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How to Create a Sign Language Digital Painting in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called Communication Week.
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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Love is... universal.

Learn how to create a digital painting inspired by the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet in this Photoshop tutorial. I'll cover how to draw each hand from scratch before tackling the digital painting with Layer Blend Modes and more.

This painting uses this set of Acrylic and Gouache Photoshop Brushes for added texture and realism. Find more incredible Photoshop Brushes on Envato Elements.

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used in the production of this tutorial:

Gathering References

I've been obsessed with drawing the ASL alphabet since I was a kid. It's a good way to practice the human form while learning more about this beautiful way of communication.

We want to do the ASL community justice, of course, so to create a painting based on the ASL alphabet we need references for each hand. Do a quick web search for the ASL Alphabet to become more familiar with it.

Hand References for ASL Alphabet
When in doubt, take your own pictures!

To avoid any copyright problems, I took pictures of my own hand and my partner's in the appropriate positions to spell out the word "love." Not only will they help make this painting more personal, but they will also allow me to create incredible details based on real hands.

The Theme

Keep in mind that this painting does require a graphics tablet to access and utilize pen pressure settings. For the theme, we will paint each hand a different skin color to help communicate the point that love is universal.

1. How to Draw the Hands

Step 1

Create a New Document in Photoshop. The final painting is at a size of 3000 x 1350 pixels at 300 dpi, but feel free to draw the hands in a separate file first.

Brush Settings

Using the Brush Tool (B), select the Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush to begin drawing the first hand for the letter "L." Make sure the Pen Pressure for Opacity option is also checked. Then create a New Layer and follow the steps below.

Draw the L Hand for the ASL Alphabet
  1. Start with two boxy shapes for the palm of the hand and fingers.
  2. Draw lines to separate the fingers, and then draw the index finger.
  3. Draw the thumb, breaking it down into three separate shapes.
  4. Finish the hand by erasing the guides, adding nails, and including the crease lines on the skin. 

Step 2

Next, move on to the letter "O." This one is a little tough, so make sure to keep your reference handy. Create a New Layer.

Draw the O Hand From the ASL Alphabet
  1. Draw slanted lines to show the outside angles for the hand and wrist.
  2. Define the palm of the hand, and then add curvy shapes that will help form the "O."
  3. Complete the thumb with curvy lines before drawing guidelines for the index, middle, and ring fingers.
  4. Erase the guides slightly before cleaning up the sketch with crease lines and nails.

Step 3

Now draw the hand for the letter "V." Create a New Layer.

Draw the V Hand from the ASL Alphabet
  1. Start with a box shape for the palm, and then add guidelines for the ring and pinky fingers.
  2. Add the thumb, breaking it down into three 3D shapes.
  3. Draw the middle and index fingers, breaking down each finger into three cylinder-like shapes.
  4. Erase the guidelines and finish the sketch with nails and crease lines.

Step 4

Finally, draw the last letter "E." Create a New Layer.

Draw the letter E from the ASL Alphabet
  1. Start with box shapes for the palm, top and front-facing sides of the fingers.
  2. Add the thumb, breaking it down into three 3D shapes.
  3. Draw quick lines to separate the fingers.
  4. Erase the guides and finish the hand with nails and crease lines.

Step 5

Here are all the sketches of your hands. Consider how you would prefer to lay out the composition.

All the hand sketches for love

Though I like the idea of stacking the hands, I've chosen to arrange them in landscape orientation instead.

Landscape orientation for love hands

Before we move on to color, it's important to organize our layers. With each letter on its own individual layer, now place them into their own respective Groups. 

Organized layers

2. How to Paint the Base Colors

Step 1

Much of digital painting is about building color. So let's start this painting off with the base colors. Lower the Opacity for each sketch layer to 50%.

Paint the Base Colors
  1. Create a New Layer named "base" for each letter group. 
  2. Use a Hard Round Brush with 100% Hardness to Fill each hand with solid color.
  3. Use #623e36 for L, #693f39 and #bc7168 for O, #b0837d for V, and #82554c for E.

Step 2

To complement the different skin tones, I'll paint the background dark with a warm center for a cinematic feel. Select the background layer and use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to select and Fill the background with brown #2f1b0d and black.

Fill the background with black and brown
Keep the black along the edges; we'll need it to help fade the hands later.

3. How to Shade the Hands

To shade each hand, I'll be using a combination of Layer Blend Modes and Clipping Masks. Learn about this technique in this tutorial:

Step 1

Let's go in respective order for each hand, starting with L.

Set the sketch to Overlay or Soft Light depending on how it blends with the skin. Create a New Layer and then right-click to set it as a Clipping Mask to the base layer. (You'll need to do this for each group.) Then set the Layer Blend Mode to Multiply.

Begin painting the shadows for the hand using a Soft Round Brush with 0% Hardness and 40–60% Opacity.

Use exactly the same color as the hand #623e36 to apply shadow, concentrating the darker color along the outer edges of the palm and fingers.

Paint shadows for the first hand

Step 2

Repeat these same steps for each hand. For the letter O, you'll need to use the same exact color as the base #693f39 to apply shadow. The reason why this works so well is that the Multiply Blend Mode allows you to use the same color to paint a shade darker on a separate layer.

You may have noticed that O looks different than the rest of the hands. This hand was inspired by Winnie Harlow, and many people like her who live with vitiligo. So concentrate the shadow along the edges of the hand for an instant realistic effect.

Paint shadow on the O hand

Step 3

Again, repeat the same steps for V and E.

This time, use a combination of #693f39 and a bright yellow #c2a285 for V (set to Multiply). Here is the before and after look at setting the Blend Mode to Multiply. See how it looks instantly realistic with just one layer of shadow?

Shade the V hand

Do the same for E.

Use exactly the same color as the base #82554c to paint shadow with a Soft Round Brush.

Paint shadows for the E hand

Step 4

Shading the hands is all about building color, so continue to add new Clipped Layers set to Multiply for more shadow. Switch over to a brush with harder edges, like the original Hard Pressure Opacity Brush with 100% Hardness for crisp lines.

Paint more shadow on each hand

Step 5

One way to get a realistic result is to layer reddish colors onto your painting to show the blood showing through the skin. We'll do this with the help of Blend Modes.

Clip a New Layer above your shadows to the first hand base. Use #a17f70 and #4a2c25 to paint soft, rich colors onto the palm and fingers. Set the Layer Blend Mode to Soft Light.

Add a soft light layer
Before and after setting the layer blend mode to Soft Light.

With the same theory in mind, repeat these steps for the O, V, and E hands.

First, deepen the O hand with more shadow on the layers set to Multiply.

Deepen the hand
Note: I lightened the original skin color here to #c98c84. You can do this with Hue and Saturation.

Then set a New Layer to Screen for the letter V, using #b98b82 to paint soft highlights in the middle of the hand.

Paint highlights on V

And finally, add a New Layer of Soft Light to E, painting #a77d70 softly onto the center of the hand and fingers.

Paint color onto E

4. How to Color Correct the Hands for Realism

Step 1

Admittedly, painting with incorrect color tones can be frustrating. So I'd like to reduce the intensity of the red color coming through just a tad. To do this, we'll set New Adjustment Layers of Color Lookup as Clipping Masks to each letter Group.

Set the 3DLUT File to FuturisticBleak.3DL. Change the Blend Mode to Saturation and lower the Opacity to 45%.

Start with L.

Adjust the color for L

Step 2

Then move on to O. Use the same settings as before.

Color correct O

Then finish with V and E.

Color correct V and E

5. How to Paint Hands More Realistically

Step 1

To create more realism, let's start with the mood. Add shadows to the background in a few simple steps.

Start with L.

Add a shadow to L
  1. Select the base color for L and hold Control-J to duplicate it. This will bump the copy a layer above the original, so select the original base layer and desaturate it. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue and Saturation, and lower the Lightness to -85.
  2. Use Free Transform (Control-T) to adjust the Size and Perspective of the shadow and place it to the left of the hand.
  3. With the shadow layer selected, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and blur the shadow using a Radius of 20 pixels.

Do the same for O, V, and E.

Add shadows to all the hands

Step 2

(Note: the background has now been changed to a darker brown #201209.)

Blast each hand with a layer of warmth. We now need to paint above the previous layers, so it helps if you regroup them into new Groups.

Create a New Layer above the Color Lookup adjustment outside each group. Set it to Overlay and use a Soft Round Brush at 40–50% Opacity to paint #b69e91 across the hand.

Add warm color to L

Do the same for O, V, and E.

Add warmth to the other hands

Step 3

I really like these colors now. So let's clean things up!

It's now important to dedicate New Layers to making more crisp details. I advise a brush with a Higher Opacity (60–90%) for these steps.

Start with L.

Create crisp details
  1. Using brushes from the Acrylic & Gouache Brush Pack, add more highlights and texture to the hand. Choose the brush Gouache_Wet_Stroke_ArtistMef to paint bright highlights of #eecfbe.
  2. Blend the highlights by using the Eraser Tool (E) to lessen the color intensity. Then use a Hard Round Brush to paint cleaner edges and creases.

Do the same for O, V, and E. Adjust the color of the highlights to shades that are appropriate for each hand. Make the hands shine from a bright source that emphasizes the creases.

Clean up the hand details

Step 4

The more colors you paint onto the hands, the more realistic they'll look.

Incorporate shades of blue, green, and yellow to O, V, and E. Bronze the skin with brown shades according to that respective skin tone. Experiment with different values for an interesting reflection along the edges of each hand. Soften any harsh colors with the Eraser Tool (E).

Create Realistic Colors

6. How to Finish With Great Mood and Lighting

Step 1

Let's kick things up a notch for a great finish!

I'm going for an intensely lit, realistic digital painting with a Romantic Era feel.

Create New Layers above all the others and begin painting black along the edges with a Soft Round Brush. Go for a cinematic, vignette effect.

Add a vignette to the painting

Step 2

For the rest of this painting, I chose to just paint on New Layers at the top of the Layers panel. Feel free to Merge layers together to help with file space.

Zoom in on your painting and use a heavy Hard Round Brush (80-100% Opacity) to make things extra crisp. Push the details as best as you can by just drawing quick lines for the skin creases.

Here's an up-close look at L and O.

L and O up close

And here's V and E.

Create shine by painting with almost white highlights. Then sweep the Eraser Tool (E) (at 30% Opacity) over the highlighted areas to soften the edges.

V and E up close

Step 3

Blend the surrounding colors of the scene together until they melt into the background.

Blend the scene

The hands look a bit too bronze at the moment. For more variations in skin tone, we need to bring out the cool tones of the O and V hands. Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Lookup. Change the 3DLut File to Crisp_Winter before lowering the Opacity to 42%.

Add a Color Lookup Adjustment Layer
Color Lookup Adjustments are the best way to get great color effects fast.

That's it! Check out the final painting below.


View a large version of this painting to see the details up close.

I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial. Study your references up close and pick apart finite details for more realism. Even when you think you've pushed the realism too far, continue to add more subtle highlights to the skin to show its natural oily shine.

Feel free to leave your questions and results in the comments below.

For more amazing digital painting tutorials, check out the following links:

Sign Language Love Hands Digital Painting by Melody Nieves
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