Last time we were designing and sketching a zombie dragon. Today we're going to make it more real by creating a digital painting in Adobe Photoshop. I'll show you a clean, non-destructive way of painting digitally—we'll be using Layer Masks and maps known from 3D modeling. I'll explain to you how ambient occlusion works and how to add color and lighting to it with proper Blending Modes. We're going to create a complete piece of concept art with three very simple brushes you'll make yourself. Follow me!
1. Prepare the Workspace
We need to prepare the sketch we created before. If your line art has been drawn traditionally, scan it or take a good photo of it.
Create a New File (Control-N) and choose dimensions that will let you work comfortably. The bigger, the better, but don't go overboard! If you're not sure about how big you can go, try 5000 px x 5000 px, choose a complicated brush, and paint a big stroke quickly. If it doesn't lag, you're free to go.
Paste your line art to the file and, if necessary, scale it with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T).
Name the layer with the sketch
lineart. Change its Blending Mode to Multiply so that only its lines are visible.
2. Create the Resources
Now we need to prepare the tools we'll be working with.
It's good to prepare the color scheme before the actual painting. This way we'll avoid unpleasant surprises. Our zombie dragon will be made of bones, muscles, ligaments and skin, and we know what colors these things have. We only need to extract dominant shades out of them and put them in our color scheme.
First, let's find images that depict the topic in the ideal way. You can use Google Image Search for it. What do we need to find?
- Muscles—you'll find the best results under
muscles autopsy, but it's not recommended for sensitive people. Instead, you can try something more indirect, like
raw steak, or some other kind of meat you can safely look at, or even a frame from some low-budget horror movie that's more funny than scary. If you're lucky, you should get some bluish tint of veins.
animal bonesto clarify.
- Skin—depending on what effect you need, you may type various keywords. In my vision
bat skinwill work the best.
Choose the best images and paste them to a new file. Create a mix of them without leaving any white spaces. When you're done, Save for Web (Control-Shift-Alt-S).
Use Color Thief or any similar site to extract the color scheme out of the image. In my case, one scheme is all I need, but you can create separate schemes for muscles/bones/skin. Paste the screenshot to the main file and name the layer
color scheme. Lock image pixels to avoid mistakes—this way you'll be able to move the color scheme around without a risk of modifying it. You can also create a Swatches preset out of it, if you like this method more.
Every artist needs a brush! Let's create three very basic ones.
The first one we need is a classic round brush with Opacity Transfer. You probably have one in your palette—if you don't, find the most similar one and adjust the settings as shown below.
You can save the brush in the normal way (the "white card" icon under the settings), or create a tool preset. The other way is especially convenient when you've got a lot of brushes in the palette and want to use just a few of them for this particular painting, or when you want to use brushes from separate palettes quickly.
Open the Tool Presets window and click the card icon. Name it
Transfer Brush and save without color.
The next brush will be hard, used for painting flat colors and clean shapes. Its settings should be similar to these, so you can take any round brush and modify it. Afterwards, save it as a new Brush or a new Brush Preset. In the other case, name it
Take the Transfer Brush and modify it to make it soft. Name it
We've got all we need to start painting!
3. Create a Clipping Mask
First we need to define the general shape, cutting the object out of the environment. In Photoshop it can be done easily with a Clipping Mask.
Lower the Opacity of the lineart layer to make it more subtle. Create a New Layer above it and name it
Mask. Select Hard Brush and draw the outline of the dragon, paying special attention to inside shapes too. Take your time, and do it carefully—this is an important step!
Use the Magic Wand Tool (W) in Add to Selection mode to select all the areas outside the dragon. Invert the selection with Control-Shift-I.
Create a new layer and fill the selection using the Paint Bucket Tool (G). Then merge it with Mask by selecting them both and clicking Control-E.
To attach any layer to our Clipping Mask you just need to place it right above the Mask layer (or any clipped layer) and hit Control-Alt-G. Nothing on that layer will cross the border of Mask.
4. Ambient Occlusion
For this illustration we're going to use Layer Maps.
This method has been very popular recently, but I'd like to mention one
important thing. It's not an ultimate, best‑of-the-best technique. It
works very well when you've got clean line art and a good plan for
every aspect of the picture. It's not recommended for illustrations
created "on the fly", when you're not sure what you're painting and
what colors you want to use.
We're going to define the areas that can't be reached easily by light. Keep in mind that what we'll paint doesn't exist separately in reality. It's a map—a concept from 3D modeling, where the influence of light is divided into separate layers. In painting, an AO (ambient occlusion) map makes 3D line art—something that defines the edges clearly, but at the same time doesn't need to be removed at any point.
The technique I'm going to show you is lazy, fast, and perfect for detailed works, but I'm sure once you understand what the goal is, you'll be able to develop your own technique for painting ambient occlusion.
Let's clip the lineart layer and add another layer between it and the Mask. Name this layer
bg and fill it with white.
Add a new layer above lineart. Name it
AO1. Fill it with black, then lower the Opacity to
Add a Layer Mask to AO1.
Select the Layer Mask and use the Soft Brush to fill the spaces between the lines of line art with white (painting with black—black reveals what's under the layer, white covers it). Don't cross the lines, and don't blend the separate areas!
Select AO1 and Duplicate (Control-J) it. Hide AO1 and name the copy
AO2. Select its Layer Mask and paint the contours with the Transfer Brush, this time using dark gray. If the areas are overlapping, paint only the contours of the one that's closer to you.
(If you're getting lost with all these layers, download the attached file and use it as a reference.)
Duplicate the layer once again, hide it, and name the new one
AO3. Now we're going to use a trick that depends on your version of Photoshop.
CS5 or Higher
Select the Mixer Brush Tool from the Brush menu and simply blend it all, leaving the contours alone. Gosh, I love this tool!
CS4 or Lower
You can try to use the Blur Tool here, but most likely it won't get you proper results. To retain control over it, use the Soft Brush and blend the areas manually, picking colors with the Eyedropper Tool (I). The goal is to hide the strokes.
Create a New Layer above AO3, fill it with white, and name it
AO4. Lower the Opacity to
50%. Add the Layer Mask and reveal the contours subtly with the Transfer Brush.
We're done! You can play with AO4's Opacity to get the result you want, but remember—this isn't really shading! We don't need dark shadows here. Turn off the lineart layer to see our AO map in all its glory.
5. Flat Colors
Time to start painting for real. If creating the AO map bored you, here's some good news—now you'll be able to paint freely without any risk of losing details. Now we're going to simply put another map on top of it.
Create a New Layer, and name it
Flat Colors. Set its Blending Mode to Multiply—this way the layers below will be darkened by the colors, but not covered with them. Use the Hard Brush and colors from our color scheme to define the main color areas.
Duplicate (Control-J) the Flat Colors layer and hide the original. This time grab the Transfer Brush and paint color admixtures from our color scheme. It's very rare for organic materials to be colored with only a single shade. For example, white human skin looks best when it's mixed with green and blue. Use this as a chance to add a slight texture.
6. Light and Shadow
We'll create separate maps for lighting, too.
Create a New Layer and name it
shadow. Fill it with the dark version of the ambient light; in our case, it will be blue: #
050323. Lower the Opacity to
Add a Layer Mask to shadow and use the Transfer Brush to paint the illuminated areas. Use gray for subtle light and black for strong light. If you want to fix something, simply use white—no eraser necessary! Stick to the rules we've used for AO painting—pronounce the edges and don't bring light into crevices.
It's good to remember that interesting lighting is actually redundant, even undesired, when it comes to concept art. Your lighting should present the creature in the most natural way, without concealing the crucial parts. No need to bring drama!
Colors change properties depending on their background. Let's add a New Layer right on the bottom and name it
background. Use the Soft Brush and the Transfer Brush to sketch the colors and lighting of the background. It doesn't need to be detailed at all—we only need the color scheme to use for lighting.
Create a New Layer, and name it
light. Fill it with the color of the main light source (here, #
c7ffb5). Set the Blending Mode to Overlay—it accents bright areas—and add a Layer Mask. Fill it with black to hide it all, and then use a white Transfer Brush to draw (reveal) the brightest parts. Use small strokes to create a texture.
Now we can add specular light. Muscles are normally covered with a shiny membrane, so let's use it to make the dragon slightly glossy. It's a fresh zombie, after all!
Create a New Layer, and name it
specular light 1. Use the Hard Brush to paint tiny spots of light in the most prominent points. You can use the non-invasive method with a white layer and black layer mask, or just draw them the usual way. Be careful—the more you use them, the weaker visually they get!
To soften the effect, we can add another layer (let's name it
specular light 2) and add a bit of blur with a white Transfer Brush.
7. Final Polish
Our dragon is finished in a technical sense, but we don't need to stop here!
Let's darken the lower part of the beast to blend it better with the ground and bring the focus to the upper part. To do this, create a New Layer and name it
fog. Fill it with a random color and then double click to get to Blending Options.
First, change the Fill Opacity to
Second, add Gradient Overlay and build a gradient of white (for the upper part) and dark cyan (#
010b0e, for the lower part). Set the Blend Mode to Multiply and change the Angle to fit the lighting.
Our zombie looks pretty friendly, so let's add some gore! Use dark red (#
4c0000) and the Transfer Brush to add blood here and there.
Simple white spots will add a bit of appealing shine to the blood.
We can use veins as another nice accent. Make them dark blue and slightly shiny.
Let's work on the ground now. It's not really important for the illustration, but it will be a nice accent. I used a texture from texturemate.com, changed its Blending Mode to Overlay, and adjusted its perspective with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T, hold Control when clicking points to move them individually).
By adding a Layer Mask to the texture layer you can easily blend it into the background.
I added a few bones to create a sense of scale. Sometimes it's good to add a human silhouette for this.
Add an Adjustment Layer Levels. By checking the histogram we'll be able to check if the contrast is appropriate. Drag the markers to fit the graph between them.
Another way of checking the values is to put a black layer in Saturation mode on the top. Also, turn the background off for a while to see how the creature looks on its own.
We're now coming to the end. If you don't like something about your picture, the main advantage of working with maps is that you can now edit them separately, without destroying the picture as a whole.
You can add a more complicated background, but it's not really necessary. When our goal is to show the creature, adding a background would not only be a waste of time—it would break the clarity of our message. You can even remove the background and add a simple gray wall—nobody will complain!
My final advice for this final stage is: take break, get yourself some coffee, read a few pages of a book. Get some distance, then come back and check what strikes you the most about the picture. For me it was the lack of back light, so I've added it with the Soft Brush, but since everything's got its own layer, you're free to change anything!
Today we've learned how to plan our illustration and prepare the right tools for it, then how to build an illustration step by step, map by map. Now you know how to create ambient occlusion, lighting, and specular reflection, and how to keep an eye on every aspect of the painting to make it editable in the end.
Do you think it's slow and too planned? What if you don't have any particular plan in your mind and want to design something as you go? What if you need to be fast? There's another method for that, and I'll show it to you in my next tutorial. Stay tuned!