Embrace change to build an image
Sean Andrew Murray explains the range of techniques he uses construct an urban fantasy landscape that evolves as he paints
Sean Andrew Murray on how change can be good.
Cities – whether real or imaginary – are a subject I often tackle in my art. But I especially love creating deep layered, fantastical city scenes. In this workshop I’ll demonstrate my various digital drawing and painting techniques, and you’ll see how an idea can evolve over the course of working on an illustration or concept. Being willing to modify or throw elements out that aren’t working is key. Allowing the momentum
To start off, I use a fairly large, versatile flat brush to block in a basic layout with interesting positive and negative shapes. I establish a simple horizon line and some quick perspective lines, but I don’t like to go overboard because worrying too much about plotting precise perspective lines for every building ends up killing a fresh, dynamic composition. I use staggered horizontal and diagonal lines to lead the viewer’s eye around the image. of the piece to guide you is essential to making successful, dynamic images.
Just like natural environments, architecture-based environments should be designed in an organic way that draws from the same principles as those used in character design, creating an interesting interplay of shapes and negative space. Urban environments are fascinating because they combine elements of nature, engineering, architecture, anthropology, culture, art and history. The way cities
Once I’m happy with the basic background layout, I begin to integrate the characters in the foreground and middle ground. I imagine a confrontational scene between a magicwielding Fish-person, and a portly pistol-packing passer-by with an armful of groceries. I want the characters to be expressive and eye-catching, to get people interested in looking closer. In addition, a bystander taking a smoke break while leaning on a pedestal in the background will draw the viewer deeper into the image. evolve and grow over time should factor into your design choices.
Showing what daily life is like in your city scene is a great way to add depth to the image, but it can also be fun to show some sort of conflict or narrative event to draw the viewer into the world you’re depicting. City scenes also provide the chance to tell multiple stories.
Here, I’m going to depict a scene from the world I created for my upcoming book: Gateway – The Book of Wizards.
After struggling with a few attempts to tighten and refine this initial composition, I finally decide to try something else with characters that aren’t as close to the foreground. Sometimes you have to recognise when an image is fighting you, and fight back by changing the approach. I remove the characters from the foreground and rough in a new composition. There’s now a more dynamic conflict between an Imperial Inquisitor and a thieving wizard fleeing the scene with a coveted book of spells.
4 Don’t forget your lines
I’m primarily a line artist, so to execute a finished painting with confidence, I require a fairly tight, finished drawing first. I use a medium thickness Flat Round brush with little or no fade to it to make my lines. Usually, I’d go one more step and print this out on paper to draw even tighter lines with a 0.3mm mechanical pencil, but I want to keep this piece alldigital. I focus on the middle and background elements first.
The stars of the show
Next I use a tapered inking brush to draw in tight line work for the foreground characters. These lines are more refined and darker than the ones I use in the middle and background. I’m trying to mostly define shapes, volume and design, and not use line work to do much shading in this case. At this stage, the foreground elements are on a layer separate from the background elements. This makes it possible to play around with the layout and the Opacity of both.
Introduce colour into the scene
Once I’m satisfied with the drawing, it’s time to start adding colour. In a layer underneath the drawing, I block in a basic colour scheme. Right away I produce something I like, but sometimes this process can take a while as I experiment with different palettes. I also usually work on the image fairly zoomed out, perhaps even on a separate scaled-down copy of the image. This ensures that I only focus on the overall image, instead of getting caught up too early on details.
In the spotlight
Using light is a great way to focus the viewer’s eye in the right places, especially with complex environment scenes. I imagine a warm setting or rising sun’s light bouncing off of the buildings on the left, while dropping the buildings on the right into shadow. I also make sure that my characters are popping off the background using contrast. Note that the dark figures in the foreground pop off the background, which is mostly made up of bright saturated colours.
8 Start the smoke machines
Layers of fog and mist can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. They can be used to push elements into the background using atmospheric perspective and to enhance the depth of your scene, but applie too much and things can quickly get out of hand. I use separate layers to mask or erase out foreground elements. I’ll sometimes even have separate layers for middle ground, background and distant background atmosphere, and then play around with the Opacity of each layer until I’m happy with it.
Get the balance right
Now is a good time to balance my colours in the piece before I head into the finishing touches stage. I feel like the image is too saturated, so I play around with the saturation levels, even creating a saturation Adjustment layer. I then tone down the saturation in the background and sky, while keeping the saturation for my foreground characters so that they pop. I also tone down the fog again, in order to show more activity in the water.
Achieving the right textural quality
At this stage I’m painting in a lot of information and defining the textures of the surfaces and materials in the image. I also place a paper texture over the entire image and set it to Overlay at 50 per cent. It helps to bring some cohesion to the entire piece. The slight noise of the paper texture bridges the gap between the variety of painted surfaces, and helps to downplay the look of digital paint.
Adding those all-important details
Finally I add in some fun details to the image, such as signs and people walking across the bridges. I also go around the piece to see if there are any areas that just have glaring omissions. Honestly though, a piece like this could be worked on easily for another five or six hours if you really wanted to, but it isn’t necessary seeing as how the image works as is. A good rule to keep in mind is that you should be able to stop working on an image at just about any point along the process and feel proud of it.