Narrative Tutorial: Making of A Demonic Birthday

Gina Nelson explains the thoughts and workflow behind her vibrant fantasy image based on a short piece of flash fiction...

What are the important elements from the text to focus on?
The text introduces us to a victim and a villain. I think it's important to try and portray the relationship between the two, a feeling of tension perhaps, or maybe a sense of dominance from the villain. In the final piece the snake should look rather pleased while the tree feels trapped, almost claustrophobic. The text describes the rich branches and the thickness of the foliage surrounding the tree, this makes for a perfect setting for the painting.

What goal are you looking to achieve with the final piece?
I'd like to achieve a thought provoking piece filled with mystery. The piece should portray the relationship between the two subjects, although I would like to keep this very subtle. I'd like the piece to be one that requires the viewer to stop and think about what is happening without it being entirely clear to begin with. I think that surrounding our victim with foliage and beautiful natural elements will help to make the piece feel uneasy as it will be lovely to look at but will have a darkness to it that exists between the subjects.

Step 1: Rough sketches

Before I start on a piece I like to do a few very rough sketches to visualise the ideas I have in my head. These sketches can be very rough, more than anything else they're just a collection of thoughts and ideas put together side by side so that I can easily pick out the one that will work the best.

Try to get your ideas out quickly and roughly, these initial sketches don't need to be pretty

Try to get your ideas out quickly and roughly, these initial sketches don't need to be pretty

Step 2: Refine the idea and gather references

I like to spend a bit of time doing some line work to refine the idea in the rough sketch a bit before getting into any more details. This really helps me to have a solid plan in place for where I'm going with the piece, and it's at this point that I can usually tell if what I'm planning to do is going to work or not. It's also a good time to gather references. I usually make a separate PSD file with all my reference materials that I can keep open and refer to as I need.

Refine the idea so that you have a solid plan to move forward with

Refine the idea so that you have a solid plan to move forward with

Step 3: Establishing basic colours and lighting

At this point I paint in some rough colours under the line work and try to establish my primary light source. In this case, because the majority of the painting will be foliage, the easiest place to start with is the face. I'll often draw some lines or a little sun on my painting to help guide me while I paint in my light source.

Always establish your light source early on as it's one of the most important parts of a painting and one of the most difficult things to change later on

Always establish your light source early on as it's one of the most important parts of a painting and one of the most difficult things to change later on

Step 4: Using the lasso tool to create shapes

The Lasso tool is one of my most used tools in Photoshop. Here I've used the Lasso tool to get my basic shapes for the snake and the leaves. This is an easy way to ensure that your drawing doesn't quickly become messy when working with a lot of fine details. Sometimes working carefully from the beginning can be easier than cleaning things up at the end. I've made 3 different layers of leaves and will quickly apply a bit of texture and lighting to them using a chalky brush and clipping masks in my Photoshop layers.

Use the Lasso tool to quickly cut out shapes and apply detail to them easily

Use the Lasso tool to quickly cut out shapes and apply detail to them easily

Step 5: Time to add in a few details

When painting in details it is absolutely crucial to work with reference, especially for organic matter. I'm going to keep the details quite loose but I still want them to feel natural, I want them to feel like plants that could actually exist in the real world, even if they aren't particularly refined in the painting. For this purpose I have created a separate reference PSD file.

Using references will help to ensure that whatever you paint feels natural

Using references will help to ensure that whatever you paint feels natural

Step 6: Find simple solutions for complex problems

When dealing with highly detailed subject matter it's important to remember what we want the viewer to focus on. We can create areas of interest through lighting, composition or even detail. In this case I'd like to draw the viewer's attention to the head of the snake, therefore, this is the only part of the snake that I will add details to. For the rest of the snake I'm going to give the illusion of detail by suggesting that the detail exists without actually painting it. To do this I use a square brush with spacing in the settings and the Angle Jitter set to Initial Direction. After a few strokes I add some motion blur to make it seem as though the snake is moving.

Fake the details where they don't matter and draw the viewer's attention to areas that do

Fake the details where they don't matter and draw the viewer's attention to areas that do

Step 7: Brightening the darkness

At this point I add some blue to lighten up the darkest areas of the painting and to add a bit of atmosphere by making it feel as though there is an ambient light and a bit of mild fog. I keep the darkest bits in my key areas of interest as this will help to draw the viewer's attention to those areas.

You always want your blackest blacks and whitest whites to be in the areas of interest

You always want your blackest blacks and whitest whites to be in the areas of interest

Step 8: Framing and adjustments

I often feel that framing an image will help to keep the focus on the centre; in this case I've used darker foliage to try and frame my subject matter. I've also made some layer adjustments and tweaks to levels to lighten up the darkest parts even more, and have painted fog over the branches that are furthest away to add more depth to the painting. I've desaturated everything surrounding the subject matter a little bit so that your eye is immediately drawn to the centre.

Use adjustments to tweak levels and saturation to help further guide the viewer to your paintings key areas of interest

Use adjustments to tweak levels and saturation to help further guide the viewer to your paintings key areas of interest

Step 9: Never be afraid to do something crazy

At this point I decided that the painting will look better cropped. It's really important that you don't get too attached to your art as this can cloud your judgment when it comes to making harsh decisions that can vastly improve your work. In this case, being able to crop out all of those additional parts of the painting have really improved the final piece. Never be afraid to do something crazy.

Don't get too attached to your work. Being able to throw things away can often improve your final artwork

Don't get too attached to your work. Being able to throw things away can often improve your final artwork

Step 10: Final details

Lastly, I like to go back and add in a few additional details where necessary. I decide to change the eye of the snake to look more menacing, add in some details onto the snake's head and refine the shimmer on its body. I also add in a few extra details to the surrounding leaves to help tie everything together and give the painting a generally softer feel. At this point I always find that one of the hardest parts of the process is knowing when to stop. When you're not sure that what you're doing is adding to the piece anymore, take a break and come back with fresh eyes to have another look.

Try not to over work a piece, it's important to know when to stop

Try not to over work a piece, it's important to know when to stop

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