Whenever I think of some of my favorite Disney films, The Little Mermaid always comes to mind. In today's tutorial we'll go through the step-by-step process behind this underwater digital painting inspired by my favorite mermaid, Ariel. Cue theme music!
1. Start With a Rough Sketch
Although I was inspired by The Little Mermaid movie for this piece, I didn't reference it too much for the actual mermaid (I did, however, for Flounder her friend and sidekick).
Instead, I gathered a lot of general references online to get a better understanding of "mermaid anatomy". Coming from a mixed cultural background myself, my initial idea was to create a more culturally ambiguous Ariel. Her accessory, of course, being large, curly red hair.
Once I landed on my idea, I roughly sketched it in Photoshop using a Standard Round Brush on an 8 x 10 inch document at 300 dpi.
Now I will say this: rough sketches are great for establishing your initial idea, but I've learned recently that the more concrete your sketch is, the easier it will be to navigate the general painting process.
2. Create a Grayscale Base
I still find light and shadow pretty intimidating, so to counter my intimidation I tend to start off with a grayscale base to establish the overall lighting scheme. To do this, I create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) and use a Hard Round Brush to paint a light gray color for my mermaid.
After creating this base, I lock the layer and create two more duplicates of the same layer, setting them both to Multiply. Using the first duplicate only, I create a beautiful dark to light gradient effect with the Gradient Tool (G).
Then I move on to the second duplicate to paint in some more tones with a Soft Round Brush. This time I focus on establishing the shadows for the overall body, especially how they will hit the face, stomach, and tail.
3. Apply the First Round of Color
Taking a painting from black and white tones to vibrant, beautiful colors will take several rounds of color application through Layer Blend Modes and Adjustment Layers. On a new layer set to Multiply, I paint in a few natural colors for the skin, hair, and mermaid tail.
Next, I set layers to Overlay and Vivid Light, using intense warm colors to brighten up the painting a bit. This is also when I use a Hard Round Brush to start carving out details for the face and body.
I continue this process slowly, focusing especially on applying color above the sketch layer so that the painting gradually lifts off the canvas for a lovely 3D effect.
I always find a way to use Adjustment Layers for my digital paintings. Set a New Adjustment Layer for Color Balance, and adjust the colors to emphasize the Blue and Red Midtones in your piece. Although this is a generalized interpretation of The Little Mermaid, it's important to relate certain colors to the story in order to show its relationship to the original.
4. Rework Certain Details to Fit the Scene Better
It was around this time that I knew I had to start reworking details that weren't quite conveying the underwater scene the way I had hoped. First up, I used the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to create a tighter scene by selecting a smaller area and then going to Image > Crop to crop it.
Initially, I thought a gorgeous curly fro was the perfect hairstyle for my mermaid. But upon looking at dozens of underwater references, I realized that there was no way that fro could possibly stay intact. Instead, I opted to paint flowing strands of curly hair that could move more effortlessly under normal conditions.
Remember when I said it was better to start off with a clean sketch? These were just the first of many interpretations of Ariel's hands I decided to redraw. One of the many benefits to working in Photoshop is that you can repaint details over and over again without having to lose the rest of your work. Even if the hands aren't perfect, take this time to quickly draw in suitable placeholders.
5. Continue Tweaking the Colors
Just like in our previous steps, I used a combination of Layer Blend Modes plus New Adjustment Layers to continue tweaking the colors of the painting. First I applied soft red colors set to Soft Light, and then I filled a new layer with a bright green color set to Lighten.
Next I use an Adjustment Layer of Color Balance to bring back bluer hues to the overall color scheme.
I then follow up with a layer of Exposure for instant contrast and intensity.
As you continue to define areas of your painting, experiment with blend modes for beautiful color effects. In this case I used a layer set to Overlay to begin painting beautiful warm colors to further intensify the lighting scenario.
6. Fix the Hands, Clothing, and Face
Now to tackle those long-awaited errors! You can only escape your mistakes for so long, so try to be diligent in forcing yourself to address these errors to improve your overall technique. For the hands I settled on relaxed poses that didn't need to be too well defined. I used a Hard Round Brush with the Opacity set to 50–100% to finish up these details.
Ariel is well known for her simple clam bra top, but since I couldn't get the clam to work out I decided on a flowy peasant top instead. For that extra sparkle, I added bright white dots to mimic the look of sequin fabric or rhinestones.
You can easily rectify any issues in your portraits by simply studying makeup tutorials on YouTube. Learn about contouring and different makeup techniques to apply to your digital paintings for a beautiful, sultry look.
7. Finishing Details
We're almost at the finish line! To finish up this painting I concentrated on punching out any last bit of intensity by using a Hard Round Brush at High Opacity (50–100%). This opacity will also ensure that the colors come across well on different screens and devices.
In these last steps, I cleaned up the hair, paying special attention to how the strands flowed together.
I then painted clusters of bubbles around Ariel and Flounder to help showcase the flowing movement in my underwater scene.
And We're Done!
I hope you've enjoyed following along this tutorial inspired by The Little Mermaid! Creating your own version of your favorite childhood movies can not only be a lot of fun, but is also a great way to build your portfolio and improve your overall technique. Have fun reliving this incredible Disney magic, and feel free to post your own interpretations below. Good luck!
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