles For Stars

Step 4

Duplicate the stars layer by dragging it down to the New Layer icon on the Layers panel, Right-click on the lower layer and select Rasterize, then Filter > Gaussian Blur, and set the blur to give the appearance of a glow.

Duplicate Star Layer  Gaussian Blur

Step 5

On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply in the Layer Blending Modes below all the zombie and letter artwork, paint in some grounding shadows under the feet of the zombie and the base of the Z using the Hard Brush.

Step 6

Change the border to white.


Add Shadows On Multiply Layer

I hope you enjoyed creating a zombie from scratch, I certainly did! With simple steps like clipping masks, you'll be creating an army of the undead in no time.

Looking forward to seeing you next time for some more illustration tutorials!

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