This Photoshop and Wacom Tablet tutorial originally published in the Digital Fantasy Painting Workshop book by Ilex Press, explains how I created the Howling digital painting illustration. The image features an angry demon ripping the heart off his victim’s chest (beware: nudity). The tutorials provides detailed instructions on the Photoshop brush settings I used to paint the image. This tutorial explains, in particular, how to quickly achieve flesh tones using Adjustment layers.
Step 1 – The sketch
The sketching was done at low resolution (72 DPI), for speed. It is important to stress that the faster the sketch is completed, the better it will be (usually true for me at least).
The best approach for me is to let the shapes flow from my hand to the screen without much interference. If I were to stop every few strokes I would loose the spontaneity that is key to a successful sketch.
I made severa sktchesl, in succession, all slightly different and all drawn on a new blank layer. I try to keep a constant brush size to avoid wasting time on sketching any details, that at this initial stage can be a distraction and could get in the way during the next phase.
Once I had a few interesting sketches separated on different layers, I compared them and picked the one I thought better conveyed the idea I had set out to illustrate.
Tool settings and notes:
When sketching in Photoshop, I use a medium hardness pressure sensitive round brush with a gray color. I prefer using this brush setting because it allows me to define shapes with clear edges with a few quick strokes.
Step 2 – Blocking
The blocking phase is where I concentrate on defining the volume of the figure: the way the light source (in this case a single spot light positioned above) illuminates the subjects. To achieve a high level of realism I decided to take a few reference snapshots with a digital camera. Lacking a model at the time, I posed for the pictures myself. I then imported the photos in Photoshop, desaturated them and and added a high level of contrast to maximize the highlights and shadows that I needed to refer to.
I resized the reference pictures to a small size and put them to the left of my main canvas window. I moved back on the sketch window and resized it to 300 DPI. I set the sketch layer in Multiply mode and added an empty layer below it that I filled with a black color. In this new layer, I then painted a flat shape following the edges of the sketch, using a 50% flat gray brush tip.
After the “flat” was done (this is a term borrowed from the comic industry), I proceeded to loosely build up the shadows in the the darker areas using several light strokes for each shadow. At this point, I deleted the sketch layer (but I kept a copy on a separate file). I saved all the highlights for the next step. While working on the blocking, I never zoomed in closer than 50%, to avoid falling in the trap of getting lost in time-consuming details.
Tool settings and notes:
For this stage of the process I rely on a 0% hardness (smooth edged) pressure sensitive brush set at 80% opacity. Having a pressure sensitive stylus and tablet is very useful when painting an image such as this where smooth flesh tones are prominent. Once again, I kept the brush size constant through this step until the very end where I hinted at some of the smaller details.
Step 3 – Main painting
For this stage, I zoomed in at 100% and started reshaping the anatomy to bring each muscle and visible bone structure to more exact and convincing shape and proportions. I did not spend much time blending the strokes, as the focus here was to add in highlights and lighter tones.
For the actual painting, I used a combination of short and light brush strokes while alternating between black and white brush tip colors using the x key (in order for this to work, I set up the brush foreground color as white and the background color as black).
I accentuated some shapes with darker lines, and also brought to prominence the lightest spots with a few touches of pure white.
Often, I zoomed out to get a feel on the overall look of the image. I use keyboard shortcuts constantly, to switch between colors, to undo, to zoom in and out, etc… so I keep my left hand on the keyboard at all times while painting. Doing so speeds up the
Tool settings and notes:
The brush setting I used for this stage is just about the same as the one I employed for the blocking phase, but with slightly increased spacing and opacity varying from 50% to 100%. In addition, I continously adjusted the brush size depending on the amount of detail each area required.
Step 4 – Blending/Refining
Working on the foundation set in the previous step, I now used a technique borrowed from traditional oil painting. All the rough dabs of color, especially for the highlights, that I had set before, are now blended using the smudge tool. This simulates the way I paint in Oils, where I would build the highlights by putting a small amount of white (or another color lighter than the base one) on the area I want to lighten and then blend it and shape it accordingly, using a soft bristle brush.
Applying the same method to digital painting is a breeze, especially using the smudge tool. Here I spent the largest amount of time, refining in detail every part of the image. The hardest sections to blend convingly were the large muscle groups such as legs and abdominals. Here I relied on my knowledge of anatomy, and that is a must-have requirement if you set out to portrait bodies, especially muscular ones. While blending, I switched to the paint brush tool once I an a while, whenever I needed an additional touch of white or black.
I also zoomed in, up to 300%, to work closely on the small details on the faces especially. But overall, I still wanted to maintain a somewhat painted feel, with some visible brush strokes, so I avoided blending too heavily. After the blending was completed, I used the dodge tool set on highlights to punch up some of the highlights I felt needed to be stronger, but I used this sparingly, as too much of it can make the image look over-exposed.
Tool settings and notes:
The smudge tool is the tool of choice for this step. I selected a small, medium to high opacity pressure sensitive 0% hardness round brush for the blending process. It is important to notice that I set the spacing at 30%. A lower spacing would cause the brush tool to perform really slowly and move too much “paint”.
Step 5 – Coloring
At this point, I added color to the so far still B&W painting. Using one of the most powerful features of Photoshop, Adjustment layers, I was able to experiment with different color schemes until I found the one I was looking for. An advantage of using this method is that I can change the colors at any time, without having to repaint any parts of the illustration.
Here I wanted to give the image a strong dramatic feel and I opted for a palette based on fleshy red tones, for an overall Caravaggio feel.
First, I added and Adjustment Layer: Layers–>New Adjustment Layer –>Hue/Saturation to colorize the figures. I put this above the painting layer, checked the colorize button, set the HUE to 11, the saturation to 50 and lightness to 0. The black and white figure is now colored. The colors need further manipulation though, because the flash tones are still too uniform.
Secondly, above this I added a Color balance Adjustment Layer as follows: Layers–>New Adjustment Layer –> Color balance. In the Shadows tone balance settings, I moved the color level to -9 on the Cyan slider. I left the Mid-tones sliders untouched. In the Highlights tone balance settings, I set the yellow slider on -17. This introduced a variation between the darker and lighter colors. It was still not enough.
A third modifier was added: Layers–>New Adjustment Layer –> Curves. I used this to add a hint of green to the darker tones, to vary the way the red tones played with the highlights and also to make the picture a bit lighter overall.
Additionally, in order to add more realism to the figure, I used the paintbrush tool to add even more red tones to the figure’s cheek, bleeding heart, chest wound, legs and hands. Flesh tones are hard to obtain, but this method usually allows for a quick shortcut toward achieving them.