Paint fantasy characters in Photoshop

Introduction

With this tutorial, I will demonstrate one of my techniques and approach to digital painting; from showing the sketch phase to refining and rendering the final scene. Along with tips on how I use Photoshop tools and brushes, I will cover some techniques that involve some knowledge on the foundation of color theory and shading and lighting, which are essential for any painting you do.

Step 01: Explore and research ideas

Think of a theme and story you would like to illustrate and start doing quick sketches. They don’t need to look refined because the main focus is the final painting, just make sure to capture the gesture of the characters for now. One thing I like to do is to create a layer over the first sketch and draw another version over it. In order to do that, drop the opacity of the first layer so you can see better the line work on the second layer.

Do some research and sketch some rough ideas. Only focus on the gesture, not the details.

Step 02: Clean up rough sketch

Once you pick the final sketch composition, create another layer above it and start refining the drawing. This is a great way to check if proportions and perspective are working well on the scene, and to define the pose a bit more to make the character’s gesture or facial expression more clear.

Refine the rough sketch to determine what elements you want to add or change

Step 03: Block out values

I have different ways of blocking out colors and values, and I will show you an example of one of them. Start by picking a dark purple for the shadow and a light magenta/pink for the light. Keep it simple and avoid focusing on the details because the main purpose of this phase is to get the feeling of the whole scene.

Step 04: Add local color

Once the block out is done, add the local color to the characters. You can use a normal layer, multiply, color or soft light in order to apply the colors. On my painting, the Lion and mice are surrounded by vegetation at night, so while painting your scene make sure the colors are in harmony with the environment and the characters. The light of day and night will affect colors of the scene differently.

Step 05: Refining colors and values

Now that everything seems to be on the right place, you can start adding darker and brighter values to the painting to raise the contrast. I like to start by adding a darker value in between two surfaces, like under the lion’s belly, the mice’s feet, under the books, etc. For the lighter values (highlights) it’s the same process, but only where the light is touching. These details will make the characters pop more on the painting.

Step 06: Going over art assets

It’s time to add the fur details and refine the edges. I recommend using a textured brush to give a natural feeling to the fur, and then start blocking it out by doing a few curved dark lines. These details need to be enough so there’s a flow to it, so don’t add too much or it’s going to look too distracting. An example of overdoing details is painting a lot of fur details on the mice, which is not that relevant because they’re too small.

Step 07: More story telling elements

Right now, the painting still feels a bit empty, so I used a soft brush on a normal layer, picked a yellow color (50% saturated) and added some fireflies around the lion and mice. I thought it would look more interesting to add another rodent listening to the story, but from far away. This is to give the feeling that other mice just arrived to that area and got hooked up with the story the lion is reading.

Step 08: Using the Wrap tool

Use the wrap tool for when you have to move things around and make some changes. Don’t worry if it’s not following the original plan or idea from the sketch, the goal is to make sure the composition looks as interesting as possible. In order to use the Wrap tool, remember that your characters are on separated layers, use the select tool and right click over the mouse, then select the tool “wrap”. For the composition of this painting, mouse now feels closer and more involved in the story the lion is reading.

Step 09: More lighting work

As you can see, the grass where the main story is happening still needs some work. To give it more life, you can use the soft light or overlay layer with a green color selected. As a result of the layer mode and green color, the grass will turn into an unsaturated orange, giving more contrast between the shadow (magenta) and light (gray-orange) in the grass.

Use overlay or softlight to add more light and color so there’s more harmony

Step 10: Add final touches

The painting is very close to finish it, but it still feels a bit too dark overall. In order to remove a bit of the dramatic feeling, I used the color dodge layer with a cyan and blue color (saturation 100%) around the lion’s mane. It helped to bring some interesting colors on the scene, yet it’s not enough contrast. So we need to work on the values by using the levels tool. This tool will enhance the values and make them brighter, but be careful to not put some dark or bright values on the extreme.

To enhance the colors, use color dodge with cyan and blue, then use levels to balance the values and add more brightness overall.

Top tip: Importance of social media

As an artist, I think it’s very important to share our work on social media and become a sort of “celebrity.” Having a lot of followers on my Instagram and other apps provided me many opportunities to work in the animation industry, to finally be working as a full-time freelancer.