Con­trol your val­ues and colour

Craig Spear­ing takes a slower ap­proach, build­ing a greyscale foun­da­tion be­fore tak­ing his ad­ven­turer and her pet into a frozen en­vi­ron­ment

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Craig J Spear­ing builds a greyscale foun­da­tion be­fore tak­ing his ad­ven­turer into a frozen en­vi­ron­ment.

Jump­ing di­rectly into a full colour piece can be daunt­ing, es­pe­cially for a be­gin­ner. Colours can be­come muddy, val­ues can get lost, and the whole paint­ing can turn into a con­fus­ing, frus­trat­ing mess very quickly. Slow­ing down, tak­ing it step by step, and pre­par­ing for colour me­thod­i­cally will re­sult in a bet­ter re­alised fin­ish.

One of the most ef­fec­tive ways to con­trol the value and colour is to start with a gri­saille (mono­chrome or greyscale paint­ing). A fully ren­dered greyscale foun­da­tion helps es­tab­lish the di­rec­tion of the light source(s), place­ment of lighter and darker val­ues, high­lights and shadow cores, lead­ing to a value map that will make the fi­nal im­age more dy­namic. Us­ing se­lec­tions and photo fil­ters on the greyscale of­fers in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties to add base colour with­out al­ter­ing the val­ues, sim­i­lar to ap­ply­ing trans­par­ent oil or acrylic glazes.

Once the de­sired over­all pal­ette is achieved, flat­ten­ing the im­age and do­ing fi­nal brush work on one layer leads to looser edges (and happy ac­ci­dents). This tech­nique works equally well in tra­di­tional and dig­i­tal medi­ums, mak­ing the tran­si­tion from sketch to fin­ish much eas­ier.

I tend to carry my tra­di­tional back­ground into dig­i­tal, avoid­ing stamp brushes or dozens of ef­fect lay­ers. Noth­ing wrong with those; I just pre­fer a more hands-on ap­proach em­u­lat­ing ac­tual paint. For the most part I work with one brush on just one or two lay­ers, re­serv­ing Color Dodge and Screen lay­ers for mag­i­cal or flame ef­fects at the very end.

Lay down a con­tour draw­ing 1

On a trans­par­ent layer over a white back­ground layer, I use a ba­sic Round brush to do the con­tour draw­ing. The brush is black, set to about 20 per cent Opac­ity. This looks a lot like pen­cil, and keep­ing it light and trans­par­ent will pre­vent it from be­com­ing too dark over the next steps.

Over­all value block­ing 2

Next I fill the back­ground with 50 per cent grey, and block in the ini­tial val­ues. I keep it loose at this stage, not get­ting into too much de­tail, think­ing about the di­rec­tion of the light sources. The pri­mary light source is com­ing from the left, and the sec­ondary source is from her staff (be­cause I love rim light).

Go di­rectly to the sub­ject 3

I stamp the vis­i­ble lay­ers into one greyscale layer (Cmd+ Shift+Alt+E), and start to de­fine the shapes and val­ues. At the be­gin­ning I go di­rectly to the sub­ject of the im­age first; all other el­e­ments need to sup­port her vis­ually. Once she’s locked in, I save a se­lec­tion around her to pre­vent paint­ing over the char­ac­ter.

Sup­port­ing cast 4

On to her cat. Look­ing at nu­mer­ous ref­er­ence pho­tos (al­ways use ref­er­ence), I de­fine the greyscale on her pet. It’s a hy­brid be­tween a tiger, a lynx and a saber­toothed tiger – a fan­tasy crea­ture, but with a real-world vibe. The edges are too sharp, but at this point I’m fo­cused on value re­la­tion­ships. More on soften­ing edges later.

Back­ground and fin­ish­ing greyscale 5

Next comes work­ing the back­ground de­tails to es­tab­lish an over­all value map, mak­ing sure to have lots of counter changes – light on dark, dark on light – to move the eye around. I tend to make the fi­nal greyscale a lit­tle dark, be­cause it usu­ally light­ens dur­ing the colour process and I don’t want it to be­come too chalky.

Find­ing a base pal­ette 6

Us­ing Im­age>Ad­just­ments>Photo Fil­ter (and mak­ing sure to click the op­tion to Pre­serve Lu­mi­nos­ity), I add a 5 per cent cool­ing fil­ter to the greyscale. This sets a cold tone, and will af­fect all the colours that may be added after­wards. Then I du­pli­cate the layer and add a 5 per cent warm­ing fil­ter to the bot­tom layer. Eras­ing out por­tions of the top layer then brings out the warm, much like paint­ing a glaze.

Re­fin­ing the pal­ette 7

Us­ing the same two-layer erase tech­nique, I slowly amp up the colour, adding vary­ing warm and cool hues un­til the im­age looks bal­anced. It’s easy to over­sat­u­rate at this point, so I avoid go­ing over about 10 per cent on the colour fills. It also helps for pre-saved se­lec­tions, to add colour ex­clu­sively to one area.

Fin­ish­ing the back­ground 8

I stamp the vis­i­ble colour lay­ers into one (Cmd+ Shift+Alt+E) and start the fi­nal ren­der on the back­ground. It works just as well to start on the fore­ground, but I find it’s eas­ier to soften or har­den edges over a fin­ished back­ground. To keep the pal­ette in­tact, I Alt-click with the brush to pick colours from the im­age.

Fi­nal ad­ven­turer ren­der… 9

Con­tin­u­ing the colour pick method, I fin­ish the ad­ven­turer. For fa­cial fea­tures in par­tic­u­lar, us­ing a soft-edge brush set to 50 per cent Opac­ity helps to smooth the tran­si­tions be­tween the mid­tones and the shadow core. I dou­ble-check the val­ues by con­vert­ing the colour to greyscale, to en­sure ar­eas lit by the staff are brighter.

…and the fi­nal cat ren­der 10

Mak­ing my ad­ven­turer’s coat green was in­ten­tional, be­cause I wanted the warm colour of the cat to con­trast but not be as warm as the staff light. I look at my big cat ref­er­ences again, for ac­cu­rate fur di­rec­tion. Side note: her hand is rest­ing on his back as a sign of af­fec­tion. He’s a trav­el­ling com­pan­ion, not a pack an­i­mal.

Adding at­mos­phere to the en­vi­ron­ment 11

On a new trans­par­ent layer I use the Gra­di­ent tool, in Nor­mal mode, set to about 20 per cent Opac­ity, with a light blue colour picked from the im­age. Drag­ging up from the bot­tom edge, this cre­ates some at­mo­spheric fog, em­pha­sis­ing the icy feel. Select­ing just the back­ground, I drag an­other gra­di­ent to lighten the bot­tom a lit­tle more be­hind the fig­ures.

Mak­ing the staff glow 12

On an opaque layer filled with 100 per cent black, I use Flame Painter ( to create glow for the staff, and the Smudge tool to soften the edges. Dou­ble-click­ing the layer brings up blend­ing op­tions, and I set the blend mode to Screen, mak­ing the glow trans­par­ent. This is an easy way to make trans­paren­cies on an ed­itable opaque layer.

Create a glow with Color Dodge 13

To brighten the glow, I du­pli­cate the Staff Glow Screen layer and slide it un­der the pre­vi­ous layer, set its blend mode to Color Dodge and re­duce Opac­ity to 50 per cent. This takes just the bright­est val­ues and burns out the back­ground colour, giv­ing the glow more of an in­ner light.

Ap­ply fin­ish­ing touches with fresh eyes 14

After sleep­ing on it, I go back the next day with fresh eyes and add a few fin­ish­ing touches – whiskers on the cat, metal high­lights, soften­ing or hard­en­ing rel­a­tive edges. This is a dan­ger­ous time, when an im­age can get over­worked, so once it has a pol­ished look (with­out zoom­ing in) I call it done.

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