Digital Painting: From Sketch to Finished Product

Hardy Fowler, Digital Artist

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11 Lessons (45m)
    • 1. Trailer

    • 2. Class Outline

    • 3. Rough Sketching

    • 4. Inking

    • 5. OPTIONAL SIDEBAR: Basic Mark Making & Rendering

    • 6. OPTIONAL SIDEBAR: Basics of Faces

    • 7. OPTIONAL SIDEBAR: Using Quick Mask Mode to Block in

    • 8. Blocking in & Painting

    • 9. Skin Tones

    • 10. OPTIONAL SIDEBAR: Basics of Eyes

    • 11. Polish and Presentation

125 students are watching this class

Project Description

Create a digital painting of a character's face

Developing Ideas, Sketching & Inking

  1. Making a Plan

    Making a Plan - essentially, this is where we decide what it is we are going to paint, set goals and get a rough plan in our mind. Often, these specs are provided by the client but this is where the artist makes the decisions that will define the image visually.

    For this project, I am going to be painting a character’s head as if I was concepting a mean solider character for a video game. Let’s say that the client has asked for a tough looking, stone faced brute. It’s up to me to fill in the blanks and decide how best to tell the visual story that will make this character interesting and alive.

    Feel free to create any kind of character face that you want but be sure to keep these considerations in mind:

    • What is the background story that we are trying to tell about this character? (who are they are what have they been through?)

    • What visual clues can we use to make this story immediately apparent? 

    • How do we want the audience to feel about this character? (Are they to be liked? hated? feared?)

  2. Rough Sketching

    This is where we start loosely defining shapes and forms. This should be a very free and expressive part of the illustration. Feel free to make as many stray marks or construction lines as needed. As long as the forms start to make sense and become real to you, then you are on the right track. By the end of this phase, we should have a reasonably clear idea of the character in three dimensions, but the image does not have to be pretty or presentable yet.



  3. Inking

    After our rough sketch is in place, we will do a second line art pass that I call “Inking”. Instead of loose, sketchy lines, here we are doing bold, deliberate brush strokes in an effort to arrive at a clean, well defined line art image that can be presented to the client as a rough draft. It’s always good to get approval at an early stage of an illustration and this is a good way to get something presentable without investing too much time.

    I use a caligraphic brush (essentially a slightly flattened circle at an angle) which gives some line line weight variation. I use 100% flow and opacity for inking, but please use whatever settings work best for you. Brush settings can be seen in the attached screen shot.


    By the end of this step, we should have a well defined line art illustration. It should be clean, refined and presentable to a client 


Blocking in and Painting

  1. Blocking in

    Here we will convert our line art into a solid, blocked in shape that we can keep on a layer. I’ll show you a very quick method of doing this that will save hours of masking or selection work. 

    The blocked in shape will be the dark, base value for our value painting and it is also useful as a quick selection tool. 

    Blocking In - Command click the ink layer to create a selection. Once the ink lines are selected, press Q enter quick mask mode, then press the tilde key to enter the mask view. Use the magic wand tool to select outside of the main figure and then select inverse. Now fill the selection with white and we have a solid silhouette of the figure. Press Q to exit quick mask mode and we are ready to create a block in layer.

    Fill in your block in selection with a base color on its own layer. I like to use a very dark greenish cyan color. Because it’s a compliment to the warmer skin tones, I find that it leads to some nice color mixing as we paint.



  2. Painting in basic values

    Now we begin the process of form modeling by painting in basic values. I like to use a bright orange color but feel free to use anything that you prefer because we’re going to change it later anyway. Be sure that your value painting is on a separate layer from the dark green block in layer.

    Modelling the Form - This is where all of those figure drawings and still life paintings come in handy! Start making marks on the face to define how light will illuminate the features and bring it to life in three dimensions. Try to save your brightest values for the areas of focus. For my project, I wanted to highlight the soldier's angular, strong features, so I've made the brow, nose, jaw and cheek bones the brightest. 


  3. Converting Basic Values to Skin Tones

    Now that we have our rough values in place and the form is looking somewhat believable as a three dimensional object, it’s time to turn our attention to skin tones and making this look like a living person and not a mannequin. 

    Let’s start by converting our bright orange value layer to a high key, pale yellow. Do this by adjusting the Hue/Saturation which is command U.

    Next create a new layer beneath the value painting. Then grab a maroon color and start to paint in some subtle warm colors. Essentially, we’re going to add warm hues to the cheeks, nose, ears, lips and forehead but we are going to let that greenish base layer show through around the scalp and beard. 

    Below, please see a simple layer guide for how my layers are setup at this point. Note that the value layer and the skintone underpainting layer are kept separate as we begin this step but they can be merged once you like the basic look and modulation of the skin tones, 


    Once you like how your basic skin tone areas are looking (making sure that the nose, cheeks, lips and ears are slightly more red in hue than the rest of the face), feel free to merge your VALUE and SKINTONE layers into one layer.

    Sample colors on the fly (hold down ALT when using the brush tool to sample) and paint in some shadows and highlights too. Anything that further rounds out the figure and makes it seem more three dimensional. I'm also adding some high key (nearly white) highlights to the nose, forehead, brow and lips, just to make those areas of focus pop out.



Polish and Presentation

  1. Paint Eyes and Hair

    With our values and skin tones just about wrapped up, we are ninety percent of the way to a finished painting. Now it’s time to add some details and clean everything up so that our illustration will really shine and can be presented to the client with confidence.

    First of all, I am going to render the eyes and hair. I have some very simple tricks for rendering eyes and stubble that will be a huge time saver.

    Eyes - Let’s start a new layer and begin rendering the sphere shape of the eye ball. I like to build this shape up first using a maroon, then a yellow ocre ish color and finally an off white. When this is done, it should look like two round spheres sitting in the eye sockets.


    Next we use the eraser tool to subtly erase away the round iris shape of the eye. This determines the direction that the character is looking in, so make sure to choose carefully and not let your character be cross eyed. Erase away a dark pupil in the center. Make sure that the iris is darker near the top.


    After that, we add a single bright white highlight to the center of the eye and presto, it suddenly looks like someone is looking at you.


    Now let’s give this guy some stubble on his face and scalp. Create another new layer and Switch your brush mode to Dissolve and set it to a low percentage flow and opacity. With a dark color selected, you just drop in some speckled, dissolve brush strokes and the software does the rest.

    Once we have the right amount of stubble dropped in, I like to run the Gaussian Blur filter to make it a little less sharp. I then set the layer to a lower opacity but make the stubble as bold or as subtle as you want.

  2. Paint Secondary Light Sources

    Now let’s add some secondary light sources. Start a new layer and select a light color (I think I’m using white here). On the dark side of the face, start adding some light marks wherever a light from the lower left part of the canvas would hit. I’m trying to really focus on the nose, cheek bones and jaw here. I’m using white, but this is a great opportunity to get additional information to the viewer. For example, if you make the reflected lights bright orange, it might suggest that this guy is in a firefight or a warzone or something. Make it an eerie green if you’re putting him in some scary alien type setting. It’s all up to you. Feel free to use the hue saturation adjuster if you want to play around with different colors for you reflected light. You can always undo.



  3. Final Touch Ups and Presentation

    Do one final pass of paint touch ups. It's often good to flip the painting a few times to try and see it with fresh eyes. If everything is where you want it to be, then give the edges a quick treatment with the smudge tool. Overly sharp edges can make your image seem flattened out, so it's good to have a very slight blur around the periphery.

    Once these final touch ups are complete, I'll often put a white glow behind the final character to make it pop. I always typically fade out a head around the neck to be sure that focus is kept on the face.

    And that brings us to a finished product. I hope you’ve gotten a lot out of this class. Remember that these techniques can be applied to virtually any subject and will save you hours. I look forward to seeing your work.


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