Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Formula (Step-By-Step)

I'm occasionally asked how I paint from imagination, and I've sometimes given demos to friends. I figure I'd indulge and try to explain for everyone. Beware, text and pictures ahead!

This process is designed for a reasonably fast and predictable result. It's aimed at beginners who are familiar with photoshop primarily, but might be beneficial for more advanced users as well. It's meant for painting from one's own imagination, and I've reached this process through years of experiments and advice from more senior artists (Adam Ford and Sam Nielson have outlined similar approaches in the past). If I had a reference or model in front, my approach would be different, and I'd focus on getting the right shape, color and value of each stroke from the get-go. Here we're using photoshop as a tool to figure out colors and values. I would like to point out that my process is continually changing as I'm learning new stuff, and what I'm doing here might be obsolete in the near future. Please apply your critical thinking when approaching this, and know that I have merely attained a journeyman level of expertise. If you're serious about learning, check out masters such as Zorn, Sargent, J.C. Leyendecker, Rockwell, Velázquez and Sorolla.

I'm taking the liberty of giving you the PSD-file (reduced in size to 50%). When I fail to express myself in words, perhaps you can find clarity in the file.

Download Here

1. Lineart
I just drew some chicks doing stuff. Talking about drawing is a whole different chapter, and this tutorial is about painting. In short, I try to have some fairly clean lineart which I can use as a foundation. For more about drawing, look at Stan Prokopenko's Youtube Tutorials, check out RadHowto, read Glenn Vilppu's Drawing Manual and Walt Stanchfield's Drawn to Life Vol 1 & 2.

2. Masks and Shadow-Shapes.
I mask out the lineart using the polygonal lasso tool (hold down the command-key (mac) or ctrl (PC, I think) to activate it with the normal lasso-tool)). This creates really hard and crisp edges, and is very fast. I don't know of any faster more accurate way to do this. In marketing-art in particular, the client will often want the characters clearly separated from the background, to be used in different contexts, so we're being preemptive. I do this per default by now.

For the shadows I fill a layer with a solid black, which I then lock into the positive shapes. Now, painting in a layer mask, I use a 100% hard-edged opaque brush to separate between light and shadow. Mentally, I'm trying to imagine doing it roughly like in a Mignola-Painting. Depending on how much of the positve shape I want to be in shadow, I will either paint the shadows or the light, whichever requires the least amount of work. Finally, when I'm done, I change the color of the layer to a midtone purple. I think this looks good, and the purple hue, to the best of my knowledge, is a combination of the ambient color of the scene (which in this case is blue-ish), plus some warm light (from the key-light, the sun (which is actually white but I'm stylizing it warm orange/yellow)) mixing in from bouncing all over the environment. Am I wrong? However, let's say our subject is on Mars, or in Space, the color of the shadow would be different. In this case, Red and Black respectively.

3. Sculpt Shadowshapes
There's a difference between Form-Shadows and Cast-Shadows. Form-Shadows occur when the form is turning away from the light-source, creating a smooth transition from light to shadow. A Cast-Shadow on the other hand happens when and object is blocking the light, creating a hard-edged shadow. In this step I try to distinguish between the two, plus going into a little bit more detail that I was in the previous block-in step. A mistake I did in the past was to treat this step too casually and sloppy. Take your time, be patient here, it's going to be really helpful later on. It can be beneficial to look at some reference too, to make sure you're being consistent with the light. Wes Burt kicked my ass at the Made Workshop in Berlin around 2009-2010 (can't remember exactly) regarding my shadow-inconsitency.

4, Ambient Occlusion
Using the lasso-tool (not a single stroke without a selection, otherwise all the edges get too soft) and a big smooth airbrush I apply a dark shade to areas which receive little or no light. This is pretty good for separating forms of similar value and hue. I'm not Uber-detailed with this. I'm using a really dark dark reddish color for this. The reason for that is that I'm simulating a lil' bit of Sub-Surface-Scattering (more on that later) and because our eyes are very sensitive to warm hues (shorter wavelength light) and picks them up easier. Also, because the subjects I'm painting exist in a largely cool-colored scene (which I'm imagining), by contrast, the areas which don't receive blue cool light will appear warmer to our eyes. So the red is faking what our eyes are doing in real life.

5. Local Colors, Temperatures and Color Variety
I first fill in a reasonable fleshtone all over. Then I'm using a color-randomizer brush, and some textured brushes to add variety and to activate the fields of color. Then I start adding temperature variations, like the more reddish knees and elbows and cheeks, and the more cool breasts and pelvis. I'm essentially thinking about where the blood is closer to the skin and therefore more evident. Also natural tanning, from being outdoors plays a part in this, like a woman who wears a bikini at the beach will get a certain complexion and various local temperatures of hue. A mistake I did in the past was to make this layer completely flat, and with ONLY local colors. That looks dull, and sucks.


6. Ambient Light
I imagine these girls outdoors on a fairly clear and sunny day. Therefore the big blue dome (the sky) that surrounds us tints everything in shadow blue/cool. I add a subtle cool blue/purple to upwards-facing planes in shadow on a screen-layer.  To the best of my knowledge, a screen-layer works as light works in real life, additively. It's important to not go overboard here, and make the value of the blue light too bright, because then you can mess up the contrast between what's essentially in shadow and what's in light. I consider them as two families, which I want to keep fairly separate. (See image below, in step 7, where I combined this step and the next)

7. Bounce-Light

Downwards-facing planes in shadow receive a warm bounce-light. I imagine the ground-plane reflecting a warm main light (the sun). Also when that same light hits the skin, and is reflected upwards into the downwards-facing planes, we get a warmer and lighter hue. I'm tinting the planes warmer. A mental way to think about it is to imagine the girls standing on a floor of golden coins. I want to emphasize how important it is to think about everything in PLANES, and the angle of those planes to the lightsource. The more perpendicular a certain plane is to the lightsource affecting it, the more that lightsource will influence it. Also, the further away from the lightsource the plane receiving the light is, the less influenced it will become. So a downward-facing plane around the eyes will be less tinted by the reflected light from the groundplane than a planes around the knee, for instance.

8. Key-Light
Real simple, selecting the shadowshape-layer from before, I create a new layer with the shadows as a mask. Now, painting only in the light-areas, I go in with a big airbrush with a warm hue. I just want to capture the general direction of the light with a few simple and big strokes.

9. SSS - Sub Surface Scattering
In a new Overlay layer I'm painting with a really saturated red. I'm mainly focusing on painting in the core-shadow/terminator, and places such as fingers and ears. SSS happens when light enters the skin, picks up the red hue of the blood and then scatters out again, creating a more red-hue. It adds a lot of life to the colors, just remember not all materials act in the same way, and skin is particularly susceptible to SSS.

Flatten all, and adjust colors with adjustment-layers according to taste. I'm also letting the original lineart remain in some places, totally intuitively.

10. Paint! The Grand Unpredictable Adventure to Shangri La!

All the previous steps have been preparation for the grand adventure of painting. Consider everything up to this point, packing our bags, reading the maps and familiarizing ourselves with the language of some foreign, exotic and wondrous land. Now we're ready to set out on our journey :)

When I paint I have a few key goals. I aim to detail and render the focal-points. I want to define forms which aren't 3D enough. I want to reinforce the gestural and compositional flow of the subject using the direction of the brush-strokes (Claire Wendling does this beautifully in the direction of her pencil-strokes in the shadowshapes of her drawings). I want to explain materials by controlling the hardness of the edges (mainly painting with the smudge-tool). I want to add specular highlights and add a subtle atmospheric perspective. Finally I wish to enforce focal-points with Hue-intensity and Lens-focus. I also don't want it to look formulaic, although we've stuck to a formula to this point. I wish to highlight that I think it's very important that you allow yourself to deviate from the lineart at any point in the painting process. If you see something off or wrong, fix it. My painting from here on is chaotic, I jump all over the painting simultaneously, seemingly without a goal. But I have a clear vision in the aforementioned intentions. I can't and won't make this step mechanical, I need to be able to be intuitive and follow my feelings here. I need the uncertainty to find pleasure and joy in this craft.

I would like to point out that I feel having the right tools is essential. While you should be able to create a good-looking piece with rudimentary tools, it cannot be denied that the right brushes will have a massive impact on the end result. There are limitations to painting with charcoal on a cave-wall. I recommend finding the brushes that work for you on your own, but you'll get a very good start if you try out the brushes of Alexandre "Zedig" Diboine, and Shaddy Safadi. Use your google-skills to find them.

That's the best I've got for now, I've given you everything. The End. Lots of love ;)

Oh, here's a study of a piece by Auguste Rodin (kinda raunchy, no?).

And some music :)


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saxen8 said...

Hey J! Great job and big thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I have a question: is there a reason why you prefer the lasso tool instead of the pen tool when making your selections? :)


Johannes Helgeson said...

@ Chander - Cool! I'm glad :)
@ Sara - Thanks, you're welcome :) I never played around with the pen-tool all that much. I like the simplicity of the lasso-tool, and that it's not a vector. I can easily cut out and erase from a pixelated shape. Also, with the lasso-tool I'm flexible in either putting down points (like with the pen) and just drawing the edge depending on if I hold down the Command-key or not. So flexibility and simplicity. But I know there are real famous artists who use vectorized shapes a lot, so that's probably an equally as viable technique :)

Marc Sampson said...


Anri said...

Hi Johannes.
A friend shared this post on Facebook and I immediately clicked it because of the artwork. I thought "ooh let's look at some more amazing art". That's all I do these days and not focusing on my own talent. I'm not spending enough time sculpting it as I would like. I think my problem is impatience and frustration when I look at a piece and it's just not coming together like it was in my head. I read through this post and some other things here on your blog and something clicked in me. I always make art with the focus on pleasing the audience and not myself. I can see that you enjoy what you do and that inspires me. I think lighting and rendering a scene is always the thing that scares me so I usually stop at the sketches. Thanks for posting this.

Johannes Helgeson said...

@Marc - Thanks man! :)
@Anri - Thanks for sharing Anri, I'm glad my posts could be of some benefit for you. In my experience, the impatience and frustration is something most of us experience, I know I do too, and the key is to push through and do it anyway. It will get easier, and more fun some day ;) So long as you're just drawing for yourself, and not a client, I think it's smart do what you like to do, and not think about others ;) Cheers!

Saxen8 said...

Thanks for taking your time to reply J, it's appreciated :)


Johannes Helgeson said...

You're welcome ;)

Uroš Begović said...

Interesting approach! I use pretty much similar technique and layer setup (shadow, occlusion, ambient light, master light, glows, etc. and I also "paint" by using masks), however your final results are much better and I also learned a few theoretical aspects of light and shadow! Thanks for sharing!

Johannes Helgeson said...

Thank for the comment Uroš! I'm glad my approach could be of use for you :) Take care man!

Arn Sweatman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge! inspiring a lot man!

Unknown said...

Hi! I love your artwork! Thank you for sharing your method with us! I would like to see also the .PSD file, but the link does not work. :( Could you please re-link it? Thank you so much!

Admin said...

I love your work, I've been following your artstation pieces for some time now!

Thanks very much for the tutorial, I'd love to see more step-by-step on your processes (your youtube tutorial walkthru was GREAT).

Any chance we can get a re-upload of the PSD? The link appears to be broken!