• I always begin a piece with rough thumbnail sketches on paper and refine from there. I don't want to get bogged down with the details, and I concentrate on the more important, larger forms.

    The next step is to refine everything; fleshing out the world with preliminary sketches of different parts of the illustration. For this piece I scanned in different sketches and drew over them in Photoshop. I drew changes in new layers, flattened the layers, scribbled more, and then repeated the process.
    Although my original concept featured a horse-like mount, I felt that it was too conventional for this piece. The steed became a bird, which needed even more concept sketching. Photos of ostrich legs were found to help my sketch. One important principle of concept design is to borrow heavily from the world around you. It makes things more realistic, and resonates more with the viewer. When all of the sketch-work was solid, I printed the final drawings out at 11x20 inches to copy onto 55lb Tracing Vellum. I traced the figures and background separately, the characters at a larger size than the background because there are more details to capture.
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  • Mocking-up the scene in 3ds Max gave me the chance to play with the main light source and how it affects the shadows falling on the ground. I settled on a light to the far right, as if it’s early morning.The first step for the coloring process was to block out all the separate sections to be painted. This “depth map” is a greyscale image, which I saved as a channel to use later to load a selection of the deeper parts of the painting. This would help to create the feeling of depth in the scene. For the coloring itself, I separated everything out into different layers. In one layer, I painted in the shadows. Generally, I find a medium-value purple-grey works well. This layer was set to Multiply. Another layer contained the highlights in a pale yellow/orange, and was set to Overlay. I loaded in the “depth map” I had built earlier and filled with a blue, which was the atmospheric fog layer. Each of these layers was at this point only a single color. The colors themselves didn't matter, as part of the process would be to later change them all to see what would work best.

    Then I added layers for all objects in the scene and filled each with a single, solid color. When I was done, I had eighteen layers. To make color changes, I selected the layer and checked Hue/Saturation. It gave me a lot of freedom to tweak with color composition.I was looking for a warm, romantic feel so I went with warm shadows and fog. The colors of everything else in the scene were adjusted to work with these choices.
    I then flattened the image down to a manageable number of layers: Sky, background, characters, line art. When painting in Photoshop, I generally work with a round brush set to 60% hardness, 100% flow, and varying degrees of opacity.

    To add bounced light from the ground onto the characters' undersides, I painted green on another layer, worked with it until I was happy with the results, and merged it down onto the characters' layer. I added details to the faces and the costumes, the feathers on the bird, the hair, and the metal bits.

    The front yard needed more life to it so I consulted books on birds for some new drawings. As for the plants, it was spring in Northern California and all around my neighborhood were dozens of different kinds of flowers, so I went out with my digital camera and gathered plenty of reference.

    The front yard needed more life to it so I consulted books on birds for some new drawings. As for the plants, it was spring in Northern California and all around my neighborhood were dozens of different kinds of flowers, so I went out with my digital camera and gathered plenty of reference.
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  • To paint the clouds, I created a new document and used the Render>Clouds filter to fill the page with fractal noise. I adjusted the levels and then erased around some of the noise until I had a near-round cloudy black shape. I defined this as a brush and used it to paint my clouds. I opened a number of photo references of cloud that I had taken with my digital camera. There were already rough forms in the sky so using the cloud brush, I refined all of the shapes. To give a greater feeling of depth, I added additional, darker clouds on another layer also. At this stage the characters weren’t reading as well as I would have liked. So, I made revisions to both faces; the male got a more pronounced chin and sideburns, a nose-job, and a haircut to make it clear he's a He. As for the girl, I completely redrew her face from scratch from sketches of my wife making kissy-faces. The girl also received a new hairdo and a number of smaller tweaks to her body. Now the characters’ genders read clearly, even at a smaller size.
    This entire time I'd just been using the greyscale line art that I scanned in at the beginning. To colorize the line art, I used the depth-map layer that I made at the start of the coloring process and loaded it as a selection, selecting the foreground more strongly than the deeper parts of the illustration.

    Using the Adjust Hue/Saturation controls, I shifted the line art to a nice warm red, which worked well on the main characters. I inverted the selection and adjust the hue to make the rest of the lines a light blue, making them cooler as they recede into the distance.

    To make the final glow effects, I selected the right side of the sky area, feathered the selection, and filled in a new layer with a reddish-orange. Once the layer was set to Color Dodge, it looked like the sky was glowing on the right, where the sun is.
    On another layer I drew some diagonal yellow lines and blurred them. Set to Hard Light mode at 50% opacity, these became the sunbeams.

    With all of the post effects finished, I could safely say the entire piece was as well!
    Michael Dashow is the Art Director at Meez.com, an internet site helping people to create 3D avatars for the web. A 15-year industry vet, he has previously worked at Blizzard Entertainment, creating art and animation for projects including the hit title ‘Diablo II,’ and at Brøderbund Software working on the Living Books childrens’ software series. Somewhere along the way, he also created illustrations for several science fiction and fantasy book and magazine covers, including illustrations for Fantasy and Science Fiction, North Atlantic Books, Eastin Press, and Tachyon Publications. Michael lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife Talia and their cockatiel Toby amidst a sargasso of unfinished art projects.

    Related Links:
    Mike Dashow
    Mike Dashow CGPortfolio
    CGTalk thread
    The Journey Begins
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