Making Of 'Blue'


The idea behind this image was fairly simple - the profile of a young woman. I had a reasonably clear picture in my head before I started, the girl's expression, the art nouveau abstraction of her hair and headwear, and the visual style. I wanted to use blue, since I feel that my art relies a bit too heavily on warm palettes. You can clearly see the influence of some of my favourite artists; Alphonse Mucha, Moebius and Yoshitaka Amano. Blue was created with Adobe Photoshop 7.0, but these techniques can be applied to all the most recent versions. I use a Wacom Graphics tablet.

Line Art

I sketched the girl in pencil, then traced her using a black felt-tip pen onto tracing paper. No fancy pen or materials, since I'm not very finicky about such things. I'm not a skilled 'inker', so the penwork is very simple, with a consistent line weight throughout. The looseness and slightly wandering curves suggest a sort of fragility and innocence (compared to confident, strong lines). I set the blend mode of the line art layer to multiply, which makes the white areas transparent, leaving the dark lines visible. I then create a new layer underneath the canvas.

A 'dirty' canvas

On this new layer I created a mess of random, colourful brushwork. Above this layer, I copied in one of my favourite photographic textures, and set the blend more to overlay. This makes the colours more 'alive', and adds a natural texture to the canvas. This base canvas has nothing to do with what I eventually want, but it gives me a more interesting surface to work with.

Initial brushwork

For this illustration I used a natural-shaped brush, with opacity linked to tablet pressure, and some hue and saturation jitter. Jitter adds a bit of randomness - for example, jitter on hue means a red brush stroke will not be one pure colour, but will have bits of pink and orange in it. This is important, because I want the paint to change colour as I work.

I started colouring in all the different shapes. I paint with my finger on the 'alt' key so that I can change to the eyedropper tool frequently - usually every couple of seconds. I often pick colours up from my dirty canvas rather than from the swatch palette. I used whatever colour I thought would look nice in that particular spot - not really thinking about how the whole thing would look in the end.

To strengthen the edge of the girl's head I chose to make the background around her lighter, so I began painting this negative space, varying my brush size, stroke direction, and colour.

A bit of trickery

After painting about half the picture I decided that the colours had looked a bit flat, so I decided to make them more interesting - what I like to call 'exciting' or 'activating' them. Usually I do this by applying a texture on top, with a blend mode like soft light or overlay, as I did with the dirty canvas, but in this case I wanted to even out the difference between the top and bottom of the painting. To do this I made the line art layer invisible, copy-merged the entire canvas, and pasted it to a new layer, essentially giving me two copies of all the colour work, one on top of the other. I rotated the top layer 180 degrees and started going through all the difference blend modes to see the different effects I could get. I ended up choosing exclusion.

I wanted to preserve the original colouring of the face, so I added a new layer mask on the top layer and used a soft brush on the mask to reveal that area.


More brushwork and adjustments

Satisfied with the colours for now, I painted the rest of the hair, using the same techniques. I tried to vary the colours enough so that you could never say if part of the painting was entirely blue or purple or orange - it kept shifting. Colours by themselves are not beautiful - the relationship between two colours next to each other is what looks good. The abstract style of this painting allowed me to use whatever colours I wished, resulting in some interesting colour relationships. I only painted the girl's face a little, because I liked the existing texture. I brightened the whole picture with an adjustment layer, and added a rosy-brown gradient set to hard light to 'excite' the colours further. Lastly, I also decided to crop off the bottom of the picture, neatly solving the problem of how to depict her shoulder.

Background experiments

I felt that the girl's head needed to contrast more with the background. I experimented with using gold and a dark blue texture. One of the luxuries of digital art is being able to see these different paths your piece of art can take. I always try shifting colours and different texture overlays to see if I can find a more interesting look. In the end I adjusted the gold until the background looked like a dark, rosy grey.


Something was missing in this picture... something bright and small above her head. If this were a poster or book cover, the title would do nicely, but unfortunately I had to do with a fish. I drew it on the same kind of paper using some minnow photos for reference, scanned it and added it in on a separate layer. To accommodate the fish I had to extend the canvas upwards - using a combination of the clone brush and new regular brushwork. (foggy) I added an adjustment layer to correct the levels, adjusted the cropping and the picture was 'finished'. In truth I've actually tweaked it several times since then, due to feedback from fellow artists and also because I saw small things I could fix.

Although the final image isn't as blue as I had hoped, I couldn't think of a better name.

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