Creating an illustrated scene from scratch with Bryan Beus

By Bryan Beus


This tutorial gives an overview of the process I used to create, "Faerietank," a personal project.

The first half of the tutorial covers the universal aspects of painting, including choosing an idea, working together with your audience, creating thumbnails/drawings/studies, etc.

The second half covers the process in a way that is more specific to Corel Painter, including the tools, brushes, and other aspects I used to create the final piece.

The final part shows a step-by-step process that is unique to Corel Painter X3, and involves using the perspective tool.

Let's get started.

The not so technical...but ultra important stuff

When I started this painting, I was in the process of finishing a long and all-consuming creative-writing project, during which I had filled up a few sketchbooks with concepts that I never had time to paint.

It seemed like a fun idea to involve my blog readers in getting my artwork going again, so I posted a few concepts online where everyone could vote for the one they would like to see created. Here's the lineup of original concepts:

First, I'd like to point out that I don't really care how pretty the concepts are. At this stage, they're just sketches. The thing I'm most interested in is finding a story that I'm passionate about telling; beautiful brush strokes come later.

In retrospect, I'm not surprised at how insightful my blog readers are. Everyone who commented had interesting insights, observations, and reasons why they voted on their particular choices.

In the end, and by a narrow margin, everyone chose the one on the upper right—the fish tank of faeries.

I didn't really have a set process from here. Every painting's a bit of a mystery when you start out. I played around with few sketches and drawings, and then decided that if I was going to paint a fish tank, I ought to know what a really good tank looks like.

So, off I went to the Aquarium.

It was a lot of fun staring at fish for an afternoon, and I always love getting interrupted by little kids ("Draw me! Draw me!"). I stayed until the manager kicked me out (got my full $7 worth!), and when I came home I was finally ready to begin pulling out the concepts.

I still wanted to keep my audience involved, so once I had a rough thumbnail, I drew out a bunch of potential faeries so they could vote on their favorite.

I don't always spend this much time making a finished drawing of each individual subject; I often keep the painting a bit more spontaneous at this stage. However, when working with any kind of viewer who is going to make a decision on what should happen next in a painting—whether it be blog readers, an art director, or any other client—you always want to make sure that they understand exactly what it is you are trying to say with your drawing. If your collaborator is confused, they'll either lose interest in supporting your artwork, or they'll try to help with misdirected advice—neither of which is helpful.

So I left nothing to chance with my blog readers, and once again they came back with a lot of great insights.

At this point, we had only one more kink left in the conceptual stage, and that was the lighting (you'll see in a moment why I do this first).

Once again, I'm really not trying to impress anyone with the quality of my brush strokes just yet. All I want to know is where the sources of light are, their level of brightness, whether they're a direct, ambient, or diffuse light, and their general behavior.

Once we've got a good idea of the lighting, it's time to start making this thing a reality!

If you want to do a realistic painting of something you've never seen in real life (like a fish tank full of faeries), you've got to have an idea of how it would truly look.

Here's a video of my process for creating photo reference material:

You can see why I did an initial rough value study first. It allows me to know how to properly set up my models.

People always ask me, "How do you find models?" The answer: friends. Most artists I know work this way. I compensate my friends who pose for me by giving them a free print when it's all over. Sometimes, I just ask random people I see. Inevitably, they end up becoming friends, so that's a plus.

I also needed to know how light behaved in a fish tank. You can see how the water and little air bubbles everywhere cause the light to diffuse softly through the plants.

When you've got a great idea of what your concept looks like in real life, everything from here on out is easy. All you're really doing is performing those basic drawing and painting techniques that anyone can teach you.

Using just a 2 mm mechanical pencil, I created my final drawing. It was too wide to scan, so I had to carefully cut it into three pieces in the end and then reassemble it digitally.

(One of the biggest things that makes it so easy from here is Corel Painter. I use it almost exclusively.)

Getting technical

My hardware:

  • Macbook Pro 17"
  • Operating System: OSX Mountain Lion
  • Flatbed Scanner
  • Corel Painter
  • Wacom Tablet Intuos5 - Medium Size

Up to this point, we've mostly worked at whatever pixel dimensions we feel like, but from here on in, we're going to be working as large as is conveniently manageable. Our goal is to have something that we can print out at up to four feet without noticeable pixelation, so we're going to go 6326 x 3558 px, which is fairly large.

So that we can keep my original drawing for reference as we work, we perform the following: Select > All, Edit > Copy, Edit > Paste.

Then, in the Layers window in our workspace, we click the button that looks like a lock to keep ourselves from accidentally drawing on it.

Then we go to the layer's pull-down menu and change the type from "Default" to "Gel."

Now we click back on the Canvas layer. Try this and you will see that you can paint on the canvas as much as you like and the lines from your drawing will always remain on top.

Let's move onto getting a better idea of how the light behaves in the painting.

First, let's put down some general lighting all across the image. Effects > Surface Control > Apply Lighting.

We'll just play around with the lights, positioning them on the canvas so that they are kind of replicating the light within a fish tank. But, we don't want to make it too bright as we will need room to maneuver within the higher values.

Now, we're off to a good start. At the moment, we do not yet care about texture, just a really strong value statement.

So, we'll use a good ol' common Digital Airbrush with soft edges.

We keep our brush as large as possible so as not to get caught up in the details.

As the painting progresses, we decide that we want things fairly misty, so we brighten up the shadows from where we had them in the initial rough value study.

After the values are set, we move to the initial color scheme.

At this point in the process, we're still thinking that we want the faerie in the center to be the focus of the painting. So, after playing around for awhile, we make her dress a salmon-pink color. Then, we spread a lot of green and yellow throughout the rest of the painting, with an occasional dash of red to mimic the salmon of the main faerie's dress.

We've got this done...but it's extremely lackluster in terms of saturation. It's the perfect time to start adding a little bit of texture.

First thing we do is add just a faint hint of texture to the entire canvas. Effects > Surface Control > Apply Surface Texture.

We can just use the default Basic Paper Texture that comes with the program. It's all going to get covered up in the end anyway.

Also, we're going to switch to working with a Fine Spray Airbrush as we continue adding color.

For the next while, we're not going to worry about any details. We're just going to keep our brush as large as possible as we move from spot to spot bringing the scene into focus.

Now that the painting's got some momentum, let's finally break out some texture. I love all of the preset brushes that painter includes and use them frequently, but rarely without any sort of alteration.

The sponge tool is one of my favorites. Technically, it's supposed to just blend and blur things around in blotchy ways (as sponges do when working with traditional media), but we're turning it into something else by changing the resaturation and blending values around.

Now, as you can see, it makes a wonderful, subtle, rough texture for the background as we play with putting down slightly lighter and darker colors.

Following the rhythm of the process, the first place we detail is the castle.

We use a combination of a few brushes here, most notably the Oil Pastel brush.

It'll give us a nice bit of grit, while still being able to stay in control.

(For papers here I used many custom designs. You can learn how to create paper textures via this tutorial.)

Another of my favorite brushes is a variation of the palette knife. Normally, this one does a lot of smearing in its default setting, but we're switching it around so that it actually paints.

Here are the settings that we use:

Try playing around with it. Its dynamic tip shape makes for fun brush work.

So, with the Oil Pastel, Fine Spray Airbrush, Sponge, and Palette Knife, we have a nice mix of options for creating a wide variety of brushstrokes that work well together.

It's time to start climbing.

As we work, we make sure to keep our lights and darks where they ought to be—we've already got those problems solved from back in our photo reference stage.

Oh, a note about color: we're just making it up as we go, basing our decisions on our experience painting other subjects from real life.

We can also turn on an audiobook at this point as the process gets easier. I'm listening to "Watership Down" and "Surprised by Joy."

We wander our way through the painting, working up through the glimmering roof (making sure to keep it shiny), down through the doorway, grass, and waterfalls, towards the bottom.

Along the way, we decide that the flamboyant faerie who's swimming head-first into the castle isn't really working, so we just wipe her off.

Also, you've no doubt noticed that the painting is flipped horizontally. This is an age-old painting technique that allows the artist's mind to ‘reset' as it were, allowing him or her to see the painting with a fresh eye.

We eventually come to the faerie at the bottom corner. She's a difficult one to paint, as her original concept is to be that one sucker faerie that goes around cleaning off the glass.

There's really nothing for it but to try and try again until we have a nice first painting pass—we know we will likely have to come back to her later and adjust.

Now, it's time to try some foliage. Let's just have fun with it. We're not going to be a slave or anything to the photo reference. We only use it as a kind of guiding principle for how the light interacts with the leaves, etc.

While we're doing this foliage down here on the side, we decide that we might as well work our way up through the foliage at the back as well. We cross over to the opposite side and mimic the same foliage behavior descending down into the leaves at the base.

We also paint the background foliage behind the little mountain. During this process, we decide that the faerie in a swirly tornado of cloth is confusing because the gown flowing around her obstructs her having any recognizable kind of silhouette. She needs to change dramatically.

There was that faerie earlier up at the castle whose position we didn't like, but we decide to see if she'll work down here. And when she's painted she does indeed seem to fit nicely.

While we're passing by, we'll knock-in a vague idea of how the yellow faerie will look.

Now we've got the background down; time to work through the foreground.

The little rocks that form the base of the mountain seem like they would be more interesting if we make them into an archway instead.

Just about everything's finished, and it's only the last of the faeries to go. We've left that center faerie for last, because, while we like her shape, her position just isn't quite clicking yet.

The problem with her is when she's front and center, she just grabs too much attention, almost like she's a goddess. That takes away from the whimsical story of the faerietank that we're trying to tell. When we place her to the side of the painting, we finally get the result that we want.

We rely heavily on the palette knife tool to paint her, as she's an elegant and smooth figure. She's a piece of cake to paint since we have a good photo reference, and with just a little bit of effort she's finished, and it's on to the next one.

Down we go to the bottom.

This faerie's laying back at an angle, and because of this her face might be a little trickier to paint. So, we make careful measurements here until we feel like she's working right—this is one reason why we are working at a larger scale.

The air bubbles are the final touch. To do them, we take a regular Digital Airbrush and modify it a bit. We set the tip as the ring shape and then set up the brush as is shown in the images below.

When we paint with this brush, it makes a nice little stream.

We can almost hear the sound of the air pump in the tank just looking at these bubbles, and that's a good sign that we're getting near the end.

Now, this is the semi-final painting—not the final.

Inevitably, we know that once we've had a chance to step away from the painting for awhile and then come back to it, we're going to see things with a fresh eye and discover a few errors—as will our audience.

In this case, zelda_geek on kindly pointed out to me that I made a mistake with my perspective.

The way we have the lines going right now, the tank looks as though the surface of the water is angled on an upward slope towards the camera.

Ideally, it's best to get things done right the first time. However, if we do notice a mistake, and we still have time left over, we always go back and fix it.

We never, ever knowingly leave something wrong on our canvas.

So, this error pointed out to us is a big one—it may take several hours to fix. But, here's where Corel Painter X3 comes in handy.

Let's take a look at the perspective tool:

(Here I've darkened down all the other tool buttons so that you can find the perspective tool more easily)

Using the "1 Point Standard Horizon" present, let's take a look at the bars that hold the tank together.

The horizon line is about at the same location as the white rock on the little mountain.

For the purposes of this web tutorial, I'm going to add in some big, fat lines on where things should have been so that we can see a little better.

Let's do the castle now, using the "2 Point General Composition" standard preset.

This two-point perspective tool allows me to draw some good lines for where the castle edges ought to be.

Here's our final corrected perspective grid:

With some cut, paste, and scaling effort, we get my tank roughly adjusted.

And now, we just have to go back and repaint all the edges so that they blend together again. Since we've already painted it once, and are already familiar with all the inherent problems, this isn't overly difficult.

or depending on circumstance

And...voilà: a fish tank full of faeries. "Faerietank." Print it out, hang it up on our wall, and then go eat an entire tub of ice cream mixed with milk and half a box of teddy grahams as mix-ins.

Thanks for following along!

See you at my blog: