Narrative character tutorial: Lady of The Flowers - part 3: Foliage


“Hedychium densiflorum, known colloquially as the ginger lily, cast its fingers of scent towards the wild copse and winding paths at the edges of the dense, thick wood, hoping to ensnare two would-be delinquents passing through on their way to the Woodsman’s mortared cottage. Trygve and Yrsa, rushing along, sniffed at the air and found themselves, without thought or purpose, turned on their heels. They followed the scent through the dense, thick wood, filling their shoes with mulch and mud; bits of bush and low-grabbing branches painting scratches of red upon their skin.

Where the wood was its densest and the boughs its thickest, it was conversely the brightest with sunlight gushing forth from Night Phlox afire; painting the little house with life sitting quiet and mesmeric. Ivy and lily spindled and woven, into walls and roofs and windows and doors. A porch of roses and splendour, unthorned by the magic of the dweller’s charm. She sat on a swing made of daisies and perennials, and rainbow rhododendrums. A little wave waving at the end of her slender arm, her smile full of teeth. Hair lost to the shadows as dark as them. Her dress of flowers flowing across the blanketed approach, that moved in Trygve and Yrsa’s periphery. Thin snakes all around except for when they looked for them. The lady of the spells rose, as though aided by the wind or the house itself. “Welcome,” she said.”

This project will be exploring the above text and be made up of a couple of tutorials where we’ll be covering my process for- Character design, Composition, General Techniques and Foliage. I am using Photoshop and a Wacom Tablet for this project and am occasionally dipping in to Procreate.

Lady in flowers digital art

Plants as abstract shapes

Before we start, let's look at how abstract plants look from a distance. For the most part, what we see here is just a collection of textures and colors without many clear cut shapes and intricate details. Of course plants are very detailed, but you have to get up close to them to see this, from a distance, and as part of a scene, they’re actually quite chaotic and most of the intricacies are completely lost to our eyes. So, for this illustration I’ll be approaching plants in a very chaotic and suggestive way as they make up part of a scene where they are not the primary focal point.

Blockout colors

I start with a square brush, roughly blocking out the colors. Here I am painting some big shapes where I plan to have flowers. Details are not important at this point, only the general colors and overall feeling. I want to keep most of the color concentrated around the figure, this will include a lot of flowers, rich green leaves and deep colors like plum in the shadows.

blocking out colors

Base textures

Over a couple of layers I start with a square brush, roughly blocking out the colors. Here I am painting some big shapes where I plan to have flowers.

After this I use a couple of different very textural brushes to blend some of these colors together and lay the foundation for my foliage. It's always nice painting foliage over texture because it allows you to pull shapes out of the texture as well as never having any flat areas in the gaps.

creating textures with brushes digital art

Dark under

Whenever I paint any foliage i will always paint the darkest colors first, and then layer lighter colors on top of this. Plants create hundreds of layers between the leaves with varying depths in the shadows and I find that it feels a lot more natural if you start dark instead of laying the darks on top of the leaves.

Dark frame

To frame the image, I'm using my darkest tones right in front. The foliage I paint here will just be silhouetted, acting as a vignette. It’s not really important for any of this to be particularly fine or detailed as we don’t want to focus too much attention on it, the focal points are the only things we’ll be keeping nice and crisp.

Brightest brights

The text talks about “Night Phlox afire”. To me this indicates that some of the brightest parts of the image need to be in the Night Phlox, these are little white flowers with a touch of pink. I’m going to generally keep my flowers quite rough and suggestive so i throw down some very rough shapes. Note that even in grayscale, the Night Phlox are just a lil bit lighter than all the other flowers, this will help them read as nice and bright.

adding bright elements to digital art


Vines are always fun to paint because they have such bold shapes and tend to layer so beautifully. The easiest way I've found for painting vines is to use the lasso tool with a plain fill for start. Once I have filled the shape I simply select a lighter color and paint half the leaf that color. It’s simple, but very effective when there are many vines stacked on top of one another and you’re seeing them from a distance.

Vines – creating layers

You want to make sure that your vines give the impression of being made up of a lot of different layers, leaves upon leaves. To do this, on a new layer I repeat the lasso process a few more times, position those leaves behind my foreground leaves and darken them. For added depth I then select all the leaves (a quick way to do this in Photoshop is by hitting the Ctrl Key and clicking on the Layer Icon in your Layers tab) and paint some shadows from the overhanging leaves. Remember that to make it look like cast shadows they need to be over only a portion of the leaf surface or it will just look like a much darker leaf.

creating layers in digital are foliage

Pulling out shapes

Using our current darkest shadow tone we want to start pulling out the shapes of leaves from the background texture created earlier. I find that after dropping down a bunch of textures it can be quite easy finding shapes that feel organic. It’s important not to use anything darker than the darkest current shadow tones though as you don’t want it to feel like the shapes are being outlined. Using the shadow tones also means that where there are spaces, our brains will automatically tell us that those are filled with darker leaves hiding in the shadows. If it feels like there's not enough to work with, I just throw down some more texture and then try again!


Use higher saturation values to show parts where light is shining through leaves. Remember you don’t need to up the brightness to up the saturation. Something can appear brighter because the colors around it are muted or darker. I still want the brightest part of the image to be my focal point so I want to make sure these don’t overpower that.

Color in shadows

To avoid going too dark with my shadows I bring some more colour into them. As I'm using warmer tones around the central figure, I want to use some cooler blues and mysterious purples in the shadows further away. I also use this to further cutout and refine the shapes of some of my leaves and ground foliage.

Suggesting flowers

Without worrying too much about fine details I use a mix of tones to create flowers with textural brushes. Flowers tend to be very complex shapes and while i do love an intricately painted flower, i also don’t see the benefit of it for this piece as the flowers are complimenting the central figure and therefore aren’t the focal point. This means that creating “suggested” flowers with abstract brush strokes works perfectly. Note that I am using darker tones closest to the stems, with lighter and brighter tones to suggest the outer petals.

As you can see from the reference, flowers are busy and noisy, and at the zoom level we’ll be seeing them we really don’t need all the finer details for them to be able to read as flowers.


Closest to the camera I add in some reeds. If i was painting these one by one i would probably go about it using the lasso tool, but in this case I’ve opted for using a readymade reed brush. You heard me right! I’ve used a brush that I downloaded off the internet. There are a lot of funny opinions about this, but really, the brush does what i need in a short space of time and there's nothing wrong with taking a shortcut every now and then.

To help blend the reeds from the premade brush with the environment, I paint in some lighter parts and distort the shapes a lil bit by blending parts of them into my background using a hard square brush.

Floating leaves

Something I find with foliage is that it’s never really necessary to paint in stems. This can also save you a lot of time if you find the idea of painting foliage quite daunting. Because stems are often very thin, they get lost in the background quite easily. What this means is that you can paint realistic looking and feeling plants without needing to necessarily attach leaves to stems. I also like playing around with floating leaves to add variation to the shapes of plants.


As you can see, up close none of the plants I’ve painted are particularly detailed, but from a distance they all read as exactly what they're meant to be. You don’t need to paint a lot of detail to be able to suggest what things are. Our brains are very good at filling in the gaps in missing information and generally when we look at something we recognize, we’re able to imagine the details even if they aren’t there.

next tutorial in this series will be covering General Tips, Tricks and Techniques as well as focusing more on painting the figures and working with reference.

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