Paint a mythical creature in Procreate

Introduction

In this tutorial, I will cover my process in Procreate for making an illustration of a mythological unicorn dwelling in a dark or abyss-like habitat. Up until recently, I've been using Photoshop for my digital painting, but find Procreate to be a very useful program on its own. This piece was made using standard brushes and tools.

unicorn

The Abyssal Unicorn

Thumbnail sketches

Here I begin with some exploration sketches, trying to capture the movement and mixture of different animal features. The curve of the spine helps determine the rest of the body in this stage. I start off with a pretty straightforward horse/goat hybrid, and move on from there.

The brush used is the 6B Pencil Brush, to keep it loose and rough. The most important thing is capturing the 'feeling' here. I am inspired by goats being able to leap from rock to rock, and try to imagine this creature balancing on the crags of its dark, rocky home.

thumbnail drawings of unicorn

Rough thumbnail drawings

Rough design sketch

I like the movement of B, particularly the silhouette of its mane, as well as its more feline front limbs, but adjust the design from a greyhound-like torso to more of a horse/feline mix. It makes sense to me that the front limbs would be a bit more dexterous, like a cat's, to be able to reach and feel in an environment with little light.

The drawing is still pretty gestural at this stage and I stick with the Pencil and Graphite brushes. I am paying a lot of attention to the location of the scapulas, hips, and leg joints to try and make a dynamic, asymmetrical pose.

sketching unicorn design

Resolving some more of the design

Sketch refinement & blockout

In this step I am planning out some more specific textural details, like the mane, and move on to cleaner, harder brushes like the Square Sketch Pen. At this stage, it just needs to be clean enough for me to know where to paint.

I create a base layer to use as a Clipping Mask with the Freehand Selection tool. You can be pretty accurate with this, so I spend some extra time to make sure all the outside edges are fairly neat. When I start painting, I won't need to worry about messing up the outside edge unless I want to.

Black-and-white refinement

With the Smudge tool, Medium Hard Airbrush, and Flat Marker brush, I begin to clean up all the internal edges and design features. The sketch already has some indications of soft, ambient lighting (or ambient occlusion lighting), so I move forward in that direction.

In this stage, it is all very low contrast, but enough to define the anatomy, hair texture, feet, and facial features. I make sure to soften the shadow edges of areas like the torso and cheeks to make them feel round, but keep bony landmarks hard-edged and angular.

sketch before color

Value painting before applying color

Context

Although the background is minimalistic, I want to make sure all the values and shapes fit in harmoniously with the creature. I also let the unicorn's tail fade into the dark background to give it a sense of depth.

sketch with background

Design with added background

First color pass

Once I reach a certain level of detail in black and white, I add some color. I do this through a 'Color' Layer or by tweaking the Color Balance. I find it easier to apply colors to a piece when your values are midtones (as opposed to strong highlights or shadows).

Even with a white or gray creature, you can still play with the color temperature of the highlights and shadows to create some visual interest. I give the highlights of the unicorn a yellow-green tint, like something from a fluorescent or LED light that finds this creature in the dark. The shadows look cooler by comparison.

applying color to sketch

After reaching a good halfway point, I begin to apply color

Color refinement

In order to avoid having a piece look like it was done in greyscale first, it is important to do some paint-over after your initial color pass. I also add some hint of cast shadows, to imply a more directional light. I work to define the face, the quills, and areas of interest that I want to draw focus to.

first color paint over

Image after the first color paint over

Second color pass

I go back in to add more variation in color. The goal is to add some more visual interest in the colors you already have. For example, adding subtle yellow/orange warmth in the mane and skin helps make it feel a little more alive. Areas with a bit more blue/green can account for an area with thinner skin or more capillaries.

In Photoshop, this is often achieved with a color randomizer brush. With Procreate, I experiment with low-opacity brushes or a Color Layer which I later merge together to paint over.

different hues and shadows

The hues of the different shadows

Details

Here is where I go in to define wrinkles, veins, horn ridges, individual quills, and other textures with a small Medium Hard Airbrush. Well-placed details can be used to emphasize areas of interest like the face, differentiate overlapping limbs, and also sharpen the textures for your creature. The trick is to find a balance of areas that need the extra attention and areas of visual rest that can be left less defined.

Final adjustments

I work out the background, though I'm careful not to take away from the main subject here. I flip the direction of the stone, giving the composition a more visually interesting diagonal, as well as providing a perpendicular ground plane that our creature could be leaping off of.

And with the environmental elements resolved, we have our Abyssal Unicorn in its spooky habitat!

unicorn design
Finished design

Giving yourself a design prompt

Before drawing, I gather a bunch of reference to give myself a rough design brief. A unicorn is typically an elegant creature, a horse mixed with goat features. To give it a bit of a twist, I opt to have a more unsettling, blind version that needs its other senses or magic to move around a dark environment. The limitation lets me look for different approaches to its design.

This one was inspired by photos of the akhal-teke (a very elegant looking horse), beluga whale, bioluminescent squid, and others.

reference animal sketches

Some of the animals and creatures I reference to implement into initial sketches

Brush tips

I highly recommend trying out the different brushes and tools to see how they interact. Procreate brushes behave a bit differently from Photoshop ones in ways that I find useful for indicating textures on a creature. Small tweaks in the Brush settings can give interesting results, and is one of the reasons I really like to use it.

brush tips

I typically use the Flat Marker Brush for fur and other rough textures, and the Medium Hard Airbrush for skin, soft materials, and small details