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

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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.

Tonal con­sid­er­a­tions

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.

Wa­ter cleanup

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.

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