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
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 ( http://ifxm.ag/flame-p) 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.