Digital painting is very tempting with all the possibilities it offers. However, the mouse you use for all your digital activities isn't the best tool for it—to replicate the traditional process of painting, you need to get a graphics tablet.
The good news is you don't need to "replicate the traditional process" to create digital paintings. There are other ways, and your mouse will be great for them. As I wrote in Why Mouse Users Should Ditch Photoshop and Draw in Illustrator, you can use a mouse to create beautiful vector art.
But if you don't like vector, here I'll show you how to work "tabletlessly" in Photoshop. I have to warn you—it won't be fast and easy! But if you're really determined to "paint" this way, you're going to love this!
1. Prepare the File
The first thing we need is a traditional drawing. Yes, you heard right. Drawing is based on freehand precision, which can't be achieved with a mouse (at least, not easily). Do yourself a favor and create your drawing traditionally, and then scan it or take a photo. If your scan/photo has a low quality, you can fix it with Clean Up Your Traditional Drawings in Photoshop. You can also download my own drawing to follow this tutorial.
If you feel as if it's starting like that tutorial about drawing an owl, I remind you this is a tutorial about digital painting, not drawing. These are two different things! If you don't agree with me, make sure to read Digital Drawing vs. Digital Painting: What the Difference Is and Why You Should Know It. You need to learn how to draw before trying all the possibilities of digital art!
Once you have scanned your drawing, click and drag the file into Photoshop. It will open automatically.
We don't need to keep the default proportions of the scan/photo. Let's adjust it to the picture by using the Crop Tool (C). This tool utilizes the rule of thirds, so read about it if you want to know more about using the right proportions.
Go to Select > All. Then Copy (Control-C) the selection.
Go to File > New. When the Preset is set to Clipboard (1), it means that this new file will have the dimensions of the image you have just copied. In my case it's 1900 px (2) x 2248 px (3). This should be big enough. If any of your dimensions are lower than 1500 px, we'll fix it in a moment.
Press OK to create a New File.
Paste (Control-V) the copied image. If it's too small, this is the time to fix it. Go to Image > Image Size and change the lower of the values to at least 1500 px. The other one will change proportionally.
Let's save the file to make it ready for changes. Go to File > Save As, choose a proper location and give it a temporary name. Make sure that the format is PSD.
Later, when you want to save the changes, simply use the Control-S shortcut to overwrite the file.
Look at the Layers panel now. Each layer is a separate picture, so to draw on one, you must select it by clicking.
Click the image you have pasted and lower its Opacity to 20%.
Change its Blend Mode to Multiply to make it see-through.
Finally, Lock the layer to protect it from accidental changes.
2. Create the Base for Painting
Create a New Layer over the drawing.
Painting is about translating your intention into an artwork. It's relatively easy when you can use freehand precision, but in digital painting with a mouse this kind of precision is very restricted.
In our method we need to use controlled precision. It lets you achieve the same or better results, but controlling the process is all on you. It takes more time and effort, but you don't really have a choice—either you fight with your mouse trying to do things it's not designed for (freehand precision) and get bad results, or you use it in a more controlled way to get the results you want.
In other words, freehand precision is about drawing a line and checking if it looks as you wanted. Controlled precision is about planning the exact placement of every part of the line.
The tool for controlled precision in Adobe Photoshop is the Pen Tool (P). Here's how to use it.
Start the path by clicking in a corner with the Pen Tool (P).
To draw a straight line, click where the imaginary straight line ends.
If you prefer a curved line, hold and drag it after clicking. You'll see how the line curves for you.
When you get the curve you want, release it. Then hold the Alt key and click the last point to lock its curve.
This is it! You can continue to draw all the outline.
Of course, it wouldn't be controlled precision if you couldn't adjust what you've already drawn. Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select and move the points on the path.
To finish the outline, simply click the first point of the path.
After long and tedious work, you should end up with something like this. Yes, you could draw it faster if you had a graphics tablet, but for now we're talking about the most effective workaround. A mouse doesn't give you much of a choice: you can either draw quickly and imprecisely, or slowly and accurately.
To turn the path into a selection, right click the canvas and select Make Selection.
Pick a bright, vivid color, but one that's not too hard on the eyes.
Use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the selection with the chosen color. Then go to Select > Deselect.
Drag the colorful layer under the line art and change its name to base.
We'll use base as a Clipping Mask. Create a New Layer and clip it to the base by holding Alt and clicking the line between them.
Every layer clipped to base (there can be more of them, just clip a new layer to the previous clipped layer) will be constrained by its borders. Test it!
Use the Pen Tool again to draw the inner elements of the body. This time you can be more careless, as base takes care of everything happening past its borders.
Use a different color for every element/set of elements. Try to use as few sets as possible, and keep each on a separate layer. The areas of one color shouldn't touch each other!
We're going to use these layers to constrain our imprecise painting, but we still need to clean them. First, let's cut the parts of them that are covered by the Clipping Mask.
Create a selection of base by clicking it while holding Control.
Make a Layer Mask out of this selection by clicking this icon at the bottom of the panel:
Copy the mask to all the other layers by holding Alt and dragging it to another layer. Then right click every mask and select Apply Layer Mask. Now, even if you release the Clipping Mask, it will not change anything.
There's one more thing to clean. The elements overlap, so if you Control-click one of these layers, you'll get a disturbed shape. Hide one of the layers to see what I mean.
We can fix it in a similar way as before. Select one layer by Control-clicking it. Then go to Select > Inverse. Create a Layer Mask out of this selection.
Drag the mask to another layer, and then copy it (Alt-drag) to the others. Only the original layer should stay without a mask.
As before, right click every layer and Apply Layer Mask. If you hide the layer now, you'll see its shape has been cut off the others.
Do the same with every layer. In the end, every layer should cover its own area without overlapping any other.
The base will be needed from time to time, but generally it will make a mess on our Layers panel. We can use a trick to hide them and bring them back whenever we need.
Hold Shift to select base with all its clipped layers. Right click and select Red.
Create a New Layer under the line art (unclip it, if needed).
Select Color as the layer filter.
Now you can easily switch the view between the base and the actual painting layers. Keep in mind it doesn't change the visibility of the layers, but rather hides them on the list.
You can use this trick whenever you feel it may be useful. You don't need to wait for me to tell you!
3. Add the Color and Light
This was a heck of a job! And it's just the beginning! Be prepared, because I'm going to increase the pace now—if you don't know how to do something and I don't tell you in detail, feel free to return to the previous sections—it's probably already been explained.
Let's color our painting on that new layer colored as "none". This is how to do it:
- Switch to Red view.
- Take a selection of the area you want to color (Control-click its thumbnail).
- Switch to None view.
- Select the layer.
- Fill the area with the Paint Bucket Tool (G).
Use bright colors, as if there were no shadow in the scene.
In my case, I had to use the proper colors based on real caracals. You may find the following photos useful for this purpose:
- Caracal side
- Caracal face - no longer available
- Caracal kitten - no longer available
Use a soft brush to paint the areas of non-solid color. If you want to have greater control over this, Zoom in.
Create a New Layer. Create a selection of base and Fill it with 50% gray.
Change the Blend Mode to Multiply. This is our shadow.
Create a New Layer and clip it. Add a Layer Mask and paint on it with white using a soft brush. Your goal is to leave a bit of the shadow between the elements. Don't forget to use the selections!
Go to Filter > Noise and add a bit of noise to this layer. This will make it less smooth.
4. Render the Fur
Creating realistic fur is hard and time-consuming even with a tablet. My method certainly requires much effort, but the effect will be worth it—trust me!
Create a New Layer, make a selection of base and fill it with 50% gray. Set the Blend Mode to Multiply again. Add the noise, but this time make it thick and visible. Name the layer fur.
Create a New Layer and clip it to fur.
Listen carefully now, because this will be complicated. Go into Quick Mask Mode (Q). In this mode you can paint a selection with a chosen brush. Imagine the fur you want to paint, and select the area where it grows in a single direction. You can use selections of the base layers to constrain painting.
Go out of the mode and go to Select > Inverse. The selection will be created. You can hide it for a moment with the shortcut Control-H.
Now go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Adjust the Angle to the direction of your imagined fur. You can also play with the Distance to simulate the perspective of the hairs (dot-like hair = hair seen from the top).
Continue on both legs. The more directions you take into account, the more realistic it will be. Remember: Photoshop can't read your mind. You need to tell it what you want!
Use the same method to add short hair on the face.
For larger tufts of fur, we need to add another trick. Select it just like before, but this time, right before adding the blur, go to Filter > Pixelate > Crystallize. The larger the hair tufts, the bigger the Cell Size should be.
If this is far too tedious for your liking, you can use a more traditional approach instead. You can use ready-made textures of fur and simply adjust them to the shape. Just be careful—if they are too realistic, you'll have to make the rest of the painting as realistic, too! Here are a few examples of the textures you can use:
- Red fur - no longer available
- Red fur 2 - no longer available
- Fur close-up - no longer available
- Fur with a border - no longer available
Select All (Control-A) and copy the layer. Open Window > Channels. Create a New Channel...
... and paste your image.
Load channel as selection by clicking the first icon in the row. Then click RGB channel to return to normal view.
Create a New Layer and clip it to fur. Name it texture. Fill the selection with white. Then Select > Deselect and hide the previous layer.
Create a New Layer (don't clip it) and create a selection to fill it with white just like a moment ago. Make a selection of base, Inverse it, and cut the redundant parts. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay.
Add a Layer Mask, and fill it with black. Then use a soft brush to paint the light back with white. This is a chance for you to sculpt the fur of the character.
5. Add the Details
Create a New Layer and clip it to fur. Use the selection of the face details to paint the shadow on them.
Create a New Layer on the top of others (don't clip it). Make a selection of base and fill it with the Radial Gradient.
Change its Blend Mode to Multiply and its Opacity to 55%. This darkening will place focus on the face.
Create a New Layer. Make a selection of the dark elements of the face and fill it with black. Then go to Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic.
Duplicate the layer a few times (Control-J), and then select them while holding Shift, right click and Merge Layers.
Now go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. This will make the coloring less sharp and more natural.
Don't forget to cut the shadow out of the eyes with a proper selection.
Let's work on the eyes. Create a New Layer and paint a shadow on the bottom (use a selection for this).
Add a blue stroke with a hard brush.
Cover it with a white stroke.
Use the Eraser Tool (E) to create a reflection in the eyes.
You can soften the reflection by adding a Layer Mask and painting on it with soft brush.
Select the eyes and go to Select > Modify > Contract. Contract by 3 px.
Create a New Layer. Use a soft brush to paint a glow on the bottom.
Change the Blend Mode to Soft Light.
To make the nose more detailed, first paint on it with a hard brush.
Then switch to a soft brush and slightly cover the details to smoothen them. Because a mouse doesn't have pressure sensitivity, we can simulate it by lowering the Opacity of the brush. Then, instead of pressing harder, you can simply use multiple clicks.
Use the same technique to finish the other details.
6. Finish the Painting
The painting is almost done, but we can make it even prettier! These tricks are more advanced, but they're also optional: don't worry if you can't do one of them.
First, add some kind of background. It will help us adjust the character to the scene.
Double click texture to open the Blending Options. Check Bevel & Emboss, and then play with the settings to achieve an effect of 3D fur. The exact values will depend on how your fur looks.
Shift-click all the layers building the character (without the base layers) and Merge them. Then select one area (using the base layers) and go to Filter > Blur > Smart Blur. Use it to make the fur more fluffy.
Do the same for every area:
Use the Quick Mask (Q) to select the edges of the character.
With the edges selected, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use it to add a feeling of distance to them, creating depth.
Don't deselect yet! Open the Window > Adjustments panel and select Hue/Saturation.
You can now adjust the color and brightness of the selected area.
Let's ruffle the fur a bit. Locate an area that looks too sharp. Use the Quick Mask to select it.
If necessary, use a selection of the base layers to cut redundant parts.
Create a selection, and then duplicate it (Control-J). You can now use Motion Blur on that part separately, without affecting the rest of the picture.
Duplicate the layer once again and use Edit > Free Transform to adjust it to the rest of the fur. You can make this part wavy by using the Warp Mode.
You can use this trick on the whole body.
Make a selection of the main layer. Create a New Layer and add a Radial Gradient to that selection. Then create a New Layer below and fill it with black. Merge both layers.
Copy this layer and use it as an Alpha Channel to create a selection.
Inverse the selection, and then add Hue/Saturation adjustment. You can now make the area more saturated.
Let's create whiskers! Create a New Layer. Take a hard brush, hold Shift and draw a white line with it.
Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to "sharpen" the line. (You can also use the Polygon Tool to create a long triangle.)
Go to Edit > Puppet Warp. Add three pins: two on the sides and one in the middle. Then move that in the middle up to create an arch.
Duplicate the whisker and modify it with the Free Transform Tool to create a whole set of whiskers.
Merge all the whiskers, and then lower their Opacity to make this effect less apparent.
When it seems done, look at it once again and see if you can fix something.
We Did It!
And here's our caracal kitten, "painted" completely with a mouse. Could it be created faster with a tablet? Not really. The process I've shown you is based on constructing a work of art by building it out of various elements. This is something that a mouse is good at, and a tablet pen isn't made for this.
If you want to create without a tablet, this is the workflow you should utilize. It's not very intuitive, it's time-consuming and tedious sometimes, but it lets you control every part of the creation process. And, in the end, you certainly have something to boast about!