• Sep
    • 14
    • 2012

“Hat’s Off” – My Digital Painting Process from Start to Finish

Posted by In Adobe, Creative, Illustration, Tips & Tricks 1 comment Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Hat’s Off” Digital Painting Process

Hi everyone! Recently I have been getting requests for tutorials and/or an overview on the process I use to create my artwork. While I do have a “formal background” in traditional painting and illustration, I am a self-taught digital artist. While training myself to move my traditional methods into the digital realm, I read many great tutorials from fellow artists, illustrators, and designers. I have always felt that an important part of growing one’s art involves sharing with and learning from each other, and am always thankful to those busy artists who have taken the time to share their knowledge.

While working on my recent illustration “Hat’s Off”, I decided to document and share my process with you. I really hope that this helps by either showing you a different approach, or by simply inspiring you to create art. Well I’ve rattled on way too much already, lol, let’s paint something scary…

Used in the Creation of “Hat’s Off“…
Apple MacBook Pro, Dual Monitors, Wacom Intuos
Sketchbook Pro 6*, Adobe Creative Suite / Photoshop CS6*
(*Software version at the time of this writing)

Step 1 – Creating the Sketch & Priming the “Digital Canvas”

I always start by creating my sketch in Sketchbook Pro. This is where I can really workout the composition of the illustration. How detailed my sketch ends up usually depends upon how clear the concept is in my mind. I work on the sketch until I feel that its right and time to begin painting. Once my final sketch is ready, I move into Photoshop where I create a new canvas at the required resolution and dimensions. (I usually try to work in at least 300dpi and slightly larger dimensions than what the final dimensions call for.)

Next, I create a New “Canvas Layer” and using a variety of textured brushes, begin laying in some color and texture to the canvas. This step is much like priming a canvas using traditional painting media. As my painting progresses, this layer will show through adding a richness and texture to the final illustration. Once I am satisfied with my working canvas layer, I import the sketch into a new layer directly above. I darken the sketch against the canvas by using the “Multiply” Layer Mode. I refer to this as my “Sketch Layer“.


Working within my “canvas layer”, I use Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tools to help strengthen highlights and deepen shadows to further define form in my image. This step reminds me of the “takeout technique” used in traditional media where you lift out areas of a wash to build and emphasize highlights.

Step 2 – Underpainting the Illustration

At this stage, I begin the underpainting. I do this by creating a new “underpainting layer” directly below the “sketch layer” and above the “canvas layer”. Again, I use Photoshop’s Layer Modes to adjust how this underpainting layer reacts with the layer beneath it. I tend to use “Multiply” in most cases, but others can be used to achieve different results depending on the painting you are creating. Laying in flat blocks of color is all that I am concentrating on in this stage.

Step 3 – Deepening Shadows, Lifting Highlights, and Adding Some Tombstones

With my base colors blocked in, I now begin deepening the shadows with color and try and further define the painting’s form. All of this is being done while still in my “underpainting layer”. At this stage, I also want to begin noting and accentuating my light source. I accomplish this by creating a new “highlights layer” directly above my “underpainting layer” and setting its Layer Mode to “Overlay”. Again, you can use other Layer Modes (such as Screen, Color Dodge, Soft/Hard Light, etc.) for this step depending on the look you are trying to achieve. The key is to experiment. In some cases, when working on an illustration I have used a certain Layer Mode, but had to tone it back quite a bit by lowering that layer’s transparency or making other such adjustments.

In my “highlights layer”, I rough in the light source and add some directional rays to help remind me of the light source’s direction as I work. As usual I am illustrating something dark and creepy, which is my favorite genre and kinda what I’ve become known for. This scary skeleton character is rising from the grave to welcome visitors to his graveyard. He is the focal point of this illustration, but in order to effectively tell the story, I need to establish to the viewer where this is taking place. I make the decision to do this by adding some tombstones in the background. I decide to paint a faint outline of the tombstones to establish story setting and mood without making them the “star”.

Illustration is about telling and enhancing a story! Its very easy to get carried away when painting the background in a piece like this, but I do not want to take focus away from the main character or confuse the viewer’s eye. I feel hinting the tombstones gives the viewer the necessary information while allowing their imagination to dream up and “fill in” the rest of the graveyard. I place the tombstones in a way which also helps me to strengthen the composition and guide the viewer’s eye.

[NOTE: If you are new to creating art, the above diagram will give you a fairly good idea just how much thought and planning goes into (or should!) an effective illustration. As a professional illustrator, this much planning and fore-thought is essential. This is because illustration is about visually telling a story. Whether it is a short children’s book, full-length graphic novel, one page pin-up, or a logo representing someone’s brand, our job as illustrators is to tell the story! For that reason, it never matters how well we can draw/paint or how many “tricks” we know in Photoshop… If our composition is poorly designed and causes the viewer to misunderstand or lose interest in the story, we have failed. So when composing each illustration, Design with Purpose.]

Step 4 – Beginning to Define Details and Refine the Overall Painting

Now I begin adding detail work to the painting with an emphasis on the main, creepy character. I have a great many custom brushes which I have either downloaded, or created myself, however I tend to use mostly a simple, generic round Photoshop brush. My custom brushes are mainly used only when creating the texture for my “primed canvas layer”, or on the rare occasion of some unusual special effect that a particular painting may require. My favorite set of custom downloadable brushes were created by artist Chris Wahl and can be freely downloaded from his site.

Painting the details, I now am focusing on really bringing out various areas of interest within the painting. For example, I decided to do a skull and bones pattern for the patch on his jacket. If you follow my work, you’ve probably noticed that I enjoy adding a bit of dark humor within my illustrations. Also notice that although we are painting details and nearing the completion of this illustration, the background texture of my “primed canvas layer” (created way back in Step 1) still shows through, adding the richness of texture I mentioned. This is also because I build up my painting in glazes, just as I would using traditional painting methods, which helps achieve a transparent luminance while still allowing parts of the canvas texture and pencil sketch to show through. (Hey! I worked hard on that sketch so why not allow it to be seen, lol.)

Step 5 – Refine and Emphasize the Light Source

With my detail work in place, I decide to turn my focus back to the lighting. I begin adding more defined light rays which I lightly erode in areas (using the eraser tool) to portray the illusion of light mixing with the foggy mist of the creepy old graveyard. Since this is set in a graveyard, I choose to glaze varying shades of muted greens into the lighted areas, further conveying the musty tone and feel of “old cemetery air”. I mean really, what’s the fun of visiting an old, forgotten graveyard on a bright Spring morning, right?

Step 6 – Deepening and Accentuating the Color

In order to bring added drama and a better illusion of spatial depth, I begin deepening the foreground colors. This begins to really advance our decaying friend into the foreground of the illustration. I also accentuate the vibrance of some focal points in further attempts to guide the viewers eye and draw them into the painting.

Step 7 – Adding Final Details and Focusing Areas of Interest

At this phase, I add various final details and sharpen those added earlier in the process. Adding hints of dirt and debris in the foreground gives the impression of movement (implying action) with earth being scattered as our “undead pal” rises from the grave. To enhance the story of his rising to greet those entering the cemetery, I loosely paint the reflection of a young woman raising her hands to her mouth in horror into the lens of his eyeglass. It is a small detail, but one I believe adds a bit of fun and furthers the idea of the scene. I also add and refine reflected highlights to pop the character out of the background a bit more and emphasize the rays of directional light.

Step 8 – Finishing the Painting with a Final Glaze to Balance the Color

As with my painting method using traditional painting media, I finish the illustration by applying an overall color glaze. This helps to unify and balance the colors used throughout the painting. In Photoshop, I accomplish this by creating an “Adjustment Layer” and choosing “Photo Filter” as my adjustment method. In the adjustment layer palette, I choose my glazing color (in this case a bright orange) and raise the strength to a desirable level. Much like a traditional final glaze, this step visually ties in and enhances the painting’s color to really enhance the drama. Now the painted illustration is complete… All that’s left to do is add my signature.


Again, I hope that documenting my process from start to finish helps you with your own art in some small way. Whether you paint bright floral imagery, or illustrate scary creatures that go “bump” in the night, the most important thing is to never stop learning, growing, and creating your art. And if you keep doing that, I take my creepy, twisted hat off to you.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to follow Gregbo Watson (Me) on Twitter and Facebook.

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    • Aug
    • 20
    • 2011

Using the iPad as an Illustration Tool

Posted by In Creative, Illustration, iPad Illustration, Tips & Tricks 0 comments Tagged , , ,

Most of my illustration work these includes using my iPad at some point in the process. While working on one of my recent paintings, I thought it would be cool to document the stages along the way. The painting, titled “A Pirate’s Life”, is a storybook illustration of a scurvy pirate who has come ashore in search of his long buried treasure. This illustration began as a pencil sketch drawn using Sketchbook Pro on the iPad.

Along with the painting “A Pirate’s Life”, I also repurposed the pencil sketch to create a vector pirate illustration: [message type=”info”]You can see a larger version of “A Pirate’s Life” by going here: A Pirate’s Life[/message] [message type=”info”]Other recent iPad illustrations: Sleepy Hollow | The Coach | Captain America[/message]

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    • Jul
    • 30
    • 2011

5 Successful Tips to Beat Creative Block and Recharge Your Creativity

Posted by In Creative, Tips & Tricks 0 comments Tagged , , , , , , ,

At some point in our careers, we’ve all had to face a project that doesn’t motivate us creatively. You know… Reading through endless pages of vague buzzwords and industry-specific jargon trying to find anything that will somehow inspire us and get those creative juices flowing. Its tough being involved with a project that we just can’t get excited about. On the rare occasion that I find myself dreading an assignment, there are a few tips I use to get my creativity going, get motivated, and overcome the “dull project blues“.

 #1 Use a Dull Project to Learn Something New Learning a new technique is always interesting. It not only gets you motivated, but gives you a new skill that will be with you long after the project has ended. As an example, I learned to script using jQuery during one such project.

#2 Think and Do Differently Add some excitement by trying to complete the assignment in an unusual way. For instance, lets say you are a watercolorist who paints using traditional media. Try painting using digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop. Break from the norm, and step outside your comfort zone.

#3 Try a Change of Scenery Rearrange your creative space, add a cool new toy to your desk, or even take the project outside if you can. Sometimes, breaking habits and adding new visual stimuli can keep you motivated and help get a fresh take on the project at hand.

#4 Change Your Perspective Yeah, I know that sounds like, “Change your attitude, young man!”, but that’s not what I mean. Try to realize that while you may not be connecting with the content you are working with at the time, there are many people who really are passionate about it. Try to look at it through their eyes and “borrow” their excitement.

#5 And A Child Shall Lead Them No one is more creative than a child. When we adults have our minds cluttered by the stresses and hassles of daily life, it becomes difficult to “tap into our inner child” and think creatively. Get in there and play with your kids! Tell them what you are working on (if appropriate, of course). You will be amazed out how a child interprets the project. Their response just might trigger that elusive creative concept you’ve been after. If not, it will make you smile and lighten up the stress a bit before going back to the drawing board.

These are some fairly common sense tips I use to get through those rare projects that are hard to get into. Although, I shared them from a creative professional’s perspective, these are tips that I believe can work for anyone.

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    • Jul
    • 04
    • 2011

From iPad Sketch To Final Illustration

Posted by In Illustration, iPad Illustration, Reviews, Tips & Tricks 0 comments Tagged , , ,

I really love the creative freedom that my iPad has given me. I have always loved to draw and like any proper artist, I carried a sketchbook with me wherever I might go. Nowadays, I carry my iPad everywhere and its easier than ever for me to sketch out an idea and then turn it into a polished illustration. I’ve had a lot of people ask me what apps I use to do this and what is my working method, so I decided to document my steps (complete with photos) through a recent illustration project I was working on. The illustration assignment was for a “Space Cadet” character rocketing through the sky. I began by using a Wacom Bamboo iPad stylus and Sketchbook Pro to rough out some ideas. I think that Sketchbook Pro is THE app for digital artists using an iPad. While it is unfortunate that the iPad does not yet have a pressure-sensitive solution, the combination of the Bamboo stylus and Sketchbook Pro do a great job. Once I have the initial idea sketched, I work it into a more polished drawing. When I am happy with the sketch, I can email it directly to my client for approval, do a quick color study for the final illustration, and/or send it to my MacBook Pro to begin work on the final artwork.

Once my idea for the “Space Cadet” was approved, I moved the illustration to my iPad quickly using Dropbox. I opened my iPad sketch in Adobe Illustrator CS5 and began “digitally inking” the artwork using a combination of the pen tool and the blob brush. After I was satisfied with the line art, I zoomed in and fixed any inking mistakes I may have made. Now, with the line art in place, I start adding color to the illustration using Illustrator’s Live Paint tool. This tool allows me to add color very quickly. Finally, with all of the color added, I add any last details. In this case, I added some highlights to the character’s eyes, put more detail into the flames coming from his jet-boots, and colorized the “swoosh lines” to add some depth and perspective. I enjoy this process and use it for the bulk of my daily digital illustration work. [message]Download “Space Cadet” as a wallpaper for your iPhone! [small_button text=”Download…” style=”light” title=”Download Wallpaper” url=”http://gregbo.com/2011/07/free-iphone-wallpaper-space-cadet/” align=”right” ][/message]

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    • Jun
    • 18
    • 2011

How My iPad and iPhone Enhance My Creative Workflow

Posted by In Creative, iPad Illustration, Tips & Tricks 0 comments Tagged , , , ,

Staying as busy as I do, I rarely stop to think about how much my workflow has changed for the better simply due to advances in technology. As with most weeks, I spent a great deal of time meeting with both current and potential clients. Back in my studio, as I poured over my notes and sketches from each meeting, I began thinking about how I used technology to accomplish some amazing things that I would’ve never dreamt possible when I began my career almost two decades ago.

Story Sequence and Character Study sketched on my iPad during a meeting. (Click the Thumbnail to View Larger)

During one meeting, for example, we began talking about a game sequence and how to best convey the character’s motivation using a combination of camera angle and dramatic lighting. As we talked, I immediately began sketching several ideas on my iPad. We were able to visualize and enhance the ideas as they were flowing. Amazing! I think back to so many times when in a similar scenario, I would scramble for paper and pencil. In another meeting, a prospective client showed me some notes she had made on a napkin while waiting to meet with me at a local restaurant. As the meeting closed, she offered to scan the napkin once she got back to her office and send me a copy via email. I pulled out my iPhone and took a picture… Virtually “scanning” it right there. The software on my phone actually even cleaned up the photo and optimized it so that the text would be more legible. For a web and user interface project, I used my iPad to map out portions of the interface during our dinner conversation. It helped to illustrate a concept that was difficult for the client to visualize. They then quickly understood, once able to “see and touch” it, and we were able to quickly move forward on the project. After the meetings had ended, back at my studio, I was able to easily transfer all ideas, notes, and sketches over to my MacBook Pro. The digital sketches for the gaming sequence were worked into a polished storyboard, a final logo design was born directly from a client’s napkin sketch, and a website interface sprang from a wireframe imagined with a client over dinner. Using these devices in my workflow gives me the ability to engage and involve clients in the creative process like never before, easily and effectively communicate difficult concepts, then rapidly develop and deliver the final designs.

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