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  2. Digital Painting

How to Create a Photorealistic Digital Painting in SketchBook Pro

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Photorealistic paintings are impressive, but they're also very valuable for artists for one special reason: by painting one, you learn what reality looks like, so that you can later paint unreal things—people, creatures, and places that don't exist—as if they were real. 

In this tutorial, I will show you how to create such a study in SketchBook Pro, and how to learn from it in the process.

What You Will Need

We need a high-quality photo reference for this study. It must be big enough to see all the details. I'm going to use Various Fresh Fruit from Envato Elements—fruit is a perfect subject for study, because it has a variety of colors, materials, and textures. However, feel free to use any other reference you find fitting—the instructions will be universal. You can also limit the whole scene to one or two pieces of fruit, to make it all easier.

Of course, you'll need SketchBook Pro as well. I'll be using the desktop version with brushes from various free brush sets (Basic, Texture, Fur Brushes, Textured Watercolors). You may already have most of them, but to make the whole process more convenient, I've collected them in a set that you can download and pin to the palette. Find the attachment on the right.

The method I will be using is based on 3D modeling. Each light effect is painted separately in the form of a "map". All the maps affect each other, adding to the final look of the object. The maps I'll be using are shape, ambient occlusion, color, shadow, and shine. This isn't the most efficient way of painting from a reference, but it really helps understand how the image is created, so you can get full control over it—which is especially useful for painting from imagination.

how to paint in sketchbook pro

I will assume you know your way around the interface of SketchBook Pro. If not, read this quick tutorial first: The Beginner's Guide to SketchBook Pro.

1. How to Start a Painting

Step 1

First, we need some kind of line art. Open your reference in SketchBook Pro, lower its Opacity a little, and create a new layer. Use the Pencil or the Inking Pen to draw the lines.

Normally, tracing isn't a proper way to create art, but today we're studying painting, not drawing. It would be a waste of time to copy all the lines when all we want to learn is coloring and shading. And tracing gives us a clean piece of line art, without any mistakes that could lead to confusion in the later steps.

basic line art
I ignored some objects to limit the number of surfaces to paint.

Step 2

There are a lot of objects in our scene, and each of them will have to be colored and shaded separately. You can do it in two ways: paint slowly, trying to stay away from the edges of other objects, or use Clipping Masks—containing the strokes in a previously defined area.

SketchBook Pro doesn't have real Clipping Masks, but it offers a workaround that we're going to use today. First we need to define the "masks"—the shapes of the objects. Each shape should be painted on a separate layer. Take the Inking Pen and draw the outline of one of the objects.

clipping mask outline
The color doesn't really matter here.

Step 3

Fill the outline using the Flood Fill tool.

full clipping mask

Step 4

To make the rest of the process easier, the masks should only contain the visible part of the object. You can remove the concealed parts by selecting the object in the front with the Magic Wand tool...

cut clipping mask

... and pressing Backspace to cut the selection from the object in the back.

clean clipping mask

Step 5

You can paint multiple shapes on the same layer, but only if they don't touch each other.

multiple shapes clipping mask

Step 6

After you've painted all the masks, you may notice there are so many of them that it would be hard to find the one you want to edit. And we'll be copying them, too! To avoid a total mess, let's combine some masks into one layer—select the layers with shapes that don't touch each other, and select Merge Layers in the Layer Menu.

merge clipping masks
how to create clipping mask in sketchbook
All these masks can be safely placed on one layer.

Step 7

There are two more things we can do to keep order in our file. First, number each layer.

rename the layers

Step 8

Second, select all the layers and Group them.

group the layers

Step 9

Finally, to turn the painted shapes into functional masks, lock their pixels.

lock layer pixels

2. How to Paint Ambient Occlusion Shadows

Step 1

Duplicate the group (select Duplicate in the Layer Menu). Take the Inking Pen and fill all the masks in the copied group with 50% bright grey.

Duplicate the group once again. Name the copy grey masks, and the original ao. Hide the grey masks group.

create grey masks

Step 2

Change the background color to 50% bright grey as well.

change background color
image ready for ao

Step 3

Time to start painting! Ambient occlusion is a name for the little shadows that stay dark no matter where you put the light. They're perfect for defining the form before you decide the actual lighting—they take the function of the line art while contributing to the final painting as well.

Ambient occlusion is very easy to paint. First, use the Inking Pen to paint the area that would get the most light, regardless of the position of the light source. You can imagine the light being everywhere.

ambient occlusion shape

Step 4

Now simply blend the light and shadow with a blending brush. My favorite is Bristle Blender—it creates a nice subtle texture.

blending ambient occlusion

Keep blending until there's only a hint of shadow left. That's all we need!

full ambient occlusion

Step 5

Use this method to paint all the other objects:

melon ambient occlusion
shaded melon

If you have problems with seeing the individual grapes, you can hide the layers to reveal the colorful masks beneath.

how to shade individual grapes
grapes with ambient occlusion
banana in ambient occlusion
full banana
kiwi in ambient occlusion
shaded kiwi
orange in ambient occlusion
shaded orange
pomegranate in ambient occlusion
shaded pomegranate
both bananas in ao
shaded bananas
details in ambient occlusion

Every object should get the same treatment—even the ground.

ground in ambient occlusion
shaded ground

Step 6

When you hide the lines, you should already see the form of the objects pretty nicely, but we're not done yet. A good ambient occlusion map consists mostly of white, with a subtle hint of grey between the objects.

full ambient occlusion layer

To finish this map, focus on the details first: draw the tiny shadows in the small elements.

details of ambient occlusion
detailed ao

Step 7

Don't forget about the details of the "ground".

detailed ground

Step 8

Ambient occlusion is the darkest when two objects touch each other ("contact shadows"). Create these strong but small shadows under each piece of fruit touching the wood.

contact shadows ambient occlusion
contact shadow digital painting

Step 9

Finish every object by making them mostly white, with some shadow only where the objects are close to each other. The closer, the darker the shadow.

full ambient occlusion map

Step 10

But ambient occlusion isn't really supposed to be white. White simply means light, and grey means shadow. To make it work that way, change the Blend Mode of the ao group to Multiply.

blend mode multiply
ambient occlusion applied

3. How to Color a Digital Painting

Step 1

Let's add some realistic colors to the scene! Go back to the original group and color all the fruit in a more natural way. Imagine the scene is perfectly illuminated, and that every piece of fruit is as bright as it can be, while being 100% matte and uniformly colored.

This is a valuable exercise, because it's impossible to paint a whole surface at once. You need to do it step by step, starting from something incomplete. This process teaches you how to separate the local color from patterns and lighting effects.

basic colors

Step 2

But most of the objects in our scene have more than one color. They even have patterns! Let's add these details now.

Paint the bright green bands on the watermelon. Make sure they follow the 3D form of its surface. Use a textured brush, for example Brush 3.

basic watermelon pattern

Step 3

Make the bands ragged.

detailed watermelon pattern

Step 4

Paint with the Scratches brush to make the pattern more uneven.

draw watermelon pattern

Step 5

Use the Dotted_2 brush to sprinkle the watermelon with dark dots.

how to paint watermelon

Step 6

Use a textured brush to paint a detailed pattern between the bright bands.

details of watermelon

Step 7

Accentuate the bright bands with green-yellow.

full watermelon surface

Step 8

Perfection is unrealistic! Paint some scratches on the surface.

watermeloin imperfections

Step 9

Use the Charcoal brush to make the surface of the pomegranate less uniform.

pomegranate surface texture

Step 10

You can successfully recreate its pattern with the Short Fur brush.

pomegranate pattern

Step 11

Use a textured brush to manually finish the pattern.

pomegranate pattern details

Step 12

Don't forget about imperfections, too!

pomegranate surface imperfections

Step 13

Finish the calyx.

calyx colors

Step 14

Use a textured brush to add a subtle pattern to each grape. The pattern should follow their 3D form.

grapes pattern

Step 15

Add more detail to the grapes, for example by painting with the Short Wirey Fur brush.

grapes details

Step 16

Use a textured brush to finish the sprig.

grape sprig colors

Step 17

The dark tips of the bananas should look as if they are merged with the rest of the fruit.

banana tip colors

Step 18

Don't forget about adding some detail to this part.

banan detail color

Step 19

Bananas are generally uniformly colored, but you can sprinkle them with some shades of yellow. They will also look great with some bruises and spots.

banana surface imprefections

Step 20

Use the Charcoal brush to make the surface of the melon less uniform.

melon surface

Step 21

Finish its stalk as well.

melon stalk

Step 22

The kiwi doesn't need much work—just paint it with the Charcoal brush.

kiwi surface color

Step 23

Finally, take a closer look at the wood. It's just the ground, but it's still a part of the scene and it can easily break the illusion if we're not careful. You can make it more textured with the Short Fur brush...

how to paint wood

... and Brush 5.

create wood texture

4. How to Shade a Digital Painting

Step 1

For now, our scene is perfectly illuminated, with all the colors at their full brightness. It's not something we're used to, so it looks unnatural. Let's add some shadows to add more depth to the objects.

Duplicate the grey masks group and make it visible. Change its Blend Mode to Multiply. This will flood our scene with shadow.

shade the scene

Step 2

We can now simply reveal the light by painting with white. Do it just like you did with ambient occlusion before—first sketch the light area sharply...

reveal light

... and then blend it.

blend light
revea light on melon
blend light on melon
reveal light on banana
blend light on banana
full blended bananas
reveal light on orange
blend light on orange
reveal light on pomegranate
blend light on pomegranate
reveal light on kiwi
blend light on kiwi
reveal light on grapes

Step 3

Pay special attention to the ground—every object should cast a shadow in the proper direction and shape.

add shadows on the ground

Step 4

These shadows still look kind of unnatural—they're too uniform. Use darker greys to create a difference between the darker and less dark shadows.

add darker shadows

Step 5

Don't forget about the small shadows cast by objects—they're very important!

add cast shadows

Step 6

Shadows reveal the thick textures as well. Make the surface of the melon less smooth by painting grooves filled with shadow.

make surface less unfiorm
paint melon surface

Step 7

The orange needs a similar treatment—sprinkle it with dots to simulate the uneven surface.

paint orange surface

Step 8

Make sure the shadows in the whole scene point to the same light source.

shade digital painting

5. How to Paint Shiny Surfaces

Step 1

Our scene looks pretty nice, but there's still something amiss. It looks quite like an underwater scene, doesn't it? It's because there's no shine in there. Shine is very important, because it adds more information about the form of the object, even if it's not glossy at all. It also reveals the subtle textures that are too shallow to cast shadows.

We're going to add the shine on another map. Duplicate the grey masks group and make it visible. Select one of its layers and go to Image > Adjust > Brightness/Contrast. Drag the Brightness all the way down to turn the layer black. Do the same with all the layers.

change brightness to black

Step 2

Change the Blend Mode of the group to Screen. In this mode, every shade brighter than black brightens the colors below. The darker the shade, the more transparent it is.

change blend mode to screen

Step 3

Paint a stroke of bright grey on the watermelon with the Inking Pen. You should be able to see the pattern below.

add sharp shine

Step 4

Blend the stroke. Only super glossy surfaces have sharp highlights; the more matte the surface, the more you should blend.

blend the shine

Step 5

You can also use this layer to add reflected light. Simply pick the color of the near object and paint with it to create the reflection. The Screen mode will take of the proper opacity—the brighter the reflected color, the more visible it will be.

add sharp reflected light
blend reflected light

Step 6

Even mostly matte objects, like bananas, will have some shine to them.

add shine to bananas
blend banana shine
add reflected light to bananas

Step 7

The pomegranate doesn't have a smooth surface, but it still has some shine. You can use a fur brush to simulate shine disturbed by the subtle texture.

add shine to pomegranate
blend shine of pomegranate
add reflected light to pomegranate

Step 8

Even the dark calyx has some shine to it, revealing its texture.

add shine to pomegranate calyx

Step 9

The grapes are unique in this scene, because they have a special thin, waxy layer on them, which reflects light in a different way than the rest of the fruit. Paint this thin layer first using the Camo brush.

add waxy texture to grapes

Step 10

Only then you can add the normal shine. To keep the waxy texture intact, paint the shine with the Airbrush.

add shine to grapes

Step 11

Don't forget about the sprig!

add shine to grape sprig

Step 12

Finish the melon as well.

add shine to melon
add shine to melon stig

Step 13

Surprisingly, even the fuzzy kiwi has some shine under the "fur".

add shine to kiwi
blend shine of kiwi

Step 14

The orange, with its prominent texture, will require some more work. First, add the shine to it as you would to every other fruit, just with a more chaotic brush, like Charcoal.

add texture to orange
add shine to orange

Step 15

Use the Short Wirey Fur brush with black to simulate a texture on the sides of the sphere.

how to paint an orange

Step 16

Paint with the Short Sparse Fur brush to create a texture in the rounder area.

how to create orange texture

Paint the texture with bright and dark greys to simulate the grooves.

how to finish the orange

Step 17

All done!

how to add shine digital painting

6. How to Finish the Digital Painting

Step 1

The painting is almost finished; we just need to make a few final adjustments. Create a new layer and fill it with 50% bright grey. Change the mode to Overlay.

change blend mode to overlay

Step 2

Use a red-orange Airbrush to paint over the grapes that get the most light. Because grapes are translucent, the light coming through them brightens them from the inside. This phenomenon is called subsurface scattering, and it's responsible for brightening/warming the shadows of materials that are not fully opaque, like human skin.

add subsurface scattering to grapes

Step 3

You can use this trick to liven up the surfaces of other fruit as well, to a certain extent.

add subsurface scattering to fruit

Step 4

Let's not forget about the kiwi! Create a new layer and paint some fur on it. It doesn't need to look perfect.

add hair to kiwi

Step 5

Lock the pixels of this layer and paint on it with various shades of brown picked from the kiwi.

color kiwi fur
how to paint kiwi

Step 6

Take a closer look at the wood. Can you improve it in any way? Feel free to go back to any of the previous maps to add some changes.

finish the wood tetxure

Step 7

To make the wood brighter without adding shine to it, we can use a special trick. Create a new layer and fill it with black. Change its mode to Glow.

change blend mode to glow

Step 8

Glow brightens the bright parts and ignores the black parts. This makes it perfect for adding a brightening texture without a risk of disturbing the shadows.

brighten the wood
how to paint wood texture

Step 9

Select all the layers and merge them (select Merge Layers in the Layer Menu). We're going to fix them all at once now. Take a closer look at the edges of the fruit. Are they smooth? Fix any problems you find.

clean the edges

Step 10

Take the Blur tool and try it on the edge of the melon. We want to make the edge blurred, but not too much. Experiment with the Strength for a while to pick the right amount.

pick the right blur

Step 11

Blur the edges of the objects, using more blur for the ones in the background and less for the ones in the foreground.

blur the edges
finish the painting

Good Job!

I hope you've learned a lot while painting this study! If you want to dive deeper into the theory behind all of this, I recommend these articles:

how to paint photo realistic sketchbook pro
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