By Zach Goldstein


I recently took a Digital Illustration class at my University, where I was able to explore a new art medium that I had been interested in for some time. I had done very little painting beforehand, so I learned a lot of new concepts and ideas that have been extremely helpful to me as an artist. In this tutorial, I am going to try to briefly explain some of what I learned while showing the build up process of my painting entitled Paradise City. Because this is a brief walkthrough, and because I don't have time to write a detailed synopsis of the entire class, this tutorial is recommended for those with a least a little experience in painting and photoshop. Also, I used several texture brushes from Blur's GoodBrush 4.0, which can be downloaded here.

Fundamental Concepts:
"The two most important processes to becoming a professional illustrator are: Practice and observation." -Prof. Zach Gray. This may seem obvious, but I cannot stress enough how important these two steps are in illustration. With that in mind, here are a few other concepts I was taught in class:

  • Importance of research materials
  • Application of design principles
  • Use of narrative depth
  • Advantages of starting a painting with a middle tone
  • Light color vs. object color
  • Rendering simple shapes to reveal form, followed by details
  • Displaying form through shading rather than through line.

As I explain my painting process in this tutorial, I will frequently mention and briefly explain some of these concepts.

Getting Started:
As with all art, a concept painting always begins with an idea. However,
most people cannot simply think up the perfect idea for the next hottest painting, and need some help along the way. This is where research materials come in. I knew I wanted to do a futuristic prison scene, but that was about it. Fortunately, if you nurture and develop an idea, you can lead yourself to something great. One way to do this is by collecting quality research materials, as they are undeniably the best way to get ideas to help your initial conception. I went online found some very useful research, which contained everything from real life prison photographs, to concept paintings for the PS3 game Killzone 2. I put everything I found into a Referencefolder, and separated the few images that I thought came the closest to representing the look and feel I was going for. Another useful tool can be writing a log line and background story for your painting. This can help you remember what you come up with in your thought process before you can get a skech out.

After collecting research, I did several sketches to try and clarify my ideas. I then tossed the ones I didn't like and refined the ones I did. Once I completed my sketch, I made a primitive recreation of the scene in Maya. This was a extremely helpful for many reasons. For one, I was able to expand my ideas and preview them with accurate perspective. I also got to explore different camera angles and lens types, which was very helpful for creating a good composition. And finally, I was able to position lights to preview light angles and shadow casting.

3DRefUpon completing the work in Maya, I had a good idea of the overall content and composition of my scene, as well as some good lighting reference. The next thing I needed to figure out was my color palette. I knew that I wanted a somewhat greenish atmosphere, combined with some yellow sunlight. I sketched over the basic shapes of the 3D reference I had just made, and then laid in the ground. I choose green for the ground color, and painted it over the entire scene, save for the sky, because I knew that even though it would get painted over, I could SketchTilelet the green seep through in certain spots to help the color scheme. Here is what I had right before I began my initial shading:


I then began my rough painting. At this stage it is important to work loose and quick, using big, opaque brushes. Revealing the form and nailing the lighting are the most important goals at this point. I began with only a few colors: 2 yellows, 2 blues, and tan and brown. I prefer to start with a fairly limited palette when I begin painting so I don't get overwhelmed with too many colors. I used Photoshop's default Chalk brush with pressure sensitivity enabled and began to quickly lay in highlights and shadows. I knew that I wanted the foreground to stand out and grab the viewers attention, so I intentionally gave it brighter highlights and more overall light, whereas I left the background a darker blue, and pushed it back even further with some atmospheric perspective. Below is my progress about midway through, and includes my final color palette:

MidwayThis was about my mid point of the painting, and even though it looks like a lot of work when compared to my previous sketch, what I did to get here was fairly simple. The majority of my time up to this point was spent on cleaning up my rough lay in of my shadows and highlights, and sharpening up the edges. My main focus was getting the lighting and shadows correct, and as I worked, the form of the buildings and walls began to appear. I also began to start adding a few extra details and structures in the scene, such as the cables, the foreground beam, and windows on the buildings. I also began to do some experimenting with texture brushes. However, I would highly recommend not to start painting extra details like this until you have nailed the overall forms and lighting, and know exactly where it is you are going. As a 3D modeler, this is something that I have had difficulty with, and even now I often start rushing into the little details too early. However, once you have thoroughly revealed form in your painting, adding those extra details can really make your scene come to life.

To render a truly believable new world, it is extremely important that you try to put yourself into the mind set of those who live there. When adding details to a scene, you need to know what they are and why they are there. In my painting, I wanted to create the appearance of a worn down, dirty prison yard in the middle of a city. In this prison, the inmates were often neglected by the guards and were free to vandalize and loot wherever the pleased, which resulted in further destruction to the surrounding walls. I added construction equipment to a building in the background to try and show that the city was growing and could eventually overrun the prison. I also added damage to the edges of the walls, particularly along the bottom, to show the destructive nature of the inmates. Little things like these can go a long way in making your scene visually pleasing and realistic. If you can get into the mind of what you are creating, and figure out why and where certain elements exist, you will begin to quickly see your painting come alive.

For those of you who are familiar with Goodbrush 4, adding certain texture detail can become a much easier and faster process when you use the right brushes. The few that I found helpful in my experience with this painting were the Crack, Running Sewage, Concrete, Rust, and Smoke brushes. It's important that you do not let yourself go overboard with these brushes however, or to limit yourself to only using them for every affect. They can be very useful, but if they are over used, they will start to distract from the overall scene. An important concept my teacher shared with me is that you do not have to render every little spec of dust, every crack or dent, or any other miniscule detail excessively. Many times the implication of detail is enough to let the viewer know that the rest is there, and this often looks a lot more sophisticated. For example, implying detail means that you don't render every singe leaf on a tree, but rather show the entire tree as blocks of color and shading, finalizing with a few quick strokes to imply leaves. With this principle in mind, however, Goodbrush 4 is a very useful addition for any digital illustrator and I highly recommend it.

In conclusion, I just want to say how much learning to illustrate in Photoshop has benefited me as an artist. Being able to create entire scenes in a matter of hours really intrigues me, as something like this would have taken much much longer to create and render in 3D applications. As you continue to develop your skills, it's important to push yourself to do better work faster. As for myself, even though I can paint an entire scene much quicker than I could model, texture, light, and render it in 3D, I know I could work on improving my painting speed. As I continue to practice and study the art form, I not only hope to further develop my personal style, but increase the speed and the quality of my future paintings. If you are interested in reading some more in depth tutorials, I have a collection, given to me by my professor, of some of the best training resources available online and uploaded them here. See the link below to download.




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