Making Of 'Bird Catcher'

Here I'm going to try to explain my Photoshop painting process, from first doodle through to a finished painting. As I go along, I'll detail both what's happening on the canvas and what's going around my head. I'll be working on a 2480 x 3508 pixel canvas ( A4 at 300dpi ). This is a high enough resolution should I ever want to print or publish the image in the future, but also fits nicely on my monitor at 25% magnification, which allows me to see the whole image as I work. Except where stated in the text, the painting is being worked on at that magnification throughout.

A note on brushes

I use my own custom brushes for all my painting, though I'm not going to go into any detail on brush creation during this walkthrough. There are two reasons for this - firstly, there are plenty of excellent brush tutorials out there already and I don't feel that I have much to add to the information already available, and secondly, Photoshop's brush engine is very easy to use and I hope anyone with an interest in custom brushes will take the time to experiment with the settings on offer to find their own custom brush settings; it really is a lot of fun, and certainly the best way to learn.The brushes I use fall into three basic categories - soft edge, hard edge and texture. I'll mention which I'm using as I go along and it really doesn't matter exactly what brush is being used as long as they fit into those basic categories. The standard airbrush, Dense Stipple 56 ( Natural Brushes set ) and Rolled Rag - Terry 120 ( Faux Finish set ) Photoshop defaults will do just as good a job as any fancy custom creation if used correctly.Whatever brush I'm using, I have my graphic tablet set up the same; stylus pressure controls opacity and nothing else. I use the square bracket keyboard shortcuts to control the size of my brush while I work, and I vary this regularly to break up the marks I'm making.One final brush setting to be aware of is texture. I use this a lot to help break up my brush marks, and it's worth spending some time experimenting with this area of the brushes palette to see what kind of effects can be had. Again, the Photoshop defaults are perfecty acceptable in most situations, particularly the Texture Fill and Rock Pattern sets.


I began by sketching out a rough idea for my image. I've decided to paint something fun for myself, so I've chosen a fantasy demon character, but that's as far as my concept goes at this stage so I just doodle around for a while. The hunched-over pose was suggested by imagining the character's spiteful, covetous personality; I find it really helps to try and get into the spirit of the image I'm working on so there's a fair amount of face-pulling and growling going on while I scribble away. As you can probably see I'm not that fond of working with lines, so as soon as I have something that feels right, however rough, I'm ready to move on.


Here's where the painting begins. I'm much happier here than with a sketch, and I'll often begin a piece by jumping straight into this stage. I create a new layer, filled with a mid grey, and proceed to block in a tighter version of the image working mostly with a large, hard-edged brush. I'll click my working layer off to reference the sketch every once in a while, but I'm not concerned with tracing any part of it - I'm looking here to refine the idea into a strong composition. Ideally, I'm trying to compose an image that can be read by silhouette alone for maximum impact, so I'm working with just two or three mid to dark tones. I think I'd consider this stage the most important part of the painting process - these basic values are the 'bones' of the image and if it doesn't work here, no amount of work with colour or detail will rescue it.

Once I'm happy with the placement of values in the composition, I'll begin to define the significant forms a little, again working with just a couple of tones to keep things bold. I take the opportunity to tweak the position of the demon's hand here, so he appears to be looking more directly at it's contents. What is he holding? It needs to be something bright to draw the viewer's eye to that point, but I still haven't decided quite what it should be. I often leave trivial elements like this undecided as I find it helps to keep me interested in the picture as it progresses. Generally speaking though, this is bad practise and I'd recommend working things like this out thoroughly at this stage.


Next, I duplicate the painting onto a new layer which I then set to multiply, with the opacity dropped to around 70%. On the layer beneath, I begin to lay in some basic colours. I want the overall colour scheme to be quite cool, but with some warm tones in the demon's flesh to pull him out of the background so I begin by filling the base layer with a grey-green colour. On top of this, I work some lighter tones into the background with a large, soft brush to strenghten the character's silhouette - I'm adding some blueish hues here to cool off the green base. Now it's time to work on the demon, so I roughly block in the character's form with a de-saturated purple to give a little contrast with the green/blue background before adding pink and orange flesh tones on top. Essentially, all I'm doing here is colouring in the value sketch - I'm not concerned with adding any extra definition to the painting just yet as you can see from the rough 'n' ready state of the base layer. When I'm done here, I flatten the image. That's the last time I'll use layers on this painting until the very last stages.

A note on layers: As far as possible, I like to work on a single layer when I paint. That allows me to focus simply on the painting process, and not layer management - I always seem to end up painting on the wrong one if I have more than two layers, anyway! There's very little in the way I work that actually requires layers - if I make a mistake, I'll paint it out, or use the history palette to undo that stroke.


With the basic colours established, I can start rendering. I find it easier to gadually build up the rendering from dark to light - this first pass will define the forms with mid-tones. Hopefully, the detail shots will help to show how I approach this stage.
I begin by colour picking from the area of the painting that I intend to work on ( shoulder and upper arm in this case ), then shift that colour to be slightly brighter to provide me with my mid-tone, maybe also shifting the hue to make it slightly warmer depending on where I'm working. I'll then use a soft brush to dab this colour back onto the area I want to render up, working very gently to keep the opacity low. This lifts the general brightness in the area, without obscuring too much of the underpainting. Now I'll swap to a hard-edged brush and begin to slowly work up the forms - I approach this very much as if I was using pencil crayons, or scumbling with oils, gradually building up the colour with a series of light, repeated strokes. Using a texture on your brush ( see A note on brushes ) really helps here. In some places ( veins and around the chin and eye ), I may use a heavier stroke to introduce some hard edges, working back over them with soft strokes if necessary. I'm mostly adding lighter tones here, just occasionally colour picking a dark colour to add a hard edge here and there.
This process continues around the image, taking care to work within the overall pattern of values layed out at the beginning. For the most part, I'll remain at 25% magnification for this stage, though I'll zoom in to 50% here and there where I want to tighten things a little further.


Now it's time to throw in a background. I follow a very similar pattern here to the rendering process above - colour picking in the area that I intend to work in, shifting the colour to provide me with the hue I want, then dabbing with soft and texture brushes before finally working in around the character with hard-edged brushes. I choose quite a strong green here, as I like the way it contrasts with the red flesh, and introduce some blues around the bottom. An abstracted background such as this can be very useful in balancing out the composition. The flow of the picture up to this point is very much on the diagonal, from bottom left to mid right, through the angle of the rock and the placement of the demon's limbs ( red arrows ). I'm hoping to balance this by introducing a contrasting flow in the background (white arrows ). If I've done it right, the flow should converge on the demon's open hand, reinforcing it as the principal focus in the image.


Hmm. I can't put off tackling the contents of that hand any further. Several ideas have come to me while I've been working - a captive fantasy damsel, a kitten, the remains of a brave warrior. None of them seem 'right' somehow, so I decide to play safe and go for a skull, with a few other bones scattered on the rock. I build up the skulls in the same way as the rest of the image - painting in dark base tones first, then layering lighter colours on top, until they're at the same mid-tone rendered level as everything else.

Final Render

Time for a final render pass. I follow the same technique as before, dabbing with a soft brush and refining with a hard-edged brush, but with progressively lighter tones. I don't want to overload the painting with details, so I'm treading very lightly and trying to pick out only what's necessary - the shoulder, arm and fist, the demon's face and the skull in the hand. I know I still have highlights to come, so I'm not taking things too far. I also added a few simple pieces of jewellery to help add some interest in those 'secondary' areas not picked up in this render pass. Again, I'll jump to 50% zoom here and there for the more detailed work.


Less is definately more when it comes to highlights. If the rendering has been handled carefully, all that should be necessary here is a few well placed strokes. Bright highlights will draw the eye, so it's particularly important not to spread them into areas where I don't want the viewer's eye to settle. I use a hard-edged brush to accent the same principal elements as before - the arm, face and skull, with a few carefully placed marks on the horns, hoof and jewellery to help communicate their hard, shiny surface properties. I add the highlights on a seperate layer, so I can quickly swoop in with the eraser if I feel like I'm over-doing them.
I'm also balancing a few other areas of the image, adding some more bones and details to the rock, and working into the background with some brighter tones, trying to up the contrast around the demon's face and hand to hold the focus in that area.I think I'm just about done at this point, so I Ieave the pic to rest over night. I can look at it again tomorrow with fresh eyes.

Fresh Eyes

Oh dear! Spending a few hours away from an image can really give you a different perspective - the skulls just aren't working now I look at it again. I said that leaving certain elements undecided was bad practise; I should listen to my own advice! At least digital paintings are easy to adjust, so I paint out the hand and rock and prepare to begin again.


I paint the rock back in, this time with a more neutral colour, as I think the blue I used before was over saturated. The previous rock had lost it's 'flow' ( shown with the arrows earlier ) as I added details, so I'm careful to try and re-emphasize that as I work. As elsewhere, I'm working from broad, soft strokes and refining with smaller, harder marks. The basic rock is painted against the dark base colour using just two tones.
Now I have to tackle the problem of what the demon is doing up there on the rock again. The skulls didn't work because they didn't add anything to the picture - I want something that will help communicate the character's evil personality and suggest some kind of narrative. Perhaps wanton destruction of something beautiful, delicate and innocent? The idea of a spiteful child pulling the wings off insects pops into my head, so I decide to have him perched up there catching birds and I paint the hand back in as a fist.


Here I'm painting in the birds - following the same technique of working from dark to light, first roughly defining the shape of the dead birds on the rock with a dark colour, then laying down a mid tone to add some form with a final round of highlights on top. I want them to stay quite loosely rendered so as not to pull focus from the demon's face and hand.I've purposely hidden most of that unlucky bird inside the demon's fist so as not to make the painting too graphic, and hopefully lend a little ambiguity to the scene - the idea being that the image will reveal itself more slowly if the viewer has to notice the other, more obvious birds in the scene before realising that the bunches of feathers protruding from the hand belong to an unfortunate dove being crushed within the fist.

Tidying Up

Almost done. I'm much happier with the birds than I was with the skulls, so I'm just working around the painting picking away at any areas that still bother me. I paint in the flying birds in the background, keeping them very simple, add a few highlights to the demon's fist and work into the rock a little more.

Final Touches

I really hated that glowing eye from the earlier version so I paint in a more conventional eye, choosing a yellow/green hue that will hopefully stand out from the blue/green in the background. I also feel that the background is a little unbalanced, so I use a soft brush to stroke across some of the textures around the edge of the painting to reduce their contrast which should draw the focus more towards the centre, and touch some of the blue from the horizon into the top of the picture in an attempt to balance the distribution of colours a little better.

Conclusion and Critique

The painting feels complete, so I add my signature and give it a gentle pull with the levels tool in Photoshop to add a little extra punch. Done!

Now is a good time to look back and see if the image is a success. It's often interesting to compare the final product against those early value sketches to see what's changed - I think that comparison holds up well, with the composition and basic distribution of values remaining consistent throughout. I like the way the demon's flesh has ended up, though some more variation in hue across his body would be in improvement, in my opinion. The jewellery does it's job connecting the less well defined areas of the character's body, but looks a little like an afterthought - perhaps some more significant metalwork, maybe a belt or ornamentation on the horns would help to solve this? There are always lots of little niggles like this that I try to remember for the next time. The big one this time around is to make sure I have the contents of demon's hands worked out well before I start to paint..!

To see more by Matt Dixon, check out Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 7

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