Use 3D models to speed up your digital painting process

Introduction

In this tutorial, I’m going to use a basic 3D model as a base for my new speed-painting. It’s good to mention that I’m not a 3D artist, and it’s not what I would always do, but usually for those who want some basic models to create a guide for shapes or mostly perspective, I can say Google Sketchup is a handy app that is so simple to use. And the other software I have tried for a bit is MagicaVoxel.

Model/thumbnail

I usually start paintings based on sketches and thumbnails, or even based on photo references, so using 3D is a new thing for me as well. Now, in this tutorial, I’m going to use one of the models that my wife created for one of her works. I saw this model on her computer and asked her if I could have her permission to change the model into something new for this month’s tutorial.

One thing I can say is that there are tons of simple models that you can find online or create yourself. What matters is changing the course of that model into something useful for your own idea. For example, I saw this minaret model and I thought of creating an outpost based on Islamic architecture, so I exported the perspective that I wanted and used only the top part of the model, and after making a quick composition I thought of creating a thumbnail of my overall idea in my sketchbook. Creating thumbnails and quick black-and-white sketches are so useful for the composition, placements of elements, lights and shadows, and so on.

Base gradient

Before I start to paint anything, I’ll put my exported PNG model to where I think is best in the image. I also use a quick gradient to fill my background. The lighting on the model is really important, and I could take advantage of it to use it as a guide for the whole process. I thought I’d use dark colors to make this piece a night time piece. This is the very first step for me to start. As you can see the placement of the outpost is exactly where my thumbnail is.

Separating grounds/values

As I continue painting, I try to keep my layers separated; my sky from the model and ground area, focusing only on values. What I do in this phase is a quick use of the Lasso tool to draw my ground shape, and the use of Bucket tool to fill it with black. I also work on the overall lighting as my Sky hue changes from top to bottom from dark to light, adding a little figure over there to complete the early information of my image. I also apply the light on the figure to match the lighting of the model.

This step takes me less than 5 minutes to prepare what I have drawn in my sketchbook into a digital version. It contains some good information and it has become a digital thumbnail exactly as my ink version. Cooking up an idea before starting the painting itself helps to get to the point faster. It happens to me a lot that I lose my path and keep changing an image, but when it comes to client work, you have to prepare everything before you start.

Exploration in painting is something useful and no one can deny that. I myself try that a lot, but in some cases, speed is all I need, and it requires a clear mind about what you really want to do. Consider this as a composition concept for an animation; let’s say that what we make here is going to be one of the many concepts that artists make for an animation project, to explore compositions and lighting strategies.

This step takes me less than 5 minutes to prepare what I have drawn in my sketchbook into a digital version. It contains some good information and it has become a digital thumbnail exactly as my ink version. Cooking up an idea before starting the painting itself helps to get to the point faster. It happens to me a lot that I lose my path and keep changing an image, but when it comes to client work, you have to prepare everything before you start.

Exploration in painting is something useful and no one can deny that. I myself try that a lot, but in some cases, speed is all I need, and it requires a clear mind about what you really want to do. Consider this as a composition concept for an animation; let’s say that what we make here is going to be one of the many concepts that artists make for an animation project, to explore compositions and lighting strategies.

Painting over the model

In this step, I will paint over my 3D model to make it more like a painting. The 3D model with lighting will help me understand the hues shift from light to dark, and I paint exactly based on this lighting information. As you can see in the image, I’ve started to paint over the dome, cleaning edges and pillars. I also start painting on my ground layer as well to make it ready for further details that are coming later. I want to create an image which includes this outpost up on a hill or some cliffs, like our guard has to climb up to start his post under the moonlight: this is my narrative.

Shaping it up

I move forward with more details and light directions on the cliffs. I also add additional detail to the whole piece by painting clouds. Now here is a simple trick for me to quickly add a base for my clouds. I use a chalky brush simply on 100% Opacity using white color to paint on my sky layer (keeping the cloud layer separated), then I use the same brush as the Eraser! Erasing some parts to create a shape that I like. Now that I’m happy with my early shape, I’ll lock the layer and start adding some hue shift with my Gradient tool, adding some shadows under it and shift it to brighter light on top. This will give it a more interesting shape to start with. In the image, what you see here is simple brush work shape in a single layer to show you the progress. But I’ll show you how complex it can get when you start working with the same technique.

Clouds/Smudge tool

I try to take the details a step forward. I make some quick adjustments to my sky contrast, using the exact same technique as I did in the last step for creating my clouds, but with a few more layers, I paint my shapes using my brush and eraser. Then I did the same thing over and over to reach a point I think I have a good condition in terms of shapes, lights, and composition. What I do next is to use my Smudge tool (the one which is an icon of a Pointing Finger) using it on 30-50% strength to paint over my clouds and make them like they are floating in the wind. If you look at the image you can see what I paint, and the result is in the bottom image. I also use the Smudge tool on the model and ground area as well.

Bring in some new tones

Once I’m happy with my overall composition and lighting, I make a copy from my file and flatten all the layers into a single one. From now on, I really don’t need the separated layers of what I paint – I will create more layers on top of my flat image instead.

There are various ways of adding a tone to your image; Layer modes, adjustments, painting above, or whatever suits your workflow. I always try to be experimental with this section; sometimes I use different Layer modes, and sometimes I start with color instead, or use color adjustments such as Color Balance or Levels. In most cases I combine all these techniques.

Now I have a pre-color effect that I always use when my black-and-white composition is ready. Using Color Balance (found in the Adjustments menu) I make the shadows a bit more blue and green, and add a bit of yellow light in the highlight section. Basically, you have control of your highlights and shadows easily; you can add tones through the Color Balance and you can also change your Color Balance Mode if it’s on top of your flattened image to get more results.

You can also check back older tutorials as I talk a lot about this way of adding colors. After my pre tone, I add a new layer on top which is set on Darker Colors mode in which whatever you paint or draw will avoid the dark areas, and will only apply to lights. Now the Lighter color mode is vise versa, it avoids the lights and will only affect your dark areas and shadows. I use both of these to separate the tone of highlights from shadows, and add a Color Balance on top to add a little bit of purple / dark blue to the whole scene.

More details

  1. In this step, I make a few more adjustments over my colors to match it to my narrative, to make it less monochromic. With these colors I can easily pick the colors from my frame to paint over some parts, mixing up my green and yellow highlights to reach a better color effect. I also work on my ground using the Lasso tool to create more shapes of stone to add details.
  2. Next I paint freely over my painting on an Overlay layer mode, using Smudge tool to create some textures on my sky and clouds. I also add a texture on my dome using a Al-Aqsa Dome. I really like the simple design of it and its shiny gold material, I think it suit my painting well.

Cliff-side details and textures

  1. At this point, I work more on my ground. Now that I have the sky ready and I feel happy with the textures, I think that I need to add a bit of more color on the ground to shape it up a little. So I use my highlight’s color tone to quickly paint over my ground area, plus the details on the pillars.
  2. After this part the real work begins. I use some rock textures on my ground and overpaint some areas to shape up the ground, adding some additional details in the foreground such as moss and plants, things that grow over cliffs or hills. Also, I do more work on the outpost model itself. I refine the arch and more details on the overall model, fixing its perspective. Now this part could be combined with the next step but I’d rather keep it here; the image has almost reached the finish line at this point.
  3. In the below image you can see the type of photo texture that I use on my cliffs. You can shoot your own reference or find some from cgtextures.com.

3. Texture from cgtextures.com

Final touches

I reach the final moments of my painting. This step is more like revisiting each part of my painting to make sure it’s ready. A bit of work on the overall colors and contrasts, additional details on the cliffs and foreground, some more touches on the clouds and the figure as well.

I use the Smudge tool on 100% strength to add some texture details to the cliffs. Additional details to the building make it ready for export. Lastly I apply my signature and some sharpness effects available from the Filter section to export my image.

Final Image: Outpost on Mountain