A Creepy forest
Painted in Photoshop CS6
For this tutorial I wanted to show most of the process I go through when painting an environment piece. This usually involves creating thumbnails and sketching out ideas, using reference, fleshing out a sketch, adding colour, details and then putting the finishing touches in at the end.
This was originally a commissioned painting and the brief was quite simple, a very old and creepy forest, densely populated with really gnarled old Oak trees. The painting should have an ominous, dark and magical feel to it.
I don't often look at any reference before sketching out thumbnails, but in this case I thought that looking at some gnarled oak trees would really help - trees aren't the easiest things to draw, especially those twisted branches and trunks. So first I got familiar with the general structure of an old tree. Here's an example of the kind of pictures I looked at. I didn't go overboard with reference at this stage, just enough to get some mental shape structures swimming around my head for when I sketch.
Next, and quite an important stage, is sketching out thumbnails - you can do this with lines or tones. Pencil in your sketchbook is definitely a good place to sketch out ideas, for that hands on approach. Digital is of course great too. In this case I used Photoshop as I really wanted to get a strong tonal composition down quickly. It's a good idea to limit the amount of tones you use. I usually use a light tone, at about 20% black, then a dark one at around 50% and finally a very dark one at 80-90% black. Limiting yourself to 3 tones is good practice for strong simple compositions. I paint them at 100% brush opacity. You still have the light of the canvas underneath too as an extra light tone. When sketching out thumbnails, remember to actually look at them at a near-thumbnail actual size - zoom right out - is your composition readable? Does it look interesting? If yes, then your final piece will certainly have a good start. You don't have to do lots and lots of thumbs, but it's generally regarded as a good idea to do as many as possible. Even if you get attached to your first idea, often it's the case an even better one appears as you brainstorm on the canvas!
3. Flesh out idea. (Step 1 picture)
Once I have chosen my favourite one, I actually just blow it up to around 6000pixels on the long side and work from that. However you can redraw the idea from scratch with more detail, often it can be good to start again and just use your chosen thumbnail as a reference.
So with my thumbnail blown up now, I like to add some really quick texture over the entire piece. For this one I used a paint texture on a new layer and set it to overlay blending mode. You can google image search "paint texture" - be sure to set the search to large images only and get the highest res ones you can find. This can be any texture though really, it often works if it's relevant to the subject matter, anything organic and wild works on this forest piece. I also sometimes overlay photos here at this time. Just anything to add a lot of detail and interest in a few minutes.
You will also get some interesting things happening with colours at this stage too. I always hit Ctrl+U to bring up the HSV slider and play with them until I find a colour to suit the piece. Colour Balance is also a good adjustment to play with (Ctrl+B) And levels is also the other adjustment I use (Ctrl+L) These only affect the current layer though, if you want to adjust the entire painting it's a good idea to add Adjustment layers - these can be found in the layer panel at the bottom (looks like a little black and white circle)
I can't stress enough how important it is to familiarize yourself with all the functions of Photoshop, all the adjustment types, layer modes, keyboard shortcuts, filters and custom brushes. If you haven't already, I really urge you to take some time out to get to know the software very well, this is crucial to a good workflow; you're really not making the most of this powerful tool otherwise!
4. Start to detail (Step 2 picture)
Even though stage3 just looks like a total mess, all that juicy texture underneath serves a very good purpose. Most of it does eventually get painted over, but it's still all under there and even gives the final piece that extra bit of interest. Also you can use the texture as a base for detailing out branches, rocks and plants - if you're using organic texture it will work well. Much as if you're painting a sci-fi scene, adding a lot of angular and techy texture underneath can really give the final piece a more authentic feel.
So, in this stage I will look again at reference for more trees and forests in general. I looked at a picture of Dartmoor woods (very ancient trees) in England, and noticed all these moss covered rocks surrounding the trees. So using this idea I start to paint in rocks in the mid-ground, flesh out the trees and branches more and generally add more colour - in this case blue colours on the objects facing upwards. I can't teach all about colour here, but think about the way objects are facing and how the colour will be different on the top, sides and bottom i.e. if the object is facing the sky, what affect will that have on its colour? Just keep a nice variety of colours going on in your piece.
5. Refine all the elements (Step 3 picture)
Now I have a strong base to work off, as far as colour and composition go. It's time to refine all the different parts of the picture. During this stage I pretty much get to the final image in sense - the rest after this is just bells and whistles. It's important to make this stage a strong one, it's still quite simple but all the elements must gel. I really flesh out the designs of the trees here, look at more reference, give the painting real depth. I will also use some custom brushes for twigs and adding more texture. You can still see there's some texture poking through from that very first stage, especially on the rocks - that's why it's great to start off that way. I also added some water just to keep some variety. This is a very important time to look at your relevant references, see how things really look like, how the moss grows on objects, where you see ripples in water, how certain patterns in tree bark look. Because this is basically the final design.
6. Details and areas of interest (Step 4 picture)
I don't recommend going to town on the details all over the piece, leave certain areas more abstract and simplified. Think about where the viewer is going to want to look and maintain focus as they scan your painting.
Here I wanted to detail the large tree on the right as it's a big focal point, so I added more colour variation to the trunk, adding contrasting hues can really add focus. I don't get too caught up in colour theory, rather just play around and see which colours look nice next to each other. Personally I think it's just important to add variety and not get too bogged down in theory.
Further details include some drooping vines and foliage, you can use these to guide the viewer around your piece. I also added some spider webs to add more to the creepy feel - again looked at references for spider webs - how you get little subtle specks of light glinting on the web patterns. Little details like that really enhance the believability of your work. I also added some more twigs and smaller plants - and a little bit of mist to the forest floor.
7. Icing on the Cake (Step 5 picture)
At this stage I am usually working with a totally flat image (1 layer), I don't like to juggle too many layers in my work unless there's a specific requirement where it makes sense.
As it's a magical forest I added glowing specks rising from the ground. There are also red berries - not easily noticeable but it actually adds more colour contrast and make your piece more vibrant having tiny patches of different hues in the piece.
There's a few things you can do to give your piece an extra sheen on the end. I achieve most of this through adjustment layers, new layers with different blending modes and different types of filters.
Here are a few I use -
Colour Balance - I will use this at the end to adjust the hues, I usually adjust shadow and highlight colours first, then midtones last (if at all) Just play around and see what you think looks good, almost always your piece can be improved upon at the end, even if it's in a subtle way.
Levels - Again I will 100% always adjust the levels at the end of a painting, best to play around with it rather than me try to explain it. To sum up though you're adjust how dark and light the lights, midtones and darks are.
Overlay - I like to use layers set to overlay to add extra colours, for example here I enhanced the vibrancy of the light shining through behind. I always use a 100% soft brush and paint in big areas of colour. I then adjust the layer's opacity and erase out areas until I get a desired effect.
Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Colour Dodge, Screen - again all layer blending modes, I play around with all of these in the same way as I do with overlay. Not so much in this painting - but really you should get familiar with them.
Hue/Saturation - I use this to generally adjust an image saturation, as you can see I have upped the saturation a lot on this piece. I don't often change the hue or value on this panel when adjusting the entire painting - but I do use them when adjusting individual layers - again - play about and experiment!
Blur filters - I like to add blurring to an image at the end. I usually duplicate the image (Ctrl+J) so the original is safe underneath. I like to use either Iris blur, motion blur, radial blur or gaussian blur. Once the image is blurred I then add a mask to the layer and erase out areas of interest. Also adjust the opacity of the layer. What you're aiming for here is some subtle blurring in areas away from the focus - usually the edges. This infact enhance the focal areas even more. So you can see areas of this painting are blurry, in a subtle way. This adds depth and keeps it interesting, and image all too sharp all over can lack focus and unity.
Smart Sharpen - In the exact same way as blurring I sharpen areas with this filter. Effectively doing it the other way around, increasing the sharpness of focal points.
Well that is for the most part a summary of my process in this case; it's a fairly solid process for me - not the one I always use but it's a fail-safe and that's an important string to an artist's bow, especially when working with art directors. However I really promote experimentation with process and trying many different ways to get to your final piece. The fundamentals are always important, even if you consistently break the rules, I really recommend learning them!"