Throw in colors!
Experimentation is important in this stage too. I generated several eye-pleasing color variations of the image and blended and mixed them together to achieve something better. I'm using custom Photoshop actions that give me various looks, but there are lots of tools available that can give you the same results; some are free, others are paid for and there's even web-based ones like www.fotor.com
The important thing is to play with them and experiment with different blending modes. Once you like the particular look, you can mask the rest of the layer out, so only parts of the image are affected by your color variations.
Experimenting with colors is useful to achieve something better
When doing characters, I found myself generally creating a few types of color passes. I tend to create a reddish pass that I blend with the original image to achieve a more sub-surface scattering feel to the organic surfaces and, most importantly, to get rid of the black shadows. Also a cool-bluish color can help to simulate ambient sky lighting and reflections (even for scenes like this one that are indoor!) in which I place the following Fresnel principle.
I use a lot of the advanced blending modes available in the layer properties to help me speed up things and avoid spending time on masking out areas by hand. Right-click on a layer and choose Blending Options ? this will open the Layer Styles dialogue, and on the bottom you can see 2 identical looking sliders, one called This Layer, the other called Underlying Layer. These are the Blend If options.
Moving the black-and-white sliders for the bar on top will cause areas of the currently selected layer to disappear from view. Moving the sliders for the bar on the bottom will cause areas of the layer(s) below the currently selected layer to show through the selected layer, as if it's punching holes through it. The effect will be harsh until you drag the sliders by holding the Alt key. This will add transition to the effect and will give you more control over the blending.
In the image below you can see how the colored layer is showing only in the dark tones of the layers below.
Use some of the options in Blending to have more control over the process
Time to polish
Time was running out and although I wasn't quite satisfied with lots of things, I had to move on. The previous stage of incorporating elements, throwing colors and relying on happy accidents helped a lot and now I could run the last few meters to the finish-line by just fixing whatever my eye was not agreeing with: for instance, the harsh plane-breaks of the face and the fact that the character was missing eyebrows. Lighting artifacts were removed and some subtle details like wrinkles on the forehead were added.
And as you can imagine, since I've started with cheap and dirty renders of the low-poly, lots of things cried out for attention. At this point it is extremely useful to know where to delete and start over, and where to deform. Most of the time you can tweak and deform certain aspects and not waste time by deleting and starting from scratch. In places where I didn't like the pose, or the symmetry of something, I used the magical tool called Liquify. The other tool for deforming that I tend to use a lot is the Puppet Warp.
Adding some final touches to complete the image
This is the final stage and the chance to add a few quick bells-and-whistles to the image in the last seconds.
The additional emitting containers on the ground were added to help establish the scale and depth of the environment.
Fog was added in the lower portion of the image in order to refine the contrast so that it doesn't steal the attention from the upper portion of the character, which is the main focus point. I also added subtle reflections in the glasses and darkened the borders of the image to focus the viewer to the center.
Adding the final touches
In the last minutes, in the middle of adding some particles in the atmosphere, the time ran out and I had to call it done. However although very far (faaar far away) from perfect, I was happy that I didn't waste time on the smaller imperfections and I actually had something that looked decent for the purpose it was created and it was done on time.
Working under pressure definitely plays its role and helps to reduce wasted time for irrelevant things; but the quick start, figuring out as you go and happy accidents method helps tremendously to forget the pressure and turn the work into play and have fun while creating your artwork.
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