What You’ll Be Creating
Traditional painting by default is not very precise. The brushes are made for creating big patches of colors that may become details when observed from a distance. When you try to paint at a smaller scale using a tiny brush, it turns into a drawing.
In digital painting the border between drawing and painting is quite blurred. In the end it boils down to one difference: if you’re trying to control the stroke, you’re drawing; if you want the stroke to be free and expressive, you’re painting.
The problem occurs when you want to be expressive with your strokes and make them behave at the same time. It’s not possible in traditional painting, but in Photoshop we can do it quite easily, without overusing the Eraser Tool. Do you want to know how to turn a piece of line art into a beautiful painting and make the lines obsolete in the process? Follow me then!
Tutorial Assets (optional)
- My brush pack
- Leather texture
1. Prepare the Painting Base
Before we start painting we need to define the areas that the brush shouldn’t cross. If we didn’t do it first, we would need to control every stroke afterwards. By defining the borders we’ll force the brush to work only in the areas we want it to without bigger effort. This may feel boring and time-consuming, but it’s like creating refined line art—it will pay off later.
You can use your own line art for this purpose, or download the one I’ve used. The line art doesn’t need to be perfectly clean of lines, but clean of meaning—if there’s a spot you need to guess something, it’s not clear.
Create a New Layer (Control-Alt-Shift-N). Use a hard brush, like my Ink, and a bright color to draw the outline of the character. Be precise, and don’t leave any gaps.
Use the Magic Wand Tool (W) to select the area outside the outline (including out-of-outline areas inside the main outline). Then invert the selection (Control-Shift-I).
Create a New Layer and Fill the selection with the Paint Bucket Tool (G). You can now remove the previous layer (outline).
The shape we’ve just built will be our main Clipping Mask. The role of a Clipping Mask is to define the area that we want to paint on (inside), and the area that we want clean of any stroke (outside). This is the basic mechanism we’re going to use in this tutorial.
To create a Clipping Mask you need at least two layers: the mask itself and a layer you want to paint on. All the clipped layers should be placed right above the mask. Hold Alt and click the line between the layers to clip the upper one.
If you create a New Layer above a clipped one, and clip it, it will be clipped to the mask of the layer below. So you can use as many layers as you want for one Clipping Mask, as long as there’s no space between them on the list.
Let’s use it. Create a New Layer above the mask and clip it (if you find it hard to remember shortcuts, you can also right-click the layer and select Create Clipping Mask). Use the same hard brush as before to define an area you want to work on separately, without touching the others. This may be an area of one color, or just a form that, when viewed in 3D, is above others.
When done, create a New Layer and define another area. Use distinctive colors to separate the areas visually. You don’t need to care about all the borders, as long as you know another area will cover it…
… like this sword.
Define all the areas of one kind this way. Feel free to drag the layers above or below to get a proper hierarchy.
Because each of these areas may contain some smaller areas, we will want to clip some layers to them, too. However, Photoshop doesn’t allow for Clipping Masks inside Clipping Masks, so we need to use a workaround:
Before we go any further, make sure you have all the layers distinctively named. These don’t need to be any proper names, but they must speak to you. When you’re done, unclip the layers by selecting them all and using the normal clipping technique on the lowest of them (Alt-clicking).
Now, use the shapes as new Clipping Masks for any areas that you can find inside them. Don’t use too many of them, though—they may be hard to manage, and it will make the process slower. My mistake, for example, was to use separate areas for every wrinkle on the face.
Make sure you have all the layers named! You can also add different colors to them by right-clicking the layers and selecting the chosen color.
If you paint on any of the “inside areas” of a Clipping Mask you may notice it follows the borders of the mask only. To make these new areas semi-clipping masks, you can select them all and click Lock Transparent Pixels. Test it!
The base is almost done now, but first we need to prepare it for painting. Use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill all the areas with neutral, 50% gray. Now the colors are gone, you can see what we need the names for!
Group (Control-G) all the layers making the character and duplicate (Control-J) the group. We’re going to need this clear base yet!
2. Set the Lighting
Lighting is the most important if we want to create the effect of a 3D form. After all, it’s the lack of proper lighting that makes most drawings so flat. Let’s see how to illuminate our character properly using the base we have created.
Because we have divided the character into a lot of pieces, it may be hard to create a consistent lighting model for it. To make it easier:
Try to see the character as a sculpture, and illuminate it accordingly.
Using that little figure as a reference, start lighting the character, area by area. Use about 70% gray first.
Use 30–40% bright gray to paint the cast shadows. They are incredibly useful in presenting the form.
Notice how the shadows under the breast belts give the body a 3D form.
Use even a darker gray to define the crevices and the darkest shadows. Use this color very sparingly!
Lower the Opacity of the line art to 20%. Can you see the basic form? If not, work on it some more.
You should spend more time on this step. Use a whole range of brushes to give details to all the materials in the most illuminated areas, painting them with white. Pay attention to the kind of material, because it influences the shading. For example, fur doesn’t reflect light as uniformly as plastic.
Hide the line art. If the body is clearly defined without it, remove it. If not, work some more until you can safely do it.
3. Add the Colors and Details
Colors may seem like the most important part of the painting, but we’ll prove in a moment that they’re just an addition. We’ll also cross the borders we’ve defined to add the details that weren’t necessary in this previous phase.
Merge (Control-E) the group and change its Blend Mode to Multiply. Now the dark parts of the layer will make the layers below darker, and the white will stay transparent.
Return to the group you copied before, and use it to paint the colors. If you created the bases properly, you should be able to color whole areas at once, without caring about borders. Don’t be afraid of using too bright colors—the lighting layer above takes care of the shadows for you.
If the colors turn out to be dark, no matter what you do, it means that you’ve used too little white in the lighting layer. If it wasn’t your intention, you can still return to that layer and fix it.
If you don’t like your effect, you may want to learn some more about lighting and colors.
It’s always good to use a more neutral background to see the lighting better. Fill the background with 50% gray.
Shadows are colored with the color of ambient light, for example coming from the sky. To simulate this effect you can change the Hue/Saturation (Control-U) of the lighting layer.
You probably noticed that I didn’t shade the small details like rivets at all. It’s because they can be rendered with a time-saving trick.
Create a New Layer and paint a golden rivet on it. Remember to use orange, not yellow, as a base.
Use the Mixer Brush Tool as presented in section 2 of this quick tip. If you do this properly, you should be able to paint the rivets with every click (steps 1–3). Remember: we’re working above the lighting layer from now on!
To adjust the rivets to the general shading, use a layer mask.
You can use the same technique to create other repeatable elements, like chains or string.
4. Final Rendering
The lighting we added before was a general one. Now, when we have the big picture, we can adjust it to the details.
To turn that yellow plastic into gold, imagine it’s a yellow mirror. Try to reflect everything around it on its surface, and make the borders between shades sharp.
Use the same technique to make the blade reflective. Because we can’t use any Clipping Mask here, you can use a simulation of it to clear the borders. Simply Control-click the layer you want to “borrow” the borders from, and use it, or its inversion (Control-Shift-I) to cut the parts you don’t need.
Paint the eyes and other details like them.
Use a textured brush, like my Texture Sketch, to make the fur less uniform. Pick the colors from the picture and add new ones only when necessary.
Use a soft brush to add a shine to certain metal elements.
Create a New File for a while and paste the Leather Texture there. Use the trick described in this quick tip to get only the dark parts of the texture. Copy it and paste to the main file.
Duplicate the texture (Control-J) and use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) in the Warp Mode to adjust the shape of the texture to each leather part. When you’re done, merge (Control-E) the layers.
Take the selection from the armor area, invert it and cut the redundant parts. Change the Blend Mode to Soft Light or Overlay to blend the texture into the colors.
You can use the Blend If trick to adjust the texture even better.
The next trick doesn’t always fit, but sometimes it adds depth to a character very nicely. I’ll show it to you and let you decide if it fits here.
Duplicate the lighting layer, set its Blend Mode back to Normal, and double click the layer. Give it a black Color Overlay and white Inner Glow in Normal Blend Mode.
Create a New Layer underneath and fill it with black. Merge (Control-E) both layers.
Use the trick with the alpha channel again to get only the white part of the layer.
Then change its Blend Mode to Soft Light. You may need to erase some of the parts.
The Illustration Is Finished!
The picture is done! You can still work on it some more to add other elements to present it better, but this phase is a pure pleasure. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and that from now on you’ll be able to paint linelessly, even with line art as a starting point!