Making of “The Windmill”
Get in the Halloween mood with Andrew Walsh's "Old Mill"-inspired spooky moonlit windmill and carriage Photoshop tutorial...
I'm a huge fan of Halloween and every year I try to make a painting inspired by the spooky vibes of autumn. I try to watch Disney's Sleepy Hollow animation from the late 40s each year and that heavily inspired this piece, as well as Disney's 1930s short The Old Mill. I love that old hand-painted style which used to exist in animation but has been slowly phased out.
A lot of my research was aimed at other artists' work which was a mixture of current digital artists and old-school Disney artists. I even watched The Old Mill and took screenshots for reference. If you want to improve as an artist, and who doesn't, then you have to find art work that is better than yours and learn how those artists interpret light, form, texture and so on, and try to draw parts of that inspiration into each painting you make. Besides the art reference, I also researched actual photographs of old windmills, moors, trees and carriages.
So I had a few things I wanted to lock down in the thumbnail; pumpkins, a building (ideally a windmill) and a rural setting of a couple hundred years ago. The odd thumbnail may have strayed slightly but that was the core brief. I also wanted good lighting with the opportunity for some nice rim light. So I played with strong silhouettes of old wooden houses, fences, trees and so on, to get that historical Halloween vibe, and then played with mist and rim lights to really punch the spooky mood. Eventually I settled on the bottom-left thumbnail in the second set of thumbs as I liked the idea of a person travelling through the scene so we could relate to it. The overall composition here gives a 1-2-3 triangular read between the moon, the mill, and the carriage.
I up-res the thumbnail file, including all the layers, to full size (around 4,000px) and the first thing I do is start to work in the sky so I can then know how the global light scheme will work. In most outdoor scenes, the sky is the first thing to lock down as it's the biggest source of light. I'll be going for a direct light set up and it will be pretty soft because although it's coming from the moon it'll pass through a bit of haze and cloud. So I begin scribbling in a rough sky with some moody clouds and the color palette starts to take shape.
Setting the sky and silhouettes
I eventually get the gist of the sky done and I have to admit, it took a few attempts. I settled on this kind of sandwich shape of dark cloud silhouettes on the bottom, kind of in front, and then the top layer would sit just above and a bit behind the mood so I can up-light it and get in some rim light too. Phew. It was quite a battle, but now I can relax a little and just get on with rendering.
Consistent shape language
It might be subtle but I'm starting to create some shape language by this stage in the creation. You'll notice this kind of rounded oval shape that emanates from the roundness of the moon and echoes out through the clouds, and then is followed by the contour of the windmill (notice the slight curve). Now that I've set that up I'll be following it throughout the scene. This will help give a comfortable flow to the scene's composition.
So while the mid ground is pretty boring and is mainly open grassy moorland, the road that I placed on it has a nice flowing switchback which shoots out to the right, then cuts back to the left, before bending back around to the right again, sending our eye to the Windmill. This will, compositionally, give us a nice sweeping route through the painting to our destination - the windmill.
So I rendered out the foreground, adding some puddles and reflections for added realism and to place some of the brighter blues at the bottom so they're not all bunched up in the sky. It also allows me to guide the viewer's eye into the painting like arrows. You'll also notice that shape language from before has been implemented into the curve of the trees. I added the fence for some extra spooky silhouette goodness. It gives us a sense of age and adds mood but also points us into the scene. Finally, I added a foreground rolling ground plane/hump for some extra depth. Now we really flow from strong, rolling fore into deep background.
Rendering the trees and windmill
Now for the easy and fun part - rendering spooky old trees! I wanted the trees to be pretty much black in terms of their local color/texture. Quite dead. But also have them a little damp and shiny to really pick up sharp rim lighting. I then rendered the windmill and added old, tatty sails where the torn material is pointing like fingers toward one of our main compositional elements - the moon.
This was one of those aspects of the painting that I'd avoided as I figured painting a carriage would be very tricky. It actually turned out to be fairly simple. I made a boxy shape for the body of the carriage, made sure it was in perspective and then added wheels. The reflection really helps sell it.
Originally I wanted to have lit jack-o-lanterns on either side of the road but they just didn't look right. I think they were a little distracting. So I made them muted and sitting in the shadows. I added a broken pumpkin in the near foreground as an homage to the original Disney cartoon where there's a similar image as the movie closes. Finally, again as a tribute to the Ichabod cartoon, I added some swampy cattails in the foreground which feature in a spooky scene near the end. I'm really pleased with the end result and it was nice to paint something inspired by a movie that I've loved since childhood.