Let’s talk about painting in Photoshop! I had the privilege of illustrating this poster for the S.C.B.W.I. (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They are holding a non-fiction writing conference this Spring and will use my artwork for promotion.

Sketch Phase

I chose to illustrate a handful of historical figures. It was fun picking them out, I’ve always loved history. Seriously! I really do.

I like arranging compositions, it’s like a puzzle. Placing the characters into one composition was something that came natural to me. Heads and shoulders make for a brick-like pattern, easy peasy.

Once the super rough chicken-scratchy sketch was done, I enlarged it using a Xerox machine. Using tracing paper, I re-drew it with more detail, re-arranged figures, and adjusted the composition (adding the big kite gave it a focal point). After bringing the sketch into Photoshop with my iPhone, the fun part begins!

Color Studies

Picking the right colors can make or break an illustration. I like having a day or two to get them right. Even after 4-5 hours of work, it takes a day to let the image process in my mind.

I usually begin by browsing Pinterest. I use search terms like Contemporary Illustration to find artwork I really like. I find 10-12 great works and then select 1 to use. I’ll bring it into Photoshop and use the eyedropper tool to lift colors out and into a new document. Then I’ll bring in my sketch, put the linework on a multiply layer, and paint underneath it using the colors. Painting color studies look like this:

This piece required 2 color studies. The first one was fine but it wasn’t quite right, there was something vanilla/traditional about it. Maybe it was the sub-zero weather… but I knew I wanted something cooler. I went back to my Pinterest board and selected a different inspiration. I think it really worked, I’ve gotten a lot of positive comments on the color!

The African American figures were a challenge because their dark skin popped and overtook the other colors/darks. I lightened those tones quite a bit when I moved into the last stage of my process.

Final Sketch & Painting

Once my color study was ready I began working on the full resolution illustration file (they usually end up growing to be 1-2GB files!).

A color swatch file that I used on a recent piece.

I left my color study open while I painted, constantly using the eyedropper tool to lift colors from it. I opened another Photoshop document and painted swatches of all the colors I am using.

I painted the characters left to right. Just handled each character one at a time, averaging 1 character a day and speeding up to 2 characters a day near the end.

I began painting each character by inking the final sketch in Photoshop,  that’s where I determined all of the details. Reference, reference, reference! No skipping anything until later! All must be revealed at this stage if the painting is to turn out.

This was the most difficult figure to do because my reference was Detail City.

It’s important to have that refined/inked sketch to paint from. Look at the image of Queen Elizabeth (pictured left) to see what an in-progress inking looks like.

Reference is really the key to a good illustration. I used to be lazy and invent shapes to represent things from life. That was bad. Sure, my own shapes are pretty… but they don’t always represent things from life. Or, they might for me, but don’t translate to others. Art is about clear communication. I don’t want my viewer to ask certain questions. The art should be fun to look at… not a puzzle.

Soft Gradients and Clean Edges

I used the Gouche-A-Go-Go brush from Kyle’s brush toolbox to paint. It’s my favorite brush and I’ve done hundreds of illustrations with it, it creates a lovely texture! I work light to dark. The process is actually a lot like watercolor in that I have to preserve my whites. Believe it or not, the brush only works if you layer from light to dark WITHOUT going back to add light on top of dark. There’s a halo of residue that is created between the tones when you try. To keep every tonal shift/gradient completely soft, I have to paint from one side of the value spectrum to the other, it’s a linear process. Also, each value shift has to be a certain amount darker/lighter. If I make too big of a leap, the gradient turns out grainy and hard on the eyes.

I made a folder for each character’s layers in Photoshop. This painting was 256 layers! Some digital illustrators encourage artists to use less layers, mimicking traditional media. Lately, I’ve been embracing many layers and using them to paint in a way that mimics airbrushing with stencils. How do I do that? LAYER MASKS. Oh My Lord. LAYER MASKS. Gone are the days of Liquid Frisket ripping and roaring through that expensive 300lb Hot Press Watercolor Paper. Layer masks are like stencils that allow me to paint without staying in the lines. I’ll paint some and then once all the paint is laid down, I paint a mask to cut-out the shape. It’s kind of like cleaning. Super satisfying! Plus, I don’t have to “clean” forms that will soon be covered by other overlapping forms. For instance, I wouldn’t mask out the top of a character’s chest/neck/shoulders because the head will naturally conceal my rough edges.

Finishing the Poster

The work took about 50 hours total and was finished over a two week period of time. The last couple days were hectic, I painted 5 characters in one day (over 12 hours straight of painting in Photoshop). I finished the work at 3:30am. I try to avoid those kind of marathon sessions but sometimes it’s unavoidable. It’s good to know yourself and have techniques to help make all-nighters do-able. I usually just eat a bunch of candy. Airhead X-Treme Bites are my favorite! Do you have any strategies when you know an all-nighter is ahead?

I loved working in this style and hope it will bring me new illustration work from art directors and editors. If you like it or have any questions, shoot me an email!