Painting 'Shark Encounter'

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    The Making of Shark Encounter

    Simon Lissaman, 13 December 2004
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    Simon Lissaman describes how he meticulously depicted a sleek and mean cartoon killing machine. Lissaman has created the archetypical razor-toothed shark through deft use of Photoshop combined with his own painting ability.

    In the beginning
    ‘Shark Encounter' started out as a random doodle in my sketch book. I'd originally seen the shark leaping out of the water onto a boat or something, but thought I'd do an underwater scene to try out a few ideas. I wanted the piece to show off all the things we associate with sharks, the tall fin, the teeth like broken bottles, but do it in a fun, cartoon-style way.

    I generally scan my drawings at 600 dpi so that I can enlarge the drawing in Photoshop without compromising quality.

    I use a Wacom Intuous 6 x 8 graphics tablet for all my Photoshop work. There are very talented individuals out there who can paint with a mouse, but I'm not one of them.

    My first step was to create the outline of the shark using the pen tool. After rasterizing the shape, I lock off the transparency and duplicate the layer. The original shark shape layer is hidden and is used as a mask when necessary.

    One of the methods I use is to do a detailed greyscale rendering which I later color. This is a very useful technique that allows you to concentrate on your tonal range without being distracted by color. I fill the shark shape with a medium gray, duplicate the drawing layer and move it to the top of the stack. I set it to multiply at about 10-20% opacity. This gives me a faint outline that I can use to trace.

    Using the same medium gray with the default 50% airbrush set to Screen blending, I get to work modeling the form. The same airbrush, set to multiply, gives me my shading. Once the big areas of light and shade are done, I head in to do the detailing, such as the eye, gills, wrinkles etc. I use the multiply airbrush at around 3-5 pixels to rapidly outline the features. I then set the airbrush to screen and cut in some highlights. This is a fairly fast and loose process, and I gradually reduce the opacity of the drawing layer as the painting becomes more detailed. I use the path tool to create the teeth. Sharks have multiple rows of teeth, so I created the rows on separate layers to ease shading.

    For the lighter area on the shark's belly and around its mouth, I used the lasso tool to select the area and lightened it using the dodge tool. Lost contrast was then cut back in using my airbrush tool.

    When I have finished the greyscale rendering (Fig 1), I create a new layer above it using the greyscale layer's transparency. I set this layer to ‘Color' and flood fill with a mid blue. I play around with the saturation until I get a pleasing result. A faint pink is airbrushed over the mouth and eye area (Fig 2) and the shark is basically complete (Fig 3).

     This method of ‘color over greyscale' was also used for the fish. I used the dodge and burn tools to render the fish with a nice silvery scale effect, with a color layer over the top (Figs 3a and 3b above).  


    Making of 'Shark Encounter' – continued...


    The water was easier than I expected. I started out with a light and a dark blue, and used a linear gradient with the light blue at the top of the picture (Fig 4). So far, so good.

    I love underwater pictures with sunrays, so I decided to put some in. Using one of Photoshop's standard dirt brushes, I laid down a number of ‘clouds', concentrated in the brightest areas of the background. These clouds form the foundation of the rays (Fig 5).

    My next move was to stretch these clouds out into sunrays. For this, I used the blur tools. I could probably have used motion blur, but this would have been very flat. Using Radial blur allowed me to add a bit of variety to the sunrays by making the sunrays converge on one point. Radial blur has the option of a zoom blur and I used this option, moving the center of the blur to the lower left corner. This streaked the clouds into sunrays (Fig 6).

    This layer was set to screen and the opacity played with until it looked right (Fig 7).

    The surface reflection was done very simply. Using the lasso tool, I made a wavy, rippled selection which I then feathered by about 25 pixels. I created a new screen layer and filled the selection with a light blue (Fig 8).


  •  Screamer © 2003 Simon Lissaman

    Making of 'Shark Encounter' – continued...

    Bubble Brush

    The streams of bubbles in the picture were drawn with a custom bubble brush. I chose this approach rather than painting each bubble separately as I wanted to keep a fast workflow rather than spend a lot of time working on a quite minor background element.

    My first step was the creation of the bubble graphic.

    • Create a new canvas, 500 x 500 pixels with the background set to white.
    • Using the shape tool, create a black circle in the center of the canvas (Fig 9).
    • Rasterize the Layer and open the Layer Style palette
    • Click on the Custom Blending box and set Fill Opacity to 0%. What this does is make the circle invisible while leaving the layer effects visible.
    • Click on the Inner Shadow Box. The inner shadow will be used to model the spherical form of the bubble. Set the shadow opacity to 100% to get a good solid black. Set the distance to 0 so that the shadow is applied evenly around the edge of the circle. Set the size of the shadow to 100 or thereabouts. You can set the Choke to about 25% to get a harder edge to the bubble. You should now have something that looks like Fig 10.

    This is our basic bubble. All it needs now is a bright highlight to show the direction of the light source. Using your shape tool again, make a small black circle and position it where you want your highlight to be (Fig 11).

    This is our complete bubble graphic. To turn it into a custom brush, Open the edit menu and select ‘Define Brush'. Name the brush ‘Bubbles' and hit OK.

    Now, to adjust your brush. Hit B to select the brush tool. Your ‘Bubbles' brush will have been added to the bottom of the list in the Brush Preset Picker menu. Select it and make a stroke (Fig 12).

    Select it and open the Brushes Palette. First of all we want to have a stream of bubbles. To get a stream, under Brush Tip Shape, set the spacing to 100%. This setting determines how often the brush shape will repeat.

    If you make a stroke with the brush now, you will get a stream of evenly spaced and evenly sized bubbles (Fig 13). The next step is to introduce some size variation.

    Click on Shape dynamics and set the ‘Size Jitter' slider to zero and the control to ‘Pen Pressure. Now make a stroke with your brush, pressing lightly with your stylus at the beginning of the stroke and increasing the pressure as you make the stroke. You should end up with something like this (Fig 14).

    That's more like it, but it's a little too regular. The answer is to scatter the bubbles. Scattering moves the bubbles away from the center of the stroke, while still following the general path of the stroke. Set the brush scattering to 300% and you should get something like this (Fig 15).

    Once I had built my bubble brush, I laid down a couple of streams of bubbles using white with the brush flow set to 50%.

  •  image © 2003 Simon Lissaman

    Light effects

    The light effects on the sharks back were created to simulate the refractive effects of sunlight passing through water. They were created very simply by creating a new layer above all of the shark's layers. This new layer is set to ‘Screen'. Using the airbrush tool and a 75% gray, I scribble the light effects on, remembering to follow the shark's form and volume. (Using photo reference is very helpful when rendering this sort of effect). Once the scribbles have been laid down, a soft-edged eraser is used to fade the effect out toward the edges of the shark's body. Adjust the layer opacity until you get the effect you want.


    These are the techniques I used to create shark encounter and can be readily applied to a wide variety of subjects. The ‘color over greyscale' method shown here is very, very useful for establishing your values and I can recommend it as a technique. It's not the only way to paint, but it is a good technique to add to your toolbox.

    Who is Simon Lissaman?

    I was born in 1973 in Australia and live in Canberra, the capital city of Australia, with my fiancée Murphy and our dog Buster. I began drawing at an early age. My artistic influences/inspirations include Ron Smith, Will Simpson, Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta, Uderzo, Hergé, Rodin, Frank Cho and Michael Whelan.

    My introduction to digital art came when I did a 3D animation course at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Canberra. As a result of that course, I got a job as a 3D artist in a computer games company. Although I have done some 3D work, the bulk of my work has been concept art and illustration.

    My other interests include building models, photography and theater. I am an experienced actor with twenty major productions to my credit and have also designed productions, worked backstage and, for one very memorable two week run, dressed chorus girls in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar!

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    Words and images by Simon Lissaman