Have you found your excuse to paint gore today? Well here it is! With Halloween just around the corner it's exquisitely tempting to find a balance between horror, gore, and beauty. And in this tutorial, I demonstrate the evolution of a digital painting from start to finish by creating a hauntingly beautiful Egyptian goddess. My tools of choice are Adobe Photoshop CS3 and an off-brand pen tablet I purchased on eBay. My process involves a whole lot of experimentation, a little bit of hope, and a handful of adjustment layers. Learn the techniques to bring out the best in your next piece!
The following asset was used during the production of this tutorial.
1. Prepare the Canvas
Let's begin! Many start with a resolution of 300 dpi but since I want this sketch done as quickly as possible, I'll begin with 72. In the long run, this step bypasses the initial lag I sometimes experience when preparing a new painting.
Next, the canvas and de-saturated reference are placed side by side so that it's much easier to look over and draw my subject. Realize the full potential of your references! By simply duplicating and flipping the image, I am able to utilize her hand in the position I prefer.
Though the background layer is set to the traditional white, I'll be using a gray, round brush with a hard edge to illustrate my sketch.
2. Prepare the Sketch
Not quite beautiful yet, but getting there. It's important to recognize the imperfection here. I focus on the general position of all the elements before moving onto likeness.
Changing the color from gray to black, I outline the major details using my initial sketch as a guideline. A bit of gray peeking underneath helps train my eyes to notice depth, and surrounding the subject with a darker background furthers this trick.
With the sketch finished, I can finally set the resolution to 300 dpi for the remainder of this piece.
3. The Initial Grayscale
Simply put, painting in grayscale is a lifesaver! By focusing on the tonality of a piece first, color doesn't become a distraction. Keep in mind, however, that color will be an important element of the piece later on. But for now, the combination of a great chalky brush and gray values sets me on a clear path.
Chalky brushes remind me of traditional art. I like to start with them because they allow me to build the kind of texture I can't normally achieve with smooth, round brushes.
New adjustment layers are great for adjusting the entire piece, especially when you're working with more than one layer. I could spend a huge amount of time painting darker tones to deepen my subject, but in this case I'll just cheat by using Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. With the RGB Channel selected, I pull down to give my subject the darker feel I originally intended.
See, now the painting pops out and she's slowly coming alive! After the Curves adjustment I grab the chalky brush again to give the goddess definition.
4. Smoothing Out the Texture
Blending with textured brushes isn't really ideal, especially with female subjects. This is about the time when I would grab a soft, round brush to smooth out all the tones applied. A brush with a lower opacity (usually 1–50%) is great for blending, while a heavier brush tends to overwhelm the underlying tonal work.
5. Defining Facial Features
Although her skin is smoother, Cleopatra's face is now sadly flat. So it's time for surgery! I decided to paint in stronger cheek bones to emphasize the light and shadows, and filled out her lips.
The painting starts to pull away from my reference's likeness over time. When new lighting conditions and features are introduced into the equation, you must change gears in your approach. Only then will you find balance in making these new elements work.
Now I can't forget the blood! On a new layer I paint several long strokes that drip down the neck. I set this layer to Multiply to give it a filmy, opaque texture. This layer will be hidden until I need to transition into color.
Cleopatra's mega lashes have got to be my absolute favorite detail! Quick tip: paint one set of lashes first. Make sure to use a hard, round brush set to Pen Pressure. Duplicate the layer, flip it (Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal), and adjust it for the other side! Feel free to use this quick trick whenever you need two perfect copies of one detail. Voilà, now she's a true goddess!
6. Refine the Structure
When you've been painting for a long time, sometimes it's hard to recognize problems. Step away from your art and come back to it with fresh eyes. Here I noticed the face was too wide and didn't complement the features well, especially the eyes.
To correct this, first I merge all the layers together. Using the Marquee Tool (M), I select around the face, and choose Filter > Liquify. The Forward Warp Tool (W) is great for pinching in the temples and cheeks, as well as straightening the nose and jawline.
Cleopatra is looking pretty confined to the tight walls of this canvas size, so I go to Image > Canvas Size and add an inch to the width and height, making it now 11 by 13 inches. I create a new background layer by filling it with a Gradient of transitioning gray tones.
7. Add Character Through Detail
Details are what sell the story! Though I want Cleopatra to be beautiful, she's still pretty dead. The way I see the story unravel, I suspect that when she died, Cleopatra's body embarked on the traditional Egyptian mummification process. But lo and behold! She awakened from her sleep with a thirst she couldn't quite quench!
Okay, enough storytelling! My point is, throw in details that add to the richness of your story. In this case, I added more fabric bands to her arms and neck to sell the mummy look without taking away from her beauty.
8. Clean Up the Grayscale
Through loads of trial and error, I've learned that I can save myself the headache of poor quality by cleaning up the grayscale. This forces me to commit to a solid composition before moving onto color. Using a variation of textured and smooth brushes, I continue to tweak the painting to give her more life, more detail. I also introduce a circular element behind her because strong geometric shapes are so very important to Egyptian themes.
Using the Color Dodge blending mode, I lift out some of those darker tones in the hair by adding a soft film of white. Now I can really see the hair I painted, as well as continue to improve upon its shape.
9. Transition to Color
Finally, it's time for color! Transitioning from grayscale to color takes a lot of experimentation. And unfortunately, color mode doesn't always cut it.
Here I take five separate layers of different Blend Modes to apply the initial color to this painting. I start with a layer of brown set to Color, a layer of green set to Pin Light, a dusting of blue set to Color, and a purple filled layer set to Color. I finish this initial trial run with an Overlay of red for the best part—the blood. Although it might seem like a wacky way to apply color, I take these steps in order to save the integrity of my tonal work.
10. Correct With Layer Adjustments
I have a pretty intense love for Adjustment Layers—they always save the day. A new layer of Color Balance added balance and contrast by favoring highlights of green, while a layer for Curves brought back some of the blue I lost. The experimentation doesn't stop here. Adjustment layers simply put me one step closer to landing the color scheme I desire.
11. Add Brightness With Layer Modes
This painting is meant to be scary and dark, but not this dark. It's time to bring out the Blend Modes again! I use a warm orange color set to Vivid Light to burst out some brightness towards her head and neck. And to color the jewelry, I apply a layer of yellow set to Color Burn. Since I've lost her hair amidst the darkness again, I Overlay a dusting of pink which creates a nice golden hue.
12. De-Saturate Overbearing Colors
I never meant to keep Cleopatra with bright orange hair. But when you apply color, you not only change the hue but also the tone. To dial back the unwanted colors but keep the lifted tone, I use a layer of white set to Color to de-saturate across the board. But I don't want to lose all of the color of course! With the Eraser Brush (E) selected, I erase the middle to show a peak of the beautiful greens, golds, and reds created from previous adjustments.
Whenever I see the painting getting too dark, I whip out an Adjustment Layer. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels is one of the easiest fixes for super-dark compositions. As I draw closer to committing to a bluer color scheme, Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance comes in handy to make these changes quickly.
13. Commit to a Color Scheme
It's official, I want Cleopatra to be mostly blue. And that ghostly skin tone will prove to be a beautiful contrast against her golden jewelry. Oddly enough, I achieved this bluer value by setting a fill of dark brown to Difference, dialing the Opacity back to 75%.
Time for the border! Stretching the canvas gave me more space, but I want to keep this space minimal. For the mid to lower half of the border, I dust a beautiful yellow color and set it to Color Dodge. This creates a nice complementary effect that doesn't take away from my subject.
14. Clean Up the Details in Color
Time for clean up! This stage is crucial to sharpening details. I use a Standard Round Brush (B) with a heavier opacity (50–100%) to refine the overall painting. It's important to make sure the edges are clean and crisp, so this is when I really begin zooming in and defining everything. I paid close attention to the light and shadows, and further highlighted the face and surrounding areas like the hands and jewelry.
Blood just screams gore! I studied the characteristics of anything liquid, from blood to water. My studies conclude that blood is darker when it's thick, and easier to see through as it thins out. I added these characteristics as the blood trickles down her neck, changing the consistency as it travels from skin, to cloth, to metal. Blending in skin colors also helps to illustrate its translucent quality, while bright white spots create beautiful, glossy shine.
15. Color Correct and Define the Crown
I want to make sure the entire color scheme makes sense, and right now the crown feels out of place. I never stop color correcting with Blend Modes, and here is where I lightly paint in some orange and set it to Pin Light. Now the color looks more authentic to gold jewelry.
Using the chalky brush from the beginning, I added texture to the crown with bits of shine so that it reads better as metal. I also decided on a beautiful red jewel to match the blood.
16. Add Texture to the Skin
Cleopatra's skin is looking pretty silky, so I want to distress it by adding veins. First I draw squiggly strokes of veins all over the skin, including the hands. Then I take a low opacity Eraser Brush (E) and gradually erase for a better transition across the skin. Remember the warrior paint from the sketch? I definitely didn't want to forget the mood it created, so I added in this detail as well.
17. One Last Color Balance Adjustment
I couldn't help myself! I focused this last Color Balance layer on punching out the red and blue tones.
18. Finishing the Details
Grabbing a hard, round brush again, I get back to sharpening the remaining details of the painting. I mostly focus on the hair and face, but quickly transition to a chalky brush.
I blend the top portion of the background with more texture, while the bottom portion is still a border. I think this gives a unique effect to the painting.
Cleopatra Is Complete!
Cleopatra is known for her seductive prowess and now her unquenchable thirst for blood!
I hope you enjoyed and had fun with this tutorial! It's important to take away that experimentation is incredibly influential on the digital art process. Don't limit yourself to rules or guidelines. Photoshop is packed with tools and settings that can bring out the best qualities in your work. Good luck, and stay hungry (just not for blood)!