Dy­namic light­ing in Pho­to­shop

Nathan Fowkes helps you to bring your en­vi­ron­ment de­signs to life with clever light­ing de­signs.

ImagineFX - - Workshops - Nathan Fowkes Co un­try: US Nathan is a con­cept artist with screen cred­its on 11 fea­ture films. He’s worked for clients through­out the an­i­ma­tion and gam­ing in­dus­tries in­clud­ing DreamWorks, Dis­ney, Bl­iz­zard Entertainment and Ubisoft. http://ifxm.ag/n-fowk

As con­cept artists, our job is to reach out to our au­di­ence and con­nect with them on a pro­found emo­tional level. One of our pri­mary tools to achieve this goal is light­ing de­sign. For this work­shop I’ll build a scene us­ing light to cre­ate vis­ual in­ter­est and emo­tion.

My process is to explore the idea through thumb­nails, then bring them into Pho­to­shop for colour devel­op­ment and fin­ish. I’ll re­work the scene sev­eral times us­ing dif­fer­ent light­ing pal­ettes to cre­ate a range of emo­tional beats. Learn­ing to do this gives each of us the abil­ity to be­come a vis­ual sto­ry­teller, much like a mu­si­cian who can score an en­tire movie with its emo­tional highs and lows rather than strik­ing a sin­gle cord.

I’ll use light to de­sign the em­pha­sis for each scene. My first de­ci­sion must be to de­cide what the scene is about and then to de­sign the light ac­cord­ingly. Con­cept artists must be cin­e­matog­ra­phers, ex­pos­ing their de­signs to the light of day and hid­ing dis­trac­tions in the shad­ows. This process can bring em­pha­sis and emo­tion to any part of a scene: the sky, back­ground, mid-ground or foreground.

I in­vite you to com­mit to be­com­ing a mas­ter of de­sign­ing with light. It’s only through mas­tery of the core con­cepts of drafts­man­ship, colour, pic­to­rial com­po­si­tion and light­ing de­sign that will en­able you to cre­ate art­work which res­onates with your au­di­ence.

1 Sketch­ing out ini­tial ideas

I like to start by work­ing out ideas in my sketch­book. I find this step en­joy­able be­cause the pres­sure is off and I can just play around with ideas. Here I’m us­ing a pocket-sized sketch­book (a Hand Book Artist Jour­nal) and a Pris­ma­color Verithin orange pen­cil. The ar­chi­tec­ture is loosely in­spired by a trip to West­min­ster Abbey in Lon­don. I’m in­ten­tion­ally giv­ing the scene three-point per­spec­tive for dra­matic ef­fect.

2 Tonal rough

The fin­ished rough is painted over the line art with a Pen­tel wa­ter-sol­u­ble ink brush and a wa­ter­brush. Tech­nique isn’t im­por­tant here: any medium that will give you a full range of val­ues will do. The ben­e­fit of sim­ple sketch­book work be­comes ap­par­ent in this stage. No­tice that only the face and sil­hou­ette of the façade has been em­pha­sised.

3 Back­ground lay-in

Here I’m set­ting the stage for a stormy sky and misty grey land­scape. I like to start with a warm wash be­fore lay­ing my neu­trals over it. This cre­ates an im­pres­sion­is­tic rich­ness that gives a sense of nat­u­ral light and vis­ual in­ter­est to the scene. The sim­ple state­ment at this stage is a gra­da­tion from a light sky to a shad­owy ground.

4 Large sil­hou­ettes

I cre­ate se­lec­tions for key el­e­ments in the image, such as the clouds, lay­ers of ar­chi­tec­ture, doors, win­dows and trees. I save each se­lec­tion as a chan­nel and click them as needed to rough in the es­tab­lish­ing sil­hou­ettes. The light patch in the sky em­pha­sises the cen­tral build­ing. It dark­ens to­ward the edges to give the other build­ing lower con­trast and there­fore less im­por­tance.

5 Light­ing de­tail

Be­cause the big masses of the scene are al­ready es­tab­lished, I can now bring out ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails and paint in the light rak­ing across the build­ing tops. I treat the cen­tral build­ing as a char­ac­ter close-up, with dra­matic light­ing fall­ing around the head. This com­pletes the base image, but it’s not nearly good enough. I’ll try to im­prove it dur­ing the next stage.

6 Ker-plowee!

A con­cept artist must de­sign the light such that the wind, sky and land cry out to the au­di­ence. So I’m re­work­ing ev­ery­thing to make the light­ning flash in­escapable. The back­ground now dis­ap­pears against the sky, a warm patch in the sky con­trasts with the light­ning and the glow has been lim­ited. Re­gret­tably, we can’t rely on light­ning for ev­ery image so let’s paint some…

7 …zom­bies!

I know, I know, zom­bies are so last year. This is re­ally about chang­ing the em­pha­sis in the scene from sky and ar­chi­tec­ture to char­ac­ters. Try strong rim light on char­ac­ters or im­por­tant ob­jects to give them vis­ual im­por­tance.

8 Pretty in pink

I have to ad­mit some­thing at this point: no­tice that ev­ery one of my pre­vi­ous im­ages lean to­wards dark and moody? Well, we’re artists, we love dark and moody! But I’ve seen far too many hope­ful con­cept artists get re­ally good at dark and moody with­out any range be­yond the monochro­matic. This be­comes a ceil­ing that keeps us from ris­ing above the crowd, so for that rea­son I’m go­ing with an anti-zom­bie pink in this one.

9 Cre­at­ing a vol­ume of at­mos­phere

One of the tricks of the im­pres­sion­ists was us­ing back­light­ing. It’s a won­der­ful light­ing setup be­cause it en­hances the sim­ple sil­hou­ettes of scenes and sends a uni­fy­ing warm light cas­cad­ing through the work. The re­sult is an image that looks as if the space is com­ing alive as a vol­ume of light. For vis­ual in­ter­est I’m let­ting cool sky­light fill the at­mos­phere in the dis­tances away from the sun.

10 Black night of magic

Okay, enough sun­shine now. I can’t re­sist get­ting back to the dark and moody. This is a great op­por­tu­nity to explore the elim­i­na­tion of de­tail. In this one, shad­ows lose all in­for­ma­tion and unim­por­tant edges dis­ap­pear into the night.

11 What’s in­side?

I’m us­ing calmer night-time light­ing now, be­cause the light­ing is no longer about the drama of the en­vi­ron­ment, it’s about what’s on the in­side. This is my big op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus on the in­te­rior, so I’m light­ing up those win­dows. Scenes like this are of­ten used in film to es­tab­lish a lo­ca­tion be­fore the cam­era cuts to the in­te­rior.

12 Ex­tremes of light

Here I want to em­pha­sise that you don’t have to re­sort to a light­ning flash to give light a pow­er­ful pres­ence. I’m com­bin­ing top-light with at­mos­phere so the light be­comes a pen­e­trat­ing force in the scene.

13 Light to soothe the soul

No, I’m not a New Age kind of guy, but I do need to be able to con­vey the nat­u­ral magic of light. This can be achieved by “golden hour light­ing” when the harsh light is re­duced but the warm and cool con­trasts are in­creased in the last light of day. This hap­pens be­cause the red­der wave­lengths of light are able to pen­e­trate the an­gu­lar vol­ume of at­mos­phere, but the bluer wave­lengths are re­flected away into the at­mos­phere. Hence the dim­mer light and stronger warm/cool con­trasts.

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