Painting Myths and Legends: Chapter 1 - Griffin
As part of the series about creating photoreal fantasy creatures I was asked to create an image of a fantasy beast called the Griffin in what could be its natural habitat. It is a creature that is half eagle and half lion, and I decided to illustrate it guarding its roost.
My tutorial brief required me to incorporate some photographic reference use, but a large portion of my art was manually created with nothing more than some simple brushes. Hopefully you find the process enlightening and enjoyable - let's get started!
If you know me, or have read any of my prior tutorials, then you'll know what I am going to begin with - doing research! It's important enough that I pretty much add this section before every tutorial and it's not just to pad out the word count I can assure you! It is just that important.
Whether you know or understand the subject matter intimately or not, you need to fill your consciousness with new information on a consistent basis in order to provide fresh ideas or you run the risk of growing stale and creating highly derivative art.
What does this mean in a practical sense? Well, in today's age of blogs, online articles, image archives, forums and the like this essentially means jumping on the internet and using your favourite search engine to source out some visuals to kick start your engine. Some of my favourites are listed below - it certainly isn't exhaustive, but these are typically all I need to find good reference:
If you don't have the internet then it means a little more leg work. Going to your local library, picking up a newspaper, magazine, trade journal or watching a movie and stock-piling your mental arsenal from there is a good start.
Whichever resources you choose to draw upon, just make sure you use them as inspiration only and don't plagiarise the work. That would be unscrupulous and does not help your skill level grow; indeed it will more likely lower your confidence in your own abilities.
Back to the griffin! Let's begin with a very rough pencil sketch in order to compose the layout of the final picture (Fig.01).
You'll notice that in my sketch, I leave a lot to the imagination; a few scraggy lines denote an ice mountain range, a few scribbles underneath the creature's head mark the position where I will illustrate a nest. The important thing to keep in mind at this stage is balance - does the image seem balanced? If not, shift some elements around until it does. Often it takes a bit of trial, error and experience which you only get from getting down and dirty.
This process of shifting elements is facilitated by rough abstract shapes and I only put in details where I need to work something out.
You can observe in my sketch that the face/beak area is where I've spent some time adding extra details because this will be the area of focus. That being said, it is still quite rough and will undergo quite a lot of changes as the image progresses.
Create a new layer set to Multiply and drop a cool mid-tone. I have chosen a mid-tone cool hue wash as it allows me to better gauge my highlights and shadow and because I also want a predominantly cool image (Fig.02). I have also started to paint in some darker tones to denote form and establish an idea of where the key light should probably be coming from. During this phase of the illustration, I am using the Soft Round brush that comes standard with Photoshop. This brush allows me to block out large swaths of tone and stops me from starting on the details too early in the process.
Using the mid-tone as a good starting point, paint in the darkest tones and the brightest highlights coming from the sun (which is outside of the image). You can also see that I'm starting to tighten the rendering around the facial area relatively quickly to establish a baseline quality against which the rest of the image will be judged. In particular I am beginning to alter the silhouette of the head and add more weight to the bottom of the griffin's lower beak to counterbalance the heaviness of the top part of the head. In the background, start to drop in some darker tones to show shadow areas on what will eventually become big ice shards/mountains (Fig.03).
Once you're happy, press Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to create a summary layer of all the layers underneath. Next we're going to begin a process of lassoing and shifting various picture elements around. I have darkened the underlying image on the left to show you the two main areas I am repositioning - the eye and the ear (Fig.04).
We don't want to concentrate all of our efforts in one area, so I'm going to begin building up the surrounding elements to allow the image to advance as a whole. This allows us to judge whether it is progressing in the desired direction. In particular, start putting in the highlights on the ice in the background and adding more line work design to the wing area. I am using a combination of the Soft Round brush and a custom Chalk brush I have created that simulates the feel of drawing with a pencil (Fig.05).
Concentrating on further refining the available details, add some ambient shadow to the base of the ice shards. As they are semi-translucent, the base should be the darkest and they should lighten as they taper off into a point towards the top as they are thinner and allow more light to pass through them. At this stage, we can also start adding some analogous colours, mostly a turquoise blue to the tips of the ice (Fig.06). Don't go overboard with color usage, just hint at it to test out if it will work. We can increase the saturation later on if it feels right.
Start to define the form of the head a little more, especially the upper beak as this will be a major point of focus. The tongue feels a little stiff and lifeless to me so I'm going to introduce a little bit more rhythm to it. After all, this is a wild animal and I want all aspects of the creature to emphasize this fact. Towards the top of the griffin's neck, taper it off and increase contrast by adding darker tones to the image.
You may find there are a few harsh areas of areas that could do with being toned down. We want to make sure the viewer's eyes is not distracted by too many points of interest or contrast - particularly the inner membranes, which have a harsh, thick, white light. This might be something I eventually work back in, but for the moment let's paint it out as it's messing with my evaluation of the overall work.
Working on the form of the neck, treat it as more of cylindrical object and darken the underside, as it would receive less illumination with the lighting setup that I have chosen to go with (Fig.07).
At this point, I've decided that I will be relating my tonal rendering to two major light sources - the harsh rim light from the left of the image (the sun) and a slightly less harsh fill light from the front, which will act to illuminate the forward facing details of the griffin. On the ice cliffs in the background continue to add darker tones and on the tips begin to simultaneously add more lighter saturated turquoise. You can see how quickly the ice takes shape just by laying in the correct values in the right place.
Creating a new layer set to Color, lay in some darker pinks for the ear canal, tongue and membrane area (Fig.08).
Notice that I haven't completely covered the blue undertones; this is because I am trying to preserve that blue throughout the image as a unifying tone that will tie disparate colors together.
Next, add some darker oranges and some yellow to the beak, again using the same layer set on Color blend mode.
Wanting to give a feel that the beak is semi-translucent (similar to the ice) let's add some lighter yellow tones to the external thinner parts of the beak. The effect is over-exaggerated for the moment, but it gives nice dimension to the feature. We can tone it down later on (Fig.09).
It is probably apparent, but I thought I would mention it here: the method in which I work relies on controlling the pushing of boundaries and correcting mistakes. I don't pretend to know exactly how the image will turn out from the outset, but for me that is half the fun!
In order to break up the image, create a new layer set to Multiply and paint in some darker tone (Fig.10). This starts to create some differentiation between components of the image. At this point, I am still unsure as to what colour I want to have the sky, but the dark tone allows me to better judge the ice shards.
Using the Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E command again, flatten out the layers and use the Lasso tool to select the area around the ear. Move the ear inwards, closer towards the eye, as I feel it makes a nicer trajectory between the eye and the tip of the ear and looks a little more streamlined (Fig.11).
Using white, we can also add some more highlights to the tiny feathers around the eye socket. Then, using a custom smoke brush, I'm adding more vapour coming out of the creature's mouth to give the idea that this is a cold region.
This step (Fig.12) is really just a continuation of the previous step: taking the newly copied layer information and, using a Soft Round brush, erasing the sharp edges in order to blend it into the existing background.
The beak's shape isn't that pleasing to me, so let's scrap a lot of the internal detail by painting on flat color and also re-sculpt the area that connects to the nostril area to make it more streamlined (Fig.13).
Around the top part of the head and along the neckline, add some white to denote the rim lighting and differentiate the griffin's head from the background.
Being relatively happy with where most of the elements are, I'm going to move on to working on the form of the creature. Choosing a dark tone, close to black, I add more tone around the eye area in order to push the eye inwards (Fig.14).
Also darken the base of the ice shards and the wing, and bring out the ear and some of the feathers as well. I'm using a Soft Round brush for this as I find it is perfect for working on ambient occlusion-type shadows.
Creating a new layer set to Colour, lightly paint in some orange tones to introduce some complimentary color to the image and help pull the griffin away from the background (Fig.15).
The nostril area isn't looking that good so let's do a little redesigning. Sculpt the shape out of existing highlight, mid-tone and shadow colors already present on the beak so that you don't need to pick new colors (Fig.16).
I also start to cut down the amount of Sub-Surface Scattering; this is the amount of light that passes through the material of the beak. We do this by painting the lighter areas a little thinner. To bring out the depth of the eye, increase the highlights around the outside of the eye socket, thereby increasing the contrast.
Finally, start blocking out the wing colors a little more, concentrating on the large swaths of dark tone rather than any details.
I'm going to work on the sky next, but instead of painting all the details, let's use a free texture from: http://freetextures.3dtotal.com. Fig.17 shows the image I'm using, brought into the griffin illustration with no alternations.
Set the Blend mode to Overlay, alter the Opacity to 76% and add a new Vector mask by going to Layer > Vector Mask > Reveal All. Using black, paint out the areas of the sky that are not required (Fig.18).
I'm using a mask for this task because it is non-destructive, which means if I need to undo anything, I simply choose white and "uncover" the sky image. Once you are happy with the result, you can apply the mask to save memory.
The sky is a little dark, so, using an Adjustment layer, alter the levels to brighten up the image (Fig.19).
Next add a layer mask to this Adjustment layer (like in the previous step) to hide the areas that do not need brightness adjustment, which is everything apart from the sky. I'm using a Highlight value of 154.
Using a Soft Round brush, brush on a very small amount of white across the sky area. This simulates a bloom from the sun that is outside of the picture frame (Fig.20).
Using a Chalk brush, I also rough in the twigs of the nest to make sure that it will compositionally work well with the existing picture elements.
Using a smaller brush, start to refine the details. I'm using a small version of the Soft Round and make sure to zoom into the image (Fig.21). In particular, pay attention to adding more highlights around the eye and using the Soft Round brush to smooth out the textures.
Using highlights, we can also create a sense of depth and wetness to the eye region and add in a few scratch marks that may have resulted from a fight with another wild animal. On the clouds I use an Overlay layer, a Soft Round brush and again paint in some white bloom around the left rim of the cloud masses to indicate where they are being lit from.
In order to increase the feel of this creature being of the wild, block in ruffled feathers to the back of its head and neck, similar to those found on some species of eagle (Fig.22).
Zooming in once again, I'm using a very small Hard brush to work on the tiny feathers around the face and neck that will help sell the image.
We can also use a Soft Round brush with white to smoothen out the area beneath the ear.
Moving on to the twigs, color-pick the established colors and begin to refine them into branches of a tree. I brush a little of the background blue onto some of the branches to give them a sense of depth.
Now let's add a egg! Start painting in a partial oval (Fig.23). At this stage we only need to block it in with a little hint of the light direction. I'm using a Soft Round brush for this and warm, desaturated tones to create the block-in. Using a very small brush I also begin to add minute strokes to the feathers on the wings to imply detail.
Concentrating on the egg, zoom in and use the Soft Round brush to increase the amount of detail and sharpen the rendering (Fig.24). To establish more form, push the darker values, making it seem more oval in shape.
Begin the block-in of the talon using a Chalk brush (Fig.25).
Choose a bright yellow similar to the highlights on the beak. Apply only slight pressure so that the colors optically meld together.
Darken the background of the ice region with a Multiply layer. This is done to increase the contrast between the background and the griffin, which is the main subject in the image (Fig.26).
Begin to add highlights and also darken the talon and claws. Add highlights to the claws, making sure to follow the form and thinking about where the reflected light would be on the claw. Zooming in, refine the claw and make sure to use a high-res photograph as a reference for the details (Fig.27).
Finally, let's add a little bit of atmosphere in the form of falling snowflakes on a separate layer, which you can paint with a combination of a Soft Round brush and applying Motion Blur (Fig.28).
To see more by Darren Yeow, check out Photoshop for 3D Artists