GET AROUND ARTIST’S BLOCK
Stop telling yourself there’s “nothing to paint” and see how James Zapata tackles a painting with no plan of attack
Ever opened a canvas in Photoshop and been overwhelmed by the sheer emptiness of the big white rectangle? You might even have heard yourself saying, “I should have planned this out before starting.”
Approaching a painting doesn’t always have to be such a precise and calculated exercise. You’ll find that exploring different techniques along the way can help add a whole new factor of fun and intrigue to the process that you may have not considered before.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget the basic fundamentals. I don’t want you to interpret “experimentation” to mean “reckless abandon.” For you to take new approaches to your work you can’t forget core art elements: value, composition, perspective, colour and even narrative should always be kept in mind. These basics will be your anchor while you explore new territories in creation.
I hope to introduce you to a few new ways of approaching design, including taking a freestyle attitude to the process. You’ll see how my initial intent and focus shift in the middle.
Painting is, in many ways, a journey of the mind. When I started out as an illustrator I often complained about having artist’s block. It would often be the case that I just didn’t know what I wanted to paint. Hopefully this workshop will help you get over that wall.
1 Taking the plunge
I jump right into the painting by creating a circular selection and filling it with a gradient. From here, I like to use the Smudge tool with a Hard Round brush selected at 100 per cent Opacity to push and pull the values in the object. I make sure to have Sample All Layers unchecked so that I only affect the object and no other layers. I’m not concerned with the end result at this point. Right now it’s just playtime.
2 Seeing shapes
After a few minutes of playing with the shape I can form an opinion of what my object has become. I now look for shapes and lines. I like to compare this to seeing things in clouds. You start to put the pieces together and decide what direction your painting will take from here. I’ve decided this messy shape will become the head of a giant robot. From here, all my efforts will be geared towards that idea.
3 Repeating shapes
Once I’m comfortable enough with the shape to call it a robot, I set course to fill the canvas in an interesting way, and start thinking about some of the major elements that will make up my composition. I duplicate the robot head shapes and start tinkering with their general shapes to differentiate them. I do this by using my Smudge tool technique from before, as well as Clone Stamping.
4 Starting the composition
I create a sense of depth by situating one of my objects in the foreground/midground and the other in the background. I also fade the bottom portion of the background shape to give a sense of atmosphere. I carry on with designing my foreground shape. Because it’ll be taking a bigger place in my composition than the background robot, I need it to be more readable. It’s the central figure and will therefore establish the overall design language.
5 Setting the mood
After some extensive design work done over the initial shapes, I’m ready to dive into finalising the composition. I do this by creating a space in the foreground that I’ve decided to use as a ‘stage’ for a few characters I plan on adding to the mix. Next, I start to think about what colours will help describe the general mood of the image.
6 Picking your elements
I’ve decided, at this point, that the environment will be a volcanic area, so there will be lots of orange and dark browns. The sky will be dark for this piece, to help push the brightness of the underlighting on the machines. Up to now I’ve kept all the elements of the painting on their own respective layers, so managing the colours and values for each aspect individually is a straightforward task.
7 Lighting considerations
Now that I’ve acquired the stage, I need to light it. I hint at the volcanic lava below by lighting the robots from underneath. Underlighting is a great way to express a sense of suspenseful drama. In this case, I want there to be a sense of mystery as to the purpose of these giant machines. When establishing your lighting, it’s important to remember that this step will influence the composition. So think carefully about where you have value shifts.
8 Cast your characters
It’s a good idea to add a human character or two when painting a fantasy or sci-fi scene. It grounds the image and enables us to plug ourselves into that world. In this case, it’s also a good indicator for scale. Now we see the true enormity of these robots. I want to give the pilot some intrigue beyond her just being just a mech pilot, so I decide to give her a cool haircut. Now she’s got character!
9 Integrating your figures
Because my characters pilot these giant robots it makes sense for their suits to follow a similar design language. I don’t worry too much about functionality, but I do want there to be a visual connection between the characters and their mechs. Some more clone-stamping here does the job of “sprinkling design” throughout the suits.
10 Adjusting the composition
I’m unhappy with the way the composition feels like it’s “falling” to the right, regardless of there being a Dutch tilt, so I decide to push the right figure up in the canvas. I also increase the size of the mechs in the background, further adding to their size and filling more space in the canvas. In addition, I bump the values to give the image more contrast between each object. This generates a more defined composition.
11 Special effects
Now comes the fun part. I begin by adding lava splashes behind the foreground layer with a Splatter brush set to a bright orange/yellow. I set this layer to the Linear Dodge (Add) blending mode and duplicate it once or twice, then merge those layers. You’ll find blending modes in the drop-down menu of your Layers palette. These effects help breathe life into your painting by adding a palpable sense of movement.
12 Make it juicy
I intensify the brightness of the lava using the Color Dodge tool. I sample a midvalue from the image and with a Soft Round brush with its Transfer set to Pen Pressure, build up my highlights and hot-spots. I think about where my lights will be the brightest and start from there. I also decide to give my characters more of a spotlight. The added contrast helps make them stand out from the background and surrounding elements.
13 Colour tweaks
I’m nearing the end of my painting, so I decide to unify everything with some colour adjustments. For this step, I like to create a new layer with all the elements merged, so I select Edit> Copy Merged and then Paste. Now I have the entire painting on one layer. I can use this layer to adjust the colour balance (Image>Adjustments> Color Balance) and play with the sliders until I’m satisfied.
14 Neutralising your dark values
I duplicate the merged layer and use a Gradient Map from here. To access Gradient Maps, navigate to Image>Adjustments> Gradient Map. Gradient Maps assign a colour to any number of values in your image. I select one of the default presets, then bring the Opacity of the Gradient Map layer down to about 12 per cent and set it to Lighten. This will push the colour contrast as well as lighten the darks with colour.
15 Finishing touches
It’s time to wrap up the painting. At this late stage I like to tighten any loose ends. I adjust anatomy if I feel it’s a bit incorrect, clean edges where it’s needed, and so on. I feel that the bottom-left of the image is a bit bare, so I decide to add some dust clouds to give more depth in that area. I also light up some more of the main pilot’s torso, giving her more of a complete appearance.