Making Of 'Human Touch'


Welcome to my digital illustration demonstration. There are many ways of creating a digital painting.  This is just my way.  I've been trying my best to mimic my traditional oil painting with digital media and have found Photoshop CS2 ideal for this purpose. I tend to stay away from various filters and plug-ins while I work.  I have a big library of custom brushes that I hardly ever use.  Most of this painting was done with the same 4 brushes used at varying sizes and texture levels.  These 4 brushes mimic the flats and filbert brushes I normally use in oils.   Throughout this illustration I used very few layers: one for the background, one for the foreground, separate layers for both figures, plus a few adjustment layers, and that's about it.  I don't have a super fast computer so having few layers keeps my file size down and allows me to slush pixels around without any 'slow-downs'.

Human Touch began as a sketch I did for an old CGTalk competition a few years ago.  Due to work I was unable to move beyond the sketch stage until recently.  I always wanted to go back and finish it when I had the time.  Even though the title of the competition screamed for it, I'm not really into the whole dark post apocalyptic theme.  Instead I decided to paint a simple narrative of a husband and the lengths at which he would go to save his dying wife.  I wanted to create a poignant scene that depicted the moment when the pressure sensors in the remains of the woman's upper torso became active so that she could once again experience human touch.  The challenge in this painting was in trying to design believable robotic parts implanted into her chest cavity.  I wanted to create a brightly lit medical laboratory that looked convincing enough without taking away from the focal point of the illustration.

Concept Sketches

Each Illustration starts from creating thumbnail sketches.  For this painting I wanted to play with another laboratory environment, only this time I wanted to convey the idea that the viewer is outside looking in through a space station lab window (Fig01 and Fig02).  I played with art nouveau inspired designs for the outer hull of the space station.  Background figures and additional lab equipment were indicated through the porthole style windows.  Since the focus of the illustration was the interaction between the two main characters, I decided that all this extra environmental detail was unnecessary and had to go (Fig03).

Fig. 01

Fig. 02

Fig. 03

While creating rough drawings I am always thinking about mood, lighting, atmosphere, size relationships, composition and the overall concept.  After producing some loose thumbnail sketches I then create a rough final drawing as a guide for my next few steps.  For me, this stage is the most fun, as here I begin focusing on character and costume designs, architectural detail and other background elements.  Depending on the illustration, machinery and other conceptual designs are all worked on as well at this stage.

Gathering References

With a fairly good idea of what the composition and overall concept would be, I set out to find reference materials for the figure and environment.  I spent time looking at art deco style stained glass as reference for various computer panels.  Photos of hydraulic lifts and computer wires were also collected.  A photo shoot of professional models was done for the figure references.  I also looked up photos of radiation burn victims and amputees.  I knew going into this that there needed to be a distinct difference in skin colour between the man and woman.  She needed to appear sickly and pale, with burns and scarring on her upper torso (Fig04).

Fig. 04

Final Drawing

When I'd finished gathering my references, all that was left was to complete a detailed final drawing from which to paint.  My line drawing was done completely in Photoshop.  Some illustrators prefer to draw on paper and scan in their final drawing, but I'm most comfortable working every stage digitally.  I took my rough sketch and scaled it up to 15x20" at 300 dpi, which was the size I wanted to paint the final illustration at.  A second layer was created and filled with white, and then the opacity was dropped to around 75%.  This acted as a translucent veil that allowed me to still make out the rough sketch and use it as a guide for the figure placement and background details.  I added a third layer and began my drawing (Fig05).

Fig. 05

Colour Studies

Before starting the final painting it was necessary for me to settle on a colour scheme for the illustration.  My colour studies are all done at a much reduced scale from the final painting size, although I sometimes set out to create an analogous colour scheme.  I ultimately stayed in my comfort zone and stuck with complementary tones.  Since a complementary scheme has the most colour contrast, I thought it might work best, especially around the woman's body.  The ceiling light was the one dominant colour that affected everything else in the painting.  Complementary tones were then used for colour accents and to highlight important elements (Fig06).

Fig. 06

While working out the colour, I created an adjustment layer and dropped the saturation to 0%.  This allowed me to see my study in greyscale so I could check my values.  I needed to be sure there was enough light/dark contrast in the painting.  I kept in mind that, in interior lighting scenarios with multiple artificial lights, as objects go back in space, they lose contrast and become lighter than foreground values.

Final Painting

Now for the main event.  When working in oils I follow the Frank Reilly system of painting.  This method taught me to paint with a controlled palette.  Almost all my essential colours are pre-mixed into value strings from light to dark.   When I decided to work digitally I saw no reason to change that approach.  I have a PSD file that has a value bar for the entire colour wheel and a greyscale bar next to it.  I'm then able to adjust the chroma of a hue simply by picking the foreground colour and its grey equivalent.    With Photoshop's colour dynamics turned on and switched to pen pressure, I can control the intensity of colour by how hard or soft I press down on the tablet (Fig07).

Fig. 07

Once I've settled on a colour scheme I create a new file with my flattened line drawing as the base layer.  I take my colour study layer and scale it up to my final working dimensions, then lay it over the base layer.  This eliminates the white canvas and serves as my first wash of colour.  This is a step I would traditionally do in acrylics (Fig08).

Fig. 08


I created a new layer above the colour wash and began working on the background.  I always work from background to foreground while constantly checking my values and light/dark contrast (Fig09 and Fig10).

Fig. 09

Fig. 10

Once I have established colour and my values for a painting, and when I have a general idea where the piece is going, I tend to just move across/up or down through a painting, until complete.  As I work from background to foreground, I start to see the painting in quarter sections that need to be completed as I go.  I like to see my under drawing 'road map' as I paint.
As you can see from Fig 11, I'm just about finished with the background at this stage and have moved on to the foreground window arches and added my art deco influenced design to the background view screen.  When designing the lab environment, I knew I wanted to try painting a scene where the main characters and foreground details were rim lit by a bright light source shining from inside the picture.  This was an idea inspired by Orientalist painters.  Only, in this painting, I didn't want the figure details to get lost in silhouette.  I established that there would be a diffuse main light coming in from the window which helps to softly illuminate the figures facing away from the back lighting. 

Fig. 11

With the painting of the background and window frame finished, I could then move back inside to paint the foreground.  The foreground lab table seemed unbalanced with only one glowing monitor to the left.  I also wanted to hide the hard angles that made up the edges of the table,  so I added two more monitors to the corners of the table for the eye to comfortably roll off (Fig12).

Fig. 12

When it came time to paint the figures, I started working on the robotic parts of the woman first.  I wasn't satisfied with my initial design for the support legs holding her torso in place.  I looked back at my references of hydraulics and completely changed the support lift design to something that looked like it could raise and lower her body to various heights.  I always enjoy painting in glowing light sources, so painting in all the tubes and blue reflected lights was the most fun part of the illustration for me!  (Fig13)

Fig. 13

With the woman's torso and machinery worked out, I moved on to the man and woman's bodies.  When I first started painting digitally I got caught up in that "paint every pore" treatment.  I don't have the patience for that anymore; I prefer to keep everything pretty loose and painterly when seen at 100% image size.  When it comes time to paint the figure, I usually have the works of my mentor Garin Baker and contemporary artist Scott Burdick on the screen for inspiration.  I always paint the figure last, working and adjusting the figures' skin tone to fit the environment - never the other way around.  I paint thinly both in oils and digitally.  I'll also often leave some of the original drawing to show through - not as a design choice but simply to save time.  It isn't necessary for me to render out every little detail.  Working with my paintbrush set with Colour Dynamics checked and at between 50-70% opacity, I began building up the man's shirt and face.  Painting with a low opacity gives the impression of working from thin to thick.  Each brushstroke builds up the colour and helps me to shape and mould the form while still allowing me to see my under drawing (Fig14, Fig15 and Fig16).

Fig. 16

Fig. 16

Finishing Touches

The very last thing I worked on in this painting was the woman's face, and small tweaks were made to her body to give her skin that pale sickly look I intended.  Body scars and burn marks were added in around her face, neck and what is left of her breasts.  Since the woman was painted on a layer separate from the man, I was able to create an adjustment layer to add in cool blues and greens to her body only.  Darker purples and green tones were added in and around her eyes, as well as a few wisps of hair over her forehead.  Voila, finito!  (Fig17)

Fig. 17

Fig. 17

This illustration took about a total of 50 hours to complete, from start to finish.  This is my normal workflow.  My stages of development (concept sketch, colour sketch, reference gathering, final drawing and painting) are unchanged from my traditional approach.   I hope this gives you an idea of how to approach a painting.

Final Image


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