Making Of 'Returm to the Fire Escape'

I decided that for this tutorial I will be adding a lot more detail shots throughout the process so that you can get a better idea of how loose my brushwork really is. A lot of times when people see my work they say "that is a photo" or "he painted on top of a photo," which I think is funny because my work is actually quite loose. I wanted to show that you can achieve a "photo real" illustration not by adding tons of detail, but by getting the shapes, colors, and values correct. If you can get these things correct you can paint very loose and still create a very lifelike and believable piece. There are tons of artists that do this, like Craig Mullins, Richard Schmid, and John Singer Sargent.

The first step is to always put in your main shapes! This will help you organize your composition and give you a starting point from which you can build your illustration. The brush I am using for the block-in is just a Photoshop default brush with the "other dynamics" set to pen pressure for opacity. I don't even worry about making my shapes refined, I just leave them very loose because I know I will be coming back and refining them later. I want to get this step done in a few seconds.

Using the same brush, I start laying down the base colors for the light and shadow side of the building. I make sure that I work at about 25-50% of the viewable file size and do not zoom in until much later (if at all). My working file size is around 2800x2000 pixels.

Next I put in the main shape for the tree and start refining and correcting the main shapes of the building. The brush I used for the tree is a round brush with "shape dynamics" set to pen pressure for size and opacity at 100%. This way I can get some very hard edges.

It is a good idea to regularly flip your image so that you can see it from a new perspective. This will allow you to see errors more clearly, as well as evaluate your composition. Usually I flip my image every few minutes. Don't just flip your image and then flip it back, but flip it, paint on the flipped version, flip it back, paint on that version, and so on. I am still always correcting my shapes.

I try to never automatically put down the brightest brights or darkest darks. If you start out with a middle tone you can work up to the brights as well as work down to the darks. This way you can get a larger range of values. Another good thing about starting with a middle tone and building up is that you can get a variation of colors and values by allowing that middle tone to show through your layers almost like an under painting when working with traditional media. This will give your painting a more energetic and believable feel.

Most of my lines are painted freehand, but sometimes I will put down a guideline by setting my brush down at the starting point, holding down shift, and then clicking at the end point. I then go back and erase parts of the line to make the windows.

I am still working at 25% of the viewable size. I ended up erasing the second row of windows because they were a bit too high. I am also starting to put in the fire escape. Most of the time I am using a round brush for the fire escape, rails, pipes, etc. One thing to always keep in mind when working on an illustration is edge control. Try and keep a good balance of hard and soft edges.

Don't forget about the little things that will make an illustration more interesting, like little spots of light. Also adding spots of light in dark areas helps to break up the space.


Now I am back to using the flat brush that I used in step 1. I use this brush a lot when I am painting large areas or painting shadow shapes. Actually, I use the brush all the time, but especially for the parts I just mentioned. I really like this brush because you can get soft shapes as well as hard edges by just using it at a smaller size. It is also good for creating different planes simply by rotating the brush.

There are a variety of ways you can add texture to your paintings, and I used a few in this illustration. One way is to just paint it in by hand. For the bricks in the foreground I just put in some really loose squiggles, but from far away they look like bricks. Another way is to use photo overlays, which I will explain later in the tutorial.

The shadows that the front balcony cast are really interesting because they define the shape of the surface they fall upon. By only painting the shadows I can describe what the building is like without having to paint anything else.

The other way that I add texture, as I mentioned before, is to use a photo overlay. This is a photo that I took of some concrete. Copy and paste your photo into a new layer in your illustration. Then take that layer and set it to "color burn" and set the opacity to 33%. Most of the time I set the layer to "overlay" but you can use different settings. Try them all out and see which one works the best in that situation. After adding the texture layer I always add a new layer and paint opaquely on top of it, that way you can integrate the texture into your painting more and it won't look so alien.

Windows are really fun to paint because you can work with both interesting shadow shapes as well as reflections from other buildings. They hint at the surrounding environment without you having to actually paint it.

The fire escape on the right side was really interesting because half of it was in light and half was in shadow. You can get some really cool points of light shining through the areas of shadow, like on the ladders. Again, I am still primarily painting at 25% zoom. You can see in the detail shot that the railing on the fire escape is actually pretty loose and crooked and the perspective is a little off in some places. There is a fine line between how loose you should paint and how refined you need to go. Trying to find that balance takes a lot of practice, and one that I have not fully come to tackle. Starting an illustration is the easy part, knowing how to finish an illustration is the hard part

To see more by Daarken, check out Elysium: The Art of Daarken

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