Power up your superhero art
shares the details of his four-step process for painting cover art, as he turns an original comic character into a superhero!
Stanley Lau shares his four-step process.
Claire Howlett contacted me recently about working on a cover for a comic issue of ImagineFX. After a few rounds of discussion we decide to keep things simple by turning my original character, Pepper, into a superhero. I know I’m in for some fun!
When it comes to making digital art comic covers, I regularly use a process which seems to be popular with most of my comic-related clients. It has four stages: sketch, lines, flats and colours.
First, I make lots of mental sketches, then choose the best one to sketch digitally. I have 70 per cent of the image in mind, leaving 30 per cent for surprises. Next, I do clean and precise line work, creating smooth and continuous lines by visualising the start and end point of each, and the path to connect them, then draw it on the canvas.
For flatting, I create a new layer and use the Magic Wand to select the line work layer, expand the selection by a few pixels and fill it with the local colours.
For the colouring stage I use the New Simple Water brush in Painter. As I paint, it’s crucial to keep check of the lighting scheme and stick to it.
I use long, smooth strokes and vary the pressure to produce subtle value changes in one continuous movement. I call this stroke economy – using the fewest strokes to achieve the most definition.
I bring the image back and forth between Photoshop (colour tweaking and texturing) and Painter (rendering). After colouring I add atmospheric effects and textures in Photoshop, and test various colour treatments until the image matches what I had envisioned.
Many of my comic covers and character pin-ups are done with this same method. I hope you enjoy it.
1 Do a rough sketch
I make a rough sketch in Painter 9.5 (my favourite version due to its speed and simplicity), using the default Grainy Cover Pencil, because it’s slightly textured and resembles real pencil well. For the Superhero theme I choose a costume design with an emblem on her chest, a cape, body-wrapping attire, her signature headphones, and set her in a classic flying pose.
2 Lay down the line-work
Once the sketch is approved, I create clean line-work on top of the sketch layer in Painter, using the same Pencil brush. For this particular painting process, I need to make sure all of the lines are closed for easy flatting later. Many of the details not present in the sketch are added in this lining stage, and her anatomy is corrected. The line-work takes me an hour.
3 Flatting in Photoshop
I select the areas that share the same local colour, expand the selection by three or four pixels, then fill in the colours. I fill the figure with a base colour before flatting individual areas, to prevent gaps between filled areas. I apply a muted colour to the background, instead of white, because it affects how you perceive the tonal values during painting.
4 Establish the lighting scheme
I duplicate that layer for painting, keeping the original flat layer locked to avoid accidents. Pepper has a weaker studio spotlight in front and strong sunlight from the left (out of frame) behind her. I render her skin first, so I can use it as a lighting reference point for other areas. I tint the lines to medium brown and set the Layer mode to Multiply.
5 Rendering Pepper’s costume
I move on to render her costume here. To make the fabric slightly more interesting to look at, I decide to render it so that it has a slightly silky finish. It’s important to keep the lighting scheme in mind and place the specular highlights carefully, so that the volume and materials can be depicted in a more convincing manner.
6 Depicting the hair
I continue with her hair and headphones. For a silky-looking rendering, pay attention to the specular light’s placement and size – they should be contrasted and small. I don't render every single strand of hair, but break it into groups and flow cohesively, otherwise her hair may look too fizzy. I take note of how the shiny headphones reflects the surroundings.
7 Additional cosmetics
I continue painting the remaining elements, adding gradients to the background as a base for a cloudscape later. I apply Pepper’s makeup in Photoshop and a random speckle brush helps her chest emblem glitter a little. The line-work layer’s transparency is locked and tinted with the respective local colours to make it blend better with the colouring layer.
8 Adding clouds
Next I paint in some rough clouds, with sunlight behind them, using the colours found on Pepper’s body. At this stage I keep the objects loose and I plan them carefully so that they support the character visually, but without interfering or distracting from her too much.
9 Greater definition
I’m happy with where I’m going with the cloud planning, so I give them better definition, using the Loaded Palette Knife tool in Painter. Then I use the Palette Knife, as a blending tool, to introduce some sense of movement to the clouds, according to the flying direction of Super Pepper. Talking of which, our new superhero is pretty much ready!
10 Final colour edits and a sense of speed
Of course, nothing is really done without the blessing of the ImagineFX team. Daniel Vincent, the magazine’s art editor, suggests some colour edits on Pepper’s costume and the clouds. I’ve also thrown in some speed lines to accentuate a comic superhero’s sense of speed. Now I’m really happy with the image. It’s always a joy working with the ImagineFX team!