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

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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


Rough­ing it

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


Places ev­ery­one

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.


Chang­ing gears

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.

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