• Marta Dahlig walks us through the creation of her
    Excellence Award winning 'Judith' from EXPOSÉ 7.

    CGSociety :: Tutorial
    18 August 2009, by Marta Dahlig

    Be sure to download Marta's video at the end of the feature tutorial. It's 320Mb of video recorded when she was creating the piece.

    I've always found 'Judith' to be one of the most fascinating characters. There are very few strong women lauded in ancient history and she is definitely one to remember. Here’s a shortened version of her story:

    In the second century B.C., as the powerful Assyrian army invades the Near East, the town of Bethulia is besieged by the cruel and domineering Holofernes, foremost general of the Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar. If Bethulia yields, the whole country will fall into Assyrian hands. Discouraged, the city’s elders agree to surrender the famine-stricken city if they are not rescued within a few days. Judith, a young widow and most unlikely savior, challenges them to take responsibility for the future of their community. She enters the Assyrian camp where Holofernes, smitten with her remarkable beauty, invites her to a banquet. When he retires to his bed in a drunken stupor, they are left alone in his tent. Judith takes up his sword and chops his head off. With the Assyrian army thrown into confusion, Judith inspires the Israelites to launch a surprise attack from which they emerge victorious.
    Reference was drawn from many places. Gustav Klimt for one.
    My first attempt to depict this character took place around four years ago and I never managed to finish the work. During the following years, I kept coming back to the theme and right now I cannot even count the number of times I battled with the subject. The image you see I started somewhere in December 2008 and it took me a very long time to finish. Being silent for the past eighteen months, I thought it would be a cool thing to come back with something special. I therefore decided to document the whole painting process.

    My whole working process, starting from the very first sketch, is rather simple. I apply colors at a very low opacity, gradually putting more and more layers of color on top of each other. This lets me control and model the whole outlook from the very beginning but it does not exactly look too attractive at first.

    I usually start from painting the character, but in this case, since I planned a lot of details for the background, the first thing I started working on is the surroundings – simulating objects even with a few messy strokes will make it easier for me to merge the character with the background later on.


    Theme Interpretation
    There were many depictions of Judith throughout art history but one that I found especially fascinating is Klimt’s take on the theme, as it is much more sensual and erotic than you might expect to be a depiction of a historically glorified character. I wanted to get the same mood across, and that is why my interpretation is rather loose. I concentrated more on achieving a certain atmosphere rather than on composing a historically accurate story.

    Starting out
    My whole working process is rather simple. I apply colors on a very low opacity, gradually putting more and more layers of color on top. This lets me control and model the whole outlook from the very beginning. Since I have planned a lot of details for the background, the first thing I started working on are the surroundings, simulating objects even with a few messy strokes will make it easier for me to merge the character with the background later on.

    Brushes and layers
    To paint this piece, I used a regular airbrush and an alteration of the default hard round brush with slightly ragged, blurry edges. Custom brushes are great and I use them excessively, as they let me easily texture bigger, uniform surfaces. In cases like this, where I need to use small diameters to paint small, detailed objects, I tend to stick to the basic choices. Moreover, I avoid using a huge amount of layers in the piece, limiting myself to four or five at a time in order to avoid any artificial copy-paste looks.

    More reference images.
    Composing colors
    While I have to admit that I lately treat the color palette composition process rather loosely. Basically, I start off picking a character midtone as well as the main lightsource color. What I then do is simply play with those hues, applying the lightsource color on top of the midtone using different brush modes.
    Marking the character
    I took a Ragged Hard Round brush and sketched the character very roughly. I'm just wanting to have some basic proportions marked in. This process let me compose the general color layout and get a vague idea of how things are going to look when it's finished.

    Defining light sources
    At this point when I have a naive sketch done, it's time to start defining the objects. I marked the planned lightsource on top of the sketch, so you can see what I was aiming for. I have one chosen directional light and a very neutral ambient lighting to complement the effect.

    Basic character
    Before I move onto detailing the face, I push the whole body a bit further. Using the same ragged hard round, I run over the areas picking and applying colors as well as marked in the basic color blobs for lips and eye sockets of the character.

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  • Convexity and cavity maps
    Working on a face can sometimes be a hideous task. One exercise I find especially helpful to model a character correctly, is painting a very naive 'wireframe' on top of the face (red lines). After you have such a model, you can easily distinguish the most convex, i.e. highlighted places (light blue lines) and the shadowed, concave areas (dark blue lines). Such sketches are super helpful and I used to do those for every painting when I was still feeling unsure about my modeling. Right now, I seldom use them, but I thought some of you might find it helpful.

    Basic face shading
    Minding the convexity, I applied some basic shadows and highlights on top of the face, as well as defined the key features: lips, eyes and nose. Using low opacity brushes while continuously switching between an airbrush and the Ragged Hard Round granted me a rather smooth look from the very beginning and so I did not have to worry about blending throughout my working process.

    Pushing it
    Having a basic look of the face somewhat ready, I moved back to detailing the body. Constant switching between painted elements might slow down my workflow, but it lets me control the composition of the piece from the very beginning. To define the flesh and give it a feeling of depth, I applied some shadows and highlights especially to the legs area.


    Discussing silk
    Now I move onto defining the surrounding textiles. The clue to successful fabric painting is knowing exactly what type of material you want to portray, as each of the types have their own texture and modeling ritual. I wanted the surrounding pink material to become silk, the light brown hanging material, satin and the blue and orange cloths organza-like. Painting silk is quite tricky in terms of modeling the textile, as there should be a multitude of small, soft folds. In terms of coloring, since the material is shiny and smooth, the color and highlight-to-shadow transitions should be rapid, condensed over small areas.


    Some notes on composition
    Somewhere in the middle of my work, I always flip the image horizontally to see whether there is something that still needs fixing. Quite often the new perspective looks so tempting, that I keep the flip. In this case, however, this is out of the question. The composition was created in a way to guide the viewer through various elements of the painting - starting from the left, leading the view through the hip to the character’s face and later, at the very end, guiding downwards to the key of the piece, which is the cut-off head. As you can see on the image, flipping the piece destroys this logical sequence: the most interesting areas are shown at the beginning, and thus the right side looks simply uninteresting.

    One of the most complicated elements I planned for the painting is the carpet hanging from the bed. After searching for various references and knowing exactly what design I wanted, I started sketching the primary shapes with my regular brush on a very, very low opacity. With this technique, the beginnings rarely look attractive, but applying layers of paint on top of each other soon results in more clarified shapes.

    Character polishing
    Having some background and foreground details marked in, I proceed to finish the character. I added some last minute shades to the character’s skin, enriching the palette with more pink tones to add to the liveliness of the flesh. Not to disturb the current smooth blending, to the hip I applied the hues with a spackled brush – brushes like these are absolutely wonderful when you want to apply color and blend it in effortlessly at the same time.

    For painting hair, I lowered the diameter of my default brush and ran it over the sketched area. To give the strands some extra texture, I applied a few strokes with a regular three-dot brush. After creating such a highly textured base, I went back to painting several strands by hand, to avoid having an artificial feel. Aside from shading particular strands, I also shaded the whole curls together, adding some general shadows and highlights. Later, I enriched the face in some pinkish and yellowish shades as well as textured the lips and added eye lashes.

    Overall detailing
    Moving on, using the same low opacity stroke technique I defined the light brown satin on the corner of the bed. The biggest difference between shading satin and silk is the structure – satin tends to be thicker and thus the folds are more solid and rough looking in terms of color transitions, which basically means that the highlights will be spread along bigger areas and the transitions between shadows and highlights will not be as rapid as it was with silk. Having the basic satin shading done, I painted some blobs simulating embroidery. To quickly smooth up messy blobs, just like in this case, I used a median filter on my strokes. This creates a slightly blurry, but solid enough base to place down some further strokes. This trick is good for basically any element but is especially effective in case of backgrounds.

    Getting pillows done
    Having done the 'core' of the image, I now moved onto the arduous part of the job, which is polishing my characters surroundings. From the very beginning I decided to push myself quite far when it comes to polishing, so I worked much more on the detailing than I usually would have had. At the same time I did not want to define every bit to the last pixel – I much rather hint details than paint them precisely. This lets me retain a painterly feeling of the image. To avoid overdetailing I hinted some light colour blobs to simulate embroidered patterns and highlighted convexities.


    A silky touch
    Finishing the silk was a really tough process. As mentioned before, two things that have to be minded are the structure (folding) and the texture (highlight placement and smoothness). I had the folds in place but the sketch was greatly dominated by highlights and shadows, and so, the polishing process was mainly a matter of strengthening the midtones. In order to do so, I simply ran across the areas with a highly saturated crimson color and applied it between shadows and highlights on top of the folds. To boost the realism some more,I added small highlights along the borders of the textile to underline its edges.

    Pattern frenzy
    To be honest, getting the details of the hanging carpet right was one of the most tedious tasks I have ever had to face. I have made various preparation sketches to try most successful techniques and came with a solution after a few hours of trying. In this case, I also tried to hint detail instead of painting everything too closely. Gradually lowering the diameter and rising the opacity, I put in the blobs on top of each other. Doing this forced me to define the borders by painting in darker blobs around lighter patterns in order to raise the contrast and overal realism of the design.

    Thought on organza
    One of the more tricky elements of the painting was the organza curtain. The logic and process of painting transparent textiles is completely different from regular fabrics. It's not a matter of texture, but color placement and coordination. The key to painting a successful transparent fabric (like organza or muslin) is underlining its transparency by overlapping consecutive layers of fabric on top of each other, simulating folds. A good small touch that greatly adds to the realism is defining the actual edges of the textile with a thin highlighted stroke.

    Related links:
    Marta Dahlig's CGPortfolio
    EXPOSÉ 7
    Adobe Photoshop
    Marta Dahlig's Video Tutorial [direct link to 320Mb QT]

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