Fury of the Dracolich

Painting a Fantasy Cover in Photoshop

This tutorial will walk you through my digital painting process for my cover painting ‘Fury of the Dracolich”. For this painting I worked completely digitally in Photoshop using my Intuos 3 tablet. I’ll be outlining the major steps in my process taking you from the origin of the idea of the piece through the sketch and drawing phases all the way to the final illustration. While this may be a digital painting tutorial the general principles I talk about in it are mostly universal irregardless of the medium you are painting with.


Step 1: Inspiration: a Character & a Tree

This particular piece actually started as 3 separate ideas that merged into one final piece. First, was the character design. I had just seen the BlueSky file ‘EPIC’ and felt inspired to create my own dark forest druid character. So, I jumped into thumbnailing out costume designs for this character and arrived at a colored thumbnail. Around this time I had also went on a mission’s trip to Guatemala and while there took a lot of photos of the amazing trees at some Mayan ruins, which I knew I wanted to paint. Third, at the time I painted this I was illustrating a lot of characters and really wanted to spend some time on a full cover illustration. So, these all eventually merged together into the single idea for this painting.

Step 2: Thumbnailing

I create a small canvas in PS and just start sketching out small little compositions that show all the major elements of the image (tree, dragon, 2 characters) in various configurations. This is an extremely important step because this is where I solve for the composition of the painting, which will by the foundation for the entire piece. If the painting does not work in this small simple form no matter how much I render or detail the image it won’t work at full size.

I arrive at my final thumbnail. It has a nice circular flow from two characters, to the dragon head, neck, and up and around the body back to the characters. The tree is nice and central allowing me to get into all those nice details that made me originally want to paint it and it leaves room for the titles at the top and bottom.

Step 3: Reference

I usually use my small digital camera mounted on a tripod which has a 10 sec self-timer function. I set this up and go to town. My main use for this reference is typically for the pose and anatomy of my characters. If I can get the lighting right that is a big bonus, but that is hit or miss for me as I do not have much in the way of lighting tools at this point. So, referring back to my thumbnail I take photos till I feel I have a good photo of each character’s pose. I will also search the internet for any relevant reference I might need. In this case I found images of the rotted corpses and skeletons of various animals, swamps, and cloudy night skies. The more accurate and better quality your reference is the easier the rest of this painting process will be.

Step 4: Layout sketch > Final Drawing

I want this piece to be large so that I can create a nice large eye grabbing canvas print for my convention shows. I set up my file/document at 28” x 36” at 300 dpi with a white base layer.

With reference and thumbnail in hand I will now begin the drawing. I start with a quick loose gesture of the whole scene working big to small. Once the gesture is complete I zoom in and tighten the whole drawing; especially the focal point of the two characters and dragon. During this part, if I am feeling it I’ll wash in a few tones here and there, like in the sky. I know that I am going to be doing a full paint-over and that none of this line art will show through in the final so I am not too concerned about line weight for this particular piece.

Step 5: Under-painting

Initial Gradient.
I usually begin all my digital paintings with a gradient. This is something I picked up back in college from a tutorial video on comic coloring by Steve Firchow. Starting with a base ground is nothing new in painting, but making it a gradient immediately brings flow to the piece and calls out the focal point. I decide to go with a desaturated green gradient since green will be a major player in this piece.

Making the Values Work.
I have my drawing layer set to Multiply with the gradient layer beneath this. For the under-painting I create a new layer above the line art set to Normal at 50% opacity. I block in all the major elements on this layer working large to small. For my under-paintings I generally work monochromatic so that I can focus on value alone. Once I block everything in and I feel the piece is ready to be taken to a finished level of detail I create a new layer on top of the previous set it to Normal at 100% opacity and continue to render at full opacity. This is the longest part of the painting process since I am rendering everything to finish, but it is very meditative and I can just go off to my happy place and sit and paint for hours.

Step 6: Color Comps

To create the color comps I copy my under-painting and paste it into a new document. I then reduce the image till it is only a couple hundred pixels across (tiny in comparison to the final). I setup a new layer over this set to ‘Color’ mode and start splashing around color. By having the layer I am working in set to color all that it changes is the color of what’s beneath none of my rendering is lost. For this piece I know I want it to be in a dead swamp like area with desaturated colors to start with. Once I have my initial color comp then use the color balance adjustment option in the main menu to create variations to give me a few different options to pick between.

Step 7: Bring in the Color

Back in my full size working file I create a new layer above all the others and set it to Color mode. Since I have a nice color comp created it is just a matter of using the eye dropper tool to grab a particular color off the comp and then painting it onto the final. So I have my color comp open on my second monitor along with reference as I work.

After the first color pass I create a new layer set to Overlay at 100% opacity. Overlay is another transparent layer mode that works really nicely as a glaze layer to make colors more vibrant and boost contrast. On this layer I glaze over the focal areas of the image with higher chroma colors to really make these colors pop, while leaving the background area desaturated in comparison. Once this layer is complete the painting is 75% complete. The end is in sight.

Step 8: Bringing it Home

Final Details and Refining.
I create a new ‘Normal’ layer set to 100% opacity and start tightening the entire painting, especially the focal paint. This is a cover so it needs to be attention grabbing so I want to make sure my detail level is crazy. That means lots of zooming and rendering. It’s about really getting in there and bringing the whole piece to higher level of finish; liking taking it from being a standard definition image to a high definition image. This is the second longest part of the process (if you notice both long steps are rendering). Once this rendering is complete you are almost there.

Step 9: Time to make it Pop!

Final Glazes and Tweaks.
This step changes for each piece, but in a general sense it involves a handful of various glazing or adjustment layers to really make the painting pop. I use a ‘Soft Light’ layer to brighten and add green to the druid’s magic, to slightly brighten the top edge of the tree, and add in a cast shadow for the tree.

Lastly come the adjustment layers. At the bottom of the layers panel is a button that looks like a circle that is half filled in. If you click this a menu pops up of the all the different adjustment layers available. First I create a Color Balance adjustment layer and use it to slightly tweak all my colors: I feel like the whole image is still a tad too yellow-green so in the ‘midtones’ I shift the slider to blue, and shift the slider towards magenta reducing the green in the image and adding a little more blue to the shadows for contrast. Next, I create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and boost the saturation of the entire image. Lastly, I create a Levels adjustment layer to bring even more contrast to the image. To finish the image I add in my signature. Woot!

Step 10: Critiques & Updates. Oh’ wait there is more

Once I am finished with a piece I make sure to send it off to artist friends for critiques in case I missed anything because after spending hours and hours staring at the same painting it’s easy to miss things. After listening to the critiques I decide to go back in and darken the top portion of the dragon’s wings so that they do not stand out as much against the night sky. This also helps to make the focal pop more, by reducing contrast in non-important areas of the image. Following that same concept I bring a little fog over the furthest back skeleton in the water so that it is not as crisp as my focal area. Lastly, I enhance the magic rim lighting on the druid because she is getting lost and needs to pop off the tree more.

On to the next painting!