Bright lights, big city
See how Aaron Griffin streamlines his workflow and adds life with custom brushes
I love Aaron Griffin’s art, and the way he explains his process in this workshop is an absolute treat.
Hey wonderful readers! In this workshop I’m going to be talking through my process of creating a glowing spirit animal within a night time city scene. I’ll be discussing the foundations of sketching out a bigger scene and the key stages that make up creating an illustration of this kind.
There are a variety of methods I can choose from when tackling the initial sketch phase. In this piece I focus my attention on shapes and values, building up a strong black and white composition. I’ll talk about the efficiency of working in this method and how it provides a solid base to work from. It can be easy to become lost in small details too early or trying to work too fast with the aim of just getting more work done. Sometimes the best thing you can do is work slower, smarter and just simplify your process.
I’ll then colourise my sketch using different blending modes and colour layers. I’ll also be discussing my brush settings and their effectiveness to add more variety to your workflow.
Along the way I’ll provide lighting tips and tricks that can really help your glowing elements ‘pop’ in the scene and provide great focal points in a bigger composition. So, without further ado let’s get stuck in!
1 Research and References
When I’m given a brief, a loose concept usually builds up in my mind. Before I begin sketching however, I like to explore my ideas by researching and collecting a variety of references. I arrange my references into a mood board (a collage if you will) – I find this a great starting block to sketch from.
2 Working with shapes and thinking about values
This will be the quickest yet most important stage to the painting. I separate my composition into small, medium and large shapes. In the Buffalo sketch for example, my largest shapes are the foreground buildings, the medium shapes include the furthest skyline and buffalo and the smallest shapes will be the neon and window lights.
3 Working from a thumbnail window
To create a second window as a thumbnail go to Window>Arrange>New window for… and then shrink the window. It’s easier for the eye to read smaller images and spot mistakes. I then make sure my values and composition read well at this scale before I move into colour. I try working faster and more efficiently by planning my marks carefully.
4 Colourising your values
I begin building the base colour using a gradient overlay, choosing purple tones for the shadows and light blues for the lightest values. Above this base I add Color and Hard Light layers to burst pink hues into the neon and then blue around the buffalo. A Hard Light layer is ideal for colourising and adjusting values simultaneously.
5 Make use of Color dynamics
You’ll often find that your colours and values look flat or monotonous. To help break up these areas I use Color Dynamics from the Brush settings panel. By adjusting the Hue, Saturation or Brightness and toggling Apply per tip, you can brush in a variety of colour/value shifts. This is great for adding visual interest.
6 Make use of Dodge/Burn tool
I often hear people saying, “Don’t use the Dodge/ Burn tool” but I love this tool! By selecting shadows, midtones or highlights from the top left panel you can change colour and values simultaneously. For example, Highlight dodge pushes the highest values first and boosts saturation in mid-values; Shadow lightens the darkest values first without boosting saturation; and Midtones works somewhere in between.
7 Adding the buildings
I paint my wall texture using photos for reference. I work in black and white so I can overlay the values onto my colour base. Painting my own texture will also help maintain a more painterly feel when applied. I then change the layer blending mode to Overlay and apply the texture (above). This provides a base to then paint over.
9 Adding the reflections
To enhance the impression that my buffalo is integrated into the environment, I add small details in the foreground and streak the light downwards. Water reflections work in the same way as a mirror by bouncing its duplicate image directly opposite to the viewer’s eye. Using a soft Round brush I lightly add glow to the floor to push the overall illumination levels.
10 Painting neon signs
I draw my neon using a light desaturated line, and add colour around the line using Screen blending mode, so it won’t darken the line when you paint over. I then select the Dodge tool set to Highlight, so that when I brush over the neon line it will become brighter and burst colour into the midtones.
11 Adding some life
In spirit of giving these houses more life, I add small lights and details to give the buildings more character. I paint electrical wires and clothes lines across the alleyway to separate the building from the background, introducing more depth. Crossing wires over the neon light helps to separate the foreground and background.
12 Establishing your focal point
I soften the negative space around the buffalo to act as a contrast against its hard edges. This makes the buffalo a stronger focal point. I also remove some lines of fairy lights and darken the windows to prevent drawing unwanted attention. I bring in subtle directional lines throughout the piece to help guide the viewer’s eye back towards the buffalo.
13 Correcting your perspective
After taking a day away from the painting (something I often do, to then see my piece through fresh eyes) I notice that despite having a low horizon my perspective is very flat. My solution is to cut/paste my buffalo separately and then use the Free Transform tool (Ctrl+T or Cmd+T) to skew the entire scene outwards from the bottom, creating a wider angle.
14 Finishing touches
This stage is the perfect opportunity to make any final tweaks such as small details or blending edges. I add a flush of random colour using my Brush Dynamics and add bokeh (out of focus lighst particles) in front of my light sources.