"Mythical Beasts" artist Jordan Walker demonstrates how he produces his majestic fantastical paintings...
For centuries, artists have painted with oils to capture the world around them, and to conjure fantastic visions from the imagination. Traditional mediums can be used to create rich color and texture often difficult to achieve digitally, and leave the artist with a physical original.
In this tutorial, I will take you through my process for creating a fantasy illustration from sketch to finished painting. Though I paint with oils, the steps I describe can be useful no matter what medium you paint in, traditional or digital.
Step 1: Thumbnails and Design Sketches
Before diving in with paint, it is important to figure out the subject and composition you want to render. In a sketchbook I jot down a few notes about what I am interested in painting, and begin to create tiny 'thumbnail' drawings to determine possible compositions.
I settle on the subject of "a large otherworldly creature stalking through ruins", and refine the basic composition over a few thumbnails. I tilt the horizon line in the bottom right thumbnail sketch for a more dynamic and unsettling view of the creature. On the left page, I sketch out a couple rough designs of the creature to inform my final drawing.
Step 2: Final Drawing
After you get a clear idea of your subject, it's time to create a more detailed drawing of the final scene. I use Strathmore Bristol paper for its smooth surface which is receptive to detail, and draw with a variety of pencils. I like to have physical reference around me while I work, and used a few skulls and bones from my collection to inform the design of the creature. I changed the creature's pose from the thumbnail, and brought the front leg forward to create more forced perspective. Often, I need to erase and redraw a few times before I get the drawing to look the way I want it to.
Step 3: Mounting the Drawing
Once the drawing is complete, it needs to be mounted and sealed. A rigid surface will give your painting support, and here I used a MDF Panel. Before mounting, spray a coat of workable fixative over your drawing in a well ventilated area to prevent it from rubbing away later.
Coat the board in a thick layer of transparent acrylic matte medium using a large brush, and carefully align your drawing on top. Use a brayer or squeegee to press your paper firmly to the board, and to squeeze out any excess medium. This medium acts like a glue underneath, and a final coat applied over the drawing seals the surface and provides a good ground for oil painting.
Step 4: Underpainting
After the drawing is mounted, you can apply your first layer of paint. During this initial underpainting, you should limit yourself to warm and cool grey tones, which will set the overall value ad tone of your piece. More than anything, this stage helps to get rid of the overwhelming white of the page.
Here I used a large brush to block in the sky with cool grays, and a smaller brush to work in some darker tones in the creature. Objects closer to the viewer will always have higher contrast than those in the distance, and it's good to establish this early on.
Step 5: Color Studies
On a new piece of paper, create a few tiny thumbnail copies of your composition. Then mix a few sets of sky, ground, and creature colors and experiment with their placement. With these, I was trying to decide between a composition with an overall warm tone (1), one with a cool blue background and warm foreground (2), and one with a cool grey sky illuminated by a warm light source (3). It can take a dozen quick experiments to find the right mood, but all this planning will help you avoid confusion in the final painting. I decided that number 3 had the most interesting sky, and used it as a basis for my final.
Step 6: The Sky Comes First
As a general rule, it's good to paint your background before the foreground, so that you don't have to carefully paint around any detailed forms in your main subject later. I used a large flat brush to block these clouds in, and a smaller soft brush to refine them. While painting the background, don't worry too much if you cover some elements of the drawing in your foreground. As long as you have a photo of your original drawing to reference, you can paint these elements back in later.
Step 7: Block in the Focal Point
It can be helpful to block in the focal point of your painting early on, because it is the most important area to get right. In this case, the focal point is the head of the ethereal creature, and its intricate overlapping mouth structure. Using a variety of brushes, I began to lay in warm tones in this form with relatively thin paint to draw the viewer's eye. I restrain myself from adding the lightest highlights at this stage, and focus on larger planes of light on the creature's back and dark on its underside.
Step 8: Other Background Elements
With the distant background and nearest focal point blocked in, the painting will begin to come together. Objects in the distance, like the stark pyramids in this scene, become progressively less detailed and loose contrast as they move further away in space. It is also important to note that the lightest light tone on the shadow side of an object should be darker than the darkest dark on the light side of the object. This creates the illusion of a three dimensional form.
Step 9: Fleshing out the Focus
With all of the background objects in place, you can again turn your attention to the foreground. At this point, I rendered out the rest of the creature, and painted the rubble strewn hill under its feet. Since the creature's body is very pale, it made sense to add a bit of green reflected color from the ground on its underside. Light objects usually absorb color notes from their surroundings on their shadow side, while darker non reflective objects do not. You can learn a lot about these principles by painting from life, and carefully observing the way reflected light behaves on different materials.
Step 10: Defining and Detailing
After everything has been blocked in, it's time to bring in your final details and lightest highlights. I defined the distant buildings in the sterile city, and added ethereal wisps of smoke cascading from the creature's back. I brought some warmer shadows into the creature's underside, and added bright highlights to its jaws and carapace.
Despite the planning stages, this particular painting was actually a bit of a struggle for me, and I had to redefine quite a few areas while I worked on it. Every painting is salvageable, though, and there's always a solution to be found.
Top tip: Split Primary Palette
I work with a split primary palette when I paint, meaning I use a warm and cool yellow, warm and cool red, and warm and cool blue (plus Titanium White and Naples Yellow). Using this system, you can mix just about any color.
See more of Jordan K. Walker's fantastic creature and animal paintings at his website
Keep up to date with Jordan's work by following him on Instagram
Check out Jordan's chapter on the Cockatrice in Mythical Beasts