Using Computers for Fantasy Realism
By Ursula Vernon
There are any number of ways to paint fantasy art, and any number of styles to paint it in. The FARP is rapidly filling with tutorials on how to master any number of styles. However, for the purposes of this tutorial, we'll be looking at art done using the computer, in the style which I live, breathe, and worship--Realism!
For this tutorial, you will need Adobe Photoshop or a reasonable facsimilie thereof, and the basic knowledge of how to use it. (There are FARP articles to help you if you're a little sketchy) It would also be very helpful to have Fractal Design Painter, and to be using a graphics tablet, but much of the tutorial will be possible with Photoshop (or clone) and a mouse. The main section shows a step-by-step painting using Painter and a graphics tablet, but many of the tricks involved can be duplicated in Photoshop with a little time and thought..
A Few Thoughts on Realism in Fantasy Art
Realism, in my humble opinion, is one of the most convincing ways to create fantasy art. You can dream up the most bizarre monster around, like a mad scientist on ketamine--'Igor! More eyes! More teeth! More scales! And fetch me a flamethrower!'--and if the background is realistic and the tiny warrior being squashed underfoot looks right, people will believe it!
In essence, realism establishes your credentials. The viewer assumes that because you have so accurately rendered the parts of the painting they recognize, then of course you must be accurately rendering the drooling, clawed, fire-breathing parts they don't. You are convincing them to suspend their disbelief'I know that dragons aren't real, but because it looks so perfect, I'm willing to accept that this one might be.' Before we jump into the nitty-gritty of painting, there are a few points I'd like to make, that you can use to help yourself create realistic paintings.
Monsters with Muscles!
If there is a key to creating realistic monsters, it's this: Monsters have muscles, too. Amorphous blobs are very rarely scary (Yog-Sothoth aside) and in order to convince your view that this is a REAL beastie, give it muscle! Give it anatomy! This allows your viewer to go 'Aha! I know that real animals have that kind of muscle, so obviously this two-story, acid-spitting, axe-wielding, chicken-wearing monster must be real!' (Well, it's a subconscious thing, but you get my drift.)
The muscle on the first dragon's shoulder, chest, and legs is based on the anatomy of a lion. The second dragon is based on a combination of a jackrabbit (shoulder, neck, body) and a human (arm and hands). The mouse is based on several photos of mice (Obviously.) being eaten by owls. Even though the dragons have scales instead of fur, the muscles are essentially the same as their source beasts. Whenever possible, try to find reference material for animals that match your monsters. (Ever notive how Boris Vallejo's monsters all have arms and legs rather like a human? Same bicep and thigh muscles as the barbarian he's fighting? This is why.) Give it a little thought--is my monster a big predator like a lion? Is it a weird riding beast that would have muscle like a horse? And for the love of your muse, if it has wings, GIVE THEM BONES! Flat sheets of membrane with no support struts are one of the quickest way to make your viewer go 'Uh-huh,' and reach for the 'Next' button. (Sorry. This is a pet peeve of mine.)
Back to the Front!
...must die/When I say/You must die/Back to the Front! Errr, sorry. Metallica moment there. Where was I? Ah, yes...It’s not the fun part. It's the part that drags on for an eternity while your patience shreds itself and you grind the enamel off your back teeth. It's...the background.
And it's gotta be done first.
The background, alas, determines the lighting for the entire painting, and you've just got to bite the bullet and do it. (Come on, we all know that if we didn't paint the background first, we'd be tempted to leave it only half-finished at the end.) The background determines what colors go where on your main figure. Always paint from the back of the painting to the foreground, unless you've got a really compelling reason not to. This will insure that you can get consistent lighting--VITAL to realism.
Do the sky first. The sky determines what color your shadows will be. On this chunk of dragon wing, for example, the sky is greenish-yellow. Now here's a quick and dirty rule about color—the shadows are usually the complementary color to the light source. Orange light gives blue shadows, red light gives green shadows, and in this case, yellowish-green light gives reddish-purple shadows, which you can see around the edges of the bones, assuming that my monitor setting isn't screwed up again.
Working digitally, it's quite easy to paint backgrounds—simply put them on a separate layer from the main figures, or failing that, select the area you want to paint with the selection tool. This allows you to go hog-wild without fear of damaging the detailed sketch you want to work from. I particularly like to use the watercolor tools in Painter for distant, abstract foliage.
It's a truism that you can never have enough reference material. I have Victoria's Secret catalogs littering my desk, and not because I feel an urge to order over-priced lingerie, but you couldn't ask for better skin tones. There's also tons of reference material on-line, although frequently the image quality's not high. I also recommend used bookstores for books of photos, particularly of animals, landscapes, castles, etc. (I once braved -30 windchills for a book of photos of kangaroos for a painting. I do not recommend this.)
Step One: Getting Started
Alright, you've made it this far and endured my tortured ramblings. Onward and upward!
If you're going to paint realistically, you have to draw realistically first. That's just the way it is. There are plenty of FARP articles on the topic, even more excellent books, and I'll relenquish the field to them and assume that you have a sketch, that the proportions are elegant, the pose is dynamic, and you listened to my rant about giving your monsters plausible anatomy, or better yet, read the FARP articles about making monsters.
Okay, that was overly flippant of me. There's a little more to it. I recommend scanning your sketch--this is what we'll use as the underpainting of the actual piece--big. In fact, I suggest making the whole painting really big. Assuming that your final product will go up on Elfwood at, say, 500 x 500 pixels, then your painting should ideally be three or four times that size. The bigger the painting, the greater the detail...the better it will look.
I generally work in an 11' x 14' sketchbook, and I scan the sketch at 170% to 200% of the original size. Since the web-browser size makes showing you a full sized sketch prohibitive, take my word for it. The average size of one of my paintings is 20' x 30' or so (depending on the proportions.) Many fantasy artists work even bigger--Michael Whelan won't paint anything less than four feet on a side, for example.
If you drew your figure and background together, or if you don't intend to scan a background, you can skip ahead. For my painting of Sinai the elven warrior, (above) I wanted a background with a little architecture, so I sketched it seperately and scanned it in.
A note on backgrounds...you frequently don't need to draw them. All three of these paintings had their backgrounds created digitally, either by manipulating scanned objects (in the first one) or using Painter for a freehand background (as in the second two.) For detailed architecture, it's frequently for the best if you do a drawing to work from, but otherwise it's often unneccessary. If I catch you using unmodified cloud filters in Photoshop as a backdrop, I will lash you with a wet noodle until you cry, but cheap tricks aside, if the background is a nature scene, using just trees, or mountains, or my favorite, cracked concrete walls, etc, you can often freehand one in digitally. (And if I am ever possessed by boundless energy, I will write an article on this topic.) But, please, don't use a scanned photo. Your figures will never match the realism of the photo, unless you paint like an angel, and you can kiss your viewer's suspension of disbelief goodbye.
Now, to merge the two scans, using Photoshop...There are plenty of FARP articles on using layers, so I won't tax you with a step-by-step of how to combine and resize two sketches. Photoshop will automatically create a new layer when you've pasted something onto a background--this is a good thing. Leave it that way. If you have more than one figure, or other parts of backdrop, arrange them as you see fit, but leave them all on separate layers if possible. This will allow you to work boldly on each part of the painting without fear of damaging the detail you'll need on the figures, or what have you.
Step Two: Computer Painting vs. Computer Coloring
Well, you've made it this far, and I admire your fortitude. Let's discuss the difference between coloring and painting.
Now, don't take this as set in stone, but for the purposes of this tutorial: Coloring is done by putting color over a line drawing, frequently on a separate layer, without disturbing the essential lines. Painting--at least the way we're doing it!--is usually done directly onto the sketch, using the lines as a guide, but obscuring them by the finished product.
There's a tutorial in FARP already--several, actually!--on coloring with Photoshop, so I'll only touch briefly on it here. (If you're really really interested, maybe someday I'll whip up my own article on it, but there's really not that much new to tell.) The simplest way to explain is that in computer coloring, lines are very important.
By way of example, this piece was computer colored using layers in Photoshop set to 'multiply' over an inked sketch. This style is very useful for comic art, anime, and styles like Art Nouveau where preserving the essential line quality is very important. I recommend inking the sketch first, in many cases, to clean up the lines, and make sure they come through very clearly.
You also don't need to limit yourself to Photoshop when coloring with layers. Fractal Design Painter supports layers (you can import the file as a .PSD from Photoshop) and you can achieve some very interesting effects. The leonine gentleman above was done using the watercolor tools in Painter, which give a very different effect from Photoshop airbrush.
Computer Painting, as I said, is another beast entirely, and as I promised to focus primarily on that, we'll move on.
From here on out, the program I'll be working in is primarily Fractal Design Painter. I recommend this program as the heavy guns in any digital artist's arsenal. It produces a reasonable facsimile of many modern media, and can't be beat for painting textures. (Photoshop frequently gets very flat and smooth, and looks fake.) Painter is almost unusable without a graphics tablet, however, since most of the brushes are designed to respond to the pressure-sensitive controls. While you can try many of these techniques in Photoshop, I heartily recommend that you go get Painter. Failing that, Fractal Design produces a scaled down version of Painter called 'Dabbler' which retails for under 50$ and can be used to duplicate most of the tricks here.
This is the menu for the Brush tool in Painter. I've somewhat sloppily circled the brushes we use the most. You may also want to use the airbrush
, Artist, watercolor, and chalk tools, shown above.
This is the color controller in Painter, and let me just say it's the best one I've ever used in a paint program. Each hue, with the whole range of variation in saturation and light/dark. I forgive Painter for its otherwise completely counter-intuitive interface, just for the color.
This shows the paper controller in Painter, a very handy tool. You can select the paper you are painting on, which allows you to create a variety of background textures. Painter has lots to choose from, both in standard papers (like watercolor, canvas, silk) and in wild things like marble and concrete.
Get to know this control bar--it will be your friend. The top slider adjusts the size of your brush. You'll use it a lot. The second slider adjust the opacity, and the bottom one adjusts the grain. (HINT: If you're trying to create a texture, use something large and dark to color the area you're texturing. Then set the grain very low, say, 9% and use the chalk or pastel tools with a much lighter color. This will pick up the high points of the paper. Play around with it. 'S cool.)
If you're trying to do all this in Photoshop, let me suggest that you use the paintbrush, with opacity set around 50%, and the airbrush, set VERY low--no more than 9 or 10%. This makes it much more controllable.
Step Three: Computer Painting Step-By-Step
Well, here we are! The good stuff! The step-by-step stuff! The mind-boggling frustration as I attempt to recreate paintings where I was foolish enough to throw out my intermediary saves, so I have to repaint large sections to show you what I mean! The horror as I realize that I don't know how I did that!
But it'll be okay. I promise.
Skin, Hair, and Fabric
Far and away one of the most common textures you'll have to paint is skin. Even if you're not into painting nudes, you'll have to paint skin at some point--and since we all KNOW what skin looks like, realistic rendering of skin tones is one of the best (and most difficult!) ways to establish your 'realistic' credentials in a painting. So, in order to show you this particular style of painting, we'll use a close-up of....skin!
We begin, of course, with a sketch, a refugee from one of my sketchbooks...a woman with little metal bits on her head. Why? Who knows? Maybe I've got a thing for Borg. (Seven of Nine...mmmmm...) Ahem. The actual sketch/scan is about three times the size you see here. Now! What was that thing we were supposed to do first? Always? Ah, yes...the background.
This background was created in Painter. It took about five minutes, using the watercolor tool to lay down broad strokes of color, then drying the watercolor (Simply save the file, or go to 'Canvas' and hit 'Dry.') and using the chalk tool to pick up some highlights on the paper texture. If I were working on a painting with a more complicated background, I'd work on a separate layer, but granted the simplicity of this image, I'm just painting around the edges.
I chose to make the background fairly dark because I want our figure to stand out. The dark blue should complement the warm oranges of skin, too. (Remember our quick 'n dirty rule on shadow color?) The texture's fairly subtle so as not to compete with our lady, but has enough going on to appear to be a surface instead of a quick pass with the airbrush. Don't worry about some of the details of the figure's hair being covered--we'll recreate that in color much later. We'll also touch up the edges of the figure so that there's a clear border with the background--again, later. Now, to start painting!
We begin by laying down broad strokes of color in a midrange skin tone, using the Ultrafine Wash Brush.(It's helpful to have your sketch close at hand at this stage.) I like to start with the broad expanses of cheekbones, since you can work with big strokes, without having to immediately attend to all the little shadows, like at the nose and mouth. Since you're working directly on the sketch, do NOT paint the entire face a flat color to begin with (as you would if you were computer coloring.) Be a little cautious at first--you don't want to obscure your lines until you're done using them. Don't worry too much, though, Painter supports multiple 'Undo's.' Once you get a little more comfortable, don't be afraid to get bold.
There's a fairly large shadow under the cheekbones, and where the jaw meets the neck. Use a slightly darker shade of the same hue (easily achieved with the sliding color gradient wheel in Painter!) and lay down some broad strokes to follow the shadow. Set the size of your brush a bit smaller and put in some of the shadow along the jawline.
Continue laying down strokes with the wash brush. Don't be afraid to get vivid with the colors--there's a lot of reds and oranges in human flesh that frequently get missed. (If you look at just the colors in the work of, say, Vallejo, you'll see very bright oranges and fuschias in the skin tones that somehow look natural.) As an art prof of mine once said--'If the form's right, they'll believe anything else is due to lighting.'
Add some highlights to the skin as you work, either with the washbrush or with an airbrush. (For the purposes of this tutorial, we will assume that lighting is central and from slightly overhead.) Use a warm, pale yellow for the highlights, rather than a cold white. The airbrush can also be useful for adding reds and oranges to the shadows, but don't let the painting get too airbrushed, or it gets very smooth and blurred. (You can start to see a bit of that at the edge of the jaw, but that will get sharpened up by the finished painting.) Refer frequently to your sketch for placement of the shadow under the lips and at the corner of the mouth.
Ahem. Forgive the close-up of the last image there, but it was the best illustration of my earlier point about color I could crop together. If you look closely, you'll see that all three paintings have lots of colors not usually thought of in skin tone. In the middle one, it's very strong oranges, while in the two nudes, cooler, pastel tones give them a slightly iridescent appearance. (And a note about tattoos--they aren't holes in a model's skin. They reflect light in the same way skin does.)
Keep painting, working from midtones and adding the shadows as you go. Use the airbrush, set small, to add highlights on the forehead and the nose. Work carefully around the eye, nose, and mouth. Use the Camel Hair Brush tool to add a dark line for eyelashes, and to make the edges of the chin and jaw crisper. (This brush is good for detail work, on the eye, nostril, lips, etc.) Our model's starting to look a little weird with no eyebrows and blank eyes, sort of like that scene from 'The Wall,' so let's address that next. (Maybe we can get her some lips, too.)
Use the wash brush to give your figure eyebrows, and the camel hair brush to fill in irises and the shadow on the whites of the eyes. (There's often a pink or cream tinge to the whites, but be careful not give your figure hepatitis, or pink-eye.) Outline the lips in a darker shade with the camel hair brush, then use small strokes of the wash brush to fill in the lip color.
I took the opportunity to fill in the rest of the skin tones, and to paint in the earrings and little metal bits. (I added a few more, to fill out a curve. She's starting to get that Borg tres chic look...)
Once you start using this technique of working from midtones with the wash brush, there's no reason to limit yourself to conventional skin tones--or to skin at all! The hide on this dragon and the stone of this pillar were both painted using the exact same technique with different colors. (The crane carving was added using a very small wash brush in lighter colors against the darker parts of the pillar, and dark shadows against the light parts.) Now, back to our painting...
Now to start on the girl's duds...Fabric is essentially painted the same as skin. Start with midtones, and add shadows as you go. (Starting to sound familiar?) Leave it lighter over the tops of the breasts (where light falls) and darker under the arms. Start to put highlights along the folds of fabric. Use the Camel Hair brush to outline the edge where the fabric meets the background, either in the fabric color or in the background color, so as to make the division crisper.
You've probably figured out by now that there's not that much difference between painting skin and fabric. The folds of the cloth are the only real difference, and they're easy enough--dark for the low part of the fold, highlights at the top. For more elaborate folds, it helps to have a fairly elaborate sketch. Generally speaking, the shadows on cloth with be stronger and darker than on skin, and the transitions will be sharper, but the technique is just the same. Use the wash brush to delineate the direction of the fabric's flow, and make the direction of the bristles work for you.
For our painting, the tank-top's not a complicated garment. A little shadow around the edges of the shirt makes the division between skin and cloth sharper. If you're looking for more textured fabric, try selecting an interesting paper texture, and using a pale chalk to place highlights. (See below.) For more matte cloth, the airbrush and the wash brush are usually sufficient. Keep in mind the light source, which should be consistent with that on the skin.
The first image's fabric was worked in Painter in a variety of ways--watercolor on the toga thing, and chalk on the sleeves, using angled strokes to give the piece texture and avoid looking too smooth (one of the common problems of computer art.) (For the record, the cloth on this one was the only successful part of an otherwise disappointing painting. Sigh. It happens.) Likewise, for a more opalescent fabric, try layering transparent pastel shades with the wash brush until you achieve the desired effect.
Hair. Hair is where Painter can really shine, and I'm afraid that in three years of use, I've never found a way to make Photoshop do this half so well. Use the Fine Brush to lay down broad dark areas of color. Also use the wash brush right at the hairline, where the bristles will look like fine hairs against the skin. Make long strokes with the Fine Brush, so as to give it a flowing quality. Let the direction of the virtual bristles work for you.
Start putting in smaller light streaks with either the fine or wash brushes. Make them lighter near the crown of the head, but remember that the central part is usually dark. (Particularly if she's bleaching her hair!) If you've got photo reference at this point, paint with it in one hand--it can make or break you. If you're working out of your head, then keep in mind that hair is not a flat sheet but seperates into bunches that catch the light differently. Use the camel hair brush to add individual hairs in places, but don't make the mistake of trying to put in every single strand of hair. Be careful not to overwork the hair, as the contrast between the dark base and the light strokes over the top are what give it its depth.
The same technique we're using to make hair--light wash streaks over a dark base--also makes excellent fur. Just use shorter brush strokes over the dark base, as in this gun-wielding goat. Or hell, what's moss but furry green rocks? Use sparse strokes, with the camel hair brush, to give this a lush, mossy texture. (Twenty points if you can identify the Painter trick used to make all those little dots as a base for the moss!)
Back to our chick again. Keep adding hair, working from dark to light. Use the camel hair brush to make the stray strands at the tips of the hair, and to add a few loose strands in front of the ear or over the forehead. (Don't go nuts doing this, however, or it becomes distracting.) DO add a number of fine hairs at the back of the neck, however, as the hair-growing area of the scalp extends surprisingly far down the neck. (My boyfriend had this roommate once...you could lose change in this guy's back hair. No need to get THAT furry!) Also use the camel hair brush when painting the division between the skin and the hair along the chin and throat. You'll notice that the hair is a little blurry against the background in the upper right. We'll correct that next.
While we're using the camel hair brush, here's a thought--the headdress on this lady was painted in black, then strands of color added. (In retrospect, the face could use some work....hmmm...) This is where the graphics tablet really shines. It's hard to make sweeping strokes like that with a mouse, and gods, I've tried.
Having finished up the hair, you'll want to sharpen up the division between scalp and the background. Do this with a camel hair brush, in the background color, and just nip off any blurry edges. (You can go back over this with a camel hair brush in the hair color if you need to.) I also took this time to clean up a few places--sharpening the shadow at the back of the jaw and under the ear, adding a bit of shadow under the metal bits, and strengthing the line in the lips. You can do as much touch up work as you feel it needs, but don't overwork the painting to death. Pixels don't get scraped or over-erased like physical media and (thank the gods!) they never need drying time, but it's still possible to drive yourself crazy painting and re-painting one tiny swatch until you can't stand the sight of it anymore. I've worked a few paintings to death in my time...sigh.
So here we are! Finished! (This is about 2/3 of the size of the painting, but computer screens being what they are...) You've successfully weathered my rambling attempts to put what I do into words, and break it down into steps. Kudos!
Before I let you go, there's a couple of things to watch out for, specific to computer art. (There are plenty of other things to avoid in art in general--composition, color, cliche, and that's just ones that start with 'C'--but others have described them far more eloquently than I, so I'll limit myself to what I know.)
Keeping It Crisp
If there's one thing that computer painting fails at time and again, it's crispness. Sharpness. Definition. Doesn't matter what you call it. So much of computer painting, particularly in this method I've described, is done with airbrush and washes, it's almost inevitable that edges will get blurred and tones will fade into each other. Photoshop users are at even greater risk, with the airbrush tool being one of the most useful tools in the program, but it gets SO! DAMN! BLURRY!
There's no quick fix to the problem, unfortunately. In Painter, using things like the camel hair brush to sharpen up the edges goes a long way, but you still have to keep an eye out. Another solution, like real-world airbrushing, is to use masks to keep edges crisp. DON'T outline things in black or dark colors if you can avoid it, as this will make everything look rather flat and comicky. (Although if that's the effect you're going for, knock yourself out! And to be fair, when painting white objects, it sometimes helps to put a bit of dark edging in a light cream or gray in for contrast.)
People have asked me about using the 'blur' tool and its ilk in Photoshop...my advice is, don't. I've seen good work done that uses it, but the artist almost always has had to work for quite a while to overcome that tendency in their work. If you must blur, or smooth, or blend, then proceed with caution. You may be able to blend the skin tones, but your edges are often lost beyond repair. Crisp! Crisp!
My friends, I come before you today to speak of a scourge afflicting the computer art world, an insidious evil that strikes fear and terror into the heart of digital artists everywhere.
I speak, of course, about Photoshop abuse.
You know what I mean. Things done with Photoshop that have been done ten million times before, but continue to be hackneyed back and forth. Filters and effects that are so easy that they let an artist be lazy, things that immediately scream 'Photoshop!' and make anyone who knows the program at all wince. We all know how you did it. It took less than three seconds, possibly five if you had to pick a color. We are not impressed. Photoshop is no substitute for time and effort, and it's certainly no substitute for skill. Remember--you're going for realism here. (If you're not going for realism, you may be in the wrong tutorial, but I stick to my guns on this one.)
The cloud filter background, with figure floating disconnected in the middle. The gradient tool background. (I don't use the gradient tool at all, myself, but I've seen it used well in a few cases, so I won't curse it completely. But I've NEVER seen it work as a background.) In fact, a pox on filters in general! I know that some Photoshop users sing the praises of the filter. The only one that I ever use is KPT Convolver, and that in extreme moderation. Use them if you wish, but for the love of god, modify the results! Work them over by hand, don't just leave it as a flat filter, or else anyone who knows how it was done will cringe, and reach for the 'Next' button. I've seen some lovely work done that involved filters, but every single time, they'd been tweaked and tormented and altered pixel-by-pixel if need be, until they worked.
And then, of course, there's the lens flare.
Just say no, man. A lens flare is something that happens with a camera. It's a photographic artifact--and usually an undesireable one! It occurs when you take a photo with the light hitting the camera a certain way. A lens flare works in extremely realistic scenes, (such as 3-D modeled space scenes, which is one of the only places I've ever seen the lens flare work.) I have never seen it work as a 'magic' effect. I cringe 99 times out of a 100 when the lens flare appears. Take a little extra time and make the mage's hands glow, (a little airbrushing works wonders) if that's what you're trying to do, but don't take the easy route and slap a lens flare on it. It's trite. And it blows your credibility.
Ahem. Thank you. Been wanting to get that off my chest for a while.
Well, you made it this far. Endured my mangled metaphors and rampant ravings. Hopefully you'll get more out of this tutorial than the fervent desire NOT to be trapped on a desert island with me. (Pity for my family does not count as getting more out of this tutorial.)
Seriously, I hope this was useful to you. If there's anything that I didn't cover that you'd like more detail on--that I might concievably be able to provide!--just drop me a line. And heck, if you actually get something out of my maunderings, let me know, too!
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