Turning a quick sketch into a polished scene

In this tutorial I will show you how to use a sketch from your sketchbook and use it as a base to start painting digitally, with some tips on colors and composition along the way.


I'm not following a single routine for my works; it's always changing and evolving as each type of work requires its own approach. This will help you to break your boundaries and try different paths to reach your destination. Meanwhile, it helps you to learn new techniques and find new ways to deploy your ideas. So don't imprison yourself with the same routine, it's good to change your approach from time to time.

In this tutorial, I will use s sketch I created earlier - one that you guys voted to be part of the tutorial - and this time I will start to put the colors directly onto the canvas! The image below is a picture of my sketch which was created traditionally on paper. Having a sketchbook in your backpack helps to sketch and doodle ideas anytime, anywhere. Have them archived for when you need something new, so you can get back to the archive and find something to paint. I'm talking about painting on a daily basis and not for a project or something - this is a personal painting, so it's a random sketch to begin with.

Layers/Base color

Before I start to paint anything, I'll put my sketch layer on top and set it into Multiply mode. Now this mode will keep the black point areas and ignore the whites. In this case I will always have my lines and sketch on top, and start painting freely under it. This is what I do now. I start painting with a Color Dynamic Brush to fill the white canvas under my sketch, like mixing my first and secondary colors while I'm painting, you can easily modify or create your brush by going to Windows > Brush > Color Dynamics section. Check the image below and see how color mixing gives you a nice noise and texture. I could make it a flat color but I'd rather take advantage of that noise.

Separating ground and creating textures

As I continue painting, I try to separate my sky from the ground area. In the image you'll notice that I'm not doing it so clean and precise, just trying to apply a local color for each of these elements. It's a lot easier while your sketch layer is on top guiding you. It's good to mention that I have already chosen my colors before I started this painting, so I already have an idea of the local colors here.

The second image below shows the painting layer without the sketch. As you can see it's so abstract and yet means nothing, but with the sketch visible on top, it gives us some early information. Also, I'd like to mention that I'm trying to create a texture while I'm painting instead of using flat colors here or put a texture on top. I like using these accidents over my work, and use the leftovers from the bottom layer.

Early light and shadows

In this step, I will try to set a lighting point for my image so I know where there's light and highlights, shadows, edges and so on located. It's such an important thing that you have to figure out in the early stages of your painting, even before you start painting. I usually have some thumbnails for this matter; those small thumbnails include so much information for composition, lights and shadows. Remember previous tutorials for example, most of the time using two values such as black and white to demonstrate the lighting and shadows at an early stage. If you ignore this part then you will reach a point when you have to keep changing things up or looking for solutions to get your piece in the right direction.

Now in this approach I basically paint the light and shadows above my local colors. I have the sketch on top so I know where the edges are. As you may notice I'm still using the same large chalky brush; I'm not yet into the details, still creating the overall look of the image, not zoomed in and still on the same layer. The only thing I do now is to keep changing the image direction horizontally to refresh my eyes. This image shows the early information about where the lights come in and which side of the platforms and rocks are affected by it.

Shaping it up

In this step, I start applying my colors (lights and shadows), creating a layer above my background first. As I mentioned I was trying to create these abstract forms and textures to use underneath my painting process. I start to paint over my sky for example, very loose and soft, and now I take advantage of the layer underneath. Check the image below; look at the sky and see all those noises and greens appearing from the bottom layer, all these leftovers and accidents are now becoming part of the painting.

I continue to do the same on the ground and rocks as well. I had those local colors underneath, now it's time to make some effects here, as we have highlights both on the ground and on the front side of my rock. Even though this painting is in its early stages and almost 10 minutes have passed, we can see that this image contains some good information for composition, colors, and light. If you reach this point in the early stages, it makes things a lot easier rather than not knowing what you want to do, and keep painting and changing and changing until you somehow save your image and finally extract something out of it. I did that a lot a few years back and believe me; you can save that time to create more art rather than wasting it on saving only a single artwork.

Applying details

In this step, I tried to take it a step forward in terms of details and create a layer on top of my sketch, so basically before this step my sketch was on top so I would see my lines while I was painting underneath. But now I'm going paint on top of it. I over paint my rocks; I'm getting into the details so my brush is downsized to be more precise here. As you can see in the image below I've attached two images to show the progress, carefully painting rocks and ground making it dimensional based on my highlights that I applied before. I also add a cloud shape using the Lasso tool just to make the composition work better.

There is a principle for the highlights and colors. It's a basic rule that you have to remember: when you have warm highlights you have to use cooler shadows, and vice-versa. Also, it's good to mention something about the hues and color shifting here. Take a look at the second image; I've extracted a detail of my ground here and have a cool shadow on the right, and warm yellow light on the left, to create a hue shift: a color shift from that warm to cool in between, so it's not flat. This gives it a natural look of shifting from highlights to shadows.

Keep an eye out for these opportunities. It's a bit trickier because we are using colors, while in black-and-white paintings we have a black color for shadows and strong white for lights, with the gray between making this hue shift for us. Here it's like we are coming from cooler to warmer. I also do a similar thing with my grass. Notice how the grass in light and shadow affects the lighting process; it helps the viewer to understand it better.

New element for better composition

This step is more about composition, as I don't want to become trapped inside my base sketch. I want to develop it and create a more effective illustration; you already know what my thinking process on composition is: it's the most important thing about image creation.

Now in this case I add a new rock formation which leads the eye right area out of the picture, and also change the cloud formation to lead our eye over there. I will attach a guide composition in the next step to show how this works.

As for the shadows, it's good to mention that we don't have the direct light on the platforms here, the only place that hits with direct light is the ground on the left side, so everything else is reflective highlights and shadows, and the direct light on the platform is on the other side which we cannot see.

More details / composition guide

In this step, I did a few things to fix my composition and narrative. I added a few more elements in the background; these rocks with a lighter value gives the scene some distance. I've also developed that big rock formation on the right side to get more edges and make it a bit more complex. It gives this gradation of elements coming up step by step, helping the image to read better at this point, same as the cloud shape here.

Also, I use an Overlay layer mode to add some more warm to highlights and more cool to the shadows! In the end I bring back some parts of my sketch to the top again, to use them as part of my painting process.

Before I wrap this step up, I want to add a little side note for composition. I turned my painting into black-and-white; its only two values now, one shows the light and the other is for shadows and nothing in between. This is actually the structure of my painting - this is the main composition. Now look at the below image. It's easier to see what's going on exactly in terms of composition. See how these elements play their part to lead the eye diagonally from left to right. Take a look at the guide lined I drew on the black-and-white version.

Overall colors and textures

At this point I'm reaching the end of my painting progress. I work a bit on the colors using Overlay, and make adjustments to the colors using the Color Balance: some blue/purple tones to the shadows, a bit more red tone for colors. I work on the figure and lastly the rock textures. Now these textures are not secondary images, I create my own textures using some parts of this artwork. In this case I use the Smudge tool on 100% strength and start painting over my platform in a separate copy of my painting.

I'll copy those parts and play with the angles using the Transform tool to make it look like that. I had a previous tutorial for the Smudge tool and how effective this tool is, make sure to check that out and find out new things about it. The image below shows the results, and also the sample texture image extracted from the painting to see what I mean.

Final touches

I'm reaching the final moments for my painting. This step will be more like revisiting each part of my painting to make sure it's ready, and work on the overall frame for final details, mostly on the character and the cloud volume. Some more textures on the rocks and a bit of work on the ground detail. I fix the contrast as well using the adjustments (Brightness/Contrast) and use the Sharpness tool on textures to bring them out.

Well as you can see, having a sketchbook around and doing doodles and sketches in your short breaks will help to have some ideas. I had so many ideas that I don't remember anymore, but with this technique, I always have something to do, just draw them while you can. Get back to them when you feel like you have run out of fuel to think about anything new. There's always something to paint and stay on track. It's all about keeping up the good work, learning new things, and exploration.

Related links

Check out Amir Zand's website
Check out more of Amir Zand's awesome speed paint tutorials
Grab a copy of Master the Art of Speed Painting

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