Narrative tutorial: Making of “The Gravedigger”

See how Gina Nelson created "The Gravedigger" in Photoshop from a creepy narrative brief, from highlighting elements to focus on, to picking out final details to make the image pop...

What are the important elements from the text to focus on?
Though short, this piece of text is rich in its imagery. We are introduced to a protagonist, Stan, and a victim, the newly dead. Stan, who although having his actions described in detail, remains much of a mystery. I'd like for him to retain that sense of mystery by shifting the focus away from him and onto our victim. Overall, the text is very gloomy, it's filled with dread and suspense, with horror and mystery, and those will be the key elements I hope to bring across in the feeling and mood of this piece.

What goal are you looking to achieve with the final piece?
The victim in this story is already dead, but I still wanted the viewer to feel sympathetic towards her. I want the viewer to look at this piece and know something horrible is about to happen to her, something you can only hope will not happen to you as you lie in your grave. I've chosen here to focus on the moment between all the key elements in the story in an attempt to bring a sense of unease and dread to the piece.

Step 1: Rough sketches

As always I start with a rough sketch. Sometimes I'll do a few thumbnail sketches first but for this piece I had a pretty clear idea in my head of what I wanted right from the start. To me the sketching phase is really important; it's where I plan out an entire piece. At this point you should have no doubts about your composition or subject matter, if it's working well as a sketch that will hopefully carry through to the finished piece. What's important to remember here is that a rough sketch should be treated as rough, it doesn't need to be beautiful, it's just a way for you to make sure that your plan is solid.

To me the sketching phase is really important; it's where I plan out an entire piece

To me the sketching phase is really important; it's where I plan out an entire piece

Step 2: Color block out

At this point I'm throwing in some rough colors. As you can see I've gone for a very muted color palette. I'm hoping that by keeping my saturation levels low it will add to the gloominess of the piece. It's still colorful, but it's definitely not a choice of colors that shouts about happiness and excitement.

Roughly block out your colors to get a better overall sense of the piece

Roughly block out your colors to get a better overall sense of the piece

Step 3: Choice of brushes

Brushes can be very descriptive. I want my brushes to really compliment the subject matter here. I'm opting for very textural brushes that simulate the look of oil paints for most of the illustration, but am using the standard Photoshop round brush with the softness set to full to work on her face and hands. These softer areas are the parts of the piece that I'll be refining the most later on as they are where I want the viewer to be engaging with our victim. Painting her with soft brushes surrounded by noise is going to give her a sense of delicacy, making you feel that although she's dead, she's still vulnerable.

Use a mixture of textural and soft brushes to complement each other and help tell the story in your painting. For instance, here we will create something soft and delicate surrounded by noise and chaos

Use a mixture of textural and soft brushes to complement each other and help tell the story in your painting. For instance, here we will create something soft and delicate surrounded by noise and chaos

Step 4: Coffin wood

I'd like the coffin to feel like it's very much a part of her. To do this I decide to use a lot of grays in the wood, in fact I've color picked most of the grays directly from her skin. The warmer tones in the wood I take from the base colors I've laid down for the leaves, little bits of orange and dusty pinks. I'm using a textural brush on the wood, not too worried about being very clean here as the main focus is going to be on her and her hands. This means that we can keep strokes nice and loose as I really just want these bits to compliment the rest of the painting without needing them to be too refined.

By integrating the colors used in our subject's skin into the wood, it makes it feel as though her and the coffin are one. You can do this whenever you want to create a relationship between different elements in a painting

By integrating the colors used in our subject's skin into the wood, it makes it feel as though her and the coffin are one. You can do this whenever you want to create a relationship between different elements in a painting

Step 5: Painting descriptively

Here I use various textured brushes to roughly start getting the sense of leaves. It's a mess really, big strokes with different brushes, but that's exactly what I'm trying to do. Painting a whole mass of leaves may sound daunting, but it's not really. When you're standing in a field of fallen leaves your eyes don't focus on each individual leaf. What you absorb is more like a sense of a field of leaves, rather than many individual leaves. If that's how we see in real life then that's precisely what I'm going to paint. Not every individual leaf, but rather a mess of color and texture that describes a mass of leaves.

I use various textured brushes to create the sense of leaves without painting each individual leaf

I use various textured brushes to create the sense of leaves without painting each individual leaf

Step 6: Pulling shapes out of the mess

To be able to make the ground feel leafier I want to start defining a few shapes, not many, just enough to really convince someone that they're staring at a floor covered in leaves. I do this by finding shapes within the rough strokes and refining them rather than painting in new shapes. In a sense I am pulling the leaves out of the brushstrokes that already exist here. The easiest way to do this is by adding in a darker edge to one or two sides of the shape you're "pulling out", almost as if it's casting a shadow.

I find shapes within the rough strokes and refine them rather than painting in new shapes

I find shapes within the rough strokes and refine them rather than painting in new shapes

Step 7: Small details matter

At this point I'm adding in a few details that will make all the elements in the picture fit together better. Adding grass overlapping the coffin lid and bits of dirt on the lid and the sides of the coffin make it feel like there is a relationship between those various elements.

Create a relationship between the various elements in your painting so that they feel as if they're part of the same world

Create a relationship between the various elements in your painting so that they feel as if they're part of the same world

Step 8: Painting the veil

For the veil I'm again going to use very textural brushes. I want it to feel dusty and a little bit worn. Using textural brushes here helps to make the fabric feel like mesh instead of something smooth like chiffon. Having tiny spots that are very light make it look like individual threads are catching the light. The fabric also becomes more opaque towards the ends where it's folded over itself in denser layers, making it harder to see through those parts of the veil and emphasizing the fact that it's a transparent fabric.

All fabrics behave differently when they're folded, are under different lighting and so on. Make sure you use references when painting specific fabric

All fabrics behave differently when they're folded, are under different lighting and so on. Make sure you use references when painting specific fabric

Step 9: Shadow

I create the shadow by simply using a brown soft brush with the blend mode set to "Hard Light". Be careful not to use black when you do something like this. It's very rare that you want the darkest parts of an illustration to be black because pure black simply doesn't occur in real life. Adding pure black to something really draws the viewers attention to it as it's an absolute absence of light. Here I want the shadow to feel quite natural, as if the ambient light of the scene is affecting it. Painting in pure black or white using this blend mode will result in the color turning pure black or white, whilst using midtone colors will result in lighter colors lightening and darker colors darkening, making "Hard Light" really useful for adding both highlights and shadows to an image.

Pure black generally doesn't occur in real life, rather opt for colors in your shadows and use darker tones in areas where you want to focus the viewers attention

Pure black generally doesn't occur in real life, rather opt for colors in your shadows and use darker tones in areas where you want to focus the viewers attention

Step 10: Final details

Lastly I add in a few final details. I've added in some leaves on the coffin lid and sides to help make them feel more like they're a part of their surroundings. I've also added in more greens and blues to her hand and the grass to unify the colors a bit better.

Related links

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Check out the narrative tutorial for "The Monolith"