The making of ‘The Joker’

Freelance illustrator Khasis Lieb shows us the step-by-step workflow he used to paint the comic book supervillain, The Joker...

As a caricature artist, I always use photo references to understand the volumes I want to "deform", and my main goal is to be able to relight the face I'm painting anyway I want, and for that you have to understand how the face is built. This time I painted from scratch, using no reference whatsoever to challenge myself.

In this project of painting a portrait of The Joker we will see many things. We will see how to construct a character pose and how to enhance some features while keeping realistic anatomy (even if the character seems deformed, it stays believable in its volumes). Then we will concentrate on lighting and coloring - how to choose light sources to describe volume and how to use light to enhance a feeling and create an atmosphere.

Step 1: Thumbnails and final sketch

To start an illustration when it's not a caricature, I always spend time making small thumbnails in my sketchbook to try several compositions.

I didn't make many sketches because I knew I wanted to make a portrait of The Joker looking at us, but I had yet to decide how much of his body we will see and how I would compose him in the page etc. I tried positioning him off center and I tried landscape, but I settled on the idea to stay classical. But it's important to try and see what really works.

So when I'm happy with a thumbnail, I develop it into a sketch. There's no formula for me about how I want it refined, it's just different every time. It depends if I have a clear idea in my head or if I just want to go with the flow. But most of the time I try to not "finish" it too much. If I put too much time in a sketch, it will be harder to get rid of parts afterward.

The final sketch. I choose to start painting from this step.

The final sketch. I choose to start painting from this step.

Step 2: Intentions

Now it's time to start painting. I create a new layer underneath my sketch and fill it with a plain color or a gradient to choose my background ambiance.

Then I create a layer on top of that one and start putting large strokes to choose my lighting and color scheme. Here the colors were a no brainer as I wanted to make a tribute to the classic Joker, purple suit, white skin and green hair. The main light comes from the top left.

Here I put the general light and color intention I had in mind.

Here I put the general light and color intention I had in mind.

Step 3: Block-in

I added colors to get the base tone of the different parts. I enhance the main light (top left) and started to mark some rim lighting from the bottom right side of the image.

Then I created a new layer on top of the sketch this time, to begin to painting parts. I use this step to rework the shapes, and get more of an overall look that pleases me. As almost always when starting to paint over the sketch, I start with the eyes to get the expression.

Refining the lighting and colors. And starting to paint the features.

Refining the lighting and colors. And starting to paint the features.

Step 4: Slowly get rid of the sketch

The main goal here is to slowly cover the sketch and use the lighting to create a sense of volume.

Here I paint over the shoulder on the left to achieve a precise sense of volume and mainly put my attention on the right side, and the secondary light.

As my main light was cold, I wanted to counterbalance it with a warm second light. The idea here is to enhance the personality of the Joker and his schizophrenic mind by putting two really different lights from the two different sides. It's something that may not pop into the viewer's mind, but the feeling will be there.

As I paint over and over the sketch slowly disappears to let place for volume and light.

As I paint over and over the sketch slowly disappears to let place for volume and light.

Step 5: Rework, recompose and adjust

I imagine the joker to always be on the verge of snapping. So it was time to take a step back to let the painting aside for a few hours. I came back to it and tried different shoulder positions and head sizes etc... The hands were also too big, so by enlarging the head, it worked better compositionally, expressively, and proportionally. I added some light in the background, refined the eyes and painted over the sketch again.

The background is used to enhance the lighting. Also proportions changed a bit.

The background is used to enhance the lighting. Also proportions changed a bit.

Step 6: Paint, paint, paint

In this step I continue to add paint as I would with traditional media. Actually my digital workflow is kind of a mix between my oil and watercolor workflows. I build up the light as with oils, but I layer paint more in a watercolor way.

So the point here is to continue to build the volume of the face with the light, especially the right side light which became almost my main light source as painting goes on. I finally put more emphasis on this light because a face lit up from the beneath is more menacing and adds to the craziness.

As the sketch disappears the paint and light get sharper.

As the sketch disappears the paint and light get sharper.

Step 7: Overlaying light

I began by changing the background, so it is more coherent with my lighting and I add some brush texture. Then with an Overlay layer and strokes going from large to very thin, I add contrast to the image and enhance the lighting.

I painted the drop shadows of the hair, nose, cheek and lips to add volume. And with a soft brush I painted subtly ambient occlusion (the natural shadows that occur everywhere without direct light) as it adds a great deal of volume and realism to a piece. The overlay helps me "burn" some areas, as it would do with a camera film.

With an Overlay layer and another layer of paint the lighting is reaching a more finished look.

With an Overlay layer and another layer of paint the lighting is reaching a more finished look.

Step 8: Final Touches

The finals stage of adjusting and detailing can take the longest. First I changed the ears; I chose to make them pointy to add a little insanity. I still wasn't happy with the hands as I felt they were lacking in storytelling. I changed them to make a stronger statement as he rips off his most recognized symbol in an "I don't care about anything" type of way.

With the hands the shoulder had to change too, so his entire body was tenser. I deform the face a little bit more and added more contrast to the whole image refining the details as I went.

For the final touch I added some big brush strokes to blend his body in more with the background and to attract more attention to the face.

The final and longest stage, refining adjusting and adding detail.

The final and longest stage, refining adjusting and adding detail.

Top tip: Lighting an eye

To light an eye one must understand the volume of it. As the lens in transparent, there are two different parts that are affected by light, a convex (the sclera, the white part) and a concave (the iris). So naturally, if the light comes from the left (as in the piece), it affects the left part of the sclera, and the right side of the iris.

Adding to this, the eyelids have two effects, shadows (direct drop shadow and ambient occlusion as discussed earlier) and reflections, which also cause the specular (brighter reflection).

Don't forget the volume of an eye and how light hits it. The zones affected by direct light are pointed to by the arrows.

Don't forget the volume of an eye and how light hits it. The zones affected by direct light are pointed to by the arrows.

Top tip: Ambient occlusion

It's easier to understand ambient occlusion with primitive 3D shapes. In the image you can see the result, let me explain how we got there.

In real life light is always there, pitch black is super hard to achieve (but not impossible). So in most cases, you can see something because of the sun, the moon at night, public lighting etc... Light bounces and finds a way. And where there is light, there are shadows.

Ambient occlusion is unlit or less lit areas, where light has trouble going. It's natural shadow, diffused that occur in gaps and contact zone etc...And it adds a great deal of realism to any painting, character, landscape... anything.

Light always surrounds us, even with no direct lighting; therefore soft shadows appear in places light doesn't reach easily.

Light always surrounds us, even with no direct lighting; therefore soft shadows appear in places light doesn't reach easily.

Related links

See more from Khasis
Grab a copy of Beginner's Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop

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