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The following is an excerpt from Digital Art Masters: Volume 5. In this volume, you will meet some of the finest 2D and 3D artists working in the industry today and discover how they create some of the most innovative digital art in the world. Here Simon Dominic shows you step-by-step how he created Big Blue.


Whilst I enjoy the challenge of tight specifications, it’s good every once in a while to let one’s mind go wandering. With this personal piece, Big Blue, I injected this very attitude into the image itself. I had an idea about two travelers – one human, one creature – taking a break from their long journey just to sit and ponder their futures, each lost in their own thoughts.

To better convey the mood of the piece, I tried to stay away from cliches, so partially-clothed babes, greased warriors and fire-breathing dragons were immediately ruled out. I designed the male character to be somewhat nondescript, with an unremarkable appearance, so as not to overpower the general mood. With this in mind, I referenced a photo of myself – although I must stress that I don’t own a red waistcoat. Honest (Fig.01).

I made the creature mysterious, its origin and purpose unknown and entirely dependent on the whim of the viewer. The wings give the impression of a mythical beast and the skull pattern on its head suggests a certain danger or hidden power. I contrasted this with its calm, contemplative stance to give the impression of intelligence behind that foreboding exterior.


Sometimes I’ll create several thumbnail concepts before I start, and also collect numerous references to work from. In this instance, however, the composition and atmosphere of the piece were clear in my mind and therefore I decided to skip the concept stage and move straight to the initial sketch.

In terms of references, I only used a couple of photos of myself. The creature and the environment are entirely products of my peculiar mind.

The Initial Sketch

I started on a small canvas in ArtRage and created a sketch of the guy and the creature. In my initial sketch I wasn’t keen on the pose of the male character, so I referenced another photo and changed it. If something doesn’t seem right, change it as early as possible because the later you leave it the more difficult and time-consuming the corrections become.

Shading and Values

Next I shaded the characters to produce a value study. Basically this indicates how the light will behave in the finished piece and how the different areas of the image will contrast with each other (Fig.02).

Fig 2

Color Wash

Using a brush with plenty of thinners, I painted over the entire piece, ensuring that the sketch was still visible through the paint. I wasn’t too bothered about the landscape at this stage so I used a broad brush to apply earthy colors to the ground and brighter hues to the sky (Fig.03).

Fig 3

Rough Detail

I suspect “rough detail” is an oxymoron, but what I did here was to start applying a thick layer of paint over the entire piece. Some of the detail applied during these stages would be refined later, but some would make it through to the final image and for this reason I resized the canvas upwards to its final print size before I began.

I started out painting the creature’s body. Although I predominantly used shades of blue, I varied the color hues regularly. If I hadn’t done this then the blue color of the creature’s skin could have become overpowering. The paint values (how light or dark it is), however, remained consistent with the value study sketch-work (Fig.04).


Whilst painting the rocks and the male character, I had the idea that a strong backlight would make the characters stand out, or “pop”. Therefore, I imagined a light source situated in the lower left somewhere, shining onto the guy’s back, the jutting rock and also the back legs of the creature. Where does the light source come from? Nobody knows … (Fig.05).

Scruffy Feathers

I wanted the creature to have huge, powerful wings, so I was careful not to obscure its form with too many feathers. Therefore, I left the upper wing mostly free of feathers and ensured the others lay relatively flat against the wing arm. I ruffled the feathers too (so to speak), as imperfections can be used to enhance the realism of a piece.

At the same time, I painted some detail into the background landscape. Because I wasn’t working from a reference I could create exactly the look I wanted, which in this case was misty and unobtrusive yet still interesting to look at (Fig.06).

Fig 6

Finish the Landscape

I completed the landscape whilst still in ArtRage because, although the brush engine isn’t ideal for all types of small detail, it does an excellent job on organic detail such as rock, grass and wood.

I was careful not to put much background detail in the area around the creature’s head so as not to muddle the focus. Keeping the regions around the creature relatively free of detail helped the character to stand out more (Fig.07).

Fig 7

Final Blending

For the final stage I exported the image into Painter so as I could make use of Painter’s great blending brushes. I didn’t want to blend the entire final image by any means, but the character’s skin and especially the sky needed to be made much softer.

I used two brushes to do the blending. The first one blended at a low pen pressure only, and when more pressure was applied it acted like an acrylic brush, laying down paint. This is so that the small, fiddly areas can be blended and enhanced as required. The second brush was a pure blending brush with the resaturation set to zero so that it didn’t lay down any paint. I used this brush mostly for large areas – the sky and the main bulk of the creature.

When blending it’s often tempting to go too far and start blending everything. This should really be avoided. Boundaries and intentionally sharp value and hue transitions should be left unblended so that the image doesn’t become undefined and too “digitallooking.” This applies equally to the type of painting brush you use because excessive usage of soft-edged brushes tends to produce fuzzy results.

Fig 8

After finishing the blending I went over the entire image at a high zoom looking for any little bits I could tidy up. When that was done I saved the final file, went to bed and dreamed of blue feathers (Fig.08).

Excerpt from Digital Art Masters: Volume 5 by 3dtotal.Com © 2010 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved. Digital Art Masters can be purchased Amazon.com,BN.com, and wherever fine books can be found.

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