Design is both a process and a bit of a fluid daydream. This piece is a bit allegorical, but I wanted something illustrative, poetic, with a side of fantastical horror. I always loved seeing these kind of abstract illustrations that were in old D&D books (friends and teachers might argue that the 90s don't qualify as old. My children think so though, so meh!). And I thought it would be great to show the step by step approach to this behemoth I created last week!
Step 1: Rough Sketch
Before I do ANYTHING! I start up iTunes and dig up the Diablo 15 Anniversary Soundtrack. If you've played the ORIGINAL Diablo on Windows 95 and Diablo II, you'll understand! This is my go-to mood setting music when illustrating stuff like this. And if you draw this stuff too, download it!
Starting with an 11 x 11 canvas at 150 dpi, I sketch in some VERY rough shapes of the overall composition. This gives a chance to set up motion and the point of reference that you want the eye to guide towards. Here, the circle is center-left, with the rest of the shapes pointing from the top-right to engulf the orb.
Step 2: Building on Shapes
Now that I have a basic sense of where I want to be, I can start creating form. I create a new layer and begin drawing on top of my rough sketch. The biggest challenge is not to spend too much time on this, because you want to make sure that the overall feel is jiving with the basic composition sketch.
Step 3: Further Sketching
I want this guy to be aggressive. If he's going to swallow the world, then his appetite is insatiable. I want some depth to his skull with crevices in his eyes and horns. The devil in the details!
Step 4: Sketch Check
I've hidden the rough sketch layer so I can quickly see how my refined lines are doing. Checking for errors or sloppiness that will be cleaned up to define my shapes better.
Step 5: Solidify Sketch
I continue to flesh out the drawing, while removing the rough sketch layer to check my line weight. Thicker line weights help define the overall silhouette. Thinner lines are great for the fun details that create texture and depth. I also sketch in the circle. This focal point helps the eye create a "you are here" moment (uh-oh...).
Step 6: Background Check!
So I'm happy with the line drawing. Now it's time to fill in some color! I don't want plain drab black. One, I can't see the line art while I'm painting, but two, it will help with the color composition with the dragon. I create a new layer and put it in the very back of the layer order so the line art can be seen. I grab a cloud brush from my palette and start brushing in basic shapes.
Step 7: Orange is the New Dark
I start with a basic round brush and start filling in color. Nothing too specific, just trying to get my values in. Oranges are great compliments to purples and violets. You'll notice some quick blobs on the top. They become a point of reference for the shades I want to work with.
Warm highlights with cool shadows. I use varying opacity levels as I'm brushing, and then blending with different shades to help refine the line art's depth and shape.
Orange has many different meanings. From wisdom and warmth, to fire and betrayal. Perfect for a dragon!
Step 8: Refining Values
Now that I've got some basic colors, I begin blending the strokes and correcting my values. I try to balance light and dark rhythm patterns to keep the flow of the shape moving. Too many light spaces close together doesn't help translate depth. Same with shadows, otherwise it just looks like flat mud on the canvas.
Step 9: More of the Same
Still working in those values. You'll notice the highlights are subtle, but becoming more clear. I'm trying to make the line drawing now more 3D, especially with the hands.
Step 10: The Halo Effect
While there's the light source coming from the left, I want the atmosphere of the Earth to work into this. One, it gives a nice complimentary effect for lighting such as back lighting techniques. But two, this helps with the storytelling to the piece in that the dragon is taking over the world, so it's light is becoming part of it. Also, you can now see fun little details like a salivating tongue whipping around the Earth.
Step 11: Fleshing Out the Skin
My values are just about there. To help this without spending extra time brushing in each scale or detail, I download some photos of iguanas to help flesh out the skin (puntastic!). I set the first photo to overlay, then I transform, scale, and warp the image without much thought until I see the angles I like that flow with the color values. Then I adjust the photo's opacity layer so it doesn't overpower the original color. Already, a nice rough scale texture is applied to the snout, eyes, and neck.
Step 12: Head, Shoulders, Teeth, and Claws!
More texture work. The same steps as before, finding different iguana photos and placing them to fit the brush angles. Sometimes, I typically desaturate the photos so they are black and white, not interfering with the original color. But the green tints work so well with the orange-reds and creates a more natural skin tone for a dragon.
Also, I'm going back into the paint layer to enhance any shadows and highlights I can to help the texture's depth and appearance.
Step 13: The Final Countdown
Almost there! I'm editing any opacity issues I see unfit with the textures, as well as masking out any weird edges that the photos placed in. Nothing is worse than a great texture ruined because a hard edge of the photo flattens your comp! I dull down the textures on the hand behind the dragon. That way, more detail and focus stays on the mouth and Earth. I'm also balancing any shadows to help the overall shape of the head. I help the ambient shadows under the horns, so you can see its horn above the neck much better.
Step 14: Stamp of Approval
After zooming in and out a few more times to check its composition, I correct a few more values. Very slight, but they make me happy.
If I stare at it too long, I'll find imperfections that really aren't there! Then I'll beat myself up in wondering what needs to be fixed that isn't broken. So I call it a night and come back to it later. Fresh eyes help me find anything that might need a final touch, but personally, I don't really see any. So I add in my John Hancock in the lower right corner and save the final file for print.
Chew on This!
Hope you enjoyed this step-by-step. If you have questions or comments, let me know! And if you're in need of imagery to tell your story, drop me a line!