Painting contrasts - making of “Sisterhood”
In this tutorial I'm going to show the step by step of an illustration based on contrasts. Contrast of cultures, skin colors, light vs. dark, plain vs. patterned. While managing so many variables, I’ll demonstrate how to paint the image so that it still feels unified. I will talk about my thinking process and how I tackle things like values and color on skin and fabrics.
1. Rough sketch
I didn't want this tutorial to be just a step by step tutorial of a random illustration (though I will still show this,) I wanted to focus on a specific topic and as a first main challenge I chose skin tone painting. With that in mind I chose to have two characters, one with dark skin and one with a light skin color. I started to sketch out some very rough ideas for composition, remembering to take values under special consideration, and this is the one I continued with.
I wanted the characters to appear close to each other, with their arms and hair bound, almost as one person. When planning my composition I wanted to follow the “floatiness” of an “S” shape which you can see by the orange line.
Rough sketch to tackle the composition
2. Warm underpainting
I don’t always start with grayscale painting, but if I do I like to break away from the grays as soon as possible. I added a flat orange/sepia layer set on color mode on the top and set my sketch to Multiply, I also changed its color to brownish using Hue/Saturation adjustment. I do this to create a warm underpainting; it’s pretty similar to traditional media, (except here we changed from grayscale to a warm undertone) where the orange shines through the color, which we put on the top later, and prevents the colors looking “dirty” on top of the grays.
Creating warm underpainting might help you prevent having dirty colors painted later on the top
3. Naming the characters
At this point I chose names for our characters – I decided the left one would be named Aniela (Polish name coming from ‘anioł’, which means angel) and right one Xolani (African name meaning ‘be at peace.’) Giving names to the characters you paint will allow you to connect with them more than simply ‘these are my models.’ Names in art often serve as a summary of the character's personality and they can help not only the viewer but also you to understand your topic in the later stages of work. Searching for a character’s name is actually another task which I find very interesting - there are so many uncommon or unknown names that already sound fantastic and mystical.
4. Blocking out base skin colors
At this point I started blocking the base skin colors. It all depends what light situation you want to have in your scene. Depending on the references you have you can either start with a color suiting the light, or start with a local color and adjust it later. In this case I know I want to have cold light coming from the top and a warm backlight so both Xolani and Aniela have slightly purple tones on their skin.
Blocking out base skin colors
5. Adding more base colors
In this step I began playing with colors in general, adding clothes, changing the hue of the background – this approach requires a lot of intuition and is by no means final. I tend to change a lot at later stages anyway so I only treat it as a base. All the strokes are very rough for now.
Adding more colors
6. Slowly getting rid of the sketch
I had now reached the point where I had to slowly get rid of the lines and paint on top of our sketch. I never just turn off the sketch layer as there is still a lot of information and dark values which I wanted to retain; instead it’s easier to just overpaint the parts that I don’t want, or partially erase the sketch layer.
Here I start to paint on top of the sketch layer
7. Adding a circle in the background
This was a crucial step for the whole look as I added the bright circle behind the characters. I thought even though there is a backlight, they are still not separated enough from the background and I didn’t want to brighten the whole image. The circle creates a big contrast and makes a nice focal point on the heads. To enhance this, I also darkened everything below. The circle makes the illustration more mystical, even religious in some way.
The circle creates a big contrast and makes a nice focal point on the heads.
8. Feel free to add any elements which will improve the picture
Here comes the long process of rendering and adding the details. One big change you probably noticed is that I added a traditional shirt for Aniela. It actually creates an even bigger contrast between the characters and I decided to go for full traditional Polish mountain outfit, as I recently visited that area of my home country. What I love about personal work is that I have free reign to decide any changes at any step.
Adding a traditional shirt created even more contrast between characters
9. Creating a pattern on Xolani’s dress
It’s high time to create a pattern on Xolani’s dress! As a main inspiration I was checking Kenyan patterns and I noticed that many of them got a repeating motif of a diamond shape. I didn’t want to just use any existing pattern, so decided to create my own. I painted one part consisting of diamond shapes and copied it over and over again, so that I got a ready to use it as a pattern.
Easy way to create your own pattern - duplicating a small piece
10. Using puppet warp to adjust pattern to the folds
Applying a flat pattern to the fabric surface, depending on how complicated folds we have, might not be the easiest thing to do. I could make a whole new tutorial about this only, but I’ll try to tackle some more crucial steps.
To change the form of the pattern so that it suits to the dress folds I use Warp (Edit>Transform>Warp) for general big folds and Puppet Warp (Edit>Puppet Warp) for more detailed ones. But in order to do that, I need to have everything on one surface without transparent parts, otherwise puppet warp will work individually on every part and it would be way harder to get them fold well (see the image for comparison.)
Using Puppet Warp tool with and without transparent parts
11. Using different layer modes to adjust the pattern
Now we have the folds, we have to adjust the colors and the pattern so that they blend naturally. You can try many different layer blending options here and see what suits best; I used multiply, but had to adjust the hue and saturation quite a lot so it wasn’t too dark when multiplied, as I lost all the brighter parts.
So, using Magic Wand, I selected all of them, copied to the new layer (use Ctrl+J to quickly create a new layer with selected material) and changed the mode to Normal and painted the right hues. Be careful with the values - you don’t want to make it stand out too much; if the dress is in the shadow the pattern should stay within a similar value range.
Using different layer modes to adjust the pattern
Here are our sisters, Aniela and Xolani - now complete. There often goes a question - how do we know our work is finished? We could theoretically spend couple of more hours just polishing the illustration, rendering every tiny detail; but is it really necessary? I usually like to keep some brushstrokes visible, but if you see something is off, do your best to fix it, ask your friends for feedback, post on the groups, there’s always a chance you will learn something from others. I hope you like the final result and found this tutorial at least a bit helpful!
Top tip 1: More about the skin
Skin might be very tricky subject to paint, but once you dig into this you might find it a pleasure to discover so many colors and tones within it, it can become pure joy, almost a meditation to paint.
If you take a look at the image, you can see that hues of both, Aniela’s and Xolani’s skins are very similar; it’s only the value & saturation which are different. When you are painting skin, in order to ensure it looks unified and natural, use several different hues, but try to maintain similar values and lower saturation, otherwise changes in hue will be too noticeable and therefore end up looking fake.
When painting skin, in order to keep it looking unified and natural, try various hues. Try to keep similar value and lower the saturation following the form. Depending on lighting and material try simplifying your image by grouping the values.
Top tip 2: Studying skin tones
The color of objects is very complex and always relative to the lighting hitting them. The same materials appear very different in various light situations. To get more comfortable with skin painting, I would suggest doing studies of various photographs and paintings. Try to look at as many different skin colors and lighting as you can find.
Depending on a light situation, the same skin might look very different.
Top tip 3: Values
Even more important than the colors, is values. If the values are wrong - no rich colors are going to save your picture. What I really recommend is frequently turning your image to grayscale so you can check the values without being distracted by hue and saturation, it will also allow you to see if anything else can be added to your value groups. By bringing values closer together in busy areas, we can reduce that area to one simple shape. The fewer such groups-shapes you have, the better the image will read and will therefore benefit the composition of your painting.