Making of 'The Taming of Naas'
Since my personal work has been known to the public mostly through traditional mediums (such as oils and acrylics), people are often surprised when I tell them I also work digitally, and that most of my book covers are now done in Photoshop. The digital media is not new to me; in fact, I started to use it when I was doing concept artwork on "Dinosaur", in 1996. It took me a while to like it, but when you realise how much control you have on all your parameters, it can become addictive. In any case, I would never replace a classical training in traditional mediums with an exclusive digital training. Of course, Photoshop or any other digital package makes things easier on a practical level, but the artistic principles to follow are still exactly the same, and mixing real paint teaches you in depth how colour works in nature.
Step 1: Preliminary Sketch
This is the concept stage where I use a mix of imagination and observation of nature to build the structure of my illustration. I create a more refined sketch of the original concept along the way. At this stage lighting isn't emphasised - just lines that will define the elements and objects of the scene. Sometimes I also put black and white lighting in at this stage, but in this case I already have in mind a pretty good idea of what the lighting will be, so I go directly to colour (Fig.01).
This phase is the most critical one of all: I need to determine the exact balance of values and colours that will be the foundation of the painting. This is a block-in, so catching the general mood of the final image is more important than thinking of details, here. It has to be as accurate as possible to be believable. In some cases it will need adjustments later on, but these adjustments shouldn't be too far off this original block-in. I usually turn the sketch layer to Multiply in order to keep the sketch visible on top of the painting (Fig.02).
I refine the original block in and start to work on the sky and the distant mountainous landscape. The balance between cool and warm colours is very important to give a slightly translucent effect to the clouds. Another important aspect to watch is that the clouds need to acquire volume and three-dimensionality, without losing their softness. You also have to remember all the reflection issues; the more a cloud is in the shade, the more it's going to be reflecting a cooler light from the sky, instead of the sun. Mountains here must show the depth of the background. The furthest ones need to be closer in value to the sky and clouds, whilst the middle range and closer ones must give a sense of solidity with darker values, without losing their depth and values in relation to the foreground and character (Fig03).
In this phase, I work on the rock on which the dragon is standing, and I start adding details onto the dragon itself - particularly the head. At this point, it is the proper balance of darks and lights placed on the foreground elements, along with a good balance of warm and cool colours that are going to build the right volumes against the distant background. A lot of different things can affect the depth of elements in an image; fog, smoke, rain, snow and so on. As a general rule, the closer the elements are, the more saturated their colours will be and the greater the contrast between light and shadow will be (Fig04).
Now I finish detailing the dragon, trying to push realism in the skin, scales, and so on (Fig05).
I separate all elements in the image now as individual layers, to allow the maximum flexibility (Fig06).
In the final image, I complete the woman floating before the dragon. It is a delicate part, as her dress has to feel soft and slightly transparent. I add the last touches of realism (like the smoke still coming out of the dragon's nose) and I make sure that everything is in balance between the landscape and the characters. At this point, you want to review the whole painting and make sure that all the colours and values are working together harmoniously. If you see some values too dark or colours too saturated in the background that fight with the readability of the character, it's time to knock them down! The same thing applies with the values or edges that may be too tame or not descriptive enough. The last look over your painting is about being as critical as you can be on your work. If an area has been really nicely worked, but in the end comes in the way of readability or clarity of the whole image - simplify it. Your final image is always about composition, stylisation, clarity and balance. Whether you paint digitally or traditionally, these principles apply in exactly the same way. The quality of a painting doesn't depend on what tools you use, but on how you use them.