Sharpen your vis dev skills
Dive deep into Craig Elliott’s creative process from sketch and colour comp to the details of painting a flooded forest
Dive into Craig Elliott’s creative process as he works up a flooded forest scene.
Here, I’ll be showing the key points of my process in creating this environment piece. I’ll also share some key philosophies about picture making. There are many things to keep in mind when creating a painting that are more important than just techniques or tools. Habits you employ when painting are crucial to developing great work.
I’ll begin with a sketch and colour comp, then move on to fleshing out the whole painting. My approach is to work up each part of the image using the same level of detail, as appropriate. So if one part of the painting is 25 per cent finished then I stop and bring everything else up to the same level of finish, before going back to working on that initial element. I’ll keep moving on to different parts of the painting, bringing each element along in at least 25 per cent increments. Of course, not everything in the final composition will be rendered to the same level of finish, but that’s usually the way in most of my paintings.
I find that it’s also helpful to hold off from working on the main focal point for as long as possible. This enables me to keep a truer perspective on the secondary parts of the painting until I’ve finished the focal point.
Place key elements during the sketch stage
Producing a rough layout acts as a great guide when I’m doing the colour key. Having done so many detailed layouts in pencil doing my time at Disney, I’ve developed a bit of a shorthand process for this stage. I mostly want to place the important elements of the painting and leave details for later when I’m painting.
After my sketch I play with the tonal setup, mostly trying to take into account where my focal point will be and the necessities of realistic lighting, aerial perspective, and the shadow and light that play across the largest elements in the picture. For this stage I put the line layer on top of the tonal study.
Developing the colour key for the painting
In the colour key I basically paint the whole painting in miniature. I’ll be making alterations here and there later on, but things don’t change significantly from this stage. Then I increase the resolution of the painting to its final size. This introduces some jagged lines and pixellated edges, but that will all get cleaned up in the final painting.
Refining my colours
At this stage I adjust some of the colours that I laid down initially to ensure they’re both working better and account for additional elements in the shot. I take into account factors such as the cool light from above and the strong light beam hitting the green murky water.
Cleaning up and adding texture
I take this opportunity to clean up any stray marks and begin to plan any necessary layer separations. I only intend to put the character who’s over on the right-hand side and the lily pads on their own layers at this stage, so this is a relatively easy stage for this painting. I’ve already put the butterflies on their own layer.
Beginning to render the large forms
I like to start my rendering with the biggest volumes in the painting. This may be a mountain or large buildings. Whatever fills the most volume in the shot, go for that first. Don’t finish it of course, but make sure the shadows are correct, and introduce any rough form variations and secondary light sources you might require.
I clean all the water underneath the lily pads and removed all traces of the pads from this layer. Now I can paint the pads on a layer of their own that floats on top of the water. This is important because it enables me to paint clean, realistic water underneath the lily pads.
Finalising the colour of the water and lily pads
All the water is now cleaned up, and I’ve adjusted and cleaned up a new layer with all the lily pads on them. The pads still don’t have their final detail, but their colour and placement is more or less final. There are still a few lily pad stems and such to do, but I need to move on and not complete this layer if I can avoid it.
Light rays and small insects
Adding light rays to the foreground left-hand tree helps to guide the eye towards my main subject, and link the atmospheric background areas to the foreground. In addition to the butterflies in pink, I want to add some tiny insects and dust that the light rays could pick up. So in this stage I add these elements and give them a hint of glow so they look like they’re in a slightly misty space.
The effects of mist
Now I add a level of mist. I realise that the colour isn’t quite right, but I can shift that later. I mostly want to achieve the right emotional feeling and be sure that I have a variety of shapes. Objects become more blue as they go further back, and drop in contrast.
Adding some butterflies
I loosely paint four separate butterflies, making sure that they have a strong and recognisable shape. It’s this shape, rather than any recognisable details, that will inform the viewer of what these airborne objects are. After I finish painting the first four butterflies, I copy and paste them into the actual painting, and vary their sizes and shapes. I only put them where I placed the markers earlier in my colour comp.
Time to bring in the lone figure
I’ve now painted everything to a decent level of detail and can’t hold off painting the main subject any longer. First I draw the figure’s outline and shadows in a reddish brown line, then fill in the shape and paint out the background. I focus on pose, gesture, attitude and emotion, without getting bogged down in rendering. Neither the character or the giant floating seed she’s in are fully finished during this stage.
Cleaning up the character
This is the second stage of the figure painting, where I give the body form and colour variation. There’s some outline cleanup here too, as I get the final shapes close to where I want them to be. The character in this painting is pretty small in proportion to the overall painting, so I won’t add much more detail than this. I just need to add her bra and clean up the skirt a bit at this point.
Finishing touch-ups and added realisms
My final refinements to this image include introducing a slight blurring of distant edges to account for the softening effect of the fog, and adding more true blues to the distant sky and tree areas. I need to shift the far colours away from green to make them more realistic. Objects become either more cobalt or warm blue as they go back into the scene, and the colours I had in place weren’t working.