how to paint digitally and use reference photos

How to Paint Digitally and Use Reference Photos

Step 1.

Find REFERENCE PHOTOS for you picture! Envision it, and pick out photos accordingly. If you can’t find the perfect picture online, get your camera and take some photos yourself. Here, I am going to do an image of my character Murmur (see that picture with the bright cosmos background? That’s him). He has both human and cat anatomy, and his head can be any kind of head. So, I grab some human photos of how I want his arms and hands to be, a photo of a cheetah for his more feline anatomy, and a moth for his head.

Step 2.

Make a PALETTE! Take the EYEDROPPER TOOL and select the colors right out of the photos, and place them on a layer at 100% opacity. This should be your highest layer in your digital program of choice, so that the colors don’t get distorted by anything you’re doing elsewhere.

Step 3.

Make a quick sketch of how you want your character to be posed. This could be a really detailed sketch, or a quick doodle like I did, just to get the gist of it. This layer will be your lowest, or right above your background layer.

Step 4.

Now, we make something called an UNDER-PAINTING. An under-painting is used to map out the whole character, much like a detailed sketch, just with shades and not lines. It should be a very dark color (not black!) that is a more neutral tone. This color should relate to your piece in color (ex. If you want your piece to have a cooler look, use a green, blue, or violet; if you want a warmer look, use red or orange) but always try to keep it either grayish-looking or brownish. I’m going to do a more neutral piece, so I picked a very dark umber (brown). Use a bit of lighter shades of that color just to help map it out more, but keep it dark. This under-painting also acts as your shadows throughout the piece. Remember, use your references!

Step 5.

Let’s start with the moth head, so grab your photo! Start with the part of it that’s closest to the background; in this case, the red fur around his neck. Take the darkest tone first, being a maroon color, and bring on the fur! Once done with that, add the lighter tones of the fur on top. Make sure to go back and forth with your eraser, and be sure to let your under-painting show through! See how the brown of the under-painting acts as the shadows?

Step 6.

Next, we move to the head, and again, we go back and forth with the colors and eraser, so that the under-painting shows through as shadows.

Step 7.

And then we go with the antennae, using short quick brush strokes to get the right effect. Start with that darker yellow, and then lay the lighter on top.

Step 8.

Now we go to the torso. Bring up the appropriate references, and place in your colors. Again, start with the dark, then put the lighter on top, remember to keep the under-painting as the darkest shadows.

Step 9.

Lighter shades on top.

Step 10.

Do the same as steps 8 and 9 for the lower body.

Step 11.

Placing the bone structure on the back. Use the same steps as 8 and 9. I had to go back and fix up the shading on the torso to get this right.

Step 12.

I put in the markings last, as a final layer. The glowing effect on the stripes is actually from a Photoshop layer effect, seen as an FX symbol in the layers window. I used the effect “OUTER GLOW.”

Step 13.

Any last effects would be going through all your layers and playing around with the Saturation and Hue, to make sure you have the colors and shades that you are most happy with. And once you are pleased, you are done! I really hope this helps all of you digital art beginners who just got tablets for Christmas!

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Uploaded: January 20, 2012
Artist: GideonGave
Difficulty: Intermediate  Intermediate Skill Level
Steps: 13
Updated: January 20, 2012
P.O.V: 3/4
Favourited: 7 times
Artist comments

I'm super excited for this one, and I really hope it helps! This is about using reference photos (something ALL artists should do!) and I'm showing the way I like to paint digitally. This is not the only way to do digital art, but I think it's a great process and it's easy to understand. I used Photoshop for this tutorial, but there are many similar tools in SAI and Gimp, or almost any digital art program. Also, this is certainly not my best digital painting, as this was slightly rushed, but I still think it makes a good example. Also, do make sure you're making appropriate layers for each step. Some of them I tell you specifically, while others can be left up to you. Just make sure different parts of the character have their own separate layers. (NOTE: please do not copy this exact image; try using this for your own original work!)