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The Fairies' Harp Walkthroughby Stav Ofer
This article shows my process of painting "The Fairies' Harp". This is by no means the only or best way to paint digitally. This is not even MY preferred way of painting, it's simply the way I went about when creating this specific piece. In each painting I do something different and learn something new.
I painted this picture using Photoshop CS and a Wacom tablet, but most of the methods I describe should work on other versions of Photoshop and on similar high-end applications as well. Using a mouse instead of a tablet would be a longer and more tiresome process but shouldn't prevent you from getting similar results.
Forming the Concept
It started with an idea. I thought: wouldn't it be cool to paint small fairies playing on a big harp? And from there it continued, until I formed an inner "vision" of bright, glowing fairies playing on a harp standing among the grasses under an evening sky.
Then I tried to put on paper, or in this case on screen, what I've seen with my mind's eye.
Image 1: first digital sketch
I opened Photoshop and created a new file of 1650 x 2100 pixels. These dimensions are not random: it's exactly half the size of an 11 x 14 inch print at 300 dpi. The reason I didn't start from the full dimensions of 3300 x 4200 is that on the first stages of the painting I'm going to use big brushes and cover relatively large areas with basic colors and no details, so there's no need to burden my poor processor at the moment. I chose some base colors and started sketching on the canvas blue sky, dark green trees and grass, brown harp and bright yellow fairies.
As you may have noticed, I didn't pay too much attention to accuracy in the shapes and the anatomy I was interested only in the most general shapes and colors. However, even at this early stage I worked with several layers: one for the background, one for the harp and one for the fairies. This enabled me to easily move things around until I found a composition I was satisfied with. Basically it consists of three overlapping triangles: the three fairies that play the harp, the harp itself and the three other fairies (that didn't make it to the final painting).
Now was the time to start the real work, and the first question I faced was: so what do harps look like, really? I thought I knew what harps look like who doesn't? But when I wanted to actually paint one I realized that my best idea of a harp was a triangle with strings, more or less what you see in the above image. It was high time, then, to start looking for reference. Luckily this was not hard at all: I just opened Google Images, typed 'harp' and started browsing through the results. I saved to my computer some 10 images I liked, studied them for several minutes, then opened a new file and started drawing a harp.
With this painting I preferred to do all the linework on a separate file, partly to keep my mind free from what I sketched earlier, and partly to keep the number of layers in each file at least somewhat reasonable. It may take me three or four layers to make one lineart, but when I import them to the other file I merge them to one layer only.
Image 2: the progress of drawing the harp lineart
So I sketched a harp (1), looking quite frequently on my references but not making exact copy of any of them. I used the Photoshop default round brush, set to about 70% opacity and flow, 60% hardness, and pen pressure set to opacity (known to Photoshop users as "other dynamics"). I added strings (2) using the line tool, decided the curve of the harp was overdone and redrew it (3). All along the painting process I made sure to flip my canvas horizontally every now and then. This way you can look on the picture from a literally new angle, and many "obvious" mistakes you didn't notice just pop out.
Image 3: a better harp
At this stage I imported the harp sketch to the painting file, resized and placed it, and painted under it something that finally looked like a real harp. I imported the resized sketch back to the linework file and started to draw the final lineart for the harp. I reduced the opacity of the harp sketch layer, created a new layer above it and traced the sketch using a smaller, harder and more opaque brush. The straight lines of the sound box and the strings were created using the line tool.
Image 4: the final harp lineart
To make the strings parallel and evenly spaced I first drew one string, then duplicated the layer and moved the new string using the keyboard arrows, counting how many steps upward and how many sideways were needed to bring it to place. I duplicated again and repeated the process, and after I had 3 or 4 string I merged them to one layer, duplicated it and so on until all strings were in place. Then I imported the final lineart to the painting file.
Image 5: a new color scheme
And how does an evening sky look? Finding reference for this wasn't as simple as for the harp, but not much harder. Searching Google images as well as some stock photo sites, using all the possible combinations of the keywords "evening", "sunset", "sky", and "trees", led to a complete remake of the background: the sky became purple and pink, the trees became sharp silhouettes of a dark bluish gray and the land became darker. The harp, in order to stand out against the darkened background, was made brighter. I also started to pay attention to my light sources, and using the round brush with varying degrees of hardness and opacity added a strong, yellow reflected light from the fairies on the inner parts of the harp, a weaker purple light from the sky above, and a little bit of green near the ground.
Since I saved only two progress shots from the making of the trees, the first shown above and the second will come later on, I'll demonstrate here the process with a quick sample image I made:
Image 6: painting trees' silhouettes
(1) I painted the trunks and some branches with a hard round brush. No need to be very precise or smooth, because everything will be covered with leaves. My purpose in this step is to have some underlying structure underneath the foliage.
(2) I took the chalk brush from Photoshop's default brushes and started playing with the settings: 100% angle jitter, meaning that every brush stroke will have an absolutely random angle; scattering, which makes the brush paint in scattered "dots" instead of a continuous line; and size jitter. I made several test brush strokes until I found the right mix of settings, and then painted loosely around the trunks and branches, making the base of the foliage.
(3) I reduced the brush size and painted more leaves, and repeated the process 2 or 3 time. Now the picture starts to resemble trees.
(4) Finally I switched to the hard round brush. I retained all the settings of the former brush and added to them a reduced roundness as well as a roundness jitter. I pretty much repeated the last step, with an ever smaller brush, until I was satisfied with the result.
I sketched the three fairies that are playing the harp very much like the way I sketched the harp: first rough lines showing the shape (1), then a process of erasing and drawing again. I couldn't find much useful reference for the fairies' poses, so I posed in front of the mirror, then drew, than posed again and went to correct my drawing, until finally things looked right. Then I added details like the hair, wings and dress (2), each object on its own layer so I can move it around or change it without affecting the others.
Image 7: the first fairy's lineart progress
I painted the fairies at twice their final size because they are not very large and I wanted to have enough room to work comfortably without having to zoom more than 100%. The final lines here are less refined than for the harp, partly because I knew I would eventually downsize them, and partly because when painting the human form I rely more on the shading to give it the correct shape and volume.
When I finished the lineart of each fairy I imported the layer(s) to the painting file, downsized it and placed it where it should be on the harp, colored it and filled its area with yellow, to see what it looks like. This is how the fairies looked at this stage:
Image 8: the three fairies' first appearance
I later made some more changes. In fact, the final shape of the two lower fairies was determined only after I finished painting the upper one.
The real painting begins
. . . And now the real painting process begins. I enlarged the canvas up to its final size of 3300 x 4200 pixels and imported the full-size lineart of the upper fairy from the lines file. In fact, before that I tried to paint the clouds and the sky, but later I changed that completely so I won't elaborate on this right now.
Image 9: starting to paint the first fairy, at a double size
I created a new layer under the lineart and started by filling the area with yellow, with a large, opaque brush. I find it easier to fill an area beyond its borders and then erase the unwanted parts, rather than filling it in an exact way from the start, but this is really a matter of personal preference. I erased the margins of the yellow blob until it was roughly inside the lines and locked the layer's transparency (there's a small icon on the layers panel for this function). This means that I can apply paint only where I already painted, and thus able to paint near the border of the shape without worrying about stray strokes. I created separate layers for the hair and dress for this reason.
Since the fairies were supposed to be themselves the light sources, I used very subtle shading, only enough to indicate their shape and volume. I therefore created a very limited palette to paint them with a base color, a highlight and a shadow for the body, all in shades of yellow, and a similar green trio for the dress. Still, to make it a bit more interesting and hopefully less flat, I made sure not to use the same hue with varying brightness/saturation, but to choose warmer, less saturated colors for the shadows, and cooler colors for the highlights. It could also be done in an opposite way (cool shadows and warm highlights), but on this matter I took my inspiration from the colors of fire: the stronger the fire is, the cooler its color. I shaded using medium-opacity, medium-hardness round brush, with the opacity control set to pen pressure.
Image 10: process of painting the first fairy at 50% its original size
(1) I started by laying the basic shadows and highlights. To blend the colors I used the color picker (press Alt in Photoshop) to pick a color from the painting, paint a stroke or two and pick again a slightly different color.
(2) I unlocked the layer transparency and went over the edges painting or erasing to make them smoother, then locked it again and continued to refine the shading. I also started painting the hair: first I filled it with the darkest of the skin colors, and then painted the hairs with the same brush as before, only smaller. I gradually went from darker to lighter colors but didn't try to blend them this time, to help indicate the separate locks of hair.
(3) One more round of edge-smoothening refining of the shading, some more work on the hair, and then the wings. For the wings I took an even brighter yellow, and painted their outline with the same round brush. To fill them I used the chalk brush, set to very low flow and opacity in order to create their semi-transparent texture. Here, as in all other places, if I had to erase something I always used an eraser with the same brush shape and properties as the brush I painted it with; it's most important when painting objects that are textured and/or transparent, since uncareful erasing might ruin the effect you were aiming for.
I decided the dress needed some texture as well, to help separate it from the fairy's skin, so I tried the dual brush function in Photoshop. What this function does is to take any two brushes and paint with them simultaneously, and the paint shows only where they both paint together (you can think of it as a Boolean 'AND', though the exact process is more complicated). If you take two already-textured and quite different brushes you can get interesting results. In this case I took a textured cloud brush I created, together with Photoshop's default grass brush set to scatter and angle jitter, and painted with it very lightly on the dress layer. The texture is barely seen even on 100% zoom, but even so it makes the fairies' dresses somewhat more distinguished.
Image 11: the two other fairies, finished, at 50% their original size
I then went back to the lineart file, made some changes to the lines of the two remaining fairies and imported them, and painted them with the same approach as the first fairy. After finishing them I realized I really don't want to do three more of the same, so I decided to get rid of the other three fairies and try some far-off sparkles instead, as you can see in the next progress shot.
Back to the whole picture
Image 12: the finished fairies, downsized, placed and colored
I reduced all three fairies to their final size and placed them in their final places, careful to have them placed with their hands on the strings. In order to be able to move and resize together all layers of each fairy (skin, dress etc.), I put them all into layer sets (in Photoshop: layer>new>layer set). When layers are part of a set, you can choose either to apply changes to the whole set, or only to one specific layer.
Seeing the fairies all together for the first time I thought that the bright green dresses didn't fit with the color scheme of the picture, and their uniform color was boring. I used the hue/saturation settings window (image>adjustments>hue/saturation) on the dresses' layers and changed them to warm sunset colors that fitted well with the sky. That's it the fairies are finished.
Now I started to work on the harp. I took a custom hair brush (that is, a brush made for painting hair...) and painted with it all over the harp, mostly color-picking from what was already there. The hair brush was exactly what I needed in order to give the harp a subtle wood texture without the need for a separate texture layer. As always, unless I'm working specifically on changing the shape (erasing or painting new bits), I work with the layer transparency locked. I also keep flipping the canvas horizontally to quickly recognize places where the painting is lopsided and to give me a fresh view of it.
Image 13: sky and trees are finished, first look on the harp without its lineart
Using again the hue/saturation window I gave the harp a slightly warmer and richer color. I went over the edges painting or erasing to smooth them, and copied the strings from the lineart layer in order to use them for the painting itself.
I then finished the trees using the round brush, as I explained earlier. I also finished the sky: I took the colors that I painted there before and painted fuzzy clouds with my custom cloud brush. At the end of the article you'll find my cloud brush as well as the other custom brushes I mention.
Image 14: a detail at 100% zoom of the current progress shot; you can see the texture of the harp and the clouds, and the individual brush marks that create the foliage
More work on the harp
Image 15: an improved harp, and fairies without halos
I added an ornament to the sound box to make the harp more interesting to look at. As always, I first drew it on the lineart layer and then painted, using a slightly lighter color then the harp's, and adding around the ornament a slightly darker color to make it stand out. The general lighting on it is yellow from the fairies, but like the harp itself, on the upper parts I added some purple from the sky and on the lower parts dark green from the soon-to-be-painted grass.
I also gave a more defined shape to the sound box by increasing the contrast between the side facing the fairy and the side with the ornament (painting manually, not using any shortcut this time), and added a brighter line where the strings connect to the harp. At this stage I erased the halos of the fairies because I saw that the reflected light from the harp (and later from the strings) gives, in itself, a strong indication of their glowing. I didn't bother shading the lower parts of the harp because soon it would be covered with grass.
Image 16: almost final harp
I then went to give the harp its final shape. I made a final pass on the harp edges to smooth them, painted the little spiral on the upper corner and refined the ornament. I gave still more contrast to the different light-reflecting parts: the inner sides of the harp facing the fairies are now much yellower, and the upper sides are much purpler.
Strings and grasses
I carefully erased the ends of the strings, then locked the layer transparency and started adding highlights. I soon realized that with all the fairies there's a lot of light around the strings, so I gave up trying to stay true to the direction of the light on any specific point and simply painted the strings with bright yellow strongest near the fairies and weakening the farther you go.
In the places where the fairies' hands touch the strings there was a need to erase parts of the hands or the strings to make them look one in front of the other. I didn't want to do anything irreversible so I used layer masks. The masks, as their name indicates, mask-out parts of the layer without loosing the data of what is under them.
Image 17: grass and highlighted strings
I painted the grass with a custom brush I made especially for this painting, aiming for a more natural-looking grass then what I could achieve with Photoshop's default brushes. I also set it to a low degree of scattering, and angle- and size- jitter, all in order to escape an artificial "Photoshopped" look.
The grass was painted in three layers: first a base layer with a fairly small brush size, all over the flat green background to give it some texture. I then painted the grass behind the harp, making it gradually larger and brighter as it gets closer to the harp (and the viewer), and on a third layer I painted the grass in front of the harp, still larger but now getting darker again as we move away from the harp. Near the harp I painted some yellow grass blades that are reflecting the fairies' light, and away from it I painted some greenish-purple grasses, lit from the sky.
On a new layer, set to 'multiply', I painted the shadow cast by the harp. With the Multiply mode, what I paint on this layer doesn't hide the layers beneath it, but makes them darker and less saturated in addition to giving them it's color. This way, I know that no matter what color I paint with, the result will be darker, so I can choose a color without having to worry about its brightness. The shadow is not a very strong or defined one, because there are three different light sources, but even so it helps to ground the harp and integrate it with the background. It is dark but not black, and in finding a fitting color for it I had to consider two factors: first, the shadow's color is supposed to be the complementary color of the light causing it in this case the light is yellow and its complementary is purple. Secondly, where there is no light from the fairies the color of the global light should be dominant luckily for me this is also purple. So there no need to start blending colors purple it is, and thanks to the Multiply mode I could simply pick a color from the sky and paint with it to create a dark purple shadow.
I painted anew the far-off fairy sparkles, and gave them some (very slight) coloring. Under the lower ones I gave the grass a yellow tinge to indicate the reflected light. I strengthened the line where the strings connect to the harp, and added darker spots under them and shadows cast by the sitting fairy. I also worked some more on the lighting on the harp and added reflected colors from the fairies' dresses, most notable a bright purple under sitting one.
Following an advice I got at the EMG forums (where I posted some in-progress shots), I made the upper and the front parts of the harp look more like separate parts, and strengthened the wood texture that was almost completely lost during the last few stages. I also added some more highlights to the ornament and put my signature. The painting is now finished.
Image 18: finished!
Image 19: a detail shot at 100% zoom.
I hope you enjoyed your reading, and maybe even found some inspiration. I am now writing an article dedicated to all the different things you can do to, and with, a Photoshop brush, a small part of them I mentioned here so stay tuned! In the meantime, here are the custom brushes I used in the painting of this picture. You may use them freely for your own art.
Image 20: from left to right: hair, "fuzzy cloud" and grass brushes
Stav Ofer is a student for geophysics and planetary science by day, and an artist by night. She enjoys science fiction and fantasy ever since learning to read, and her ultimate goal is life is to become an imperial planetologist.
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