Making Of 'Autumnal'

The inspiration for this piece came at the end of a week's holiday in Scotland last autumn. I'd spent a week absorbing all of the wonderful natural displays of colour at that time of year and I wanted to create an image that captured not only the look, but also the feel of a warm, golden autumn.

The first thing I did was to browse through a collection of reference photographs taken during my stay, looking for colour ranges and values that I could use as a base for my image. I narrowed my selection down to one photograph and adjusted the levels and saturation slightly to maximize the colour range.

I then created a new image and started blocking in some basic values taken directly from my reference photo. I used a large custom brush with varying opacity, keeping lighter values at the top and darker values at the bottom to create some basic depth and also to create a background light source in the top right area.

Once I was happy with my range of colours, I went back to my reference material to have a think about the type of figure I wanted to portray and how I could tie everything together with a natural theme. I knew I wanted to portray a beautiful female, almost like a Mother Nature figure but with the suggestion of a darker, sultrier side. After browsing through various model photographs, I went back to my original block in and quickly sketched out a figure on a new layer, paying close attention to the tilt of the waist, shoulders and head. I then added a few elements of fantasy style clothing, keeping it very basic at this stage in order to get the balance of the figure right.

After I'd finished the sketch, I created a new layer and started to block in the figure and her close surroundings with some dark values. Again, I worked with a large brush to quickly define areas of light and shade, adding some greener hues at the bottom of the image to suggest areas of vegetation.

Now that I had a good silhouette of the character in place, I wanted to add some more detail to the background. I started by selecting a hard, round brush and loosely drawing in some tree branches choosing light, saturated shades to prevent the contrast from becoming too harsh. This helps to create atmospheric depth, which is an important effect in an illustration like this. Bare branches look OK, but this image was about autumn and warmth, and so I needed to add some leaves to the trees. I did this by selecting another one of my custom brushes designed to create instant areas of leaves (Fig A), and started working on top of the branches, colour picking from nearby areas.



At this point, all of the important elements were in place and it was time to start blocking in some detail on the figure.

One of the things I like to do when working on a character based illustration is to concentrate on the face very early on in the creation process. Once I've worked that up to a high standard, it takes a lot of the pressure off and also sets a kind of benchmark that I can refer back to when detailing the rest of the image. For this image I wanted to portray beauty and warmth, but with the suggestion of a darker side.

Armed with a wide selection of reference photographs, I zoomed in and started sketching in the rough shape of her features, concentrating on the eyes at first, and then working downwards to her lips. I had to make several changes to get the eyes right, spending about an hour in total just getting the face to this level:

Once I was happy with the way her face was looking, I zoomed back out and blocked in the rest of her figure keeping things very loose and sketchy. I shortened the length of her thigh pads and added some lines to suggest a leafy design and texture which I then applied to other parts of her outfit. I then worked on the foreground area to her left and right using a few textured brushes, as well as hard brushes to suggest areas of vegetation. It was important not to get carried away with small details at this point, I was just trying to create shapes and lines that would read as plant life and add to the composition of the piece by leading the eye towards the figure in the centre.

Now it was time to zoom back in and add more definition to her face. This was the stage that was going to either make or break the illustration, and so required the most time. The first thing I did was to add some depth to her eyes and nose, which were looking a little flat at this point. I placed my main light source overhead in order to create dark areas around her eyes, so it was important to get the shading right without making it look like she has bags under her eyes.

After spending an hour refining her face, it was time to make my way downwards and paint in the rest of her body. Sticking close to my reference and continuing to colour pick from that original photograph, I used a few simple, soft round brushes to detail her skin, keeping in mind where my light source was and how saturated the shadows should be. I made a major change to the shoulder pad at this stage as I felt the shape was too angular and didn't compliment the rest of the figure. Instead I went for a more rounded design, which I've since realised looks like a 'Koopa' shell from Mario Bros! I chose not to use any reference for her neckwear, preferring to design it as I went along going for an organic look. I did the same for the decoration around her naval. I added some greener tones to her skin from the chest down as I wanted to give the impression that there are bright plants and flowers just out of shot that are reflecting the main light back up onto her body, mainly to help intergrate her with the environment because we can't see her feet. By now the figure was nearing the final stages.

With only a few areas left to work on now, I started with the hair, adding more detailed strands and generally cleaning up my earlier block in. I used the colour dodge tool to create a strong highlight on the right side of her head which continues down to her hip, again to integrate her into the environment, avoiding the 'pasted in' look. I also went in and smoothed out her face, added eyelashes and adjusted the lighting on her lips to give more of a matte finish.

The next thing to finalise was the background. I quickly went back to my reference material and picked out a few elements that I thought would make interesting additions to my illustration. I started from the top, adding the waterfall first and suggesting some rock faces in the background. I then worked my way down creating the vines and tree roots that all act as guides to lock the eye onto the central figure. I added texture to the foreground tree using another custom brush (Fig B), and gave its surface a 3-dimensional look by zooming in and picking out individual highlights with a three pixel brush. Another custom brush provided instant vegetation at the base of the tree and on the opposite bank; these were some of the last touches I needed to make.

Finally it was time to zoom out and remove any traces of the original line work. Once that was complete I flattened the image and used the colour dodge tool to add a saturated glow around the background light source. This helped to dramatically increase the atmospheric depth and help tie the foreground and background elements together. It was during this process that I realised that something was missing from my autumn scene: falling leaves! I created a new layer and started to draw in some leaves based on my reference photographs, but they ended up looking too realistic and didn't fit in with the style of the illustration. So instead I created a new custom brush in the basic shape of a leaf, set the shape and angle to vary with pressure, and set the spacing to maximum. Then, with a few strokes and a bit of motion blur, I had a nice set of floating leaves to give the image a more dynamic feel. Finally, I flattened the image and used the sharpen tool bring out the highlights on her face and on her outfit. Then it was time to sit back and admire my Autumnal scene...

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