Monday, August 29, 2011

Digital Illustration "Alera": From Start to Finish

There are two different ways I create a digital illustration. In this post I will walk you through my "Stained Glass" approach I used for my "Alera" illustration. 

For creating digital illustrations I use Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom tablet.

Wacom tablet
* Note: the larger the tablet - the better!  It will help prevent carpal tunnel and 
can aid you from getting too tight or stiff in your drawing. I've also found that 
it is best to place the Wacom in my lap otherwise my arm will get sore or numb 
if I'm using the Wacom on the same level as my computer keyboard.

Each of my original illustrations begins with a simple sketch expressing an abstract idea or emotion. The original sketch for my "Alera" painting came from my high school journal. Though most of my work is more uplifting, this piece represents a mourning period when my uncle and cousin were killed by a drunk driver. Too sad for writing words I doodled this in my journal instead. A few years later after the loss of a dear friend of mine, I looked back on the sketch and decided to finish the piece as a way of focusing my pain into making something beautiful.

Original sketch at age 16 labeled "The Passing Away" in my journal
 showing a girl mourning at a cemetery while the wind blows over her.

1. Scanning and Refining the Sketch

     I always scan my original sketch into the computer first (whether the sketch is good or not). Having the original sketch under my painting enables me to more accurately remember what I was feeling and trying to express when I first doodled the idea. (Otherwise I may get too distracted in the 'pretty' detailing and forget to portray the original emotion.)

     Once the image is in my computer I roughly scale and arrange my sketch to the desired size and positioning. I do not spend very much time focusing on the perfect composition yet (as that can always be changed in a digital illustration at any time.) For now the focus is on 'cleaning up' the sketch to make the doodled objects less abstract.

First steps in refining my 'doodle' into a more detailed sketch. 

My original journal sketch is on the 'background' layer in Photoshop. 
Above the Background layer I create a transparent white wash layer at 70% opacity. 
Above the white transparent layer I draw my new sketch.

I keep the first sketching steps simple and always in grayscale.

     As I work to refine my sketch I continue to add new 'sketch' layers. The first sketch layer is a very simple sketch - no detail (as in Example #1). Once I've finished a basic sketch I put it on 30% opacity and then I add a new layer and begin drawing over the older layer - making it more refined. (Ex. #2 & 3 - each of these is on its own layer and you can see the faint previous layers underneath).  I continue this process until I have a refined and detailed sketch. By approaching the drawing process in this style it helps me not feel overwhelmed when I am creating an environment from my imagination - if I tried to draw a perfect outline in the first sketch layer I'd go crazy with frustration. By adding a new layer upon an old layer sketch I end up building from something that already exists and the intimidation of looking at a blank screen is gone. Instead my job is just to 'improve' the previous layer's sketch and that's something I can do. (Much similar to staring at a blank page when writing a paper - it's best just to start writing anything to help you get going and you can build from there.)

2. Adding Washes to the Sketch

I layer washes to help add contrast and create a mood while I 
push toward a more captivating composition.
*Note: Notice on Ex. 5 that I reflected the tree. 
This helped me fill space faster while playing with composition. 
In Ex. 6  I sketched over the left tree making it unique from the other.

     Once I'm comfortably along in the sketching process I begin painting transparent washes on separate layers under the most refined sketch layer. These washes help me work the composition and begin adding a 'mood' to the piece. I continue to work between washes and further refining my drawing as I go. (The variety of working back and forth between the sketch and the washes also keeps me from getting too tied up or bored in one area of focus).

     I continue to add more washes to increase the contrast and further develop the mood in the painting. In Ex. 8 I change from a soft Photoshop airbrush to a Photoshop oil brush and begin painting in detailed, thicker washes. (This gets rid of the 'fuzzy' look and begins making everything look more 3-D)

3. Working with Color Schemes

     Once I've reached a comfortable point in the grayscale painting I'm ready to add color. I wasn't sure which direction I wanted to take this painting. I tried a night time color scheme with the silvery moonlight illuminating the scene while adding a feeling of mystery to the piece. I also tried a warm lit scene with golden sunlight coming through the branches and adding a feeling of hope. Though I liked both ideas I felt the moonlit scene was moving a bit away from the direction I wanted to take - mystery wasn't my goal and the night colors could also make the painting feel more lonely. I wanted something that didn't communicate total loss and despair. Sorrow, yes, but hope too. Thus, I chose the daylight color scheme. 

     For better color harmony I changed the dress from blue to golden-yellow and the cape from green to violet. (Since violet and yellow are complimentary colors I thought it could really add an extra vibrancy to the painting and make the girl herself stand out more). I also changed the lighting in the composition. Instead of the girl silhouetted against the golden background I decided to make her the golden point of interest, illuminate her in sunlight and fade out the background into darker, muted hues. 

4. Concept to Communication

Random fact: The frame in Ex. 14 took 6 hours to create and I used
 reflecting techniques to create the symmetry you see. 

    In Ex. 13 I added a decorative frame from one of my previous illustrations to see how it would work. I thought it added a storybook feeling which symbolically worked well (everyone has a story and this was a part of hers). I extended the girl's belt to fall out of the frame of the page sort of 'bookmarking' that chapter in her life and at the same time drawing the viewer in. Ex. 14 shows the frame created specifically for this illustration. 

I continued to add color and light contrast and increased the saturation 
of the golds in the dress. From Ex. 15 to 16 you can really see 
the added detail in the belt flowing over the frame.

(Ex. 15 & 16 zoomed showing belt detail)

     When I was nearly finished with the painting portion of the artwork I flipped the image horizontally to see if the composition held up well in mirror view. (Checking your drawing/painting in a mirror quickly helps you identify mistakes. When you are used to staring at a painting you can easily end up overlooking important details, flipping it over gives it a fresh view). As a result I discovered that I liked the flow/movement of the painting better in the mirror view. The eye naturally moves from left to right and in the mirror image the eye follows with the direction of the wind - making it feel more alive. In the original direction the eye fights against the wind. I decided to keep the illustration in its mirrored state allowing the viewers eye to easily follow the blowing leaves up and into the illustration. 

     Throughout the entire process I continued to sharpen and refine my linework on a separate sketch layer.  I placed this line-only layer above the stack of color layers before flattening the piece. That is why I refer to this style of approach as "Stained Glass". The line work represents the metal in the window and is always separate from the colored painting. In a way this approach is like creating a coloring book page backwards - I first layer on the values and colors and 'find' my outline drawing through them.

Close up of girl.

"Finished" illustration with filler text.

     For the final look I rearranged the decorative frame to create areas for text. I liked how this helped de-emphasize the square shape of the painting and gave it more of a vertical storybook page layout. Like so many of my paintings it's never really finished, I always like to go back and tweak them a bit more - it's just too tempting and if you can make it even better - why not?!


  1. Incredible! You are amazingly talented!

  2. Matchless work. Your art is one of a kind.

  3. wow Ashley, that is so fascinating, It is so awesome to see how you created this, I love your blog too, Miss you, and keep up the amazing work! I am pursuing computer animation now, through full sail online, I may be asking you for pointers...

  4. Very Impressed. I have wanted to do digital art for the longest time.. I do sci-fantasy in Oil, but this is great. Hope to keep an eye on you.

  5. Thank you Adrianna, sl_1138, Autumn, Ignatz, and The Lounge Magazine for your encouraging comments!

    Autumn - I can't wait to see your work as a result of attending Full Sail.

    The Lounge Magazine - That is excellent that you've been working with Oil. Having experience in traditional media is a MUST before creating digital art. The fundamentals always apply and you'll be a few steps ahead of the game with you're experience.

  6. Love your style and appreciate your walkthroughs... Lovely technique!

  7. Thank you Aaron! - I'm an admirer of your work so that's quite a compliment. :)