A start-to-finish walkthrough of the digital painting process.
I recently completed a new digital painting, Divinity, that features Ian McShane in Kings.
While I was watching the show some months ago, I screencaptured a poignant moment for later use as a painting reference.
Before I talk about the process, here’s a look at my final product:
Being the most technical artwork I’ve completed to date, I ensured I documented each step of the process. What follows is a start-to-finish walkthrough.
My Reference Image
It always starts with an inspiring image. Here’s my original screencap.
Before I used it, I lightened it up and adjusted the colors. I used the “Variations” tool in Photoshop to give it a blue cast.
After enlarging the image to 2000 pixels wide, I created a new layer and selected the Brush tool. I selected the brush preset “Chalk” at a size of 60px, no dynamics. Holding down the CTRL key on PC to switch to the eyedropper tool, I very roughly eyedropped patches of color and painted them in blocks using 45 degree angle strokes. This gave me an idea of where my colors would go and a “base” to refine.
As an aside, this was an experimental step for me. I usually create an ‘outline’ layer that is basically a sketch of my subject that I proceed to fill in. Part of working with technology to create art is taking advantage of efficiency, and this actually ended up being faster.
I created a layer below my painting layer and filled it with a dark gray-blue color so I would no longer be working on top of my reference image. At this point, I opened a new document with my reference image and placed it on my secondary monitor so I could reference it from there.
Note: I’m occasionally asked if one can “cheat” at digital painting by just laying in color over an existing image. I think this sounds like way more trouble than it’s worth between confusing colors, opacity issues, and texture inconsistency—if you have an artistic hand, you’re better off eyeballing your reference in a separate document. In the end, however, it’s about developing your technique. A good painting technique is hard to fake!
After the rearrangement, I turned on the dynamic control for opacity for my brush. Using the digital painting technique described here, I did some general blending to even out my starter surface.
Time to Paint!
Despite the blending, these were still big imprecise blocks of color. I decreased the size of my brush to 30px and began painting in more precise colors, starting in the eye area.
I find it helpful to occasionally pull color from your original reference image using the eyedropper tool to keep on track. What’s nice about this is you don’t have to select the other document—just hold down CTRL on PC, click with the eyedropper on your reference document, and keep on painting. At this point the eyedrop-paint motion is very quick for me—it becomes second nature with practice.
Refining the cheek area…
Refining the jawline...
Chin and mouth...
This was my first time working with aged skin, so a lot of care went into the subtleties of shading the jawline. I laid down some color and shading for the ear and hair. Boy, I really hate painting ears.
Despite that, I finished this one. That’s a pretty fine ear if I do say so myself.
I got cozy with a 15px brush and did the eye details here.
Painting in the thinkin’ wrinkles…
Refining the nose...
I decided to throw a timestamp on this shot. The whole painting took 5 hours, so this is the progress about halfway through.
Subtle eye wrinkles, highlights.
New Layers of Detail
Here I painted away most of the hair and created a new layer on top of my painting layer exclusively for hair. I almost always do hair on a separate layer since it’s so reliant on precise strokes for a realistic look. The collar was also filled in.
There’s the hair. I switched my brush to 4px, turned off the opacity control, and turned on the size control. After painting the hairs, I went back in with a larger brush with opacity control on and softened the dark, highly contrasted strands for a more natural look.
It’s difficult to see in a picture this size, but I added in some light stubble here. You can see it in the full size version pretty easily.
Finally, the water droplets! I created a new layer and selected a light gray color from the original image. With a 15px chalk brush and opacity control on, I painted in the general locations of the water droplets I wanted.
Using a hard-edged eraser with opacity control on, I gently erased the droplets to refine their shape and transparency.
To finish the water droplets, I created another layer set at only 40% opacity and painted shadows for the water. I also painted in the droplets on the nose and chin.
For the background, I used an old painted texture I had. I desaturated and duplicated it, changing the topmost layer to the Multiply blending mode. I then added another layer on top of that in a gray-blue color and set the blending mode to Color.
For the rain, I used generic rain brushes I grabbed a long time ago on a Photoshop brush resource website. While unrealistic out of the box, I used the Motion Blur and Lens Blur filters to generate the illusion of movement and closeness.
Five layers of rain were added to the background, each with varied opacity and use of Motion Blur.
That’s All, Folks
Finally, I merged everything and added a vignette with the Lens Correction tool. Here’s the dramatic final image again.
I hope you found these insights into the digital painting process helpful—or interesting, at the very least!
Allison House is a designer and art director specializing in 3D visuals and motion graphics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME, SPIN, Pitchfork, and many more.