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[the following contains some drawings of softcore nudity and so if you have a problem with that don't say I did not warn you]
I'm going to walk you through the creation of a recent drawing of mine. In the course of this design I used a couple layer mask based digital coloring techniques which I think will be helpful tools for empowering newbies, or could save skilled artists production time. I'll try to talk you step by step through these methods along with screenshots as the design processes, and with any luck you'll learn some valuable new skills.
Personally I consider the difficulty of this as 'easy' and suitable for beginners. However a bit of drawing ability is required if you are going to produce your own line art, so to that degree maybe this should be considered 'intermediate'.
This is not intended as a detailed guide to understanding masks, it's only a practical walkthrough of a specific approach. If you don't know much about masks, reading some comprehension guides would be worth your time since they are a very powerful part of Photoshop. This however, is not such a comprehension guide.
Also, this is not a guide to teach you how to draw like I do. I think the purpose of tutorials should be to explain tools and technical approaches, not to attempt to teach personal style. So I'll skip detailed explanations of how I use my brush to get specific looking lines, etc. Hopefully you'll use the techniques here with your own painting style, which in the long run will be better than you learning mine.
Following along with this guide requires Photoshop obviously, just about any version still in use can handle these techniques though the details of the interface may vary. This was a mixed media piece but I'll be discussing only the parts done in Photoshop during this guide. I am assuming you know how to do most simple things, like create a new layer or use a gradient, without me needing to explain what menu to find it under or how to apply it. I don't use any really advanced commands here, even if you are not familiar with masks the commands should be pretty easy to grasp.
I will be including some keyboard shortcuts here and there commands since this is how I work, may save you time. I use Mac OS so my keyboard shortcuts use the command key, the one with an apple on it. If you are using Windows rather than a Mac, sorry I do not know those keys by heart so can't help you... [ When I write a keyboard shortcut I'll surround it in round brackets, ( ). When I use a key on it's own it (d), press the 'd' key. When I use a plus sign it means push the string of buttons at once (cmd+a), means press "command" and "a" at the same time. I'll use a comma to separate commands, (cmd+a, cmd+d) would mean first press "command" and "a" at the same time, then press "command" and "d" at the same time. Pretty simple.]
Before we start in part one, go ahead and make a new Photoshop document. It may be helpful to make a new layer and fill it with a contrasting color to use as a background. I don't recommend painting on a white backdrop but it's up to you. Here I am using an ugly green to help all my other colors stand out.
I started out with a very small sketch.
The pose reference was generously provided by Marcus Ranum, www.ranum.com
, you can view it here
. Small scale sketching can be a good starting point to prototype your design and make little changes so that you have a road map moving forward.
part 1 - line art & hair masking
Let's get rolling on laying the groundwork for the design. Where I started was with a layer of the line art, the main outlines of the design. Make a new layer, (cmd+shift+n). Fill the layer with black, (cmd+a, d, alt+delete, cmd+d). Add a layer mask, click the 'Add layer mask' button in the Layers window. Fill the mask with black, (cmd+i). Now you are ready to paint into that mask.
An important point to make for anyone who does not know much about masks, make sure the mask is selected before you start painting. You can tell what is selected, [the layer itself or the mask]
, by the small outline around the thumbnail. You can see the outline is around the mask in this screenshot, so the mask is active;
To select the main part of the layer again, click on it's thumbnail. To switch to the mask, click the mask's thumbnail. Easy.
At this point the mask is all black so none of the layer is showing, painting white into the mask will allow parts of it to show. So set your paint brush to white, (d, x), and select your brush tool, (b). You can use any brush preset you want but I suggest one with a hard edge. I used a hard edged pressure sensitive brush that is slightly oblong with no transparency [the brush is included in my brush pkg]
. If you don't have a tablet you can still do this with a mouse, but I can't recommend strongly enough that you get a tablet since it is so much more effective in any kind of digital art project. It's one of the best investments you can make... If you do not want to use a brush at all, you could use the lasso tool for this step, I suppose.
Paint your line art into the mask with your white paint. Use whatever personal style you have of doing this it does not need to look like mine of course... Generally I'd advise leaving hash mark shading out of this though, since we'll be shading it later with other means... When I was done putting down my simple line art, it looked like this:
Pretty basic but good enough for now, let us move onto the hair. You could paint this on your line art layer depending on your style, for me I like to keep my hair on it's own layer so I can isolate it later... Repeat the steps of creating a new layer, filling it with a solid color, and giving it a black mask [(cmd+shift+n, cmd+a, d, alt+delete, cmd+d) add a layer mask (cmd+i)]
. You may want to color this layer something besides black so that your line art is visually distinct, I used red. Also I put it above my line art layer.
Just like on the body, paint white into the mask until you've shaped the hair in a way you like;
This is all pretty simple stuff, no magic here. Personal style plays the main role in what your results will look like, how hard you work on your drawing skill / style will determine how much you like your results;
At this point you might be wondering, why are we fooling around with masks rather than simply painting our shapes into the layer itself? It will become clear later on why we need masks.
If you must, you could paint right in to the layer instead then convert it to a mask when you are done, I think it is more hassle that way. If you had already made line art, you could convert it to a mask instead of drawing it from scratch like I've done here... To convert the layer content to a mask, get your line art layer selected, right click on the thumbnail of the layer in the Layers window and choose 'Select Pixels', then click the 'Add layer mask' button. When you have an active selection and click the button to make a new mask, it will always base the mask on the selection and this will effectively move your layer contents into the mask. You will want to fill the content of the layer with a solid layer as soon as you do this, otherwise the edges will be messy.
To select the pixels of the lines they'll need to be like the hair image I have above, just the lines and empty space, no white or other colors around the lines. If you had scanned line art from a drawing on paper, you will likely get a lot of white space along with the dark lines, and this will keep you from selecting the pixels of your lines. But there is a way around this in a couple steps. First step is to make a stark contrast between the white and black, either by going to the menu option Image > Adjustments > Brightness / Contrast or if you know what you are doing using Levels (cmd+m), the goal of this step is to get as close to pure black and white without any muddy greys. The second step is to isolate all the black and delete the pixels around it, myself I think the fastest way to do this is with the free "Ghost" plugin that you can download in the Free Plugins pack here
. This will convert your luminosity data to alpha data, basically it will delete part of pixels depending on how light they are and will completely delete white, and if your image is stark enough it will leave you with only the black lines in your layer. Which you will then be able to convert to masks.
part 2 - body masking, shading
Let's get to work on the body now. Create a new layer, move it below the other layers, and fill it with a middle tone color that we can temporarily use, don't make a mask on this layer though!
While the new layer is selected make a new group and put the layer into that group, (cmd+g).
We are going to put the mask on the group, that way the mask will apply to the group's contents. With the group selected, click the "add layer mask" button in the Layers window. Once again make this mask black, (cmd+i).
Now add white to the group mask until you have defined your body shape. This is very easy since we have the line art to help us, it's just like a coloring book;
It's looking pretty ugly because of my color choices right now, but those are there so that I can clearly see problems and deal with them. At this stage, that is what matters. You can see in her hand the fingers are not fully filled, and under her tail some of the color is outside the lines a bit, this is clear to see since the skin color is between the background and the lineart. If you can't see a problem, you can't fix it.
Now that we have a group that is providing our body shape we are going to add some shading with two new layers. Both of these layers will be placed inside the body group, and above the skin tone layer. The theory here is that these layers will pick up whatever color is below them and alter it, so that you can leave these layers black and white and never worry about coloring them.
Create a new layer, fill it with black, put it's blending mode to Overlay and it's opacity to 40%, create a mask on that layer and fill the mask with black. This will be our darker shade.
Create another new layer, fill it with white, put it's blending mode to Screen and it's opacity to 40%, create a mask on that layer and fill the mask with black. This will be our lighter shade.
At this point, I've lightened my base layer to something closer to skin tones to help make this shading process proceed better. Paint your shading in white onto each of these layers' masks. Your style is up to you I can't comment much on how to best to shade the model, mine ended up like so;
I am getting three tones here, the base layer plus one lightening layer plus one darkening layer. Though you could make more layers if you want, to add more tones with the same method of Overlaying and Screening. Because of how I will modify my three layers later, I think three is good enough for me now.
It's fairly important that you grasp this grouping masking and shading method, because if you happen to be painting a subject that had other objects you would likely want to make a group for each. For example, one for clothing, or one for each piece of clothing, depending on how detailed you want to get.
part 3 - oil masking, mask blending
The next layer to make is the glossily oil like shine on the mermaid. Now in 99% of your paintings you won't need a layer like this, [unless all you paint is oiled people, if so you need help]
. But I'll be using it here to demonstrate the more complicated masking stage.
So, same sort of process as before. Create a new layer and put it in the body group above the other contents. Fill it with white, put it on 90% opacity, create a new mask and fill that mask with black. Once again, use a white brush to paint into the mask and produce your visible shapes;
Now we have completed basic work at last and it's time to take the design to the next level. Right click on the oil layer's mask thumbnail in the Layers window to bring up it's contextual menu, and choose "apply layer mask".
Now what this does is deletes all the pixels of the layer that had a black part of the the mask over them. The layer is now just white gloss and transparent empty space.
The layer has no mask anymore, which is the point because we are going to immediately make a new mask on this layer! You know how by now. This time though, once you make the mask leave it white. Do not fill it with black like we have done on other masks.
Now you should change your brush preset to something with a soft edge, a nice soft air brush. Again I'm using a pressure sensitive brush. You might want to set the opacity of your air brush to something like 50%. This time, we will be painting black onto the mask not white, so load your brush with black, (d).
When we paint black onto the white mask, all the pixels of the layer that are under the black in the mask will be hidden. The mask itself is going to look like a crazy mess, but that really does not matter too much. When I say it takes pretty much no painting skill, I mean it. Looking at the mask itself see how sloppy I was;
Not exactly Bouguereau, is it? All that matters is the resulting look of the layer. I've put some black below the oil layer so you can see more clearly how that ugly masking is working on our solid white oil to blend it into the look we want;
You can see I am keeping some edges very hard while other edges I am blending away with the brush. The idea is to think of how the contours will hold the light and which way. I had no oil in the model's reference photo so this was all from imagination, and some trial and error to get something looking more or less the way I wanted it;
Let us pause and talk about the theory behind this process. If you had to paint oil to look like this and did not use a mask, the painting would have been far more demanding in terms of brush skill. Painting on the mask method is much simpler because you break the process into two parts, one part the hard edged solid shapes, and the other part the soft air brushed blending. You can also go back at any time and individually edit either of these two parts independently, which you could not do if you had used a brush to get this look in one stroke [or if you used the brush + eraser in a multi-stroke style]
... That is the point of this whole approach, breaking down the work into small accessible parts. I could come pretty close to this painting with brush strokes and not using a mask, but it would take me a lot more time without looking too much better. Compare that to the sloppy air brush mask which takes almost no time or skill, and the solid masking we did before with the hard brush which also used no great painting skill.
Back to the design and we are now going to go through the exact same re-masking process on the high light and shadow layers. Apply the mask of those two layers, make a new white mask for each layer, and use an air brush to blend away some of the edges as you see fit. I'll suggest you to keep some hard edges here and there, all soft does not look as well defined and your shading might read very flatly [which is why if you only paint with a soft air brush your work tends to look amateurish]
. After you are done the shading should look a lot more better;
One thing to note is that we used masks to paint our shapes for these three layers then applied those masks, we could have painted the shapes directly into the layer instead. We used masks so that we would have the option of using the coloring methods I'll cover in part four, in this case we used solid colors on our shading to keep things simple. We could have added a lot more complexity if we wished, in this case it was not needed but I still went through the process in a way that left the option open which is how I suggest you do it as well.
part 4 - filling in the blanks
It's time to get away from flat solid colors at last, we are going to paint into the hair, line art, and skin layers. We are not going to change their masks, but we are going to change the layer content so they are not just solid colors anymore. We can paint as wildly as we like into these layers because the masks maintain the edges of our shapes, there is no way to color 'outside the lines'.
We should start with the skin layer, select it. I find it's sometimes helpful to use the gradient tool to set some basic color down before I get to the details with my brush. In the case of my mermaid she has a color change between her tail and the rest of her and this is a slow gradient. So I picked a grey and a skin color, selected the gradient tool (g), and ran a long gradient over her;
You can see the oil and shading layers apply to her grey just as well as the tan, we don't need to color the shading layers they will smoothly react to whatever is under them. You can edit the opacity of those shading layers to change their power to taste, though.
You might want to add more gradients here and there, it can be helpful to select an area with the lasso tool and then put a gradient into just that selected area. Besides color changes you can use gradients to help re-enforce shading by making darker areas, note my mermaids neck in the following image.
Eventually you'll likely feel like you've done all you can with gradients and then switch back to an air brush to paint by hand. Here is the un-shaded skin layer I end up with after my gradients and air brushing;
Again how to color it is a matter of your own style I can't give much help there... One important suggestion I have though is that you should never use only one hue. For example you can see I use more yellows with areas in the light, blues in areas on the underside, and reds in areas that I want to be more fleshy. That might not work depending on the surroundings of the person you are painting, but my general point is that you should mix up your hues to reflect the space your figure is in. Skintones all in one hue pretty much never look very good... You can see again in the above image, that no real painting skill is needed it's very simple.
When we turn the shading layers and oil back on it looks like;
You can treat the hair layer in the same way. Paint into it just like you did with the skin. I am using kind of a flat stylistic look here but you can paint into the layer however you like;
Looking better now. But the line art is still solid black. Depending on your style you might like it like that, or you might like no line art at all which is how I often work. In this case we are going to end up with shaded lines, if you color yours at all or how excatly how you color it is up to you. This process is exactly the same as how we painted the skin layer. Only you might want to use slightly harder brushes than the really soft air brush. This is how my colored lines looked on their own;
All soft air brush, no skill. And when this shaded line gets added to the rest of the image;
This is the sum total of many parts. All the simple painting we have done into masks and layers so far was not very much work on their own, but all added up the result looks like a pretty decently complex piece. Breaking down the design into small bite sized parts is an approach that might help you punch far above your weight if you are a newbie, and if you are already a skilled designer it might just save you a lot of time.
It has the look I want which is not fully realistic, but not a complete cartoon, somewhere in between. When I paint something in a more realistic style, like The Night Bird's Song
, I will do all of that on only a few layers. All the hair on one layer, all the skin on one layer, flowers all on one layer. That demands a lot more brushing skill than something like the coloring in this design, because it's not broken down into manageable parts [to the contrary it's compressed into as few parts as possible]
. Using the coloring methods here lets me do this design in a third of the time compared to how I usually paint.
part 5 - finishing
So what I have explained so far is the essential methods of shading that underpin my whole design. The blending we did in part three, and then the fill coloring we just did in part four. That was the bulk of what I thought was worth learning here, and I hope you find something useful out of it!
As you can see the last picture does not match my final design, because so far I was only sketching to get an idea of what my actual design was going to look like and how it should be put together. All the work in progress images so far come from the sloppy sketching process. So all that work, I pretty much threw away... Doing an in-depth sketch here helped me a lot and the preparation time was well worth it. Maybe that is another lesson worth noting.
I took what I learned from my sketching into Adobe Illustrator and made a vector version of the design, at this point I also added the tattoos and the sinking ship. I'm not going to spend time explaining this part of the process since this is a Photoshop guide. The point is, when I was done with the vector I had a high resolution image I could open in Photoshop again. This is the all vector version, seen here with flat colors and halftone shading;
Using vector got me very large & smooth masks, it also helped me position the ship and tattoos. But if you were patient and careful you could have done all of this with the brush inside of Photoshop, so you don't need to know vector to use the main methods of this walkthrough. [If you know just enough vector to do shapes but not enough to do complex shading, you try this process of importing your vector shapes into Photoshop as masks and coloring them there and see if it's an effective shortcut for you]
Once I had new masks based on my vector layers, I could repeat the whole process of blending the shading and oil layers with new masks, and filling in the hair and line art and skin layers with painted colors. Additionally I had new layers, one of tattoos and one of the ship reflection, I colored these the same way as the body's skin. I'm giving you a working .psd file that is very small but which will let you see the way this is put together;
Click above to download the file.
That file is not stock, it's not there so that you can use parts of it in your own work, it's just there for you to look at and learn from. I thought it was important to show a working file so that you can try turning off layers, recoloring their contents, and play around with it until you see how it works. If you right click on a layer mask's thumbnail and use 'disable layer mask' it will turn off the mask without deleting it, which will be helpful in viewing the unmasked contents of a layer... You might notice that the hair is colored with a masked group method similar to what we did with the body before. It's an example of how you can tweak what you already learned.
After adding a background and a few details here and there, I get to the end of the road we started on with the first sketch: see it here
Posters and prints available at Redbubble :heart
bonus slide ! tattoo concept sketches