Create quick thumbnail concepts in Photoshop for speed-painting


This tutorial demonstrates how I usually work on early conceptions and exploration for projects, idea creation, pictorial composition, layouts, and composition making in a short amount of time, plus a few other tips on how to create a brush and speeding up your work using the right shortcuts.

Creating the brush

As an artist, I’m always asked “What type of brush do you use in Photoshop?” or “What’s your brush?” Well, this is a very common question, and to be honest I must say that brushwork or one particular brush isn’t changing anything, but it is the combination of tools and ideas that makes the artwork happen.

Yes some brushes in certain techniques would make it easier and faster to approach a certain point, but remember that it’s not all. So just to make it clear, the brush itself doesn’t make miracles happen. However I'm going to take a deep dive in to show you how to create a brush for yourself, and develop it in Photoshop, as I mainly used one certain brush for this speed-painting.

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As you can see in the image above, I have created an abstract form on the canvas and once you’ve selected it, go to: Edit/Define as Brush preset, then after saving it, it’s going to save your selection as brush at the top of your brush list. Don’t worry about the white area as it only captures the dark points, ignoring the white areas.

In “C” I have managed to paint with the brush, and I must say that it's not yet ready, so let's tweak it a bit! Select your brush and then select Brush preset, (Windows Brush Preset). Now, I want to use different presets to get different results. If I go into "Brush Tip" and change the Spacing to 0% I will get a smother brush.

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Also, turning Transfer on will add sensitivity to the brush, which is something that I want. Compare the images above and see how these two items help to change the direction of your brush. It's good to mention that almost 90-percent of this tutorial is being painted with the brush that appears above.

Now before I finish this step I will make a few more modification on this brush, mixing it up with another brush, adding textures and color dynamics to get more out of it. The good thing is I will let you have all these brushes so you can download and use them yourself.

textures, color dynamics, brushes, photoshop, black and white,

Workspace & shortcuts

Let’s move forward with the workspace. Photoshop is a mighty app, you can do whatever you want. It has so many cool features and tools to make your work easier, but in some cases you might get lost among all these features and tools and it may slow you down to some extent.

Having a clear workspace for a specific type of work will save you so much time and make things faster. I’ve never shared this in any tutorial but it’s such an important thing to have a clean and adaptive workspace for your work. What’s important here is to create your own workspace, and this depends on the artists themselves. My workspace might be good for me but it’s not necessarily good for others.

As you may see in the top-right corner of Photoshop you have a Workspace window. Photoshop has already divided it into a few spaces for you to use, such as painting, photography, essentials, and so on, but you can mix what you want and save it in the workspace. For example my graphic workspace is different to my speed painting workspace; or if I’m going to work on matte-paintings and photos, I have a different workspace for that too.

In my paintings, I always focus on my composition, not only for proportion but also for contrasts, element placements, and colors. That’s why I always use the Navigator. This allows you to check your image in a small window in the top-right; every single brushstroke will appear there. When you are working with traditional mediums, for example oils on canvas, you’ll keep backing up to look at your whole painting from a distance. This helps to recognize mistakes and see the whole thing at once. Navigator plays the same role for me! I can always check my composition, contrast, and so on there!

photoshop, page setup, blank canvas,

Early composition

As I said before, this is how I do my early exploration for the pre-production phase that most of us like to work on. It’s a phase where you can do whatever you want; you’re free to explore different ideas, layouts, and even techniques. And the more you do, it will help the project to have more images ready for the next phase. Now time is precious, that’s why I always start early explorations with speed-paints. It’s a single painting that you’ll see here and it’s a sample, so it’s not exactly for a project or anything, it just demonstrates the techniques that I use for this type of work.

It’s good to consider that when I’m working on projects such as movies or animation, I create a minimum of 20 pieces like this only for exploration and early conception phase. So it’s not like you do one or two pieces and it’s done. That’s why we call it exploration; you need to explore different approaches, different styles, layouts, and so on.

speed painting, photoshop, ground

What I have in mind today is to create a sci-fi thumbnail with the brushes that I created earlier, maybe with some pilots and a ship that takes service before take-off. (So this is just a sample image in which I can do whatever I want, but in projects, you’ve been asked to explore a specific environment or action). For example, I’ve been working on an unannounced project in which I had to explore this idea about a scuff school which trains pilots. I had to make interiors, environments, and mechs, starting with my thumbnail on a white canvas.

speed painting, photoshop, men, ship, black,

I usually get rid of the whites but this time I keep them as lights. You can see in these images above, for progress, you’ll notice how easily I started to paint the figures and the shape of the ship using the brush that I’ve created. I don’t care about the proportion in this phase, I only want to have the form and shapes that gives you information about the figures and shapes, mostly focusing on composition.

Shaping up the overall composition

As I continue the previous step, I try to add a few more shapes to create the overall composition for this thumbnail. I separate the ground as it appears below. Since it’s an early exploration, things happen so fast that I separate these sections for the tutorial, but it’s good to mention that each of these steps takes a maximum of five minutes. It’s not like you need to count down the minutes, but overall if you can produce a single concept within an hour or less, it’s a speed painting. In some cases I’ve heard that a single phase painting within 2-3 hours is also considered a speed painting.

speed painting, detail, men, ship, black and white,

Working on ground level

In this step, I continue working on the ground, shadows, and adding a few elements to the ship as well. Pipes and fuel hoses all around. You can see how it helps the perspective and directions on the foreground as well.

speed painting, photoshop, detail, ground level

Adding a tone

In this step, I start to bring in a new tone to my work to get it ready for further details. In this case I use the Color Balance which can be found in Image > Adjustments > Color Balance, or it can be applied from the Adjustment menu on the right (if you have added it to your workspace). I put it on top of my flatten image and start changing the tone for Shadows/Midtones, and Highlights. As you can see in the image I have included each window and control setting of my color balance.

I’m thinking of conveying a sunset color theme to this piece, so I’ve added a violet tone to the whole thumbnail, but I’m not going to keep it for the final outcome, it’s just a base for my final colors. It’s a much more graphical approach to add a single tone to the whole piece rather than painting something colorful, so that’s why it's monochromic.

tone, photoshop, adding color, color, speed painting

Blending modes

Blending modes or (Layer modes) is handy in the case of adding color to a grayscale base image, or even to shift colors from something to something else, highlights, shadows, and the overall color theme. Using Layer modes wisely will help make changes fast and easy. Each mode gives you a different kind of control over your picture, so it requires you to study them and know what their purpose is.

For example “Darker Color” mode only affects your light colors and bright surfaces, and ignores the dark areas, you can easily control your highlights with this mode. “Lighter Color” is vise versa. “Overlay” mode will let you bring in any other color and blend it with the original color that already exists in the image, preserving the highlights and shadows. It will not replace the colors, it will mix the new colors with the original. I will use these options and modes in the future steps to reach the color that I have in mind, while editing the details and highlights along the way.

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More details

In this step, I tried to work a bit more on the overall image. I added a bit of dark blue to the shadows and a bit of yellow to the highlighted areas. I also worked on the foreground elements and shapes and a bit more on the pilots and the ship itself. As you may notice, I’m not polishing anything yet, it is supposed to be like that, as it’s a thumbnail exploration. I have to do so many more of these before I start finalizing any idea. This is how I do work on early explorations, so many thumbnails and sketches, speed paints for clients in early phase art, then we will get back to our favorite ones and start working on them as final concepts.

So many of these will be forgotten, but they need to be done so we can reach new ideas and concepts. Most people may think that whatever you paint or do need to get into the final project, but that’s not true, we have to work on so many pieces before reaching to a single concept – so many Nos for a Yes! In the end, it’s not like you didn't do anything, you need all these conceptions and explorations in order to reach that final polished concept. None of those final polished concepts got in out of nowhere, there are so many step-backs, reworks, sketches, and explorations behind each of those.

detail, speed painting, photoshop, men

Final edits for colors

At this point, I’m adding some final details to the image and most importantly, I fix my colors.

As I’ve said before, I was approaching a sunset color scheme. Using my adjustments and color modes, I add more green to shadows and more yellow-orange to the highlights to make it close to a sunset theme. I work on the ship’s part too, adding more details on its side, the stairs, and the crew member who is coming down from it.

edit, coloring, color, speed paint, photoshop

Final touches

I’m reaching the final moments for my painting; a few tweaks on the colors and last touches, plus an overall sharpness. The image is ready, but as I mentioned before, what you’re looking at is all done with the same brush that I created in the beginning. The concept is ready and I’m about to close this chapter in my tutorials. Remember the work is not finished however, this is just the beginning when you’re working on the early phase of conception. It’s only a simple thumbnail, an exploration.

If it was actually for a project or something I would probably create ten more of these for a single scene only, and then we would pick our favorites, apply the changes, and start making the final polished concept. The real work requires so much patience, so much exploration and back and forth. It was just a glimpse of how I start working on these projects. But surely I will explain more about this type of work in the future tutorials.

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Final image

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