Making of 'Forest Mage'
This "Forest Mage" image was created for a book of the same name, written by Robin Hobb and published by Harper Collins.
Phase 1 : Concept sketches
First, I got instructions from the art designer on the project to start designing rough sketches based on the ideas he had discussed with the editor and the director of production. I did two on paper and toned them in Photoshop (I actually did more than that, but the other ideas were completely abandoned, so I will only show what was relevant to this idea) (Fig.01 & Fig.02).
In those two sketches, I worried more about composition and lighting than anything else.
The scene was supposed to take place in daytime, but it was in a forest, and the lighting had to reflect a strange and slightly dark mood.
The second sketch was chosen. Later on, the vines taking life around the sleeping woman were added to give an even more eerie atmosphere.
Phase 2 : Gathering references and preparing a mock up of the cover
Once the art director had chosen the second sketch, I started gathering reference pictures. In this case, I asked a friend to pose for me and arranged drapes on her. I took a couple of general pictures and then some close up ones for details (Fig.03 - Fig.06).
At this point, I also started to build the lighting a little more accurately by doing a quick pass in Photoshop on the picture that was going to be my main reference (Fig.07).
Then, with that picture and the initial sketch, I did a quick digital mockup of the full picture as a cover, trying to match the mood I had in the original sketch, and adding basic fonts to check for title placement options (Fig.08).
At the end of this phase, I drew a final sketch on paper that would serve as the line foundation for the painting (Fig.09). I scanned the line sketch into Photoshop and made it a separate layer. I pushed contrast and brightness on it, so that the whites were whiter and the grays blacker. Then I turned the layer onto multiply mode to make it transparent and created another layer underneath.
Phase 3: The painting
I started painting underneath the sketch, roughly blocking out the background and trees (Fig.10).
Separating as many paint layers as possible according to the composition was necessary in order to keep control of future individual adjustments. I finished all the layering with a basic neutral lighting and turned off the line layer (Fig.11 & Fig.12).
I then began refining the folds on the dress, the lighting on the woman and tree, and added leaves on the ground (Fig.13).
At this point, it became important to readjust the general darkness and color saturation on all the layers, and I continued developing the details and light on the dress. I was starting to have a better idea of what the final image was going to look like, but there was still a long way and many adjustments to go (Fig.14).
It was now time to finish the forest in the background, as I kept pushing definition on all the layers. I tried to keep the soft aspect of the misty atmosphere by adding just the right amount of details, and I readjusted darkness and saturation again (Fig.15).
Layer after layer, from the background to the foreground, I refined all the texture details and lighting. On the trees, the ground, the leaves, the dress, the woman, etc. The key here was to avoid adding too much detail and still keep a clear overall vision of what the image needed and where. It can be very easy to overwork details and brushstrokes. You have to remember that everything that's in shadow doesn't necessarily need too much detail, just the suggestion of it.
The same goes for the elements that are further away. The further the object, the more you can simplify the textures, still keeping a general sense of volume. More detailing applies to whatever is in full light. For that reason, I pushed the darks and lights in the image further and the saturation one more time (Fig.16).
After the picture was complete, the art director - based on the editor and publisher's request - asked that I add a sword planted in the ground. I then designed a sword and added it next to the sleeping woman (Fig.17 & Fig.18).
Notice how the subtle mix of warm and cool tones in the dress helps to give it a slightly translucent appearance, especially in the shade (Fig.19).
Finally, the image was ready for cover printing (Fig.20).