In this tutorial I will go through the workflow and thinking process behind my painting “Lesson Number One”, which I made for my portfolio at the end of my studies. I will briefly cover storytelling, design, composition, colour and light. I asked for a lot of feedback during this project from friends, teachers and fellow students, and that is something I can truly recommend everybody to do. It’s incredible how much a fresh pair of eyes can improve a piece.
Story and ideas
If there is one thing I have really learnt from the many great teachers I’ve been so lucky to have, then it is that story is the core of everything. A well-executed painting without a story to support it won’t be much more than eye-candy, whereas a simple drawing with a great story can be far more exciting, and stay in people’s memory for a long time. The reason is simple; people like stories, and they like stories that make them feel something.
With this in mind, I like to start my work with story ideas. Often they appear as happy accidents while I doodle in my sketchbook, with characters that make me curios. This was also the case for this painting. I was just having fun sketching some burly warriors in Photoshop, drawing some different expressions, and then I drew a laughing face that made me think: “I wonder what he’s so happy about?” And before I knew it, he had a little daughter sitting on his shoulders. Some of the other, gritty warrior faces I had drawn were surrounding the sketch, which further made me think: “Maybe they are actually looking at the father, frowning at how he plays with a little child rather than being a tough warrior?” So I quickly rearranged the sketches, scribbled some more lines, and voilà – a story was born.
I made a little Word document for myself, where I wrote the backstories for the main characters, as well as a brief description of the society and world they lived in. This was to help me in the design process, as well as getting a more convincing story across. At this point I also started gathering tons of reference photos for both characters and location.
"Initial concept sketch"
I studied CGA at the Animation Workshop in Denmark, and I am currently having a blast working as a concept artist at MPC Advertising in London. What I like the most is to explore and design worlds and characters full of stories that are waiting to be told.
The father, whom I named Njorstinn, was the first character I designed. Seeing as I was going to draw a lot of warriors, with the main character being a warrior himself, I needed to have him stand out from the others. So I had the idea that all the warriors where trying to show off how tough and manly they were, wearing fancy armor and beards, whereas Njorstinn was far more practical, and wore simple clothes that were good for sweating in a training camp, as well as being the only bald and beardless warrior. I still needed them to seem like they belonged to the same group though, so I gave all the warriors geometric, blue tattoos on their heads and bodies.
The daughter, Miruna, was easier to design – she was to be a cheerful little girl, and I wanted her to seem playful and energetic. I contemplated to make her super girly, but I didn’t feel it quite fit with the story, so I gave her more practical clothes. Her cape is supposed to be a flag she has snatched from one of the roofs in the training camp, which you can actually see in the final painting (I bet nobody noticed that before!).
"Njorstinn and his daughter Miruna"
Thumbnails and composition
I decided for the story to take place in a training camp filled with buff warriors, weapons, and monster dummies. As a contrast, I wanted the father to run around with his daughter on his shoulders, making a game out of teaching her how to fight. So I had an idea of how I wanted things to look, and the challenge was more about finding a good way to stage it all. I made several quick thumbnails where they were playing with a training dummy, going for something dynamic, as well as making sure that the little girl always was above everybody else in the composition, happy and free.
When I found a rough composition I liked, I decided to block it out with very rough 3D in Maya to play more with camera angles and staging. It was a great way to get a general feel for the environment and lighting, despite everything being super simplified.
"3D is an amazing tool for concept artists to speed up their workflow"
Line art and value blocking
As soon as I had a 3D setup I was happy with, I made a simple render and pasted it into Photoshop. Then I started drawing on top of it, and this was probably the most enjoyable part of the process for me. I loved giving the characters personality and expressions, as well as getting a better understanding of how the final piece would look. I made sure to have several characters look at and point at the little girl, making her the center of attention.
I blocked in some simple values as well, to get an idea of the lighting in the scene, as well as splitting the different elements into layers. I kept the highest value contrast around the girl, making her stand out more, and I also framed the image with darker values, leading the eyes towards the middle of the painting.
"Use contrast in your painting to draw attention to your subject"
Colors and rendering
With the values blocked in, I started adding colour on separate layers set to Colour blending mode. The colour palette I had in mind was something like what you can see in Gladiator, with a sunny, warm and rather dry environment.
Once the base colours were set, the long process of rendering started. I happen to love rendering paintings, and I find it to be the easier part of the process, despite taking so much time. The greatest challenge is getting a piece ready for rendering, with story and composition.
The trick with rendering is to think of light and colour as the same thing, and to keep in mind that pretty much every surface reflects some light from either the sun, sky or general environment. The sky colour is essential, because it will show in both shadows and surfaces that point towards it, so make sure to choose your sky colour early on.
I used some photo textures to enhance things like wood and leather, and then I painted over them to integrate them better in the painting.
During the rendering process I played with cast shadows, controlling the values and hiding things that shouldn’t take too much attention. I also improved upon the composition as I saw fit, trying to avoid tangents. I added a swinging morningstar to the foreground training dummy, for instance, and that was solely to lead the eye better through the composition. I also added more background characters to make the camp seem more crowded.
"Rendering can be tedious but really makes the piece come together"
At the end of a painting process, I like to add a sort of compositing stage, where I just make everything shine a bit more. In this case I added more highlights, subtle motion blur to the swinging morningstar, some gradients to pimp up the light and shadow, increased the saturation slightly, and tweaked the values of the painting with a Levels layer. This is a stage that can go on forever, and a painting can always be improved, but eventually you just have to call it done and move on to something else. So when I finally felt that I was happy enough with the result, I put away my Wacom pen, made myself a lovely cup of tea, and started pondering about what my next project would be.
"The Final Result."