How to Create a Moody Illustration of an Engraved Ancient Skull
My general workflow consists of three elements or steps, namely: ideation & research, sketching & modelling, and finally painting & finishing the picture. I will go over each of them individually in detail further on. I only use a limited number of programs for the named steps: Photoshop and, newly and still learning, Blender.
Ideation & Research
First things first comes the idea. It’s the most fundamental part of any creation, something I should not mention for its obviousness, but it’s the most important aspect and, in my opinion, the hardest thing to come up with when starting any painting or creative endeavour.
I was inspired to create something involving a skull, and thought of ways to present it interestingly. Developing my idea, I usually start by writing down the main elements that I want to include in my painting and then keep those notes close to me so I won’t lose track of the bigger goal.
In this case, my skull painting is a simple design without any background or bigger world that it’s linked to, but still I wanted to somehow give it a twist. I’ve decided to put it into a cave and I knew that I wanted it to be weathered or overgrown.
The second part of this step is research. This step doesn’t only contain reading about stuff related to my subject, but looking through photos on Google or Pinterest to gain extra visual inspirations. It’s an extremely important step for me, because I always try to expand my visual library.
Also, most of the time I find pictures that show my subject in a new interesting way I have never seen before, like in the case of this picture, the engraved and mysterious skulls. During the researching and reading I also sort out photos and textures to keep for later usage as photobashing material.
With the general idea of the picture established and the reference and mood boards set, I grabbed a pen and started with my next step.
Sketching & 3D Blockout
Most of my rough sketches are done analog in a physical sketchbook. These are mere shapes and little scribbles to hold on to an idea. I used to do a lot more of those, but working digitally is just way more satisfying.
Despite having the general direction, I’ve decided to create more sketches to try out different ideas. These were very rough as well, but detailed enough for me to see if the idea worked or not.
As concept art is also about speed, I’ve realised some time ago that it’s hard to get into the industry without any 3D knowledge. So I’ve decided to dive into this field and practice it with this piece and gave Blender a shot. I built a simple blockout depicting the scene and establishing the composition.
I always try to work as efficient as possible, so instead of trying to create my own skull model from scratch, I rather used an already existing one from a free asset store.
I thought about composition, mood and lighting during the creation of the base. I wanted the skull as the hero object to be in the centre of the frame, just like artefacts or objects depicted in card games, like for example Magic: The Gathering.
I emphasised the skull even more by putting all the lights on top of it to reveal most of the details compared to the surrounding, and to add contrast to the overall scene.
Having the base set and the idea further expanded and worked out, I moved on to the last step.
Painting (or photo bashing in my case)
A thing that I love to do which I picked up from some of my favourite professional artists is creating asset sheets with elements from photos I gathered. I like to cut some elements out before starting to paint, so I have everything in one place and ready to use, so I don’t interrupt my flow by the constant need of searching out the photos and cutting the elements out when I need them.
I generally keep those PSD files because I can reuse them in other projects if the topic is fitting, which again saves time. Mentioning cutting, I usually also separate the important elements in the 3D base, so I can work on foreground, mid-ground and background separately.
I began to paint by setting up a general colour as a base. I knew I wanted to have a dark and blue tone from the start. I used the colour layer mode to paint over the base, as well as photos with the colours I wanted in the painting which I’ve bashed in.
Using my asset list, I started to put the elements I wanted to have included into the frame, starting in the background and moving on to the foreground of the picture, just like in traditional painting. I left out the skull because I wanted to concentrate on the most important part in the end.
I personally like to photobash the element from a photo into the scene and adjust it using the levels and colour balance option. It’s a personal preference and there are a ton of advantages using the layer-modes as well, but I get the feeling that I lose a lot of essence from the photo using those only.
Moving on, I started to put in additional elements to the skull, textures and colours, as well as engravings kind of similar to those in my mood board. I’ve put in another bone in the foreground to show that the skeleton body might just lay scattered around the place.
Even though I had all the elements that I wanted to have included in the frame, the picture felt kind of empty to me. I’ve searched for more reference photos of mossy forests and added some mushrooms and more plants to populate the space around the skull.
The last step is my favourite one: finishing and polishing the thing up. I’ve changed the value of the space surrounding the focal point by using an airbrush to hide the elements behind a layer of shade, further extending the contrast of the skull.
I then exaggerated the blue tone of the entire picture using the colour balance option and added some glow and highlights on the focal point elements.
That’s pretty much it!
I’m really thankful for the opportunity to show and explain the process creating this piece. It’s a very important one for me personally as this is the first picture in which I used 3D as a base, a technique that changed my general workflow and perception on how to create things, and thus, my artistic life.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed creating it and hopefully learned or got inspired in some way or another. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any further questions.